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March or November? Signal Hill voters to choose new election date

Election-date vote could extend incumbent councilmember terms by one year

At+its+Oct.+23+meeting%2C+Signal+Hill+city+councilmembers+discuss+adding+two+measures+to+the+March+5%2C+2019%2C+ballot+allowing+voters+the+choice+of+moving+the+municipal-election+date+to+either+March+or+November+in+even-numbered+years.+From+left%3A+Councilmember+Edward+Wilson%2C+Councilmember+Lori+Woods+and+Mayor+Tina+Hansen.
At its Oct. 23 meeting, Signal Hill city councilmembers discuss adding two measures to the March 5, 2019, ballot allowing voters the choice of moving the municipal-election date to either March or November in even-numbered years. From left: Councilmember Edward Wilson, Councilmember Lori Woods and Mayor Tina Hansen.

At its Oct. 23 meeting, Signal Hill city councilmembers discuss adding two measures to the March 5, 2019, ballot allowing voters the choice of moving the municipal-election date to either March or November in even-numbered years. From left: Councilmember Edward Wilson, Councilmember Lori Woods and Mayor Tina Hansen.

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

At its Oct. 23 meeting, Signal Hill city councilmembers discuss adding two measures to the March 5, 2019, ballot allowing voters the choice of moving the municipal-election date to either March or November in even-numbered years. From left: Councilmember Edward Wilson, Councilmember Lori Woods and Mayor Tina Hansen.

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At its Oct. 23 meeting, along with establishing March 5, 2019, as the city’s next municipal-election date (as reported in Part 1 of this story in the Signal Tribune’s Oct. 26 issue), the Signal Hill City Council also agreed to add two ballot measures allowing voters to choose the next election date.

Election date
City Manager Charlie Honeycutt said that, per the city’s charter, municipal elections have taken place on the first Tuesday in March of odd-numbered years, making March 5, 2019, the next election date.
However, in 2015, the State legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 415: The California Voter Participation Rights Act, which requires Signal Hill to change its municipal-election date, Honeycutt said.

“The intent of SB 415 is to increase voter participation in local elections by requiring cities to consolidate their elections with the statewide election, which generally has a higher voter turnout,” he said.

Honeycutt said that cities required to make this change under the law are those for which the most recent election turnout was at least 25 percent below the average voter turnout of the previous four statewide elections.

“Signal Hill’s voter turnout in the 2017 election was 20.8 percent, whereas the average of the last four statewide elections was 56.9 percent,” Honeycutt said. “If you reduce that number by 25 percent, that’s 42.7. Because we fall [below] that 42.7 percent, we were required to adopt a voter-participation encouragement plan.”

Honeycutt said the council adopted that plan last November that included consolidating the local election to the statewide primary-election date beginning March 2022. However, the council also wanted to allow Signal Hill voters the chance to agree or change it to the statewide general-election date of November, beginning in 2020.

Honeycutt said that if voters ultimately choose March 2022 as the next municipal election, councilmember terms that would have expired in March 2021 would be extended by 12 months– which is allowed under state law.

Potential one-time term adjustments would apply to incumbent councilmembers Robert Copeland, Edward Wilson and Lori Woods– whose terms expire in March 2021– as well as the city clerk and treasurer to be elected in March 2019.

“One of the reasons that we wanted to put this to the voters is that we didn’t think that it was appropriate to extend our terms,” Mayor Tina Hansen said. “That really is something that voters should make a decision about, not us.”

Conversely, Honeycutt said that if voters choose November 2020 as the next election date, those same council terms would be shortened by four months.
The council approved resolutions adding both election-date options as “yes” or “no” choices on the March 2019 ballot.

“If both measures pass, then the measure with the highest number of votes will prevail,” Honeycutt said. “If neither measure passes, then our local election will remain the same as it is now– in March of odd-numbered years.”

On the legality of keeping the election date the same, City Attorney Dave Aleshire referred to Redondo Beach as a recent example of another charter city that could not agree on changing its voting date and was sued for keeping it the same.

