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City's at-large election system questioned

January 24, 1998

City's at-large election system questioned

By JULIE E. GREENE

Staff Writer

With five out of six Hagerstown elected officials from the North End, several residents interviewed last week were divided as to whether the city should return to a ward election system.

"I never did like that change," said South End resident Charlie Schleigh Sr.

In the ward system, five separate districts each choose a council member. The election process switched to an at-large system with the 1985 election, allowing all city voters to cast a vote for five council members.

Schleigh, 80, of 908 Marion St. said he preferred the days when he knew his council member, under the ward system.

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Even though there is a council member in the South End - Susan Saum-Wicklein lives on South Prospect Street - Schleigh said he thinks the council is out of touch with residents.

That sentiment was repeated among others who preferred a ward system and said they don't think they are fairly represented by the current council.

"I would rather have someone who lives in my end of town, who knows what's going on in the West End," said Beverly Shanholtz, 56, of George Street.

Shanholtz said she still calls former councilman Larry Vaughn about neighborhood problems because it's his neighborhood too.

East End resident and business owner Leon Kinsey also thinks he would be better represented under a ward system.

"I don't want to call someone in the North End because it feels like they're not my neighbor," said Kinsey, 72, who owns Rocco's Italian Restaurant.

Kinsey said he doesn't run into any of the city's elected officials when he goes to the local grocery store, church, PTA meeting or playground.

Two of the city's elected officials said they prefer the ward system and have specific ideas about how to improve communication between the elected body and its constituents.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure said a hotline will start this year at City Hall that will allow citizens to leave messages about their complaints so the proper city official can take care of the problem.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II wants to set up a Citizens Advisory Board with two citizens from each quadrant of the city, downtown, the North Jonathan Street area and Westview, as well as youths from each of the city's high schools.

"A lot of people don't feel the way I feel about this, but we have four council members who live in the North End of town, a mayor who lives in the North End," Bruchey said.

Bruchey and council members McClure, Alfred W. Boyer and William M. Breichner live within a four-block radius of each other. Councilman Lewis C. Metzner also lives in the North End.

"We all wanted the Park Lane railroad crossing done," because they all traveled the rough crossing in the North End, Bruchey said.

There are probably similar problems in the city the mayor and council are unaware of because they don't live or travel in those areas, he said.

But several council members disagreed, saying most of their constituent calls come from areas other than the North End.

"I try to represent all the citizens of the city and I'm sure my fellow council members feel the same, as well as the mayor," Boyer said.

Breichner said he drives around town to see what's going on, especially when he receives a citizen complaint.

System is 'fine'

While a North End resident now, Breichner lived in the South End the first two times he ran for council in 1989 and 1993 so he is a familiar face to many South End residents, including James Winters.

"The at-large system is fine as long as we have people on the board that are familiar with our town," said Winters, 53, of 520 Guilford Ave. Winters ran for council in 1981.

Those who back the current at-large system said it provides a larger candidate pool to choose from and has proven its success over the previous ward system.

The government prior to the first at-large election was a "laughingstock," Metzner said.

Breichner agreed, saying power plays for swing votes were frequent under the ward system.

North End resident Marty Wills said he prefers the at-large system because it allows voters to choose the best candidates, no matter where they live.

Despite living on Woodland Way between Bruchey and McClure, Wills said he knows neither and didn't vote last May.

East End resident Robert McGhee, 44, said he likes the at-large system, as long as council members represent the entire city.

Up to the voters

When it comes down to it, the matter of where the city's elected officials live is up to the voters.

The voters have the power to call for a referendum vote on whether to return to a ward system and even in an at-large system they call the shots.

"The lack of representation comes from the lack of voters," Metzner said.

There isn't a ward that couldn't elect five people to the council if the area had 50 percent to 60 percent voter turnout, he said.

"There's a reason that five of these six elected officials come from this end of town," Metzner said. The North, South and West ends voted them into office.

Larry Vaughn, who lost a bid for a council seat last May to Saum-Wicklein by 76 votes and lost in 1985 by 24 votes, agreed.

"The problem up here is the people feel we've been cast upon and dumped on so many years we just don't feel like registering to vote," said Vaughn, who has blamed both his losses on the at-large system.

There were two council candidates each from the East, South and West ends of the city in last May's general election. All four North End candidates won.

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