Friday, May 20, 2005

SV voters asked to resolve election debate

Citizen petition requests change to open council seat format

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley residents will soon resolve a longstanding debate over the format under which City Council elections are held.

A special election Tuesday, May 24, will decide whether the city should move to a system that awards council seats to at-large candidates who earn the most voters or continue operating under a system that forces candidates to run for specific seats.

The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Sun Valley City Hall. Absentee ballots are currently available at City Hall.

The City Council decided in April to hold a special election as a response to a citizens' initiative petition. The petition signed by 169 Sun Valley voters and submitted by Sun Valley resident Milt Adam demands that the city terminate its designated-seat election system and return to an open-seat format.

"(The open-seat election system) is a fair system. (It) allows the candidates to run for all the seats, rather than one seat," Adam said. "The fact that it works in 186 cities in the state of Idaho is reason enough for the system to be that way."

The council opted to present the request for open-seat elections to constituents rather than to pass an ordinance that would have established open-seat elections. When an ordinance comes forth as part of the petition process, the council can adopt it or send it to voters.

"I thought it was important for the constituents to voice their opinions," Councilman Blair Boand said.

Under the designated-seat system approved in 1995, the electorate votes every other year for two candidates to fill specific, numbered seats on the four-person council. The policy requires candidates to run for a designated seat, often against the seat's incumbent. Incumbents are not forced to run against each other.

The open-seat election system allows all candidates to run against each other, competing for the same open seats. Those candidates who receive the most votes gain the vacant seats.

The special election on Tuesday stems from years of debate concerning the structure of elections.

The council debated the matter in October 2004, after Mayor Jon Thorson requested the council adopt an open-seat election format.

"My primary interest is that the assigned-seat elections take away part of my franchise," Thorson stated.

Thorson said the designated-seat election process has a fundamental flaw—a voter might favor two candidates running for the same seat but can vote for only one of them.

In addition, Thorson emphasizes that designated-seat elections discourage talented and dedicated candidates and offer an advantage to incumbent candidates.

"It's easy to get people interested, but they won't run against their friends," he said.

Thorson believes open-seat elections invite a greater number of citizens to become involved in city politics.

"I think that's the biggest loss we might suffer—losing the talent of those that might serve," he said.

The council rejected Thorson's proposal last fall without taking a formal vote. The same proposal also came before the council, via Adam, in August 2003. The council then also declined to change the system.

Boand favors the designated-seat system.

"I want the public to know there is a flaw in the (open-seat) system," he said.

Boand said there is the potential for skewed results in an open-seat election, arising from so-called "bullet voting," the practice of voters selecting only one candidate from several candidates running for open seats.

In addition, Boand prefers the designated-seat process because he believes it encourages one-on-one dialogue that addresses specific issues.

"I think you get better candidates and dialogue with designated seating," Boand said.

Councilman Kevin Laird, who has run for office under both systems, agreed. He said greater directed debate arose in the designated-seat election rather than in the "popularity contest" encouraged by the open-seat format.

Laird served on the council when the city changed its election policy.

"The arguments that led us to change (the system) are valid today," he said.

Tom Praggastis served as mayor of Sun Valley when the city made the change to designated seats.

"I felt at the time that maybe with the designated-seat election structure it might take away some of the polarization that can be created in certain elections and in certain situations," Praggastis said.

On Tuesday, the electorate will decide the outcome of the debate that has since ensued.

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