Voters to decide proposal to lengthen council terms

Separate proposal could reduce candidate signature requirements

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 2, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — Voters will soon have a chance to make the next 2021 City Council stay longer in their seats, as well as make it easier for candidates to qualify for the 2021 ballot.

During a June 16 meeting, the Sterling Heights City Council unanimously agreed to adopt a resolution to put two proposals on the Nov. 3 ballot.

If passed, one measure would alter the city charter to lengthen the term of council seats from two years to four years. The second measure would reduce the number of valid signatures needed to get on the ballot and run for local office. It would lower it from the current requirement — a minimum of 1% of the city’s registered voters and a maximum of 4% — to a minimum of 400 and a maximum of 1,000.

According to City Manager Mark Vanderpool at a May 19 council meeting, there were about 86,200 registered voters in 2019, meaning that, under the current rules, candidates would hypothetically need at least 862 verified signatures.

Although the next City Council and mayoral elections are not until November 2021, in recent weeks, some City Council members have discussed the difficulty of trying to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in an age of social distancing.

Councilman Henry Yanez liked that the minimum proposed is a firm number that doesn’t change based on city population changes. He said the proposals were well considered, especially when the task of gathering signatures has become more daunting with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And who knows what the future holds? Four hundred really kind of brings us into the arena of where a lot of other municipalities are at,” he said.

“As far as the four-year terms go, you know, stability is very important. And the idea that as soon as you get elected, you start running for office again with two-year terms really attacks stability at its core. So I think having four-year terms is going to be beneficial to the city as a whole.”

Councilwoman Maria Schmidt also approved of longer terms, adding that the learning curve for being a new council member is about a year before it becomes comfortable.

Meanwhile, Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski said a lower signature threshold makes the process “much more fair” for non-incumbents since now, due to the pandemic, going door-to-door is unfeasible, and the main place to gather signatures is at the library.

“Even 400 is going to be … an interesting task,” she said.

Councilman Michael Radtke wished that the two proposals would be in reverse ballot order, putting the signature issue first and the four-year terms after, adding that “the whole idea behind all of this was to make it easier to run for office, to build a greater campaign, and then to extend our ability to serve the residents and not have to look over our shoulders every 20 minutes to run for office.”

Radtke also said he’d like to see the appointment process for vacant seats change. According to City Attorney Marc Kaszubski, under current law, the City Council has 60 days to appoint a successor to a vacant seat. If the council fails to do so, it triggers a special election process.

“If they’re appointed during a four-year term, they could leave the day after Election Day as long as they swear the oath, and you could appoint someone to almost four years without having an intervening election. And I don’t think that’s right for the residents,” Radtke said. “I think without a third answer to how we appoint people, it might end up being undemocratic.”

Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko said she ideally preferred to see the requirement tied to a percentage, like 0.5% of the city’s registered voters. Regardless, she said she would vote in favor of putting it on the ballot and said she still planned on getting 1,000 signatures for her own campaign.

City Manager Mark Vanderpool said if a pandemic emergency were to be declared later, an executive order could, through a transparent and collaborative process, suspend the charter to decrease the number of required signatures to a reasonable number.

Mayor Michael Taylor said he hopes voters will give the proposals “a good, hard look in November.”

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