Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why not have a referendum on lowering the voting age?


Former Takoma Park Mayor Ed Sharp asked, on the TakomaPark e-mail list:
Why not have a referendum on lowering the voting age?
My short answer is, I don't see a need, nor do more than a handful of voters.

I'll note that the state legislature enacted Same Day Registration during early voting, and considered Election Day Voter Registration, during this year's legislative session, empowered by their voter mandates, not by any groundswell of public opinion.

To elaborate on the local situation (for background, see the April 15, 2013 council agenda material):

There are 2 routes to a referendum in Takoma Park. The council may put an item on the ballot, and voters, by petition with signatures of at least 20% of voters, may request an item be put on the ballot. That latter threshold applies also for referendum consideration of a charter changed enacted by the city council.

The state threshold for a referendum on an Act is 3% and I believe Montgomery County's threshold is 5%.

The voters trust their council representatives to decide most issues, and I can't think of a single Ward 1 constituent who has asked that this item, lowering the voting age, be put to referendum. Apologies if I've forgotten a message sent me; but definitely there's been no clamour. This leaves me free to exercise my judgment on the question of a referendum, and like my constituents, I don't see a compelling need. I feel that this electoral change will have far less impact, and carry far less risk, than the 20 or so opponents perhaps foresee.

Evidently, other council members agree with me. Only 2 of 7 council votes favor putting the item to referendum. What about voters' voices? We all know that 20% is a high threshold. It would take a major effort to get 2,000+ signatures in short order. Can referendum proponents meet the state threshold, even though it doesn't apply to city matters, and collect 360 signatures of Takoma Park voters who ask that this item be put to referendum? (The 60 comes from a conservative, rounding-down guesstimate of the number of voters who are ready for the council to move forward without a referendum.)

Put the question, "Should Takoma Park hold a referendum on lowering the voting age, for city elections, to 16?" to petition. If at least 360 Takoma Park voters sign, by Monday, April 29, I will weigh the effort against other voices and consider advocating a referendum.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April 15, 2013: Budget hearing, Montgomery College briefing, and vote on electoral changes

The Monday evening, April 15 city-council meeting will feature three items of significant interest to many.

Public Hearing on the Proposed FY14 City Budget

The acting city manager has released her proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2013, FY14. The first of two public hearings is scheduled for 8 pm. (The hearing second is scheduled for April 29.)

The proposed budget is posted online. It maintains the FY13 property-tax rate despite lower property-tax assessments city wide and despite plummeting speed-camera revenues (a testament that the camera are working!). It would consolidate contractor and part-time city TV hours into new staff positions. It would add part-time staff in three areas: 1) A "two year contract position to coordinate and provide services to seniors, persons with disabilities and others"; 2) an IT administrative assistant; and 3) a police emergency-management coordinator. It would continue Sunday afternoon library hours, which start in early May, devote fund to economic development initiatives, and allocate $100,000 above actuarially-required amounts to police pension funding.

Montgomery College Briefing

Montgomery College Takoma Park Provost Brad Stewart will brief the council on plans that include replacing a walkway on the Silver Spring side of the Pavilion 3 building on New York Avenue with two stories of office space. The college would add a stairway tower on the front of the building.

I will tell you now: I believe the design is discordant. Judge for yourself: I scanned images Provost Stewart had given me last month and posted them. But the design is immaterial because the city council, in a 2008 resolution, set city policy that the building should be torn down. See the resolution, which includes the text:
"The Council supports the policy of greater consolidation and cohesiveness of College facilities and the reconnection of its historic residential neighborhood of North Takoma of Block 69, and requests the College to... Vacate and demolish Pavilion 3 and the kiln bunker, both of which are obsolete structures, and work constructively with the City in re-integrating these properties appropriately into the single-family residential neighborhood as a passive memorial park."
Given this policy, I can't see any city reaction to a presentation of Pavilion 3 alterations other than opposition, given that alterations would extend the life of a building the city believes should be demolished.

The agenda backgrounder is posted online.

Provost Stewart is appearing, by the way, given a 2002 commitment that "Montgomery College agrees that it shall consult with the City of Takoma Park and the local community when making any major or substantial changes or alterations to the existing structures."

