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Council ponders whether city should consider ward system for municipal elections; more discussion coming

And should council size be expanded beyond current five members?

They may not include a new exercise regimen or a low-cholesterol diet. But the members of Burlington’s city council do have some suggestions for self-improvement that they want to take up in the New Year.

During a monthly work session on December 7, the council tentatively agreed to begin a discussion early next year about some potential changes to the city’s charter, which could ultimately affect the council’s own composition, its size, and the way that its members are elected.

Mayor Ian Baltutis got the ball rolling during the work session when he urged his colleagues to rethink the city’s current electoral procedures in light of the redundancy that they apparently caused during the last round of municipal elections in 2019.

“I remember that I had some concerns after the last election,” Baltutis told the rest of the council during the work session, “when we had a goofy primary and then we had the same ballot for the general election.”

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The “goofy” primary which so irritated the mayor actually occurred because Baltutis had attracted two rivals for the mayor’s seat in 2019. The city’s municipal charter demanded the primary to eliminate one of the three mayoral contenders, while the other two squared off in the general election, which ended in a win for Baltutis.

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Baltutis went on to instruct city staff members to investigate the impact that these duplicative ballots have on the cost of municipal elections.

He went on to suggest that the council could discuss the results of the staff’s inquiry alongside other proposed charter changes that councilman Bob Ward had previously pitched to the rest of the city council.

Baltutis recalled that Ward had once floated a potential expansion of the council’s membership as well as the idea of a ward system, which would allow at least some of the council members to be elected from geographically distinct parts of the city.

In response to the mayor’s suggestion, councilman Ward acknowledged that he hasn’t lost any of his former interest in the council’s potential expansion.

“I would like to open a discussion on that,” the councilman said during the work session. “I believed back then and I still believe now that expanding the council [to] seven members is worthwhile…and in any event, I would welcome that conversation.”

Ward said nothing at all about a ward system in his response to the mayor. Even so, councilman Jim Butler specifically asked that this item also be part of the council’s deliberations about proposed charter changes.

“If we’re going to do that, I would like to explore a ward system simultaneously,” Butler said during the work session. “If we’re going to peek in the box, we need to look at all the pieces.”

In the end, the council unanimously agreed to resume its discussion with a series of staff reports on March 1.

Ward went on to admonish the rest of the council not to act on any of the proposed changes ahead of next year’s municipal elections. He nevertheless agreed with the rest of the council to continue the conversation this spring.

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