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It's time for another look at a ward-system council

September 01, 2000

It's time for another look at a ward-system council



Though it's been almost 20 years since he held elected office, former Hagerstown councilmember Larry Vaughn is running again, promising that if elected, he'll work to bring back the ward system. Another former councilmember, Ira Kauffman Jr., is making the same pledge. Whatever voters feel about these candidates, it would be a mistake not to take another look at the ward system's pros and cons.

The ward system was eliminated because proponents felt that councilmembers were only looking out for their own constituents, and not for the city as a whole. Having candidates run at-large would eliminate the periodic redistricting mandated under the U.S. Supreme Court's "one-man, one-vote rule." At-large backers also felt it would improve the overall quality of the candidates.

But voter turnout has fallen from 47 percent in the 1981 to just under 22 percent in the 1997 election. And because the city's North End has traditionally provided the strongest turnout, it's no surprise that all the council members now reside there.

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Is that a problem? Yes, according to Vicki Bodnar, a prime mover in the city's Neighborhoods First organization. Councilmembers who don't experience the problems the city's other neighborhoods face - drug dealing, for example - may not really believe they're a problem, she said.

Back in 1997, Vaughn suggested a modified ward system which would enlarge the council by adding one at-large seat. In that way, Vaughn said, the North End would still be guaranteed three seats, making it less likely voters there would begrudge other areas ward representation.

At the time, it was suggested that such a plan be studied by an impartial group like the League of Women Voters. It's not too late now to consider the possibility that although what happened 20 years ago produced a different kind of council, it also discouraged city voters from helping to choose its members.

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