It looks like local voters this year will get their chance to weigh in on a change to the way people are elected to Petersburg’s borough assembly. The assembly Monday approved the second reading of an ordinance that will create designated seats for the assembly, despite opposition to the change.
The proposal would force candidates for assembly to run for just one open seat, challenging the incumbent for that seat. The current system lumps seats with similar terms together on the ballot. The last two years voters have chosen their two selections from a pool of six candidates. Supporters of the change say it will create a clearer choice for voters. Former city manager and mayor Don Koenigs has been lobbying for this new system.
“This particular proposition puts each of you if you were a member of the assembly on a designated seat for a given year that would hold you as an assembly member accountable for your actions or inaction,” Koenigs told the assembly.
Local resident and former assembly candidate Richard Burke testified against the change, saying it could make for tougher choices for voters.
“I’m concerned under the current system, say five people run, you get to pick the two you like the best and vote for them,” Burke said. “On the proposed change, say two people run for one seat and I don’t like either of them, how am I supposed to vote? And I like the other three. I know I’m supposed to choose the best two but in that case I can only choose one of those three, even though I may like two of them.”
As initially drafted the ordinance would have made the change without letting voters decide. The assembly has been pretty evenly split over the proposed change but so far has agreed to advance the measure. In its second reading this month, assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said he’d be fine with sending the issue to voters after hearing from local residents on both sides.
“It’s kind of been a mixed bag and anytime I’m getting a mixed bag on a topic it means the community has some pretty different opinions on it, which means what a great opportunity for that to go on the ballot so the citizens of Petersburg can decide how they want it to go,” Stanton Gregor said, adding, ” That seems like a better way to go about this right now.”
The vote was unanimous to add language to the proposed ordinance sending the issue to voters. But the mayor and some other assembly members were opposed to making the change. Several thought the new system would create more partisan politics at the local level.
“I think that it’s going to bring in more partisan, it’s going to keep us away from being bi-partisan and it’s also going to make it so there’s a lot more political strategy if you have to pick a seat,” said Brandi Marohl. “And I think it will also deter people from wanting to run and throw their name in the hat if they have to choose a person to run against,” she said. “A lot of people are OK with that but you know a lot of times we’re sitting here with our friends or neighbors and people don’t want to do that.”
The assembly passed the amended ordinance in second reading by a 4-2 vote with Marohl and mayor Mark Jensen voting no, and assembly member Jeff Meucci not at the meeting. It has one more reading this month and if its passed in third reading will show up on the October borough ballot.
The mayor’s seat is already set up like this, anyone challenging for that position runs against the incumbent. As for the assembly, the terms for Stanton Gregor and Kurt Wohlhueter are up this year. Putting it on the ballot means the first time it could take effect would be the 2020 election. Assembly seats that will be on the ballot that year are currently held by Marohl and Meucci.