Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Open-seat election plan rejected

Sun Valley City Council turns away mayor?s bid to abolish designated seats


By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson last week saw his efforts to change the way City Council members are elected summarily rejected by the four existing members of the council. Photo by David N. Seelig

In a move that irked a contingent of concerned citizens, Sun Valley City Council members last week rejected a proposal by Mayor Jon Thorson to amend the process by which members of the council are elected.

In a proposal issued Thursday, Oct. 21, Thorson asked the city?s four council members to support his recommendation that the city abolish its designated-seat election process in favor of an open-seat system.

Despite testimony from several Sun Valley residents supporting the open-seat system, the council rejected the mayor?s proposal without taking a formal vote.


All told, five members of the public present at the meeting voiced strong support for open elections, while none opposed the mayor?s plan.

?It?s the most democratic and fair way,? said resident Milt Adam, who first brought the debate to the council last year, only to see it discussed and set aside.

Under a system approved in 1995, Sun Valley asks the electorate to vote every other year on two separate sets of candidates seeking to fill specific numbered seats on the council. Terms on the council last for four years, with two members of the panel being reelected or replaced every two years.

Candidates are required in the process to designate which of the two seats up for election they intend to fill.

At issue is whether the city should establish an election system that awards council seats to at-large candidates who earn the most votes, instead of to candidates running for specific seats.

Under Thorson?s proposal, voters would choose among all candidates running for the two available seats. The two candidates with the most votes would win.

Adam has repeatedly argued to city officials that designated-seat elections favor incumbents and inhibit a fruitful debate of important issues.

Last Thursday, Adam reiterated his arguments that designated-seat elections are generally inappropriate for small cities such as Sun Valley.

Elections for designated seats essentially protect two incumbents running in the same year from having to campaign against each other, he noted, and at times citizens might be reluctant to directly challenge an incumbent with whom they are acquainted.

?Anything that enhances the involvement of the public is good,? Adam said.

In a memo issued to the City Council, Thorson stated that in a designated-seat election, a voter might favor two candidates running for the same seat but can vote for only one of them.

In addition, he said, the open-seat system compels candidates to focus on issues, rather than on personality differences with others vying for the same seat.

The city of Ketchum?after a long public debate?returned in February 2003 to open-seat elections after spending about two years under a designated-seat process.

Council President Ann Agnew said she has ?thought a lot about the issue,? partly because she does not want to be considered ?self serving.?

Agnew said she prefers designated seats to open seats in part because so-called ?bullet voting??the practice of voters selecting only one candidate among several running for two or more open seats?carries a ?huge risk? of skewing election results.

In addition, Agnew said she does not believe designated-seat races discourage debates about issues.

?I think the fact that you have to choose a seat and what you are going to run for makes you have to be quite studied,? she said.

Councilman Kevin Laird agreed, saying he has run for office under both systems and believes designated-seat elections have provided ?more issue-oriented? races.

?At this point, I don?t see any reason to change,? Laird said.

As the discussion drew to a close, Councilman Lud Renick vehemently objected to assertions by Thorson that designated-seat races give ?greater power? to incumbent candidates. The mayor said a challenger facing a popular incumbent with whom he or she is familiar might not ?put their best foot forward.?

?Jon, you know that?s not true!? Renick interjected, before the council sought to move on to other issues.




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