City looks to stop corporations from voting in referendums
Four months after Newark drew headlines for its unusual rules regarding voting in a city referendum, the majority of city council signaled its desire to change the law that allowed one person to cast 31 votes.
“I had plenty of residents who reached out to me and were unhappy upon hearing of this [law],” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said during a council workshop on proposed charter changes earlier this month. “It’s clearly outside the bounds of what’s intended by an election here in Newark. We need to bring this in line with language in our code for city council elections.”
The controversy traces back to the June 19 referendum in which voters gave the city permission to borrow $27 million for the Rodney stormwater pond/park and other capital projects.
Newark’s first referendum since 2001, the vote brought to light a little-known provision of Newark’s charter, which opens referendum voting to a broader constituency than other elections.
The law gives referendum voting rights to not just city residents, but also non-resident property owners and corporations that own property in the city.
The law allows one vote per entity, not per property, meaning that a company that owns multiple properties only gets one vote. However, a person who represents multiple companies or LLCs can cast multiple votes, one for each entity. For legal liability reasons, housing developers often create a different LLC for each project they build, meaning those developers have the opportunity to cast multiple votes.
More than a dozen people cast multiple ballots. Chris Locke, senior vice president and general counsel for Lang Development Group, cast the most votes at 31. Developer Hal Prettyman cast 10, with other representatives of his companies casting another three. Developer Kevin Heitzenroder cast nine, a representative of Tsionas Management (whose signature is illegible) cast eight, developer Todd Ladutko cast eight and developer Kevin Mayhew cast five.
While LLC voting didn’t affect the results of the vote – the four questions all passed by wide margins – it drew strong criticism from open government advocates and some members of council.
Altering the voter eligibility requires an amendment to the city charter, which must be approved by a supermajority of city council and the state legislature.
Wallace’s proposal would limit voting to registered voters who live in Newark, thus eliminating the ability of corporations, LLCs and non-resident property owners to vote.
“This should be very easy,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said. “It’s silly I could register my house as an LLC, live there and get two votes. This country is one person one vote, I don’t understand this at all.”
Councilman Stu Markham agreed the voter eligibility need to change.
“This is basically counterintuitive to how the country works,” he said.
Councilman Jason Lawhorn, though, said he believes an attempt to change the voter eligibility could face opposition in Dover.
“They’ll look at it like you’re taking rights of our businesses away, and that may be hard to pass at the next level,” he said.
Referendum voting was just one of several proposed charter changes discussed at the Oct. 4 workshop. Some were roundly rejected – like a proposal to double the length of council members’ and the mayor’s terms in office – but the referendum voting and several other changes will move onto the next step.
At some point in the future, council will vote on a formal resolution requesting the charter change. If approved by six of the seven council members, the resolution will be sent to the state legislature for a vote. elected, they spend the first year learning the ropes, and by the time they start getting things done in their second year, it’s time to run for re-election, she said.
“Oftentimes, this body is in perpetual election mode,” Sierer said. “That could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.”
She noted that extending the terms would save money on elections but conceded that a longer commitment could make it harder to find people willing to run for office.
Sierer’s suggestion received no support from her colleagues, with council unanimously deciding not to move forward with the proposed change.
“I feel very strongly it’s an affront to our democracy. It serves to disenfranchise the voters,” Councilman Mark Morehead said. “I’m beyond words with this one.”
Only United States senators serve six year terms. Delaware’s governor serves four years, and state representatives and state senators serve two and four years, respectively.
“Six years for a mayor is unreasonable,” Wallace said.
Hamilton said the change would separate council members from their constituents.
“If I’m not doing a good job, toss me out in April. Any time you lengthen elected officials’ time in office, it results in less accountability to the voters,” he said. “I can’t imagine serving four years without voters having an opportunity to tell me to get out.”
Despite the lack of support, Sierer said it was important to have the discussion.
“I appreciate the conversation,” she said. “I think it’s important we have it in the public eye.” period of three years.
“This would allow both parties to renegotiate and makes it an opportune time for a change to be made by both parties,” she said.
While a supermajority of council can vote to fire the city manager at any time, Wallace’s proposal would mean council would vote every three years whether to renew the manager’s contract.
This is a good time to make that change because the position is currently vacant, she noted.
The suggestion drew mixed reaction from council, which ultimately decided to reconsider it later.
Morehead supported the idea but preferred a fiveyear term.
“I do like the idea of it being resettable,” he said. “Supermajority is a high bar. There are times you want the person to leave, but you can’t get a supermajority from council because people aren’t paying attention.”
However, Lawhorn said he was adamantly against the idea because it could make it even more difficult to attract quality candidates, something that has already been a struggle.
“The idea theoretically sounds good, but I certainly wouldn’t take that job if I knew that every three years I had to hope that council approves the position,” he said.
Councilman Jerry Clifton agreed.
“The person that would take that job knowing it has a three-year potential is the person we would not want,” he said.
Markham said he was undecided.
“I’m still out on this one,” he said.“There are times I’d like to say, ‘Your contract is up, bye.’”
Councilwoman Jen Wallace is leading an effort to change who is eligible to vote in a city referendum.