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Annapolis City Council votes down bill to eliminate city primary elections

Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, the sponsor of O-20-21 and an accompanying charter amendment, CA-2-21, sought to strip partisan requirements in city elections from the City Code, including nominations by party primary or petition and the roles of the Democratic and Republican city central committees in city elections. The charter amendment was defeated on first reader by a vote of 4-4, with one abstention by Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8. The related ordinance failed because both had to pass to move forward in the legislative process.
Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, the sponsor of O-20-21 and an accompanying charter amendment, CA-2-21, sought to strip partisan requirements in city elections from the City Code, including nominations by party primary or petition and the roles of the Democratic and Republican city central committees in city elections. The charter amendment was defeated on first reader by a vote of 4-4, with one abstention by Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8. The related ordinance failed because both had to pass to move forward in the legislative process. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

The Annapolis City Council narrowly voted down a proposal to eliminate city primaries and create a non-partisan system for future general elections.

Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, the sponsor of O-20-21 and an accompanying charter amendment, CA-2-21, sought to strip partisan requirements in city elections from the City Code, including nominations by party primary or petition and the roles of the Democratic and Republican city central committees in city elections.

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The charter amendment was defeated on first reader by a vote of 4-4 on Monday, with one abstention by Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8. The related ordinance failed because both had to pass to move forward in the legislative process.

Typically the council approves most bills at their introduction to allow discussion, public input and deliberation among standing committees. But council members raised concerns about the timing of the bill with only three to four months left in the term.

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To put such a complex issue on the plate of the Board of Supervisors of Elections as it prepares for the 2021 city elections was a mistake, said Alderman Rob Savidge, D-Ward 7, who voted against the measure.

“I just can’t help but feel this is more of a rushed political issue — which is ironic because this is nonpartisan elections,” Savidge said. “This needs to be a good, thorough discussion. And I don’t think inserting politics into this during an election year is the way to go.”

Savidge has previously said he is open to reforming the city election system and including new features like ranked-choice voting.

Other no votes included Mayor Gavin Buckley and Alderwomen Sheila Finlayson, D-Ward 4, and Elly Tierney, D-Ward 1.

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“I agree with most of my colleagues that the timing is terrible, and there’s equity issues with these types of elections as well,” Buckley said. “But I do think it’s worth talking about in the next cycle.”

Alderwoman Rhonda Pindell-Charles, D-Ward 3, and Aldermen DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, and Brooks Schandelmeier, D-Ward 5, voted for the bill noting aldermanic courtesy and a desire for further discussion.

Under Paone’s system, the city would hold a single general election for all candidates who file a certificate of candidacy.

“The motivation is to make it easier to run,” said Paone, who is one of the longest-tenured council members. He recently announced he is not seeking a fifth term.

Scott Gibson, a Republican Ward 2 candidate hoping to replace Paone, floated a similar proposal last month for the city to do away with its current election system.

Gibson said he was “cautiously optimistic” to see some support among the current council to have a future discussion about changing the election system in the next term. He encouraged voters to ask candidates to commit to those discussions while on the campaign trail.

“I’m heartened to hear people on the other side of the aisle recognize that there’s a lot of merit to this idea, and it’s a discussion worth having,” Gibson said in an interview Tuesday. “What I hope is that we break the sad Annapolis tradition of saying something as a discussion worth having and then not having the discussion.”

Residents and other officials had called for the city to change its voting system, dating back to the mid-1990s when a Charter Review Commission recommended it to the council. Annapolis is one of only a handful of Maryland municipalities that hold partisan elections.

Subsequent commissions have made similar suggestions, including a current iteration preparing a report to the council in the coming months.

“This is too important to rush into a last-minute vote, so I prefer to wait for the Charter Review Commission,” Arnett said.

Paone argued that the remaining term is more than enough time to pass the bill.

“Frankly, if this council can’t get something passed in three-and-a-half months, then maybe we deserve the negative comments I hear among constituents that we don’t ever get anything done,” Paone said. “Throwing things to the council is like throwing it down a big black hole.”

In a subsequent discussion on new bills, such as a proposal for a new administrative hearing officer and another reconfiguring Annapolis harbor lines — both sponsored by Arnett — Paone raised the same arguments to those his colleagues made, a wry nod to his displeasure at the elections bill not passing.

“Apparently, some of my colleagues seem to think that we’ve got time to vote about and discuss a hearing officer, something we’ve managed to do without in this town for 300-plus years,” Paone said. “But all of a sudden, at the end of the term, we have to get that in.”

Both ordinances were approved on first-reader.

Other business

There were no final votes on legislation at Monday’s meeting.

Buckley announced a ribbon-cutting for the new tennis and pickleball courts at Truxtun Park at 10 a.m. on June 24. The project had been beset by myriad construction delays for months.

The council confirmed the reappointment of four people to various city boards and commissions. Among them was Christian Zazzali to the Board of Appeals, Cynthia Towle-Krewson and Genevieve Torri and Barbara Torreon to the Arts in Public Places Commission. The council also made two new appointments, James Jenkins to the Planning Commission and John Egidio to the Civil Service Board.

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