Electoral Changes

The first-reading vote, to amend voting and electoral provisions in the city charter, is slated for the April 15 council meeting. Those provisions, most notably, would extend the vote in city elections to 16- and 17-year-old voters. They would establish Same Day Registration (SDR) for city elections and allow on-parole and on-probation felons to vote in city elections. They would establish a minimum age of 18 for city offices.

The council held an April 8 public hearing on these proposed charter changes. The hearing attracked MANY enthusiastic teens, all favor lowering the voting age of course (although some of them don't live in Takoma Park). I don't have a tally of the relatively small number of adult voices but they were split for/against a lower voting age. To me, the most interesting testimony was 5 or 6 voices speaking out for enfranchising ALL felons, including those who are incarcerated.

Regarding lowering the voting age, I did tally comments prior to the hearing: 18 For, 9 Against, and 12 Neither, the majority of whom expressed skepticism that lowering the voting age would make a difference. Count among the supporters Maryland State Senator, and Ward 1 resident, Jamie Raskin.

I'm guessing that most folks have seen the studies that strongly suggest that a lower voting age WILL make a difference, that those who start voting early vote at a higher rate as they grow older, than those who first vote at a more advanced age, as documented in a letter of endorsement from the Tuft's University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).  We've had other support, including from the Gazette newspaper.

A second-reading vote, on April 22, would enact the charter change, subject to a repeal petition.

Additional public comment is welcome, at the council meeting or by e-mail to clerk@takomagov.org.

Thanks for reading and for any and all views you wish to share.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reminder: Hearing on electoral initiatives; plus, proposed city FY14 budget and city manager search

Neighbors, a reminder that the city council will hold a public hearing, tomorrow evening, Monday April 8, 2013 on electoral changes to the city charter that:
  • Lower the voting age for city elections to 16.
  • Establish Same Day Registration (SDR), that is, the ability to register and immediately participate on election day, the day of the nominating caucus, and during the early-voting period.
  • Allow felons on parole or probation to vote in city elections.
  • Reduce the residency requirement for city voting to 21 days from 30 days.
  • Establish a minimum age of 18 for election to the city council or as mayor.
See the agenda item online. The hearing is slated to start at 8 pm although you might wish to get there a bit earlier. If you have comments and don't wish to testify at the hearing, please send them to clerk@takomagov.org.

My Positions on the Electoral Initiatives

I introduced the SDR initiative, which responds to the fact that we have a short election season here in Takoma Park. Some potential voters don't become aware of up-coming elections until they're visited by a candidate.

I support lowering the voting age to 16, which was introduced by Councilmember Tim Male. Some European countries and cities (Norway, Austria, in Germany) allow teen voting, and studies show a higher rate of voting later in life among those who first vote young. I see little downside: Teens who are not engaged or uninformed simply won't vote in city elections, just as unengaged and uninformed adults don't vote. Yet there are enough motivated teens to justify this step. (See a Montgomery County Students' Coalition video, The Kind of Voter I Will Be.)

I know that some consitutents disagree with my positions. The hearing is a venue for you to express your views. The council could modify, defer, or even abandon the charter changes based on public comment.

Proposed FY14 Budget

Also on the Monday April 8 council agenda: Acting City Manager (ACM) Suzanne Ludlow will introduce her proposed city budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The council will hold a series of worksession discussions of the budget during subsequent council meetings, as well as public hearings on April 15 and April 29, before voting in May. While property-tax assessments are down, we do have some surplus FY13 funds that the city would return to taxpayers by holding the property-tax rate at current amount. Based on council direction, the ACM proposes to allocate an extra $100,000 to the city's Police Employees' Retirement Plan.

The ACM's proposed FY14 budget is online.

I will call out one particular item, the product of well over a year's organizing work by residents that I have been glad to support --
"The creation of a part-time, two year contract position to coordinate and provide services to seniors, persons with disabilities and others. This position is a key part of a pilot  
program coordinating City staff, County agencies and nonprofits to help residents receive needed services. It will also help support 'villages' and other similar organizations that have      
been developing within the Takoma Park community."
I will be asking you, in the coming weeks, to express your support to the council for funding this position.

City Manager Search

Lastly, our city-manager search has reached the point where the council, working with the City Manager Search Committee, has identified finalist candidates. Our search consulting is doing background checks, and we expect to conduct interviews later this month. If all goes smoothly, we should have a new city manager on board by early summer.

In the interim, the city continues to be very ably managed by Suzanne Ludlow as acting city manager.

Seth