EUREKA SPRINGS -- The Eureka Springs City Council will consider whether to continue to hold at-large alderman elections or whether aldermen should be elected by ward, at its next meeting on Monday, July 9.
"In the 25 years that I've been here, it's always been at-large voting," Eureka Springs Alderman James DeVito said.
A change could occur if council members agree on the ward voting system for the upcoming November elections.
"It has potential," DeVito said. He recalled being elected to the City Council in the 1990s from Ward 2, but his opponent at the time beat him on votes in that ward. DeVito still won the position, because he had more votes in Ward 1 and Ward 3.
"So I got the seat," he said. "I feel like the people of Ward 2 didn't get to choose the person they wanted. I personally think it was a little unfair in that sense."
Eureka Springs aldermen serve the entire city's residents currently, instead of just serving the ward they are from as it would be in the ward voting system.
In a 2008 study conducted by Evelina Moulder on "Municipal Forms of Government: Trends, Structure, Responsibility and Composition," researchers found that at-large voting and ward voting each have pros and cons.
With at-large voting, council members are seen as being more impartial, rising above the limited perspective of a single district and concerning themselves with the problems of the whole community, the study said. Secondly, "vote trading" between council members is minimized, and in general, better-qualified individuals are elected to the council, because the candidate pool is larger.
The downside to at-large voting is the weakening of representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is concentrated in a specific ward. Nearly two-thirds of all municipalities use at-large elections in some way, according to the study. And at-large elections tend to be more popular in small cities and more affluent areas.
In ward voting (or districts), a single council member is selected from a corresponding geographical section of the city, or a ward.
Ward election proponents favor having council members elected to represent wards for the following reasons they cite:
* These types of elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a smaller geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the City Council.
* Ward council members are more sensitive to the relatively smaller yet still-important problems of their constituents.
* Ward elections may improve citizen participation, because council members who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.
The downside: Councils elected by wards may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize what's good for the city as a whole over what's good for just their district.
Only 14 percent of all municipalities use ward elections alone, the study says. Cities with populations of 200,000 or more are more likely to use ward elections, it reported.
Many cities use a combination of the at-large and ward voting systems in order to ensure that each ward's residents are represented, yet there are aldermen on the council (ideally, those elected at-large) who are looking at the city's big picture.
"Under Arkansas law, the general rule is that the council member has to live in the ward they represent," said Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League.
Zimmerman said the voting options for city governments in Arkansas are that council members can be elected only by ward; or each ward can have two aldermen, one to be elected by ward voting and one to be elected at-large; or the other is the present voting system in Eureka Springs, all at-large aldermen.
"Sometimes, with an at-large election, people like the fact that they get to vote on all the council members that way and they feel the aldermen will be looking at the needs of the city, not just the needs of their ward," Zimmerman said. "It's basically what the local cities want."
Zimmerman said a ward voting system would be more difficult, because all of the votes would have to be counted in that ward.
"It's a little more complicated ballot, but it's not insurmountable," he said. "As small as Eureka Springs is, I don't know if there is a great deal of advantage."
Zimmerman said that most Arkansas cities use the at-large voting system to elect City Council members.
"We've called for the city attorney to draft up an ordinance to nominate by wards and (allow) voting by those wards," Alderman Karen Linblad explained.
This is a move that has been tried before. In 2004, there was a discussion of a possible ordinance to establish voting by ward by the Eureka Springs City Council under mayor Kathy Harrison. The ordinance, No. 1962, was accepted on its first reading (all ordinances must be read three times, according to protocol established by the state).
According to the minutes from the July 26, 2004 meeting in which the ordinance was first considered, it appears there may have been a question about whether the wards needed to be adjusted since the release of the 2000 Census figures. The proposal was tabled at that time, and the idea did not reappear until recently.
"That ordinance went for its first reading," current Alderman Parker Raphael said. "I'm not understanding the advantage, but we'll wait until it (the new draft) comes to the table."
Alderman Ken Pownall has suggested that the council also take a look at staggered terms of service for council members.
"We were faced with a situation like that three or four years ago when the mayor on down were new," Pownall said. "It was a tough hump to get over. I think there should be some continuity there."