Charter task force opts for status quo on major change

Recommendations for altering the Keizer city charter will be relatively minor except for the removal of language that marginalized LGBTQ+ residents. 

A task force that reviewed the entire document is expected to vote on its final draft Tuesday, May 5, at 6 p.m.  

In a limited public forum held Tuesday, April 21, the task force received testimony on four outstanding questions: whether to continue voting for city council candidates at large or by ward; continuing to require head-to-head contests for specific seats or switch to a ranked choice voting system; changing the terms of councilors to two years instead of four; and what to do when a vacancy occurs (either have the sitting councilors appoint a new person or move toward having special elections in some circumstances). 

The group opted to maintain the status quo on all four counts, but wants the city council to encourage additional public input when it takes up the recommendation – hoping that, by then, some of the measures to contain COVID-19 will be eased.

The question of ward-based voting prompted the most discussion, including a Facebook discussion thread in which six current or former city councilors chimed in against the change. Currently, all city council members are voted on at large meaning candidates can arise from anywhere in the city and are expected to represent all sectors equally. 

The lone proponent of the idea, as far as public testimony went, was Mike De Blasi a longtime volunteer on city committees. De Blasi noted that the same councilors who were asking not to change it had benefited from the system in the past. 

De Blasi prepared maps showing where all city councilors for the past 30 years lived and the results of the contests. The data is striking. 

Since 1990, only five council candidates emerged from the area south of Chemawa Road North and east of River Road North. Only one candidate won their race. 

By contrast, in southwest Keizer – south of Chemawa and west of River Road – 20 of 25 candidates won a seat on the council. The Gubser neighborhood fared similarly well, it produced 27 candidates and 20 of them won. 

“The people saying don’t change are the same ones who have benefited from the system to swamp those from the underrepresented areas. The results also show in how funding and resources are distributed,” De Blasi said. 

He didn’t present direct evidence as to how funding was distributed unevenly between different zones in Keizer. 

Another Keizer resident, Carol Doerfler, submitted written testimony against a shift to wards saying it had not received enough discussion. 

Pat Fisher, a member of the task force, said it was a difficult call to make “because we still don’t know what the general public perception is. The attempt is to get broader participation on the council.”

When a vote was called for, however, all members of the task force in attendance via video conference recommended keeping at large voting in place. 

The only other topic where differing views were on display was when it came to making a switch to ranked choice voting rather than head-to-head contests for specific seats. In ranked choice voting, voters would rank the candidates according to their preference and the top candidates would fill whichever seats were available. 

Fisher and Kathy Lincoln advocated for the change. 

“In the current system, you could have two good candidates running for one seat and two bad candidates running for another. One good candidate is going to lose and one bad one is going to win,” Lincoln said, implying that both of the “good” candidates stood a chance of serving on the council with a ranked choice system. 

The task force members wanted to have more chances to discuss the changes at community meetings during the past 60 days, but those plans were sidelined by the pandemic. The task force is forging ahead because the city is trying to meet deadlines to put the changes on the November ballot. Voters will have to approve all changes before they take effect.