Legislation passed by the 2021 General Assembly earlier this year requires Lynchburg to change its longstanding practice of holding local elections in May, moving them to November instead.
With the next city council elections slated for 2022, council discussed at its Tuesday work session how to best implement the change — by syncing its local elections with federal and presidential elections on even years, or with state elections on odd years.
The new legislation affects elections held after Jan. 1, 2022, and requires Lynchburg City Council to adopt an ordinance change consistent with the amended state code by the end of the year.
“... Nobody on Lynchburg City Council asked for this to happen, for this to come down from the state,” Vice-Mayor Beau Wright said.
City Attorney Matthew Freedman presented two options.
Council could amend the ordinance to push May 2022 elections to November 2022, and May 2024 elections to November 2024. This would sync local election cycles with elections for federal and presidential offices and extend the terms of current members by six months.
Or, council could amend the ordinance to push May 2022 elections to November 2023, and May 2024 elections to November 2025. This would sync local election cycles with elections for state offices and extend the terms of current members by 18 months.
A third option came about during council’s discussion: temporarily adopt either of the first two options, then request a charter change to allow for a one-time term of either three or five years to be filled in the November 2022 and November 2024 elections for city council. Following those elections, four-year terms would return and elections would be held in odd-numbered years.
Freedman said the first option reflects the original intent of the state’s action, but local governments are allowed to choose to hold their local elections on odd or even years. Either way, the terms of the councilors presently serving would be extended at least six months to account for the change from the scheduled May 2022 and May 2024 elections to November of those years.
Council was in consensus it did not want to keep the second option on the table for future discussion. Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said a vote by council to extend current members’ terms by 18 months, rather than the six months caused by the new legislation, would be unethical.
“I don’t think the intent was anywhere remotely the idea to say you get to pick and choose what year you want it [the election] to be,” Helgeson said. “That totally would skirt the electoral process where we’re elected by the citizens that decide what we’re going to do.”
Many members of council expressed similar sentiments they would not be interested in extending current terms an extra year without citizen input.
The discussion then shifted to the benefits and drawbacks of having local elections in even years, like federal and presidential elections, or odd years, like state elections.
At-large Councilman Randy Nelson said he disagrees with the change coming from the state. He said holding local elections on a different day than federal or state elections lowered the possibility for national and state issues or news coverage on those elections to “distract voters from focusing on local issues and the qualifications of local candidates.”
In even years, Nelson theorized, local candidates would be competing with “high-profile” federal and presidential candidates for attention.
“... I do think it’s prudent for Lynchburg to change the year of our elections so local elections be held in odd-numbered years when statewide elections are scheduled,” Nelson said. “It’s the lesser of two evils.”
Many members of council expressed interest in pursuing the third option but wanted more information.
Freedman and City Manager Wynter Benda said they would consult other cities and towns in the commonwealth affected by this change to see how they plan to comply with the new state legislation.
No action was taken at Tuesday’s meeting, and Freedman is set to bring a draft resolution to seek a charter amendment to a future meeting where discussion will continue.