Merced backs plan to shift elections to even years

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 19, 2013 

The Merced City Council unanimously voted to start a process to move elections to even-numbered years, a change that needs voter approval.

With the majority of public agencies in the area holding elections in even-numbered years, the city has seen election costs jump by more than 600 percent, according to city officials.

In 2011, the cost of the city's general election was about $113,120, city officials said. However, in 2009, when the city was able to share costs with other agencies, the city paid about $18,454 for its municipal election.

With widespread budget reductions in the public sector, several local governments, such as school districts and the Merced Irrigation District, changed their election dates from odd- to even-numbered years.

"One of the byproducts is the money, the saving," said Councilman Bill Blake. "But another one is the number of votes cast. In the off years, votes are usually in the low 20 percent.

"I would like to see it get on the November ballot," he added. "It's that important. I think the sooner we get this done, the better."

Last year, the City Council adopted reducing election-related expenses as one of its top priorities. Now staff will come back with language for the initiative in the summer.

"I think we need to look out for the integrity of the whole process," said Councilman Tony Dossetti. "Whatever we put on the ballot, I would like to see it very tightly written."

The council directed staff to make the public's decision effective immediately after the vote.

"My preference is to make the change immediately," said Councilman Mike Murphy. "It keeps the preference with the voters. We as a council aren't going to make a decision on this."

The change would require longer terms for council members after the first voting cycle to get the city on even-numbered year elections and then revert back to the normal terms.

If the initiative passes, the successful candidates in the November election for City Council will serve five-year terms. The successful mayoral candidate, whose spot is up for re-election, will serve a term of three years, as opposed to a standard two-year term.

At the same time, council members not up for re-election in November will have their existing terms extended a year, facing re-election in November 2016.

The city attorney said they can't serve shorter terms to get on the even-numbered election cycle because that would undermine the mandate of the voters who elected them to their current terms.

The issue will be back before the council in June when staff presents language options for the ballot initiative.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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