Cape Girardeau's ward, term-limit system get mixed reviews

Sunday, September 2, 2001

A collective feeling of discontent.

That's how one Cape Girardeau city councilman described the mood in 1992 as residents overwhelmingly voted to change the way they elected city council representatives, scrapping the at-large system in favor of wards.

More accountability.

That's what another said three years later, as the city charter was changed again, this time to limit the number of terms council members could serve.

In both instances, voters seemed to agree with proponents who said the changes would increase citizen participation in local government by creating a constantly revolving, more diverse city council from all parts of town and across racial lines.

Now, nearly 10 years later, there are mixed reviews.

Those who pushed for term limits and the ward system say what they promised is exactly what has happened, that the well-to-do power base of Cape Girardeau's past was forced to move aside to make room for photographers, stay-at-home dads and factory workers.

Others, including Mayor Al Spradling III and the League of Women Voters, say that the changes have had the opposite effect. They say the ward system has alienated would-be candidates and diminished interest in council elections.

They also contend that all term limits have done is kick out devoted public servants with plenty of good ideas and enthusiasm left.

Mayor's view

Mayor Al Spradling III remembers when Cape Girardeau used to have primaries in city council elections.

"It happened every year," Spradling said. "You'd have six, seven or eight candidates running. It seems like we never have primaries anymore."

In fact, there hasn't been a council primary in Cape Girardeau since 1996 because the number of candidates is dwindling. If only one or two people run for a seat, there's no primary. Before wards were implemented, it took six candidates or more to need a primary for an at-large seat on the council.

Spradling said the reduction in interested candidates could be tied to the ward system of government.

"I don't think that the ward system has done what it's supposed to do," said Spradling, who was a council member when the wards were voted in. "There may be a lot of people interested in one part of town and maybe fewer people in others."

According to figures provided by the city clerk's office, the numbers have dropped. In 1990, two years before wards were voted on, there were eight candidates for three council seats. In last year's election, there were five candidates for three seats.

Spradling also believes that the ward system may have hurt voter turnout overall.

"It just seems like we don't have the whole city involved as much," he said. "It used to be that all city council elections were citywide matters. Now, it's only an election for people in certain parts of town."

Numbers provided by the county clerk's office show that in 1990, before wards were implemented, 46 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls to vote for the council members and the mayor. Last year, 17 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls.

"Under a ward system, you get a smaller turnout," Spradling said.

Spradling said he knew that the numbers would decrease because the ward system limits the number who qualify to vote. But he didn't think they would shrink as much as they have.

League agrees

The League of Women Voters of Southeast Missouri agree that those numbers are diminishing, in part, because of wards.

"Voting is down nationwide, but the ward system is really not needed," said Nelda Steffen, co-president of the league. "We've never been for the ward system. It does hurt interest, too, because people say 'Why should I care about that election? He's not even from my ward.'"

Term limits are also a waste, Steffen said.

"We've got the ballot box there for that," she said. "You can vote out anybody that's not doing the job. If somebody is liking the job and doing the job well, he or she should have the right to stay in that position. That also has hurt participation."

She points to Spradling and former councilman Melvin Gateley as examples of why term limits are a bad idea. Spradling can't run again because council members can only have two four-year terms.

"If somebody wanted to get rid of wards and term limits, it wouldn't hurt our feelings," Steffen said.

Spradling said that switching back to an at-large voting system could happen one of two ways: The council could appoint a committee to look at the charter, make recommendations to the council, and then the residents could vote to change; or a citizens' petition could be collected to put the issue on the ballot.

"The council reviews the charter every five years or so," Spradling said. "It's probably time, if the council wants to, to review some changes and see if they are appropriate."

Ward supporters

There are some within the community, however, who believe that the ward system is working out wonderfully. That includes Miki Gudermuth, the executive director of the SEMO Alliance for Disability Independence. She was one of those who pushed hardest for a ward system.

"I firmly believe it's given the opportunity for other individuals to apply," she said. "When it was the at-large system, it was always the same people. People who were affluent or had money ties to the area."

She said the ward system has also allowed an emphasis to be placed on the entire city and not the rich parts of town.

Besides, she said, it's too early to judge the ward systems after just five elections.

"It needs time to breathe," she said. "It's been hard to get anybody to run for anything. That we're having fewer candidates doesn't prove anything. Neither does less voters. There are fewer voters all over the United States."

J.J. Williamson, who is black, was on the Cape Girardeau City Council from 1994-1998. He said wards allowed him to get elected, even though he lost his bid for a second term.

"That I lost was no reflection of the ward system," he said. "That I even made it on was because of the ward system. The at-large system was for people who had a lot of money and political clout. The ward system opened up the door for people to participate."

Councilman Richard "Butch" Eggimann said he firmly believes in the ward system, too.

"The powers that were in control of the city didn't have vision," he said. "They didn't have a far-reaching plan. Under the ward system, and all the new folks we've got on now, look at the work that has been done -- the sewers, the roads, the airport work. Things have really moved forward. I believe it would be a mistake to go back to the at-large system."

He also thinks term limits are fine. Eggimann will leave the council next year because of term limits.

"I think eight years is plenty," he said. "Let's get somebody in here with new ideas coming forth."

Mayor Spradling, however, opposes term limits and said he would have considered running again.

Mayoral candidate Jay Knudtson says, to avoid ward pitfalls, solid people need to be recruited to seek out public office.

"We need to encourage people to run," he said. "I'm not sure switching back to at large is the way to go. The people spoke overwhelmingly when they voted the wards in, and I feel to look at it any differently would be perhaps a bit dangerous."

Charlie Herbst, the former community police officer who is running for the Ward 2 council seat, said the ward system is wonderful.

"I think having the ward system allows the council to get a pulse on what's going on in other parts of town," he said.

Solution for Sikeston?

Sikeston, with an at-large council now, is in the process of writing its first city charter and taking a page from its northern neighbor. The proposal there calls for a seven-member council with a mayor, two at-large members and four members elected by ward.

Harry Sharp is the chairman of the Sikeston Charter Commission. "There's been a lot of concern about the pool of candidates and the quality of candidates," he said. "We wanted to avoid that by having some at-large candidates and some ward candidates."

Sharp said that Sikeston has had the problem of getting too many members of the council from one neighborhood.

"That hurts the perception of whose interest the council members are serving and the perception becomes reality," he said. "We thought if we provide a combination of wards and at large, there'd be spots that everybody could run for and spots that would insure that there was equal representation."

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