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Change to at-large elections tilts council

March 05, 2001

Change to at-large elections tilts council



By DAN KULIN

dank@herald-mail.com

Twenty years ago, Hagerstown voters changed one of the most basic elements of the city's political process - how City Council members are elected.

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In 1981, a referendum that discarded the ward system in favor of at-large elections for City Council members passed by 159 votes.

Since then there have been four at-large council elections, and what was Ward 5 - the affluent and heavy voting North End of Hagerstown - has had more of its residents elected to the City Council than has any other section of the city.

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In two of the last four elections, in 1985 and 1997, majorities from the former Ward 5 were elected to the council.

In the other two elections, 1989 and 1993, three of the five elected council members lived in what was Ward 2.

John P. Donoghue, who is now a state delegate, was the only resident of what was Ward 5 to be elected to council in 1989. That same ward, which at-large opponents feared would dominate city politics, produced no council election winners in the 1993 election.

Citizens of Hagerstown for a Responsible Government, a private group of more than 100 residents, pushed the ward vs. at-large issue onto the ballot 20 years ago by collecting 3,200 signatures.

In the month before voters went to the polls, the group spent about $1,000 for advertising and handed out 15,000 leaflets on the issue.

They said the ward system divided the city by electing council members who were more concerned with their wards than with the city overall. They also said the ward system narrowed the field of candidates because only one person from each ward could be elected to the council.

"The ward system tends to pit one end of town against another," said Jim Holzapfel, who served as vice chairman of the group.

Supporters of the ward system said an at-large City Council would be dominated by Ward 5.

Within the wards, the referendum was soundly defeated in Ward 1, the West End, and overwhelmingly supported in Ward 5. In wards 2, 3 and 4, voters were roughly divided on the issue.

Citywide, the at-large system was supported by a slim majority - 2,740 votes to 2,581 votes - or 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent.

In the four at-large elections since the referendum, eight residents of what had been Ward 5 have been elected to the council. This includes mayoral candidate and current Councilman William M. Breichner, who moved to the former Ward 5 from former Ward 2 prior to the 1997 election.

Three candidates each have been elected from former wards 2 and 3.

The three Ward 2 candidates, which included Breichner, were first elected in 1989, and were all re-elected in 1993.

Former Ward 1 and Ward 4 have sent one resident each to City Hall since the switch to the at-large system.

In the 2001 city election, the former Ward 5 is well represented among the council candidates. Seven of the 15 council candidates heading into the March 13 primary election live in what was Ward 5.

Of the rest, four reside in old Ward 4, three come from old Ward 2, and one lives in what was Ward 1. There are no council candidates from what was Ward 3.

Two council candidates, Democrats Larry A. Vaughn and Ira P. Kauffman, consider returning to the ward system a high priority.

Vaughn and Kauffman both served on the council in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the time the ward system was in effect.

Vaughn represented Ward 1.

Kauffman represented Ward 2, but has since moved to what was Ward 5.

He said the current council, which has four members living in what was Ward 5, is an example of the at-large system not working.

"With four of them living in what used to be Ward 5, they don't have any concept what the neighborhood problems are in Ward 2, 3 or 4," Kauffman said.

"When you're in the wards you're a neighbor," he said.

Vaughn says that if elected he would use his council salary to hire a lawyer to challenge the at-large system in court.

"One of reasons I'm running is to get the ward system back," said Vaughn.

"I think the at-large system is the biggest failure around. We should go back to ward system and add two at-large (council members)," he said.

Vaughn said having council members from each ward means the council will be more aware of the problems in each ward.

"A lot of it is just common sense. I travel the streets in West End, not the North End, so I see the problems in this neighborhood," he said.

Vaughn said residents "feel a lot more comfortable with someone who lives in their end of town."

Republican council candidate Victoria K. Bodnar, and mayoral candidates Eugene E. "Buddie" Morris, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, said there could be advantages in a combination of a ward and at-large system for electing council members.

Bodnar said the issue is not a high priority for her, but she would support a review of the at-large elections, and then a mixed ward and at-large system.

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