The Virginia General Assembly this year handed many localities an unwelcome surprise: Starting in 2022, municipal elections will have to be held in November along with other races and referendums crowding the general-election ballot and the prospects of what long have been largely nonpartisan races becoming politicized.
The seven Vienna Town Council members’ current terms will be extended by six months under the new law, but the thorny question is what happens next.
Should the town keep its current system, in place since 1972, of staggered elections and two-year terms, with three seats up for grabs each year and mayoral elections held concurrently on even-numbered years?
Or, to avoid having some candidates run in years where few other items are on the ballot while others have to vie for votes during presidential-election years, should the town hold elections on odd-numbered years or elect all Council members at once for four-year terms?
Council members held a lengthy and lively discussion about their options during an Oct. 18 work session. Most members favored keeping a staggered-election system, which would ensure some institutional memory remained present and the entire Council could not be voted out at once.
But members were divided over whether the system should be adjusted so candidates could avoid running during presidential-election years and not be drowned out by the heated partisan rhetoric that usually accompanies such contests.
Some Council members also were opposed to four-year terms, saying that would be a major commitment for those seeking office. Two-year terms make it more likely the Council will receive new blood and fresh ideas more frequently, said member Nisha Patel.
“If it was a four-year term, I couldn’t do it,” said Council member Steve Potter. “It would stop some good people from running.”
“We don’t do this for the money,” added Council member Howard Springsteen.
The six Council members long have received only $5,000 per year and the mayor’s pay several years ago was to $7,500 annually because of additional responsibilities. Council members agreed a salary boost is needed and town staff said they’re working on such a proposal for the next budget cycle.
Mayor Linda Colbert leaned toward holding elections every two years, but not having them staggered, so all would need to run at once.
Council member Ed Somers said perhaps holding town elections every two years would generate more public interest in the contest than the current annual system.
Gov. Northam signed the new election law in March. The bill passed the state Senate only on Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s (D) tie-breaking vote, while in the House of Delegates it passed by a 50-44-1 margin.
The abstention was Del. Mark Keam (D-Oakton-Vienna), who told the Sun Gazette at the time that he favored holding elections in November to save money and improve accessibility, but abstained because he’d promised to support Vienna elections in May and his vote would not tip the balance.
One long-shot option would be for town officials to lobby the General Assembly to negate the new law and return municipal elections to May.
Council members acknowledged it is unlikely that legislators would want to go back on a law they just passed, but the political disposition in Richmond could be different after this November’s election.
The timing of Vienna’s election cycle isn’t the only wrinkle ushered in by the new state law. Whereas for many years Town Council candidates have gathered and mixed with the public outside the Vienna Community Center during elections on the first Tuesday in May each year, the new system will require office seekers and their supporters to visit multiple polling places across town.
While the Council would need to pass an ordinance to comply with the new law stipulating November elections, changing the election cycle or the length of members’ terms would require a charter amendment necessitating General Assembly approval.
If the Council decides to switch to four-year terms, some members initially might have to run for three-year terms in order to get on the off-year cycle, said Town Attorney Steven Briglia.
Briglia told the Council he soon would draft potential charter amendments regarding election changes, in order to meet early General Assembly filing deadlines for such measures.