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August 16, 2013

Council to consider moving city elections

Officials offer mixed views on possible savings, extension of current terms

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN — We are getting closer to the next city election — or are we?

Voters could learn the answer to that question Sept. 10, when the Warren City Council will hold a public hearing on a proposal to bump the city’s next election cycle — now scheduled for 2015 — until 2016 to coincide with the next presidential election.

At least one member of the council said the move would save money, but other officials said it could result in ballot confusion, an undue advantage for incumbent candidates and no guaranteed reduction in costs.

Council members voted unanimously Aug. 13 to set the September public hearing date. But not all of them are in support of the change, and neither are Warren Mayor Jim Fouts and City Clerk Paul Wojno, who, along with members of the council, face re-election in whichever November it ends up being.

Wojno, tasked with managing the city’s elections, said Michigan law gives local governing units the ability to move elections if they choose to do so, but he said he was against such a move in Warren for several reasons. He addressed the matter in a letter drafted in April, in response to an inquiry made by Warren City Council Secretary Scott Stevens. Wojno essentially said pushing the election to 2016 would extend the term of office for elected officials by a year, contrary to what voters approved in 1998, when they supported limiting officials to three four-year terms.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to the voters who adopted the term limit law in 1998, extending an additional year to us,” Wojno said. “Also, it provides incumbency protection. I think that’s wrong.”

Should Warren’s elections be switched to coincide with the presidential election cycle, held every four years, Wojno said the city would no longer prepare its own ballot. Candidates running for city offices would instead be placed on the non-partisan section of a ballot prepared by Macomb County elections officials.

Wojno said with a list of federal, state and local officials running in 2016, plus any proposals, the ballot could be extremely long — possibly two pages — which would add to the cost.

“They’re looking for somebody to say there’s a definite cost savings so they can make a decision based on somebody else’s recommendation. I won’t do that,” Wojno said Aug. 13. “If they feel it’s a good idea, it’s their idea; they need to take action.”

Wojno also said incumbents entering the race with name recognition would have an unfair advantage over challengers now forced to court an increased number of likely voters who typically turn out for presidential elections. He said the number of likely voters in a presidential election jumps to 75,000 living in 40,000 households, from about 25,000 voters living in 12,000 homes in a typical Warren city election.

Stevens said based on information provided by Wojno’s office, the city would stand to save at least $400,000 every four years by consolidating the election — a number Wojno said Aug. 13 was Stevens’ interpretation of the data — plus an additional $100,000 for printing and mailing absentee voter ballots.

He estimated the city could save a total of $600,000 every four years, and said the bigger voter draw of the presidential election would mean more voters participating in the election of candidates to city offices.

“We’re looking for the people’s input to do this. If everybody comes up to the microphone and says, ‘Don’t do this,’ I’m sure we’re not going to do it,” Stevens said. “All we’re doing is going through the process to gather the input of the people. I firmly believe in doing that.

“The saving-money thing is really a no-brainer,” Stevens said.

Asked for his take on the proposed change in election dates, Fouts said while there are arguments to be made in favor of consolidating with the presidential election cycle — including higher voter turnout — that his initial reaction would be unfavorable.

“I would take the position, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Fouts said. 

Wojno said the combined cost of the city elections in August and November 2011 was approximately $100,000.

The Warren City Council is expected to hear comments during a public hearing and to discuss the change at their meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 10 in the auditorium of the Warren Community Center, located at 5460 Arden.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.