Battle Creek City voters will decide this coming spring whether or not future mayors will be elected by popular vote, or whether they’ll continue to be selected by the elected commissioners.  It seems not too many people car, but maybe we should take a closer look at this.

The city commission voted 7-2 last Tuesday on the latest “do-over” to put the question on the ballot.   After failing on a 5-4 vote on October 15th, commissioners reversed that vote in a special meeting.  That’s after Ward 2 Commissioner Lynn Ward Gray changed her mind about the issue.  Two commissioners did not change their vote.  Vice Mayor and At-Large commissioner Sherry Sofia and Ward 5 Commissioner Jim Lance remained opposed.

“I voted no on this every time,” said Lance.   He notes that there have been efforts to make the change in the city charter at least five times since 1960 when the current method was first instituted.  The last Battle Creek Mayor to be popularly elected was former WBCK talk show host Raymond Turner, in 1959.  His “Sound Off” program on WBCK allowed citizens to call in and criticize the city government, and especially the activities of the powerful former Mayor Bailey’s work with the Rail Consolidation Board.  The city power-brokers of the day hated that Turner was elected mayor and worked to nullify his election by changing the city charter and form of city government.

Commissioner Lance says he’d have no problem with the proposed change going to the voters, if the voters actually had something to do with putting it on the ballot via the normal process of getting signatures.   “I didn’t get a lot of feedback that this change was necessary,” said Lance.   The only feedback I’ve received was against it.  There’s been no large outpouring, nobody has clamored for it. If this really was a crucial or hot button issue, I’d get the need to put it on the ballot.  To me this is a self-created issue by the Blue Ribbon Committee and the city commission.”

At-Large Commissioner Sherry Sofia says that she’s heard several people ask why the city commission doesn’t choose to focus on something that means more to our community.    Sofia’s main concern is that this might change the way our mayor currently works within the city commission.  ”The way our city government is set up, with the city being run by a city manager, the role of the mayor is essentially to run meetings.  They don’t really have any extra power and certainly have no veto power.  My concern is, these are business meetings and I want someone who can run meetings efficiently and effectively.   I don’t want someone elected who thinks that they somehow have a mandate from the people”.   Sofia says future mayors could be elected on a single issue and the function of the city commission is so much more than that.

“One of the first things any mayor does in our current system is demonstrate their ability to build coalitions and consensus, “said Sofia.  “They need to convince four of their fellow commissioners, regardless of political party, to support them.”

Back in July of 2018, the committee, headed up by former mayor, state senator and congressman Joe Schwartz, made recommendations for city charter revisions that  to allow for direct election of the mayor.

If voters approve the change on March 10th, candidates for mayor will have to declare ahead of the election, and will not be able to run for any other city commission position.  Currently, candidates for the four At-Large commission seats spend more money in a campaign, because they have to reach the entire city.  A Ward commission candidate has a smaller area to target.   But At-Large candidates know that they’ll get elected if they just finish in the top 4.  If voters approve the change, a mayoral candidate will still have to spend “At-Large money”, or maybe even more.   The result will be that political parties will be able to choose their candidate and give them the financial backing required.

Commissioner Jim Lance said, “The political parties can get more involved now to get the internal apparatus and support needed for their candidate to get elected.“

Sofia said, “I’m concerned that the change would give political parties another opportunity to influence local politics.”