Gaithersburg council discusses changes to election law -- Gazette.Net



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This story was corrected on May 20, 2014. An explanation follows the story.

Last year’s uncontested city election cost taxpayers $46,000 but the idea of canceling elections when there aren’t any challengers doesn’t have much traction.

At a May 12 meeting, City Attorney Lynn Board spoke to the mayor and council about several ways they could alter the city’s election law, including the cancelation of uncontested elections and the addition of term limits for officials. The city would save money in future uncontested elections by skipping on rental fees for things like polling facilities and equipment, Board said.

Following the November election, Board said there was a public perception that the city wasted time and resources on the process. Mayor Sidney Katz and Councilmen Mike Sesma and Henry Marraffa ran for re-election without any challengers. Only 5.38 percent of the registered voters cast ballots.

The last time the city saw an uncontested election was in 1982, Board said.

Marraffa said he was against canceling uncontested elections since they have not yet proven to be a trend.

“Why change everything just for one instance in 30 years?” he said.

Councilman Ryan Spiegel said he also did not support cancellations due to the fact that elections are a pillar of democracy.

“I do think there’s value in the act of voting itself even if there may not be a different result,” he said.

He also said that canceling some elections and holding others could cause confusion for voters.

Looking for a happy medium, Councilman Jud Ashman said he thought the city should come up with a “hybrid” strategy for future uncontested elections, meaning the election would still be held but elements like early voting could be reduced.

Board also discussed the idea of setting terms limits for all members of the council, a concept she said was requested by a city resident. After researching the idea, Board said only four other jurisdictions in Maryland have limits.

None of the council members were in favor of adding term limits.

Sesma said that the voters are the ones who set the term limits, because they determine the winners of elections by casting their ballots.

Paul Schimke, who lives in Gaithersburg, was the only member of the public to speak at the meeting. He suggested that the city should consider ending the practice of staggered elections and enforce term limits to increase residents’ interest and participation in city government.

In regards to term limits, Schimke said that council members should be able to serve one, eight-year term and then be forced to take a sabbatical from the council. After that break, they could run again to regain their seat.

“It gives a chance for members of the council to apply their knowledge and perspective in other areas of the city,” he said.

During the election law discussion, Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula brought up the idea of adding a provision for write-in candidates.

“It concerns me that if the ballot is set at the filing deadline and one of the candidates withdrawals, we don’t have a way to have a person replace them.”

She said that having a special election to fill the seat would be inefficient.

Spiegel requested that the city also explore public campaign financing to eliminate any kind of barriers to entry that prospective candidates may face when choosing to run.

Board said the city’s Board of Supervisors of Elections will conduct more research concerning a write-in policy and public campaign financing options for candidates.

An earlier version of this story had incorrect information regarding Paul Schimke’s term limit proposal.

jedavis@gazette.net