SHERIDAN — While six Sheridan residents spoke against the city eliminating its three wards and changing to citywide, at-large representation, City Council voted 4-1 to adopt the at-large system at its meeting Tuesday night.
This means all six councilors and the mayor will be elected from a pool of all Sheridan residents and will not be required to live in or represent certain areas of the city. The ordinance passed on third and final reading.
The vote followed more than an hour of public comment from six Sheridan residents who spoke against the change. Reasons included fear of skewed representation, the cost to run citywide campaigns, belief that the current system of three wards with two councilors each was working well and concern about the rapidness of the change, which was proposed on third reading of an ordinance that originally was intended to slightly alter the boundary line between Wards 2 and 3 to prevent split ballots.
The amendment to the orignal Ordinance 2142 was adopted on third reading Feb. 3 before being tabled to allow two more weeks for public input.
Before public comment, Mayor Dave Kinskey asked residents speaking against the change to address three questions: Why is the city different from the County Commission or college board, which are elected at-large?
Why does the city need wards if it functioned for 75 years in its early life with an at-large system? And why should Ward 3, on the east side of town, be limited to two representatives when the west side (Wards 1 and 2) gets four?
First to speak was former Mayor Jim Wilson, who was mayor when the ward boundaries were re-drawn in 2002.
He expressed concern about Ward 3 on the east side of the city being disenfranchised in an at-large system because the area is characterized by younger families and older residents of generally lower economic status than the west side of town. He said the area typically has lower voter turnout and less interest in running for a seat on City Council, and he worries it will be under-represented in an at-large system.
Wilson also said he fears the cost of running an at-large campaign could discourage people who may have tried to run for a seat in a ward with a smaller and cheaper campaign.
He then asked Kinskey to show him how at-large would benefit the city more than the current system of wards without comparing the city to the county or college.
Later in the meeting, Kinskey asked Wilson to come back to the podium for some debate.
Kinskey said in his nine years as mayor, he hasn’t seen one vote turn on an issue regarding a specific ward or its economic status.
“Tell me that there’s not rich and poor in all parts of this city?” Kinskey said.
Wilson said he couldn’t, but that some areas, like the east side, had more poor than others.
Kinskey then asked Wilson why he chose to draw ward boundaries in 2002 in such a way that divided the city into east and west or rich and poor.
Wilson said he did it mainly to meet population requirements for wards but that if the city had been sliced horizontally north to south, what is now Ward 3 would have been split into three sections and may not have ended up with any representatives who lived in that section of town. He said the east-west split guaranteed at least two representatives would live within a ward at risk of not being represented.
Council President John Heath asked Wilson not to sell current or future councilors short by insinuating they would buy votes or only represent richer areas of town. He said he thought it would be good to have six councilors representing the entire city.
“I want to walk down the street and talk to my councilman,” Wilson said, adding that geographical representation was important.
Resident John Fafoutakis said that Sheridan used an at-large system for city government in its first 75 years because it was so small. Now that the city is more than 17,000 residents, however, Fafoutakis said wards offered better representation to all areas of the city. He compared the ward system to the electoral college, which guarantees better representation than straight elections.
Planning Commissioner Thayer Shafer, who has submitted an application for the open City Council seat left when Levi Dominguez resigned in January, lives in Ward 3. He said going to citywide representation on the Council won’t encourage more people from the east side to run, but will rather discourage the younger and older residents.
“We need our own ward,” Shafer said.
Val Burgess, who has also submitted an application for the open Council seat, answered Kinskey’s question about what makes the city different than the county or college by saying it’s livability. She said decisions made by City Council affect her life and the lives of city residents more than decisions made by the county or college board.
Burgess also said she has generally found a low understanding of the issue of wards versus at-large representation around town. She said the issue deserved more time and vetting than the two weeks it received.
“My feeling is that the community really didn’t get to voice its opinion because the amendment was just introduced at the last meeting. I feel there would have been more public comment, and I would have appreciated that if we had a little more time,” Burgess said after the meeting.
Lynn Gordon said she was worried about skewed representation if Ward 3 didn’t have its own councilors. She also expressed concern about at-large councilors in the future voting in ways that don’t take into consideration localized concerns.
“I don’t want people in other parts of town making decisions for me just because I live in Ward 3,” Gordon said. “Don’t take away my vote.”
Ward 3 resident Buddy Benth was watching the City Council meeting on TV and decided to come to the meeting to express his views. He wasn’t signed in to speak, but the mayor allowed him his time.
“I would like my representation to be from where I live,” Benth said.
He said he would not feel comfortable calling someone from outside Ward 3 to address problems in his area of the city. He preferred the system be left as is and not pushed so quickly into something different.
Before City Council moved into deliberations, Kinskey asked Wilson to address his implication that money buys elections. Kinskey said that if money buys elections, Kim Love, who owns several radio stations and is one of the richer residents in town, would have been elected to the school board, but he wasn’t.
Wilson said he never implied that money bought elections.
City Councilman Robert Webster read a letter from former Councilor Mona Hansen, who represented Ward 3, in support of going at-large. Councilman Alex Lee also read a letter from former Councilor Ryan Mulholland in support of an at-large system.
Webster shared a “collage” of thoughts from Ward 3 residents, which he represents. They were all in support of going at-large, but it was not clear if he received any comments against.
Reasons for support included more equal representation since Ward 3 only gets two councilors now, and the west side of town gets four. Several comments also noted that elections could now focus on issues rather than one personality facing off against another one. Some said candidates could be selected on viewpoint and platform rather than just ward.
Lee said he heard input from both sides over the last two weeks, but that ultimately he felt at-large was a better option.
He said for the cost of a vacation to Thermopolis, someone could submit a registration and application to run for a seat and get interviews in the newspaper, radio and TV, and that campaigning citywide is not much more costly than in wards. He said going at-large allows all seven representatives to be voted on, rather than just the mayor and two councilors, making representation more equal.
“Once you get elected, there are no boundaries,” Lee said, noting that he trusts people who would run to be men and women of integrity and not prone to greed.
Councilwoman Kristin Kelly voted against the change to at-large.
She said the discussion got into the weeds when it delved into economic status. She said she was contacted by about 20 people who were concerned about the change. Ultimately, for Kelly, it came down to keeping City Council less intimidating by allowing councilors to represent their area of the city and not the whole town.
“I voted what I felt I heard from the community, and my beliefs as well as a new City Council person, so that’s really what affected my vote. Both sides were incredibly persuasive. Either or, it’s win-win either way, so we just move forward and my main thing would be to encourage people to run,” Kelly said.
Kinskey said Sheridan doesn’t have a “ward identity” like L.A. and that it makes more sense to go at-large. He felt at-large would empower and enfranchise city residents by allowing representatives — especially those who may be younger or rent — to live anywhere in the city and still serve on Council.
Kinskey said he would also be the first to admit if the at-large system fails.
Councilwoman Shelleen Smith was away for business and did not vote.
City Clerk Scott Badley said it is his understanding that the open seat from Ward 3 left when Dominguez retired will be filled with an appointed council member from Ward 3 until the election in fall 2014, when it will become open to at-large candidates who will complete the remainder of Dominguez’s term through 2016.
There will be four open City Council seats in the 2014 election.