A House of Delegates subcommittee has derailed the Salem City Council’s bid to require all council candidates to meet the same ballot access requirements, a proposal that was intended to preserve non-partisan council elections.
The proposed charter change would have required all candidates to submit petitions to get on the ballot for council election and prohibited primary elections from being held for council seats. The legislation (Senate Bill 939) sailed through the state Senate without opposition last month, but died today in an early morning meeting of a House Counties, Cities and Towns subcommittee.
“I’ve had a lot of people call and ask that we not pass this bill,” said Del. Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville, the subcommittee chairwoman. “I’m wondering if you’re ready for this bill to be at the state level, or does the city need to resolve their differences on it first?”
Crockett-Stark declined to identify any of the callers after the meeting.
The bill died when Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, made a motion to advance the bill and no one on the Republican-dominated subcommittee offered a second to the motion.
The Salem council unanimously supported the proposed charter change in October after a contentious public hearing on the issue,and the chairwoman of the city’s Republican committee was among those who spoke out against the proposal. Despite the controversy, Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County, agreed to introduce the legislation.
Council members said they wanted to preserve the non-partisan character of its May elections and apply the same ballot access rules to all candidates. Independent candidates must collect petition signatures from 125 registered voters, but party nominees don’t have the same requirement.
“All we’re saying is, even if the parties nominate someone, that person then still has to go through the petition process,” said Salem Mayor Randy Foley, who testified at this morning’s subcommittee meeting.
Three council members and Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess also attended the meeting.
Smith’s bill also would have barred party labels from appearing on the ballot in council elections, even though the state code already prohibits it.
“Parties can still nominate somebody, they can still fund them, they can still hand out sample ballots,” Foley said. “All we are asking is that those individuals (candidates) have to fill out petitions just like independents.”
Foley noted that the General Assembly approved similar charter changes last year for the town of Leesburg and the city of Falls Church. But the House subcommittee earlier this year killed a similar proposed charter change for the town of Front Royal.
Foley said one of the reasons the council sought the charter change was to ensure that employees of the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center could run for council without fear of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal government workers from participating in partisan political activities.
Foley said after the meeting that the council will reconsider its options. The next council elections will take place in May 2014.
Smith said he would not have sponsored the bill “for any other community I can think of.”
“Things run so well there,” Smith told the subcommittee. “They just do things different in Salem, but they’re successful doing things different.”
– Michael Sluss