“There’s actually a lawsuit that was filed,” Aleshire said. “[But] the trial court said, ‘Elections are a local affair […] and your charter prevails and the city does not have to comply with state law since it’s a local election issue.’”

However, Aleshire added that the State’s attorney general believes charter cities do have to comply to ensure the State’s goal of increasing voter turnout.

“There is no clear legal precedent for such situation, and it would not be surprising if some California charter cities find themselves in such a situation,” the staff report states.

Courtesy City of SH
A table shown at the Oct. 23 Signal Hill City Council meeting summarizing potential election-date schedules resulting from two measures on the March 5, 2019, ballot allowing voters to choose a general-municipal election (GME) date that complies with SB 415. One option (top) consolidates the GME to the November statewide general-election schedule, beginning Nov. 3, 2020, and one (bottom) conforms to the statewide primary-election schedule, beginning March 8, 2022.

Ballot arguments
Aleshire also told the council that the resolution authorizes its members– individually or collectively– to add arguments to the ballot in favor or against one or both measures, as well as rebuttals. Without that clause, the city clerk would choose which submitted arguments to include on the ballot.

“All five of you are better informed about this subject and its impact on the city than anyone else would be,” Aleshire said. “Whether you’re for or against whichever measure, you’re probably good choices to be the authors of those arguments.”

After discussing varying opinions, the council agreed that Copeland and Woods would write a “pro” argument supporting the March election date and Wilson and Vice Mayor Larry Forester would write in support of November.

In explaining her opinion, Woods said that elections in March of odd-numbered years have prevented local issues from being “diluted” with state or federal issues, so she preferred to keep elections in March even in even-numbered years.

“A March voting time would give a higher priority to Signal Hill issues,” she said.
Though he expressed discomfort supporting a voter decision that would extend his term by 12 months, Copeland agreed with Woods.

“Seeing that I think it’s important to give some sort of council guidance, I’m willing to [write in support of] March,” he said.

Wilson said he supported the November date since data demonstrates higher voter turnout then, even though that choice would shorten his term by four months.

“If we want more people to vote in our election, that would be the best way to do it,” he said. “We want as many people voting as possible.”

Wilson also said that the city’s March election is too much for voters and changing it to November would not only reduce costs by consolidating elections, but would also allow candidates not to have to campaign during the winter holidays.

“Part of [the problem] is voter fatigue,” Wilson said. “You have a general election in November and you have to have another in March, or vice versa. […] People just get tired of voting. […] I know traditionally it’s been in March, and people are used to that, but I also know a number of cities have gone to November.”

Forester also supported consolidating to the November date.

“I think of it being an election day, period,” he said. “One day to think of as an election day.”
Hansen said she didn’t want to express a preference, especially since she is up for reelection in March 2019.

“If I weren’t running, I would consider writing an argument in favor of March,” Hansen said. “But I’m not going to write an argument extending my term for a year.”

In the interest of transparency, however, Hansen agreed to write an argument against either date, supporting the possibility that if both measures fail, the existing election schedule of March in odd-numbered years would remain intact.

Aleshire said that, as city attorney, he would write an impartial analysis of both measures for the ballot.

Woods said that the council’s three arguments would help voters decide.

“If you just leave it as is without an informed argument on either side of either issue of either date, then the ballot [would be] highly confusing,” she said. “The Signal Hill voters can see what all our opinions are on this subject and be more informed than just reading [the] attorney’s analysis and […] ballot titles.”

The council also expressed the need for more voter education, which Aleshire said might entail additional cost and suggested providing information in the City’s newsletter.

Hansen requested that staff also add a council-meeting agenda item in the near future to explain the ballot measures.

“It’s important to have these kinds of discussions where the public sees our thought process,” Hansen said. “And sees that we have a difference of opinion, but we can disagree in a civil manner.”

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March or November? Signal Hill voters to choose new election date