A vote for ‘none of the above?’

t Timing of change of government vote remains uncertain.

Imagine it’s November 2009, and you’ve just stepped into a voting booth.

First, you cast your vote for mayor.

Then you’ve got to decide whether there should be a mayor at all.

Though unlikely, that scenario is one of a few that could play out as part of a push to reconsider the island’s form of government.

Nearly 1,000 islanders have signed a petition supporting a ballot measure that would let voters decide whether to stick with a mayor-council government, or eliminate the mayor position in favor of a city manager.

Initially the measure was targeted for inclusion on the ballot this November, said Dennis Vogt, who’s spearheading the effort to collect signatures; to be included, signatures would need to be submitted to the county auditor by Aug. 12.

Petitioners are only about 100 signatures short of the required number, and should reach their goal soon, Vogt said.

But the state Attorney General told officials in June the law allows for votes on a change of government only during general elections in odd-numbered years – the next opportunity for that being November 2009.

Problem is, that date also marks the next mayoral election, a fact that would make for an odd pairing on the ballot. 

“It would raise a lot of questions,” Vogt said. “In that case, one choice is no mayor. Then you’d have candidates running for mayor, and someone’s going to win.”

The questions, and confusion, don’t stop there; if islanders under that scenario voted to eliminate the newly elected mayor’s position, would that person then have to serve as an eighth City Council member – while being paid a mayor’s salary – for the duration of his or her term? Or would Mayor Darlene Kordonowy simply serve out her term and give way to the new system.

The answer lies in one’s interpretation of the law, Vogt said; that’s why, to avoid such complications altogether, petition organizers are aiming for a February special election that would give mayoral candidates plenty of time to throw their hat in the ring, should that ring still exist.

The timing of a public vote would ultimately be up to the council – the final authority on whether and when to put the issue on the ballot – but the opinion from the state Attorney General’s office could influence its decision.

“A ballot proposition proposing that a noncharter code city change its plan of government may be voted upon only at the next general election after the petitions are submitted, occurring in an odd-numbered year,” wrote Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey T. Even in a letter to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, a nonprofit research and consulting organization that queried the state Attorney General’s office on behalf of the city.

Still, the opinion isn’t a formal decision on the matter, and Vogt and others think a special election in February would be legal; certainly it would be preferable, he said. 

“We’ve had an attorney advising us along the way,” he said. “Essentially the statute is ambiguous. It admits several interpretations, and none of them are frivolous.”

Changing the island’s form of government has been discussed on-and-off for several years. Talk of doing so has increased of late due to ongoing strife at City Hall.

Supporters of the idea say eliminating the mayor’s position would increase efficiency and decrease the likelihood of conflict; others think the current problems are due to the personalities, not the structure, of the city government.

The petition drive began in March, with help from about 40 volunteers. The Chamber of Commerce got involved in May, and has helped push the number of signatures to the needed threshold.

“Right now we’re not taking a stand either way,” Chamber Executive Director Kevin Dwyer said. “Our goal really is for the community to have an opportunity to look at this issue. It’s been talked about for so long – why not give people a chance to vote on it.”

The signatures would need to be presented to the county by Dec. 12, to be valid for a February special election, according to the county auditor’s office.

According to MRSC, 16 cities have switched from a mayor-council to council-manager form of government since 1970; the most recent to city to do so was Airway Heights, in 2002, two years before rule changes that require votes on potential shifts to occur in odd-numbered years.

During the same period, seven cities have transitioned from council-manager to mayor-council governments.

Vogt agreed with Dwyer that, whatever the outcome, the issue deserves a public vote.

“There’s an increasing sense that whether you’re for or against keeping the mayor position, the question needs to be settled,” he said.

Several council members have said they support the idea of putting the issue to a vote.

Council Chair Bill Knobloch said the council has a responsibility to place the measure on the ballot one way or another, provided enough people sign the petition; the council also could put the issue on the ballot by resolution, should it get majority approval.

Councilman Barry Peters said he hopes a vote wouldn’t have to wait until November 2009.

“To me it’s very, very unfortunate the Attorney General’s office construed the law that way,” he said. “That would be very awkward. But I personally feel the citizens ought to be given the opportunity to decide which government structure works best for them.”    

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