The city of Havre de Grace is considering whether it will put to the voters next May the question of whether their mayor should be elected to a three-year term beginning in 2021.
The Havre de Grace City Council members introduced a resolution at their meeting Monday night to put the choice to the voters. A public hearing on the resolution will be held Nov. 4.
“To me, it promotes fairness. If you happen to be on the side of the dais when the mayor runs, you can never run for mayor without giving up your council seat,” Council President David Glenn, who introduced the resolution, said before Monday’s meeting.
The mayor and council members are elected to two-year terms. In odd years, the mayor and three council seats on the left side of the dais are up for election and in even years, it is the three council member seats on the right side.
In May, William T. Martin ran unopposed was re-elected mayor, while incumbents David Martin, Jason Robertson and Carolyn Zinner were re-elected to the council. In May 2020, the seats held by Glenn, Casi Boyer and Jim Ringsaker will be up for election.
Because a candidate can only run for one office, anyone on the left who wants to run for the mayor’s office would have to give up their seat to run since they are elected at the same time. Candidates from the right side, whose term would be opposite the mayor, would be able to retain their seat if they lost the mayoral race.
If approved, the resolution would apply to the mayor elected in 2021, he said.
“If we go three years, it’s alternate cycles,” Glenn said.
Candidates who run in 2021, when the mayor’s term expires, could be challenged by a candidate from the left side. But in 2024, a council member from the right side could seek the mayor’s seat.
It also makes sense because the mayor’s directors — of finance, public works, planning and economic development — are contracted for three years, Glennk said. The mayor’s and the directors’ terms would be coterminous, he said.
The directors’ contracts could be changed to two years, Glenn said, but if the city is paying someone the salary it pays its directors, it may not get the type of candidates they want for a shorter term.
The council president does not want voters to elect everyone all at once.
“If we ran everybody at the same time and had a change across the board, I’m worried about the hiccups along the way with a whole new council and a whole new mayor,” Glenn said. “I want to make sure there’s a smooth transition.”
Glenn said he’s heard some people say two years isn’t long to get anything done, but he begs to differ.
“Yes, yes you can, you can show people you’re being effective,” Glenn said.
When Glenn was first elected in 2012, he said he wanted to get a replacement school for Havre de Grace High.
“I wasn’t going to be able to get a new school in two years, but you could see I was trying to achieve that goal,” he said. “I was going to Harford County Council meetings, to school board meetings, I was writing letters to the editor, to other elected officials to get their support. You can show you’re moving toward that ultimate goal.”
Council members who aren’t being effective can be voted out of office, he said.
“If they don’t like what I’m doing at any time, they can vote me out, and I’m OK with that because really, we’re here for the voters,” Glenn said.
He said the city has been encouraged for the last few years to make the terms longer, but Glenn wanted to wait to put it to referendum for a year the mayor wasn’t running, and running unopposed.
“I didn’t want people to think it was a conspiracy, so it would seem like we were handing him a three-year term,” Glenn said.
Councilwoman Casi Boyer said she is “more in favor” of a three-year term for the mayor, mainly because of the budget process.
“The mayor puts together the budget, the mayor implements the budget and they’re accountable for the budget and for what all happens as a result of the budget,” Boyer said.
When the mayor comes into office, they’re dealing with somebody else’s budget for a couple months, they come up with their own budget and by the time they’ve got it in place, they’re running for office again.
“And that’s a problem. Because you really can’t vote on a person fully if we haven’t seen how they fully implement what they said they were going to do,” Boyer said.
During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, Joe Kochenderfer of Tydings Road, a former councilman, said he’s not in favor of the three-year terms.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s broke,” Kochenderfer said.“It’s a major change to what’s been done for many years.
He suggested instead that the charter be changed so that the mayor would need 50 percent of the vote to be elected. If that didn’t happen with several candidates, the top two vote-getters could face off.
If voters elect a mayor and it turns out the voters don’t want him or her in office, it will only be two years, not three, before they can vote again for a different candidate.
Jim Miller, of Lewis Street, also a former councilman, said the council should leave the mayor’s term the way it is. Rather than having just the mayor serve for three years, he suggested they all run on three-year cycles, in which three council members would be elected one year, three council members the next year and then the mayor.
William Martin, the city’s current mayor, said the charter change has to pass a “pretty high threshold,” — the council has to vote to change the charter, and it only becomes effective if the voters approve it.
When the mayor takes office for the first time, he or she can make some changes by executive order, but the first year is based on a budget set in place by their predecessor, Martin said.
“But some things take time, some things take planning, some things take architectural drawings, some things take cooperation with other levels of government," he said. “Most things take money, and they don’t always happen in two years.”
The two-year term goes back to the days when Havre de Grace was run by a city manager. Today, the mayor is the CEO of the city.
“It’s not about the person up here, it’s about giving citizens the responsibility in their hands to think — has [Havre de Grace] reached a point where a mayor of a city of almost 15,000 people, with an ambulance corps, with a police department, with a fire department, a water treatment plant, a wastewater treatment plant, a performing arts center and parks, and 124 employees — is that a two-year term job or a three-year term job?” Martin asked.
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“Those are the things voters need to consider when they vote on the referendum.”