SHERIDAN — On Tuesday, Sheridan City Council will vote on an issue that could alter the system of representation in city government that has been in place for more than 50 years.
On third reading of an ordinance that would have slightly moved a boundary line between Ward 2 and Ward 3 to prevent split ballots in elections, the council voted to amend the ordinance to eliminate the city’s three wards entirely and have all six city councilors be elected at-large. The council then tabled the ordinance to allow more time for people to comment on the change.
City Clerk Scott Badley said he hasn’t received any comments in the last two weeks. At the Feb. 3 council meeting, Mayor Dave Kinskey and several councilors said they also had not received any feedback. Kinskey noted this may be due to a lack of awareness by the general public about wards and how city government operates.
However, former Mayor Jim Wilson, who served from 1997-2004, said the issue is being discussed in the “coffee hutches” around town, and the general consensus is, why now?
Wilson said the idea of going to at-large representation on city council has been a topic of discussion.
“People ask me, ‘Why? What’s wrong with what we’re doing?’” Wilson said.
Former City Councilor Steve Brantz, who served from 2008-2012 and made a run for mayor in 2012, has also questioned the change.
“Why, all of a sudden, does this have to be done, especially on third reading?” he asked.
“To take an amendment and try to pass it on third reading, that is just poor,” Brantz said. “That’s a red flag to me to say, ‘Why all of a sudden are we doing this now?’”
Badley said the change may seem sudden, but that it’s been a behind-the-scenes discussion for eight years, especially since the Legislature reapportioned its districts following the 2010 census.
It was more of a discussion of what-ifs until recently.
“When this ordinance was being voted on on first reading and moving towards second reading, there was a discussion about what are the other possibilities,” Badley said. “Maybe the time has come to do what the county commissioners are elected under.”
Badley noted that the county commissioners and board members for Sheridan College and Sheridan County School District 2 are all elected to represent the city in at-large positions.
Kinskey expressed concern that the city’s current ward system may not meet federal requirements that wards not differ from each other in population by more than 10 percent since there has been population growth and several annexations since the wards were last drawn in 2002.
The 10 percent permissable rule is meant to prevent unequal representation by having each ward contain approximately the same amount of people.
In order to determine if Sheridan’s wards are constitutionally sound, a study must be done on census data. However,
Kinskey has hesitated to do the study because it will cost $10,000-$15,000.
Brantz also expressed concerns about accountability.
“As a city councilman, we were held accountable to a smaller group of people so these people had more of a relationship with myself and Mr. Webster,” Brantz said.
Brantz represented Ward 3, which runs along the eastern half of the city, along with current councilman Robert Webster.
“If you have six people at-large, who do you get ahold of? It feels like more ownership when you have a smaller ward,” Brantz said.
Badley said that since Sheridan is so small, members of city council tend to see themselves as responsible to the entire city anyway.
“My personal feeling is that I can see an argument either way, but in reality, we’re so small I think all the council views their votes as doing what’s best for the city,” Badley said.
He also noted that he has never seen arguments on any vote based on what ward the councilor is representing.
Wilson taught American government to high school seniors for 13 years and told them that in the U.S. they would likely always be represented fairly.
“City government, I always taught the kids, is where the rubber meets the road. What better place to have everybody represented on that city council, no matter where you live?” Wilson said.
However, he worries that some Sheridanites may fall through the cracks in an at-large system of representation.
“My problem with at-large is that some of the non-voting public — they’re out there in Sheridan, they don’t turn out in droves to vote, and we know what wards those are — and I’m concerned that there’s going to be some people left in the dust,” Wilson said.
In other words, the more blue-collar section of town on the east side of Main Street, currently represented as Ward 3, may be under-represented because it typically has lower voter turnout and less people interested in running for office.
“I think there’s a danger — and I’ll go out on a limb on this — that the west side of Main Street would dominate because they are voters, they do run for elective office, and what we don’t want to start in this town is people feeling intimidated that they are not represented in certain sections of the city. We never want to go there. Sheridan’s not built that way.”
Wilson noted that some people — especially Kinskey, he said — are adept at meeting with anyone and everyone and bringing forth their concerns no matter where they live.
“Dave should be applauded for that. He is fantastic at that, and that’s why I was surprised he wants to re-look at the ward system,” Wilson said.
However, not all city councilors may excel in that area, Wilson said.
Badley said he understands the concern but that the city’s track record of projects demonstrates that improvement and care of city infrastructure is not based on wards.
“It has to do with our capital improvement plan. It’s a logical assessment of what priorities are based on the age of the infrastructure, if a special improvement district is involved, and all those decisions are not based on wards,” Badley said. “They are based on a logical assessment of what the needs are, and that crosses all boundaries within the city.”
Kinskey has said he thinks it would be a good thing for the city if city councilors had to run a citywide campaign.
However, Brantz said he worries the cost of running a citywide campaign may prohibit some people from trying.
“When I ran for council, I spent about $400. When I ran for mayor, I spent $4,000. Running for city council is totally different than running for mayor,” Brantz said.
Brantz said he thinks if residents got out and “beat the bush,” people could be found to run for a seat on council that represents their area of town.
He worries that people who may think they have a chance of being elected to represent a ward may shy away from trying to win the votes of the entire city, either due to money or fear of not connecting with residents citywide.
In the Feb. 3 City Council meeting, Kinskey noted that several current councilors did run a citywide campaign with media advertisements, citywide sign placement and use of social media.