A Wake-up Call For Aberdeen Voters

Commissioners Propose Elected Mayor, Council In Charter Amendment

December 01, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Who cares?

That was the question asked most often by Aberdeen's town commissioners last week when they introduced a charter amendment to disband in favor of a new government headed by an elected mayor and city council.

The five commissioners agreed that the measure introduced at their Monday night meeting might shake the town's 13,000 residents from the lethargy that accompanies the non-partisan municipal elections every year.

"We have 5,000 voters and we get only 800 out to vote because of apathy," Commissioner Ronald Kupferman said. "If people weren't satisfied, they'd vote."

If the charter amendment is passed, voters will elect a mayor in May to replace the figurehead president chosen from the Board of Commissioners.

Two council seats will also be at stake in the election. The other two seats would be filled in the 1993 election, allowing Commissioners Macon Tucker and Kupferman to serve out their two-year terms.

Only nine Aberdeen residents attended the commissioners meeting. The charter amendment provoked no debate from them.

Former Commissioner John Feroli, who served in the1960s, recalled that a proposal to adopt a mayor/council government 25 years ago move was abandoned for lack of interest.

Aberdeen suffers from "greater than normal apathy," Feroli said, quoting from a paper he wrote on town government at George Washington University in 1970.

"What was true then is true today," he said.

In off years like 1991, when only two commissioners' seats are at stake, voter participation is particularly low.

Only 871 (or 20 percent) of the 4,449 registered voters cast their ballots in May.

The 1990 campaignfor three commissioners' seats attracted 1,207 voters, a 27 percent turnout.

"We have to change that image somehow, some way," Tucker said. "Maybe this is one way to change that image, starting from the top."

The amendment, proposed by an ad hoc citizens committee on government reform, follows a natural progression, Kupferman said.

The committee agreed four years ago that as Aberdeen government has grown to 101 employees, the town has suffered from lack of "centralizedleadership," he said.

Aberdeen took the first step to correct that when it empowered the town administrator as a liaison between department heads and the commissioners, Kupferman said.

The next step is to elect a mayor so "you don't have a town manager who runs the show and the people who are elected are just there," board President George Englesson said.

Voters will decide whether to change Aberdeen's form of government, Commissioner Ruth Elliott said.

If the commissioners pass the charter amendment, it would become law unless successfully challenged by a voter referendum.

Anyone seeking to put the issue on the ballot in May would have to collect signatures from 20percent of the town's registered voters within 40 days of being passed by the commissioners.

Orem Carroll, Englesson's campaign treasurer last year, was the only person to voice doubts about the measure,saying he expects that somebody will challenge it.

Feroli said hedoubted that anybody "would have the initiative" to collect the 900 or so signatures needed to petition for a referendum.

He concludedthat the choice of who serves in Aberdeen's government is more important than its form.

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