Council Eliminates Preliminary Election

August 3, 2011
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For the second straight election cycle, the City Council has voted to eliminate the Preliminary Election for at-large councillor in September, even though there is the required number of candidates to trigger that election.

Painted as a cost-saving measure, the Council voted 9-1 to send the Home Rule Petition to the State Legislature for consideration. Councillor George Rotondo voted against the measure and Councillor Stephen Reardon was absent for the 4 p.m. Monday meeting.

The City Charter calls for a Preliminary Election in the at-large Council race if there are 11 candidates. This time around – like 2009 – there are 11 candidates and the election would whittle that number down to 10 for the final ballot.

So, in essence, the election would eliminate only one candidate.

However, on the flip side of the coin, Preliminary Elections are seen as a way for challengers to get their feet wet and temper their message – giving them a chance to see their weaknesses and their strengths. It has also been accepted as a way of lessening the incumbent’s natural advantage.

No one has benefited more from Preliminary Elections in recent political history than Councillor Bob Haas, who has come back from significant losses in mayoral primaries to win the general election – using what he learned in the Preliminary to focus in on new strategies.

“I spoke to four of the candidates who are challengers and they are going along with it, so I don’t see a problem,” said Haas at Monday’s meeting.

Ward 1 Councillor Richard Penta said that he ran at-large in 2009 when the election was also eliminated, and he had no problem with it then.

“At that time, to me the City did the right thing,” he said. “Everyone knows that in a Preliminary you’re only going to get 15 or 18 percent. Does it change the election? I don’t think so.”

Councillor at-large Dan Rizzo also said he was for the measure.

“Years ago we’d have 15 or 20 candidates running in the at-large field,” he said. “This time we have 11 people running for 10 spots…The notion that people’s right to vote is taken away is completely false. They’ll certainly be able to vote for their favorite candidates. I would argue you’d have a better chance because that 11th person will still be on the ballot in November.”

Added Councillor at-large Tony Zambuto, “We’re actually giving an advantage. The purpose is to narrow the field to 10 people. Eleven people are going to be nominated. Everyone running will be nominated.”

The lone dissenter, Councillor Rotondo, said that he felt the matter was pure politicking as it had only been brought up as an issue last week when it was learned there would be 11 candidates.

He argued that the Council should change the charter and do away with all Preliminary Elections and increase the number of signatures required to get on the ballot.

“Frankly, in my opinion, this wreaks of politicking,” he said. “If this was going to be an issue, it should have been dealt with six months ago. If we’re going to deal with a Charter Change, let’s make this the time. Let’s do it now.”

That elicited some dramatics, as several councillors protested his move to quickly do away with all Preliminary Elections. The discussion ended up spiraling into an argument in which it was alleged that Zambuto had tried to shut off Rotondo’s microphone as he explained his proposal.

Zambuto said he did nothing of the sort.

Rotondo said he did.

And it went on like that for a few minutes.

In 2009, facing the front end of tough economic times, Mayor Tom Ambrosino led the charge to eliminate the election in an effort to save some $50,000.

It was said at the time that it was a one-time situation due to the dire fiscal times, and no one imagined then that the economy would still be a wreck two years later.

Now, it’s the same thing all over again.

One of the main detractors last time, Al Terminiello Jr., said that he wasn’t voicing an opinion this time around. He said it is always preferable to have an election, but he is fine with whatever the Council decides.

Most other candidates also felt the same way.

“Although I respect the City Charter, there comes a time when common sense should prevail,” said Challenger Steve Morabito. “This primary would not be useful and would not serve its purpose. Therefore, I would agree with eliminating it.”

However, it was challenger Michael Carter of Beachmont who said what everyone was thinking. Though he agreed with the principle of the matter, he noted that there are plenty of places to save money besides cutting out required elections.

“As Councilman Rizzo says we could do lots of wonderful things with $50,000,” said Carter. “Imagine how much good we could have done with the $300,000 they gave away to Necco last week. The only time I have heard any councillors discuss saving money in the last year was when they wanted to eliminate an election…If they are looking for ways to save money without taking away elections they should eliminate the expense accounts they all enjoy that cost voters more than $50,000 a year.”

At that utterance, Council President John Powers and others quickly cut off Carter.

“Stick to the issue sir,” said Powers.

Ward 6 Councillor Charlie Patch said that in 2012 the Council would make a more permanent move to change the City Charter in regards to Preliminary Elections  – perhaps requiring more signatures to get on the ballot, making candidates post a cash bond and increasing the number of candidates needed to trigger a Preliminary.

The final decision on eliminating the election lies with the State Legislature on a Home Rule Petition vote.

The matter will likely go to Rep. Michael Moran’s Election Laws Committee for a hearing, as it did in 2009.

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