By John D’Orazio
D’Orazio is chair of the Roanoke Regional Chamber.
In a recent op-ed for the Roanoke Times titled “Patience is best bet for proposed city election change,” we laid out some of our concerns with the way debate over changing the City of Roanoke’s Election Day was being carried out. In the time that has passed since last week’s publication, the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Public Policy Council, Executive Committee, and Board of Directors have discussed this matter and determined that the Chamber needed to take a public position on this important issue. After carefully weighing the pros and cons of keeping city elections as is in May, moving them to November in even-years, or to November in odd-years, the Chamber Board of Directors, at the recommendation of the Public Policy Council, has come to a consensus. In a unanimous vote on November 14, 2019, the Chamber formally endorses a move to November odd-year elections, but with a caveat:
We contend that an issue of such significance should be decided directly by city residents in the form of a referendum.
The Chamber believes that the only way for the Council to maintain unimpeachable integrity through this process is to separate from it by allowing city voters to make the decision on the Council’s behalf. Not following this path could open the Council to insinuations of self-serving behavior— such as arbitrary term-lengthening — which could irreversibly erode public trust in the body. Since there appears to be no crucial reason to make this change immediately, a referendum would allow City Council members time to make their case directly to their constituents on the merits of an election date change, and provide time for all perspectives of this issue to be heard and vetted in the form of a public information campaign.
There are legitimate reasons why moving city elections to November in even-years would not best serve the interests of city residents, however well-intentioned the desire for this move may be and regardless of the issue of term-lengthening. We should not wish to compete with campaigns for the House of Representatives, United States Senate, and President at the local level. Doing so would almost certainly lead to the loss of messaging on important local issues. In fact, candidates for mayor and city council would likely lose much of their ability to effectively share their platforms with voters without raising and spending a significantly greater amount of campaign donations to compete with federal campaigns. Increased time spent courting high-dollar campaign donors could overshadow other important activities in which council members participate, such as constituent services and attending after-hours functions on behalf of the City of Roanoke. We believe it would be a mistake to jeopardize Roanoke’s relative autonomy from Washington, D.C.
With all of that being said, we commend Mayor Lea and members of Roanoke City Council for deciding to take this issue up at the November 18th City Council meeting versus what seemed to be a course for fast tracked action on the November 4th meeting. This decision demonstrated to us that the City Council does understand process can be just as important as policy, especially when considering a change with a vast array of implications. If the mayor and members of Roanoke City Council were to take the next step by agreeing to solve this issue via referendum, we truly believe that it would exemplify the amount of respect that our local elected officials place upon city residents.
We strongly urge Mayor Lea, Vice Mayor Cobb, and Members of the Roanoke City Council to move past what has become a contentious issue by allowing city voters’ voices to be heard directly on this topic, on a broad scale, through a referendum. On this upcoming Monday evening, Council has the chance to take a bold, brave position by delegating some of its power to the people they serves. If you agree that Roanoke would be best served by a referendum to determine an election date that doesn’t compete with national campaign rhetoric and themes, I hope you will join me in making your voice heard at 7:00 p.m. on November 18th at Roanoke City Council chambers.