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City Council Rejects Study Group for Nonpartisan Elections

Tonight, I was taken aback when Council voted down Ordinance 17-56, which would have created a study group to explore the impact of adopting nonpartisan election in Newark. It went down - depressingly - on a purely partisan vote (5-6) with all the Democrats voting for it and all the Republicans voting against it. In their comments prior to voting, Marmie insisted that while he thinks we should look more into this question, he doesn't see the need for Council to take action on it (though the Charter says that the City should create the Study Group). Fraizer went further in explaining his opposition to the proposed ordinance, noting that he feels that a partisan system is more transparent, because it supposedly tells the voters where the candidates stand when they look at their ballot. Finally, President of Council Ellington voted no to break the tie, but promised to create a study group after the first of the year. He later told me that this was sort of a compromise.

My reaction? If you can't already tell by reading the tone of this update, I am a little heated. This ordinance would not have been an endorsement of nonpartisan elections, rather it was an attempt to seek more information so as to better prepare the next Charter Review Commission for discussing this matter without having the excuse that they didn't have sufficient time to research it. Regardless of where you individually stand on the question of adopting nonpartisan elections for Newark, thorough research should at least be uncontroversial, but you couldn't tell that by attending the meeting tonight. An independent study group researching this issue could easily be dismissed by future charter members leaning one way or another for a supposed predetermined bias, but a study group established by the City carries a degree of legitimacy that the next Commission would have a hard time ignoring.

The fact of the matter is that City Council - compromise or not - just rejected a study. They can't bring themselves to say that they want the people of Newark to know whether nonpartisan elections would be right for our city. What are they afraid of? Why is it that a unified Council action asking for more INFORMATION is unattainable and itself ironically becomes a partisan matter? Where is the harm in learning more, especially when the study group would have had NO POWER to even so much as make a recommendation?

Sadly, my strong suspicion is that this measure failed simply because I am a registered Democrat whom ran for City Council two years ago in conjunction with the fact that the local Democrats have largely been advocates for nonpartisan elections for at least a decade now. Perhaps this is the reason why Don Ellington - the Republican President of Council - cast a "no" vote while then promising me (and the people of Newark) that he would see to it that this study group is created next year (in other words, the aforementioned compromise). A compromise suggests that there was controversy surrounding the question of whether we should even attempt to learn more via an official study. Isn't it a sad state of affairs when a mere study is too controversial for partisan politics? Isn't that fact alone proof enough that we need to eradicate the scourge of overt partisanship in our politics?

Let me just say a good word or two about Mr. Ellington, though. I realize a few of my Democratic friends aren't fond of the current Council President, but I have come to really like him. I don't care that he is a Republican, nor do I care that we disagree on a number of issues, but I believe that he is a good guy. I trust him that he will take action as soon as he can next year to create this study group, and it could well be the next best thing to if Council as a whole had taken said action.

See, that right there is another example of why partisanship has to go. I hate identifying or dividing up the membership of council along artificial lines of party affiliation, because it doesn't tell the whole story. Contrary to what Mark Fraizer seems to believe - puzzling as it is, for reasons I will delve into momentarily -, party affiliation on the ballot is far from "transparent". In fact, I argue that it creates an opaque ballot instead. A candidate with a party label emerges as an option for whom a perfect stranger voting will have many preconceived opinions about. The problem with voting on a partisan ballot is that there is no expected challenge for the voting public to do more research into where the candidates stand on the issues. Yes, many citizens do this right now, but the partisan labels which seem inescapable for electable viability in our two-party system inhibit a greater number of citizens from ever considering a vote for someone just because they are compelled to represent an unfavorable party.

Mr. Fraizer's comments about election transparency are puzzling especially considering that he himself is not a blind loyalist to where his party stands on the issues. In the past couple years he has taken a stance or two which has irritated his party. He has been front and center in the debate over whether we should have a medical marijuana dispensary in Newark (typically, a more liberal position), he took an admirable stance a few months ago which drew the public ire and some eye rolls from his party when he was attempting to ban certain circus acts which have been documented to abuse animals (yet another liberal position), and two weeks ago he reiterated his opposition to the lack of transparency surrounding the Mayor's actions on the Gazebo. Those are just a few examples of how one member of Council defies or at least blurs the partisan divide.

How about my own political past? By looking at my partisan affiliation when I was a candidate for City Council in 2015 you wouldn't have been able to tell that I had supported the repeal of Breed Specific Legislation in Newark, which was not the position supported by most elected Newark Democrats at the time. You also would have had a hard time telling that I had been a strong advocate for reining in on executive authority at the federal level regardless of party, despite the fact that - again, at the time - the president was a Democrat. Nor would my partisan affiliation on a partisan ballot tell you that I have long been an advocate for a system wherein we either get rid of the parties altogether or we move to adopt a more inclusive partisan model such as what you see in parliamentarian models throughout the world.

Partisan affiliation tells you little to nothing about a candidate beyond the fact that said party is the electoral vessel chosen by that person. One of our Founding Fathers, James Madison, warned of what factions can do to our Republic, and George Washington was equally concerned with the first signs of those very divisions as the two-party system began to take shape in the waning years of his presidency. The parties have failed us for long enough and are failing to represent the needs of the people. A change is essential if we want a truly representative system of government, and I would love to see Newark at least RESEARCH the consequences of taking on the challenge of leading that change.

I will keep my eyes open in the months and years to come to ensure that our City doesn't forget that it serves all of us, not the political parties. On this specific issue, I will give President Ellington the benefit of the doubt. Stay tuned, my friends.

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