Durham News

Durham City Council considers nixing municipal election primary

"I voted" stickers line the top of s voting tabulating machine in the middle of the Club Boulevard Elementary School gym in Durham during a 2011 election. Durham officials are considering nixing the primary from municipal elections.
"I voted" stickers line the top of s voting tabulating machine in the middle of the Club Boulevard Elementary School gym in Durham during a 2011 election. Durham officials are considering nixing the primary from municipal elections. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Durham City Council is once again considering saving taxpayers thousands of dollars by eliminating primaries from municipal elections.

A vote by the seven-member council Jan. 3 would set the reconsideration in motion. The council would then hold a public hearing Jan. 17 and have to vote on the change within 60 days after that.

If the council votes to change the process, it’s unclear whether it would start in 2017. City Council members said they may want to go ahead and hold a primary if it aligns with the special legislative election in 2017 after at least 28 state House and Senate districts are redrawn to comply with a federal court’s ruling on gerrymandered districts.

But those who feel strongly about a change might not want to get too excited about this perennial issue.

Since 2006, the City Council has considered changing the municipal election process three times, holding a hearing but taking no subsequent action.

The current nonpartisan process uses two elections, a primary and general election, to determine a winning candidate. Greensboro, Fayetteville and Asheville also use the primary and general election process.

The main criticism of primaries is that they increase costs.

Durham’s October 2015 municipal election cost the city $400,386. About $137,688 was directly linked to the primary in which 7.65 percent or 13,539 out of 176,946 of registered voters cast a ballot.

City Council members have expressed an interest in changing to an election and runoff election process, in which the the candidate receiving the highest number of votes is declared the winner. However, if the top vote getter doesn’t receive a majority of the total votes cast, the candidate receiving the next highest amount of votes can request a runoff. This process is used in Raleigh, Cary and Wilmington.

A review of the last five municipal elections indicate a runoff could have occurred in 2007 and 2015, according to a city report.

City Councilman Steve Schewel said the main priority should be how to increase the numbers of voters coming to the polls.

Schewel asked city staff to evaluate turnout in other cities that use the runoff process.

“I think about our own municipal primary vote total in October, it’s often very low,” Schewel said. “I was interested in how that compares to the election totals in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. ... And how many people come out to their runoffs.”

In other business

At the Jan. 3 meeting, City Council members will also consider:

▪ Purchasing 50 acres for $1.25 million to build soccer fields in East Durham.

The property includes two parcels located at 632 N. Hoover Road and 621 Cheek Road.

The property is located within a half mile of Twin Lakes Park in East Durham, which has been heavily used for soccer games and practices. The 2013 parks master plan includes goals to develop one soccer field per 10,000 residents.

Durham currently has 14 soccer fields. The current population of Durham is estimated to be 251, 000, which would call for 25 soccer fields. If the purchased is approved, city officials said they don’t know when the park would be developed as no money has been set aside for the project.

▪  Paying $705,000 to purchase 2.19 acres to build a fire station near 6911 Herndon Road.

The criteria for the location of the station required it to be within in a certain area to meet response times in the service area. The area had limited suitable locations, but the city’s Real Estate Division reached out to Grandin Trace LLC asking to purchase a portion of its proposed residential development.

An appraisal valued the land at $140,000, but the seller is claiming damages of $600,000 by losing the ability to build and sell five homes. The city’s purchase also required the developer to reconfigure the development.

Councilman Don Moffitt said he felt the seller was “gouging” the city and that the city should consider eminent domain. The City Council agreed to talk about the issue in closed session at the Jan. 3 meeting.

If you go:

The Durham City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Jan. 3 in Council Chambers at 101 City Hall Plaza.

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