By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– This Nov. 8, North Liberty voters will face just two ballot questions in the city election; related, but very different.
It is essential that voters understand the distinction before penciling in those ovals.
First, there are three open seats on the North Liberty City Council. Incumbents Coleen Chipman, Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman are all seeking re-election, with newcomer Matt Zacek also putting his hat into the ring. Voters will be asked to pick three of the four to represent the public for the next four years.
Three ovals, four choices.
The second question on the ballot is a lot more complex, though its answer is simply yes or no.
Shall North Liberty switch from an at-large system of council representation to a ward system?
Currently, North Liberty’s five council members and its mayor are elected from anywhere in the city. Their four-year terms are staggered so at least three experienced representatives are always at the table. However, in May, 2011, a 132-signature petition called for a change in the way council members are elected. Under this plan, North Liberty would be split into five equal-population wards of no more than 2,300 people, and the voters in each would elect one resident from that ward to serve on the city council.
Last Thursday, Oct. 20, Rebecca Neades of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce moderated an informational forum on the ward system, asking spokesmen from each side of the issue to present arguments for and against.
Supporting the ward system of representation was Ken Madole, a North Liberty business owner, former city council member and the man who brought the petition to the council last May.
Madole said the impetus for seeking the change was that the people he represents– those who signed the petition– didn’t feel as if the current city government listened to them. Electing someone from within a ward allows people to get to know their ward representatives more personally, he said, which is helpful in a city that has a fairly transient population like North Liberty’s.
“You’ve got a lot of people who don’t live here for long periods of time. They don’t get to know the council people very well,” said Madole. “I think if you had one representative from a smaller area, those people would be able to connect better with that one person, and might have some of their concerns answered easier.”
This specific connection was one of the weaknesses pointed out by opponent Glenn Siders.
“The person in your ward may be more focused on what is best for your ward, as opposed to what’s best for the entire city,” said Siders, a North Liberty resident, former North Liberty council member and Vice President of Property Development for SouthGate Development Services of Iowa City. “You may not be familiar with how development is going on the east side or west side, or what’s appropriate for comprehensive planning. If you’re from ward one, you might lose sight of what’s happening in wards two through five.”
In addition, Siders believes the ward system could deter potential candidates from running for council.
“I think a ward system would restrict people from serving this community,” Siders said, since only one person can represent each ward. “In the ward system, each ward has one candidate. You cannot vote for the candidates in the other four wards, so I look at that as actually an opportunity for only 20 percent representation of the community.”
Conversely, Madole argued that a ward system could encourage even more people to run for council.
“It would be more cost-effective to run a campaign,” noted Madole, since running in a smaller geographic area would require fewer yard signs and other campaign literature. “I think it could get a lot more people interested to run.”
Both Madole and Siders said they have recruited others to run for council in past elections. Madole became familiar with the ward system of representation when he was a resident of Mount Pleasant, and listed other cities of similar size that have successful ward systems of representation, including Grinnell, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa.
“I have always looked toward a ward system for North Liberty some day,” Madole said. “Change is sometimes difficult. Transitioning our system to a ward system would provide better access to elected officials and more widespread representation across the city. While change is not easy, it’s time to change from an at-large system more commonly found in smaller towns.”
Siders said he does not think North Liberty, with its population of 13,300, is the right size to warrant a change in the election of its representation. Neades directed the question of appropriate size to Siders:
“Is there a size of community you think a ward system would be appropriate for?” asked Neades.
“I don’t have a set number in mind, but I think you need to be closer to 100,000 population to make it work, to generate a pool large enough to draw from,” said Siders.
Neades asked whether a ward system would have financial impacts on the city. Siders said he could foresee, if a ward did not produce a council candidate during the regular election cycle, a special election might be necessary.
“Special elections are very costly,” Siders said.
Madole countered, “We’ve had special elections with the type of representation we have now. Special elections run between $700 and $1,000, from what I understand.”
Madole said later in the week it was his understanding that the city’s costs for previous special elections were within that range. Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett said his estimation for the total cost of a special election would be around $3,500.
Siders concluded that the ward system is unnecessary.
“In the ward system, if you have a council member from another ward that has an opposite viewpoint than yours, you don’t have an opportunity to change that. In the at-large system, you have an opportunity to replace the incumbents if they aren’t doing a good job,” said Siders. “I don’t think you can do that in a ward system.”
Madole emphasized that passing the ballot issue would not bring a change in the actual form of North Liberty’s government. There would still be a five-member council and a non-voting mayor.
According to information provided by the Johnson County auditor’s office, if the ward system passes next month– by majority vote, or 50 percent plus one– all five of North Liberty’s city council members and the mayor would be up for re-election at the next city general election in November 2013. In that election, voters would choose representatives from the five newly-drawn wards, and ward representatives would take office in January 2014.
Because of population growth shown in the 2010 census, the city was recently required to divide North Liberty into new voting precincts. If the ballot measure for ward representation passes next month, those precincts would have to be redrawn to coincide with the new ward boundaries. Councilors would draw lots to determine which two representatives would serve two-year terms for the first election cycle, in order to stagger the five terms. After that, all councilors would go back to serving four-year terms.
The single ballot issue stands to make a significant impact on the way North Liberty moves forward; given the weight of their answer to this yes or no question, voters have a lot to think about before taking pencil to paper on Nov. 8.