Local hotel owner Kip Ward challenged the Lincoln City City Council this week to think outside not only the box, but outside the “ward” the box comes in.
Ward reviewed the fact that all Lincoln City city councilors must live in one of the three political wards in town and run for election strictly from those wards. There are two city council seats per ward, so that makes six councilors and the mayor. The mayor runs city-wide. Every other year, three of the six city councilors, one ward each, must stand for re-election.
Ward complained that “although the ward system worked well in the early days when five small towns came together to form one city, and each area’s interests were well represented in such a ward arrangement, such is not the case today,” he said.
He he then went to the numbers.
“In the last election, 1,560 votes were cast among all three wards – 520 votes (on average) were cast in each ward. A candidate who received 265 votes would win with 50% of the vote plus one. However, that would mean the winner would have been elected to the city council with barely 17% of the city-wide vote. If all 4,000 registered voters had voted, it would have been 7%. All three wards are like this.”
Ward pointed out that today, there is always a shortage of candidates running for city council. And in some wards, strong incumbents can intimidate anyone from running against them because it takes so few votes to re-elect the incumbent. In short, a very small number of voters elect a city councilor who is then empowered to decide on issues facing the WHOLE city. “It’s thoroughly undemocratic,” said Ward. “It may have worked well in the early years after Lincoln City was created in 1965, but it doesn’t work properly today.”
Ward also noted that although the Caucasian race is predominant in Lincoln City, nearly twenty percent of the population is Native American and Latino. Ward looked at the council before him, all Caucasian, and observed, “I don’t see any minorities up there.”
This observation put the council in an obviously uncomfortable moment and all seemed to agree that maybe it’s time to take another look at the ward election rules in Lincoln City. City Manager David Hawker hinted there are ways to preserve what’s good about the ward system while eliminating the restrictions that lower the number of votes to win a seat on the council. Although Hawker didn’t elaborate, one way to do it is to have candidates, in each ward, run in the primary election within their wards and then the top two candidates would then advance to the general election in November, where they would then face the voters, CITY WIDE. If only two candidates file for election in a ward, the two would skip the primary and run in the general in November, again with all voters in Lincoln City being able to pick the winners from all three wards. A slight variation in that format would have the ward candidates run in the primary CITY WIDE and then again CITY WIDE in the general in November.
Hawker said he and his staff will bring the issue back to the council at a future meeting for consideration of election options. Since any election rule changes would require a change to the city charter, the issue would have to go before the voters. They have the final say on any changes to the city charter.