Local election districts won’t change, discussion hinges on public misconceptions
A county commission meeting that began with proclamations about the enduring power of the U.S. Constitution came to a close with a local squabble over one of those very matters – a question of who can run for public office and when.
Last Thursday, the Morgan County Commissioners took up the possibility that they might shift the lines of the county’s local election districts, known as magisterial districts.
Currently, Morgan County has three districts. County officials have stuck with that configuration for the last decade. Before that, they opted for four districts. And before that, there were three, according to County Clerk Debra Kesecker.
Kesecker said that changing the district lines, or adding new districts, would not affect where Morgan County residents vote.
Each West Virginia county must have a minimum of three districts, but no more than 10.
House of Delegates representative Daryl Cowles told the commissioners he would rather the county have four or five districts.
“More citizens are eligible to run and serve with four districts. When you have three, two-thirds of the citizens are not eligible to run for office during each election,” Cowles said.
He said there would also be a good argument to “do away with them” altogether.
The magisterial districts divide the county up into three sections. A commissioner is elected from each of those sections of the county, and up to two of the five school board members can come from any district.
When the next commission seat – currently held by Brenda Hutchinson —is up for election in 2012, only residents in that third of the county can be candidates for the seat, though all county residents can vote in the race.
Purpose of districts
Cowles said tax and magisterial districts used to be the same, but now Morgan County has six tax districts and half as many magisterial districts.
“The value of magisterial districts has waned. It seems like one of their values is to keep citizens ineligible to run for office,” he said.
Local business woman Connie Perry spoke in favor of keeping the current districts as they are.
“To change to five or four, if you’re not going to change how many commissioners we have – it’s just about moving lines around,” Perry said.
“But how would it hurt to increase competition?” asked Commissioner Brad Close.
“I just don’t see where it makes much difference,” Perry said.
Another local business woman, Jeanne Mozier, argued that adding districts would increase the pool of possible candidates in any county election.
“I think Morgan County needs the biggest eligibility pool it can possibly get. If it doesn’t cost us anything, I can’t imagine why it isn’t better government or better for the people to have the largest pool possible,” Mozier said.
She added that having five districts would make school board elections much easier.
There are five members on the school board, but they must file for office and be elected in a way that guarantees there are no more than two members elected from any one district.
“It’s simple math. Do you want to have one-third of the population eligible to run in each election, or do you want to have 60% eligible?” Mozier asked.
Cindy Largent Hill questioned the timing of considering new districts and doubted whether added districts would beef up political participation.
“Do you really believe that would increase the number of people who would run?” she asked.
“Why now?” Hill wanted to know.
Kesecker said it’s possible to reconsider the districts now because the latest census had updated local population numbers. Districts must evenly divide the population of a county.
“It’s just like what’s going on in Washington. It’s all political maneuvers and the taxpayers are tired of it,” said Steve Hutchinson, husband of Commissioner Brenda Hutchinson.
Following a question from one resident about how many new commissioners the new district lines would add, Commissioner Hutchinson made it plain that she was not in favor of expanding the county commission.
Adding districts wouldn’t necessarily lead to a larger county commission, she said.
“We’re not moving toward adding or changing the number of commissioners,” she said.
Hutchinson added that increasing the number of districts would “open it up for a push for more commissioners.”
“Every person I talk to thinks if we get five magisterial districts, we will have five commissioners,” said Commission President Stacy Dugan.
Dugan said the current district map still allows anyone to run for office, though they may have to wait six years until the seat in their district is open.
“With all due respect, the political world changes dramatically in six years,” said Mozier.
“You don’t represent a district. You’re just eligible to run because of a district,” Mozier said.
Hutchinson said it concerned her, as a resident of the western part of the county, that new district lines would make people in Paw Paw or Great Cacapon feel “not represented.”
“People perceive it that way,” she said.
Hutchinson acknowledged that, once in office, commissioners are called on to act in the interests of the whole county, not just one region.
“I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about telling people they aren’t eligible to run in an election,” Cowles said.
“If we have an opportunity to let them run, why not? I’m not afraid of it. What are we afraid of? This isn’t political. We’re making it political,” said Commissioner Close.
Hutchinson made a motion to keep the districts as they are. Dugan seconded the motion, which passed 2-1, with Close opposing.