Nonpartisan elections fail at Charter Commission

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

A Charter Commission proposal to make elections in St. Louis County nonpartisan failed to move forward last week.

The idea of making countywide elections nonpartisan has been discussed throughout the Charter Commission’s past nine months of meeting to discuss changes to the county Charter.

The idea was often discussed in conjunction with a proposal to switch to a county manager form of government, which also died in discussion in a vote Oct. 2. Both proposals were largely spearheaded by former 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh.

However, the proposal failed to advance in the commission’s first vote on the issue Oct. 16, dividing the panel 6-6.

The idea to explore nonpartisan elections was initially brought up at the commission’s first meeting in February by former Commissioner Ron Watermon, who resigned two days later after it was discovered he helped write Better Together’s executive summary and then didn’t mention it when the organization came up at the meeting.

Watermon, who said that the Charter is a well-written document that has helped guide the county for many years, suggested the commission consider making elections nonpartisan, noting that a majority of the 10 largest cities in the country employ nonpartisan elections and that most municipalities in St. Louis County also hold nonpartisan elections. Of the 10 largest cities by population in the United States, seven hold nonpartisan elections, including Chicago, Phoenix and Dallas.

The proposal had the support of County Council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, a Republican who represents the 6th District.

“We need to take a serious look at a… nonpartisan system frankly,” said Trakas to The Call. “I think partisan politics gets in the way too much of the time. I think if we just had open races where anybody could run… I don’t see a downside to that… Other than the challenge to the authority and power of the political machine, Republican or Democrat, doesn’t matter… Because they are both machines and they both operate the same way.”

The measure was also supported by Crestwood resident Martha Duchild, who said during public comments at a commission meeting in March that partisan elections may discourage people who do not identify with a certain party from running for office.

“Many county residents who may be otherwise qualified candidates and wish to run for county elective office may be deterred from registering as candidates because the elective offices are partisan,” said Duchild. “Those same people, given the right conditions, would be encouraged to run and, if elected, have the freedom to vote according to what they think is best for the county, irrespective of any political party influence.”

Commissioner Courtney Allen Curtis, a former state legislator who is now also the legislative assistant for 1st District Councilwoman Rita Days, said he was worried that nonpartisan elections could disenfranchise minority voters.

The commission also voted on a number of other proposals to move forward to be drafted. A proposal to make the county auditor an elected position, offered by Wasinger, passed 6-4, with two commissioners abstaining from the vote.

Another proposal passed would be an amendment to the Charter that would require the parks director to have a degree in parks and recreation or a related field, or at least five years of experience, as recommended by the county Parks Department.