Election & City Governance Task Force

Boards, Commissions & Committees

Election and City Governance Task Force Recommendations

View the slide presentation for the 12/13/2017 meeting

At its August 1, 2016, meeting the Fargo City Commission created an Election and City Governance Task Force. The reasons for this Task Force creation are explained in a memorandum of that date, a copy of which is included as an addendum to this report.

The voting members of the task force are Sean Foss, Bruce Furness, Jed Limke, Arlette Preston, Daryl Ritchison, Rick Steen and Kevin Wilson. Non-voting advisory members are Barb Headrick, League of Women Voters; Mark Johnson, Instructor of Political Science at MSCTC; Mike Montplaisir, Cass County Auditor; Carol Sawicki, League of Women Voters and Steve Sprague, City of Fargo Auditor. Commissioners Gehrig and Grindberg served as non-voting liaison members.

The first meeting of the Election and City Governance Task Force occurred on September 29th. We continued to meet every other week for a total of eight meetings.

We initially established several goals to guide our discussions and decisions:
• Increased voter turnout
• Simple voting procedures
• Efficient and effective governance model
• Fair and equitable representation

We had a great deal of discussion relating to all five areas of review we were asked to study. It is important to note that these areas, as expected, are generally quite intertwined. Discussion in some areas influenced discussion in others, ensuring consideration of effects on the governance and election system as a whole as well as consideration of any changes to its constituent parts. All of our deliberations were framed with this in mind.

1. Election Timing/Voting System
We discussed how we might solve the “plurality” problem, whereby, in multiple candidate elections, candidates can win with relatively small percentages, such as less than 20% of the votes cast. We asked ourselves “do we care?” And is it essential that winning candidates receive large numbers of votes? We answered those two questions affirmatively.

Several possible solutions were examined to address this plurality issue:
• Primary/General Elections
• Approval Voting
• Instant Runoff Voting
• Proportional Voting

After examining different possibilities, it was concluded that the June election should remain as the “City” election. This would include election of School Board and Park District candidates. We feel that waiting until November for a run-off election would be undesirable for the following reasons:
• Increased campaign length, putting unnecessary financial burden on candidates
• Focus can be more squarely on city races in June
• In presidential years, the race would dominate the conversation, drowning out the city races
• Ballot fatigue on long November ballots

The Task Force recommends that an Approval Voting System be adopted for all City of Fargo elections for the Mayor and City Commissioners.

We spent much time on Approval Voting and even used it ourselves to become more familiar with the concept. It is nearly identical to our current system of voting for candidates. Rather than asking voters to vote for only up to the number of seats available, voters are allowed to vote for as many candidates as they wish. The candidate(s) with the highest total will still win the election just as in our current system. Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir has confirmed that our current software and machines are already able to handle this system without any need for costly software changes or upgrades.

It should be noted that we are not aware of any other city in the United States that uses the Approval Voting System as is being recommended by a majority of this task force.

This action would require a Home Rule Charter amendment.

2. Number of people to serve on the form of government
We had good discussion on the number of commissioners needed. Having additional commissioners would provide more accessibility to city officials, spread portfolio assignments over more commissioners and decrease liaison responsibilities.

The task force recommends that, regardless of the form of city government, the number of Commissioners should be increased by two persons resulting in seven – A Mayor and six Commissioners.

This action would require a Home Rule Charter amendment.

3. Form of Governance
We had a great deal of discussion regarding the relative advantages of forms of governmental structure and the method of managing the election of candidates.

Structure: City Commission - Mayor chairs and votes, positions at large, commissioner liaison responsibilities
City Council – Mayor chairs, City Manager, districts or at-large, portfolios, committees
Modern City Council – Mayor chairs and votes, City Manager, districts or at-large, committees

Representation/Options for election of six commission candidates:
At large – candidates may live anywhere in city; voted on at large (current system)
True District – candidates must live in district; voted on only by people in the district Modified District – candidates must live in district; voted on at large
Combination - 4 candidates must be elected by district, voted on only by people in the district; 2 candidates elected at large

Most of us felt districts are ultimately inevitable, but we were unable to reach agreement on which method should be used.

The Task Force recommends that there should be no change in the Commission form of governance. Since we could not reach consensus on any of the four district structures discussed, we further recommend that the candidate election process continue to utilize the at-large method of representation.

4. Status of Mayor
The Task Force recommends that the Mayor’s position remain on a part time basis.

5. Term Limits
The current city Ordinance, implemented in 1992, specifies three, four-year terms for Commissioners and the Mayor with an additional fourth term if a sitting Commissioner is elected Mayor.

The Task Force recommends that the existing term limits should be retained.

Additional Recommendation
Much of our discussion included whether some of these changes may require Home Rule Charter amendments. The Task Force recommends the City Commission review the Home Rule Charter for any updates and changes that need to be made.

Our thanks to the City Commission for allowing the Task Force to examine these topics specified in the August 23 memorandum from Commissioners Gehrig and Grindberg. The Task Force is hopeful this information will be useful in determining future plans for the City of Fargo.

Addenda: Election and City Governance Task Force Memorandum
January 12, 2017 editorial in The Forum: ‘Approval voting’ for Fargo?