Lewiston City Attorney Jana Gomez brought city councilors up to speed this week on the complicated scenario that will unfold now that a strong-mayor initiative is on the Nov. 2 ballot.
A group called Lewiston SMART recently submitted enough valid signatures to Nez Perce County Auditor-Recorder Patty O. Weeks to qualify the initiative for the coming municipal election. If passed by a simple majority of voters, the measure would swap the city’s government from its long-standing city council-city manager form for a strong mayor-city council model.
There have been several unsuccessful attempts to make that switch over the years, but the Lewiston SMART effort is the first to come along in two decades.
Nez Perce County uses a three-column ballot, so Gomez said that in consultation with the offices of the Idaho Secretary of State and Attorney General, the city has opted for a ballot that places the question on the form of government in column one. It will ask whether the voter wants to retain the current form of government. A “yes” vote will be in favor of keeping the council-manager form, while a “no” vote will be in favor of a strong-mayor form.
The next two columns would be used for voters to select their preferred elected officials under each possible outcome. Column two is for the council-manager form of government. Voters would choose four council candidates, the number of city councilors up for election under the current form of government. They are Mayor Mike Collins, Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Schroeder, Councilor John Pernsteiner and Councilor Bob Blakey.
Column three covers the strong-mayor form of government, and voters would mark their choices for a new mayor and an entirely new city council composed of six seats. That means that the three city councilors not up for election — Cari Miller, Kevin Kelly and John Bradbury — will still have to campaign if they want to be mayor or member of the council in the event that the strong-mayor initiative prevails, Gomez said.
If the initiative prevails, the three candidates receiving the largest number of votes under column three will serve four-year terms, and the three candidates receiving the next-largest number of votes will serve two-year terms.
If that wasn’t convoluted enough, the total number of seats on the council could also be in play. Under the current council-manager format, the council can have five or seven members. Under the strong-mayor format, there can be four or six. Changing the number can be placed on the ballot by the city council or another citizen initiative.
City Clerk Kari Ravencroft will also prepare a voter pamphlet based on submitted arguments for and against the initiative. Ravencroft will aggregate the submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in the pamphlet, which will then be distributed to every household in the city by Sept. 25. Arguments may be up to 500 words.
In addition to the issues that will be decided by voters, the council has several decisions to make leading up to the election. One is the compensation for the mayor and councilors. Any changes must be published at least 75 days before the election. The council might want to consider an increase in the compensation for the mayor if the strong-mayor initiative prevails, Gomez said, since the office would assume more responsibility.
The council will also have to decide whether to require a majority of votes to be elected mayor. If the council goes that route and no candidate earns a majority, the race will head to a runoff within 30 days. Gomez said the Secretary of State’s Office recommended against that option, however, since county election officials aren’t allowed to use their election equipment for a certain period after the general election, and mounting the runoff would be expensive.
Other issues for council consideration include when to institute the changeover if the initiative prevails and whether to assign council seats or have them selected by geographical districts. And if the council-manager form is retained, the council can choose whether to provide for direct election of the mayor by voters. Under the current form, the council votes to appoint a mayor from among its members after each municipal election.
If the council opts to have voters elect the mayor under the current form of government, they also have to choose whether that person would serve a two- or four-year term.
Gomez also recommended that the council decide in advance whether to hire a city administrator who will fulfill many of the same duties now covered by the city manager if the form of government changes, and which duties will be delegated to the new mayor, and which to the new administrator.
The city will also have to update countless city personnel and administrative codes if the form of government changes, she said. Finally, the candidate filing period for the election will be Aug. 23-Sept. 3.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.