MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Morgantown City Councilors are hoping to send a highly divisive charter amendment to the city’s voters later this year.
An ordinance that would extend term limits for council members from two to four years following the next election in 2019 passed by a slim 4-3 margin last week.
Council members Jenny Selin, Mayor Bill Kawecki, Ryan Wallace, and Rachel Fetty supported the measure. Ron Dulaney, Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis, and Barry Wendell opposed the decision. Morgantown Council members currently serve two year terms; all run for re-election every two years.
“Given the options that we have and where we are now, I thought it would be good to get that extra stability in city government to have continuity, to have more long-term ability to handle public policy changes, and encourage long-term planning and development,” Ryan Wallace said Monday on WAJR’s Morgantown AM.
The divisive nature of this amendment, chosen over three other possible municipal election packages, lies in the date of city elections and the decision to keep the entire council up for election at the same time.
Voter turnout in Morgantown’s City Council elections has a history of failing to reach double digits in terms of turnout percentage. In 2015, turnout was 8.8 percent. But interest peaked last year, as turnout reached 15 percent in the 2017 race.
“I initially thought that a November election would be better,” Wallace said. “A rising tide lifts all boats type situation.”
But Wallace and the majority chose a package that would keep election day in April, rather than moving it to coincide with Monongalia County’s elections in May or statewide and national elections in November.
“When you have more people voting in November, then you get more voter turnout for city elections as well,” Wallace said. “That’s true — you would still have more voters turn out in November. I think there are other ways to increase voter turnout as well, and recently I’ve become concerned with the absolutely partisan nature that we’re going to have with a November election.”
The change would also bring Morgantown more in line with surrounding cities like Fairmont in term length, which Wallace said was important. Also important, he added, was his desire to support something that would pass.
“We want it to be likely to pass, otherwise it’s just kind of a waste of time and money for everyone.”
Wallace, first elected last year, appeared to offer some points in favor for moving the date during last month’s Committee of the Whole meeting, an informal body that sets the agenda for the following month. He wound up voting for an amendment that does not change the date of the election.
“You get enough anecdotal information, it starts to become data,” Wallace said. “Frankly, I’ve heard from poll workers here in the county who have told me that when people come into vote, they’ll just ask, ‘Well who are all the Democrats?’ or ‘Who are all the Republicans?'”
Wallace said the bloc supporting the amendment believed the best course of action was to keep Morgantown’s non-partisan Council elections precisely that — non-partisan.
“I think it’s kind of unavoidable given the current climate that we have — the political polarization — even if we try to make it non-partisan, we’re going to encourage that if we time this thing when everybody is doing their partisan voting.”
The amendment must be read two more times and include a public hearing. Although Council could adopt the change if there is no public opposition, they have verbally committed to hold an election on the issue.
A date for that special election is still under discussion.