Weirton council keeps primary election

WEIRTON – City Council isn’t ready to do away with the community’s primary election, despite poor voter participation.

At Monday’s meeting, council voted 6-1 against eliminating the primary, though proposals to consolidate polling places and consider piggybacking city elections with county and state voting schedules passed on first reading.

The changes were recommended by a specially appointed committee that looked at ways the city could boost efficiency and reduce election costs, though several council members took issue with that characterization.

“You don’t mess with the democratic process just to save a buck,” Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple said.

Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh said eliminating the primary isn’t the answer. “I’m all about saving money, but we need more public participation in voting,” he said.

Charter changes can be tricky. Each must pass two readings; if even one council member dissents, they must go on the general election ballot to be decided by voters. A public hearing also is required and again, if even one objection is raised it’s left to voters to decide whether the change has merit.

Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright, in fact, said he “expects every one of the proposed charter changes to be challenged.”

“In case no one does, I think someone up here should (do it),” Dalrymple said. “I hope someone does challenge (the charter changes). I hope they do get on the ballot and people can make that decision among themselves. It shouldn’t be up to just us …”

Dalrymple, who voted against all three election rules changes, acknowledged voter turnout in recent years has been “abysmal,” adding that people “should be ashamed … that they don’t exercise their right” to vote.

Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel said he was concerned that eliminating the primary election could lead to voter fatigue.

“If there are a lot of issues and you have a one-time, winner-take-all election, that’s a big concern,” he said.

Although council nixed the idea of eliminating the city’s primary election, the proposal to piggyback city elections with county and state elections passed its first reading, albeit by a 4-3 vote with Ward 4 Councilman George Ash, Ward 3’s Fred Marsh and Dalrymple dissenting.

Ash pointed out that piggybacking elections would strip city officials of any role in the election once its candidates and ballot issues are finalized, something he is loathe to see happen.

“We tried to get the county to agree somebody from council could be part of it,” Ash said, adding county officials weren’t receptive to the idea.

But City Solicitor Vince Gurrera said the county really has no choice. “Either it’s under their control or it’s not,” he said. “You can’t piecemeal it.”

Council also approved the first reading of a plan to consolidate polling sites, pointing out several school buildings designated for polling will be closing. The proposed change would allow the city to have up to three polling places per ward.

“Even if (piggybacking the city’s election with the state and county) passes, we’re still going to have one more election,” Weigel said, pointing out that Liberty School closed last year and Broadview’s closing is on the horizon.

Ash questioned the need to tweak the wording of the charter, prompting Gurrera to point out poll site consolidation is not by choice.

“We’re being forced to change it,” he said. “It’s not us saying we want change, it needs to change to correspond with what is being done” in terms of building availability.

Council also unanimously endorsed the first reading of a proposed charter change increasing the dollar amount the city manager can spend for discretionary expenditures from $1,500 to $3,500 and changing the competitive bid benchmark to $5,000.

The finance committee originally had recommended giving the city manager more spending latitude, but scaled it back in response to Ash’s concerns that local businesses might be adversely impacted.

A fifth charter change that would make the city clerk’s position permanent, rather than appointed, will have to go on the 2015 city ballot.

Although council voted 7-0 to make the change, objections were raised by Ralph Barone and George Velegol, both of whom submitted their objections in writing. Velegol said he believes the clerk “should still be appointed,” while Barone said only that “I Ralph G. Barone attorney-at-law hereby protest changing the city charter authorizing the city clerk position to be changed from appointed position to permanent position.”