City looks to stop cor­po­ra­tions from vot­ing in ref­er­en­dums

Newark Post - - LOCAL NEWS - By JOSH SHANNON jshan­non@ches­pub.com

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.’”

NE­WARK POST FILE PHOTO BY JOSH SHANNON

Coun­cil­woman Jen Wal­lace is lead­ing an ef­fort to change who is el­i­gi­ble to vote in a city ref­er­en­dum.

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