Parkersburg City Council rejects election changes

One ordinance voted down, other dies with no second

From left, Parkersburg City Councilman Eric Barber argues for an ordinance to put the question of making council elections nonpartisan on the November ballot as Council President John Reed and Councilmen J.R. Carpenter and Mike Reynolds listen during Tuesday’s council meeting at the Municipal Building. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

PARKERSBURG — Proposed changes to municipal elections were rejected by Parkersburg City Council Tuesday, after strong words from citizens and council members alike.

The first reading of an ordinance to place on the November ballot the question of whether council elections should be nonpartisan failed in a 6-3 vote. An ordinance allowing all residents to vote for the representatives of each of council’s nine districts failed to come up for a vote.

Public comment was consistently negative for the at-large election proposal. While a few people expressed support for the nonpartisan option, it was mostly opposed by people who spoke in an extended public forum.

Opponents of the nonpartisan change said eliminating the primary election for council members would remove some of the incentive for candidates to get out in their district and meet constituents early, while allowing a representative to be selected with a plurality of votes.

“They need to be out there. They need to earn the votes,” said Judy Stephens, chairwoman of the Wood County Democratic Executive Committee.

Parkersburg City Councilman Eric Barber, left, gestures as he talks to Councilman Bob Mercer following Tuesday’s council meeting at the Municipal Building. During the meeting, Barber said council members who voted against placing the question of whether to make council elections nonpartisan were afraid of being challenged for re-election by new candidates, something to which Mercer took exception. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Others said knowing with which party a candidate is affiliated is another way to learn about them and get an idea of how they would vote on certain issues. Some said they did not like the provision allowing council to nominate candidates to fill a vacancy, a function now performed by the executive committee of the party to which the departing council member belongs.

Parkersburg resident Don Godfrey, a former councilman elected as a Republican who later changed his affiliation to independent, called the proposal to go nonpartisan “one of the finest moves that council has done in a long time.” He said it would allow independent candidates a chance to compete with Democrats and Republicans.

Some residents questioned why the mayor would remain a partisan position. Councilman Zach Stanley made a motion to amend the ordinance to make that office nonpartisan as well. Stanley was joined by Councilmen Eric Barber, J.R. Carpenter and Mike Reynolds and Council President John Reed in voting for the change, but City Attorney Joe Santer ruled the amendment failed because passage of the full ordinance required a supermajority of six votes.

Before the vote on the ordinance itself, Barber, who was elected as a Democrat but changed his affiliation to independent during last year’s debate over a nondiscrimination ordinance, said the voters should be given the chance to decide the question.

“Both executive committees are loaded down with fanatical extremists. Both,” he said. “And their undue influence on our city government needs to go bye-bye.”

Parkersburg resident Kim Van Rijn speaks against the idea of allowing all city residents to vote for the representatives of each City Council district during Tuesday’s council meeting. The first reading of an ordinance to place that question on the November ballot failed to come up for a vote after no one seconded a motion to adopt it. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Stephens took exception to Barber’s words.

“That was a direct attack, not just on the Democrats but on the Republicans also,” she said after the meeting. “For a committee that says they don’t do personal attacks, they let that man slide on through.”

Barber said going nonpartisan would open council to qualified candidates whose work prohibits them from running for partisan office.

“A no vote tonight indicates you’re scared of new candidates, and that you are more concerned about your individual re-election prospects than listening to the people,” he said. “There is no more better representation of the people’s will than that ballot box, and a handful of oppositional city-haters do no represent the voice of the people.”

Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl didn’t hide her frustration with Barber’s remarks.

Photo sby Evan Bevins Former Parkersburg City Councilman Don Godfrey speaks during the public forum at Tuesday’s Parkersburg City Council meeting. Godfrey was in favor of making city elections nonpartisan but against the idea of allowing all city residents to vote for the representative of each of the nine council districts. Neither ordinance to place those questions on the November ballot passed. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

“Do not ever say the reason I am placing a no vote, or a yes vote, is that I am scared for my re-election,” she said.

Barber and Councilman Bob Mercer exchanged words immediately following the meeting before Barber left chambers angrily.

“I was livid,” Mercer said later, adding Barber was “more or less calling (me) a coward.”

The vote to pass the ordinance failed 6-3, with only Barber, Stanley and Reed voting for it.

Multiple people spoke against the at-large concept during the public forum, saying it would give people who live outside districts undue influence, such as north end residents selecting the representatives for districts on the south side.

Parkersburg resident Kim Van Rijn said at-large voting has been banned in some formats and it can give a particular voting bloc too much influence.

“Enough of this,” Van Rijn said. “Parkersburg already suffers from too little representation from certain groups.”

Mercer made a motion to approve the at-large ordinance, which does not necessarily indicate support, just a desire to vote on it. No one seconded it, including Stanley, who had previously said he could see the pros and cons of the proposal.

“I wanted public input. I got that tonight,” he said. Even before the meeting, “I never got one bit of positive feedback.”