03/20/14: Big choices ahead in May

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WITH LESS than two months to go, candidates for local office in Norfolk and Chesapeake, as well as Hampton and Newport News, are pounding the pavement to meet voters. The election May 6 is yet another opportunity for us to shape the way our communities function by choosing representatives who reflect our views.

In Chesapeake, eight candidates are vying for five City Council seats. With nine members, including the mayor, on the council, this election could remake the majority if the voters chose to do so.

Five of the nine School Board seats in Chesapeake also will be on the ballot. Ten candidates have thrown their hats into the ring.

Chesapeake elects its council and School Board “at large,” meaning the members are chosen by and represent the entire city. As in all but a few localities in Virginia, these local elections are nonpartisan. Despite the efforts of both parties, who have endorsed candidates, no party affiliation will appear on the ballot.

Norfolk employs a ward system for its council members while electing the mayor at large. Voters in each of the five small wards, each representing about one-fifth of the city, will elect a representative, while all Norfolk voters will be able to vote for mayor.

This year, Norfolk’s mayor will be elected for only a two-year term, instead of the normal four. Norfolk is changing its mayoral election to coincide with that of the two super-wards, ostensibly in an effort to increase turnout.

There is one thing that we already know increases turnout: competition.

Unfortunately, two of the five wards will have but a single name on the ballot. The incumbents in wards 1 and 2 got a free pass to re-election. In wards 4 and 5, there is a single challenger to the incumbent. The mayor has drawn two opponents.

Ward 3 is where the action will be. The open seat has six candidates vying for the position.

Despite several efforts, Norfolk does not elect its School Board. The members are appointed by the City Council.

But that is just one board. The councils in all of our localities appoint members to a number of boards and commissions.

By my count, Chesapeake’s City Council appoints members to 58 different boards and commissions, while Norfolk’s City Council appoints members to 48.

When you consider the hundreds of appointments to the various decision-making authorities, the power of the council becomes a bit more apparent. Not only do they get to set the rates for our water, real estate and personal property taxes, their tentacles reach into many other aspects of our daily lives.

Many of the cities have switched their local races to November, a pragmatic solution given that the state will pay the costs. It also has the effect of boosting turnout. If that is the only goal, then November elections for everything make sense.

But if our goal is to have an informed electorate — a worthy one, in my opinion — then holding local elections in May without the noise of the contests above them is better. Even more than that, local issues are at the forefront of the campaigns, not an afterthought.

There will be opportunities for voters to hear from these local candidates on these local issues.

Already, two have been announced in Norfolk. The Norfolk Branch of the NAACP, the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of South Hampton Roads have come together to sponsor a forum April 15 for the mayoral candidates and Ward 5 candidates and another on April 17 for the candidates in wards 3 and 4.

There will be other candidate forums. All we have to do to make good choices May 6 is to invest a little of our time.