Quincy News

Uzelac leads renewed effort to reform council

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 2, 2020 12:01 am

QUINCY -- A bipartisan coalition of aldermen, led by Alderman Benjamin Uzelac, D-7, are proposing a series of reforms to the Quincy City Council, that if approved by voters would reduce the number of council members, implement non-partisan elections for the city's governing body and would open the door for biweekly council meetings.

The proposed reforms, which are set to be introduced at Monday night's City Council meeting, have been a topic of consideration and discussion since last Thanksgiving, Uzelac said.

"Two things primarily led to this. First, when the city completed its Road Map to Sustainability, one of the things that group identified was that we may need to make a reduction in the size of the city council. The second thing is that people in the community, of both political parties, have been mentioning for some time now that the size of the council is too big, that government in general is just too big," Uzelac said.

If the measures are approved by council members, the proposed reforms head to the November ballot as two separate referendums -- one to reduce the number of council members and the other to cease having partisan elections. Each referendum will require a majority of voters to cast votes in support to be approved.

"I am not asking anyone on the council to go to the polls and vote to reduce to eight wards and make other changes. I am simply asking them to give the public the opportunity to vote and to have a say in how their government is run," said Uzelac, who added that he is unphased by having these reforms on the November ballot when voter turnout is expected to be high due to the presidential election.

"If it doesn't pass then it means that voters in Quincy were not looking for that, but at the end of the day I want the voters of Quincy to have a say in how their government is run," Uzelac said.

Uzelac, who is in his first term as an alderman, said the first proposed referendum seeks to reduce the number of council members from 14 members to eight with one alderman per ward.

"There has been a lot of public input in the past about wanting to see us cut in half, which would make the council a seven-member council," Uzelac said. "My preference is that the mayor is still a tie-breaking vote, so I want to have an even number of alderman. I think six (aldermen) is too few for people to have a really engaged local government, so my recommendation is that we have eight council members."

Alderman Jason Finney, R-3, said he supports reducing the number of alderman to eight.

"Eight is a great number. A lot of people think 14 is too many, so let's start with eight and if after trying it we need to go to 10 or some other number then we can," Finney said. He is one of the five member coalition that Uzelac says is helping to champion these reforms.

With the ward boundaries already set to change due to the ongoing census, Uzelac said it would likely be very easy for the committee that drafts the new wards to go from seven to eight wards.

Uzelac said he is willing to compromise with alderman who may have different opinions regarding the future size of the council.

"Truthfully, I have multiple copies of these reforms already drafted so that if someone wants to make a change, we can make those changes and keep the conversations going," Uzelac said.

The second proposed reform is to eliminate partisan elections for the City Council. Elections for the mayor, city treasurer, and city clerk would remain partisan.

"In a local municipal level, there is nothing partisan about getting streets fixed, beautifying the city, and improving the livelihood of residents," said Uzelac, who added that he is ready to debate those who would argue that eliminating partisan elections is a power grab by Democrats, who currently hold six of the 14 seats on the council. In addition to Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore, Republicans have eight seats.

Finney agreed with Uzelac, saying, "Almost all decisions that we make as alderman are not partisan decisions and I don't think the voters actually vote straight ticket anymore. I think they vote for the person they believe will do the better job and who will best represent their ward."

If approved by voters in November, those council members who are elected in 2021 would serve a two-year term in lieu of the traditional four-year term. All council positions would be up for a non-partisan election in 2023 with the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th ward aldermanic candidates running for two-year terms. Candidates in 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th wards would run for four-year terms in order to achieve a staggered election cycle.

Finney said he is unsure how the proposed reforms will be received by the community.

"I hope people are excited that there are people on the council who have heard them, who have listened to their concerns about the size of the city council and are willing to make changes," Finney said.

Uzelac said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and forecasted revenue shortfalls for the city's coffers have only highlighted the importance of making these reforms.

"We need to look at streamlining government at every level and given this pandemic, I think this is a great opportunity to do that," said Uzelac, who estimates that reducing the number of council members will save the city more than $40,000 a year.

Under current ordinances, the city's aldermen are paid $100 per meeting with some alderman opting to receive city health insurance, a city paid cellphone, and other stipends. Per the proposed reforms, the council members elected in 2023 would receive $200 per meeting and would begin having biweekly meetings, which is still a cost savings for the city by eliminating eight positions.

"I know, it is not a huge cost reduction, but we have asked every department to make significant cuts to their budget and so it makes sense for us to make some reductions as well," Uzelac said.