ARCADIA — Only 14% of the registered voters turned out for the city's last school board election in April, 1985.
Six months later, only 200 people went to the polls in Arcadia to elect a representative to the Pasadena Community College District. Last April, a City Council election drew only 22% of the city's 28,000 registered voters.
Now, in an effort aimed at bolstering the turnout, the city is planning yet another election to decide whether members of the City Council and the school board should be chosen at the same time.
Election Planned for April
Although the council has not formally approved the special election, and there is some division over the proposal, members say they will set the election for next April and will take formal action on the matter within weeks.
Concern about the dismal voter turnouts caused Chamber of Commerce officials begin a year to push for the consolidation of local elections.
James Helms, chairman of the chamber's legislative committee, said also that considerable money could be saved if the elections are held at the same time.
"The legislative committee was concerned with the low voter turnout a year ago for the college district," said Helms, who served on the City Council from 1968 to 1976.
"Concurrently with that we got a report from a federal study on poor voter turnout and what could be done to turn it around." One of the suggestions was to consolidate elections, he said.
One problem with the current system is that school board members are elected in April but do not take office until July, he said. In the meantime, the board must approve a budget for the next school year. That important decision often is determined by lame-duck incumbents defeated in the April election or by members who have chosen not to run for reelection.
"We wanted to have board terms start immediately after the election," said Helms.
After the chamber persuaded the school board to pass a resolution favoring the plan in April, the council appointed a committee composed of two council members, two school board members and a chamber representative to study the issue.
The five school board members serve staggered four-year terms and are elected in April in odd-numbered years. The five council members also serve staggered four-year terms and are elected in April during even-numbered years.
Under the proposal, the combined election would be held the second Tuesday in March of even-numbered years, beginning in 1990. The timing of that election would shorten council terms by one month and lengthen school board terms by eight months.
By eliminating two elections every four years, proponents of the plan say that the city and school district would save $50,000 every four years and possibly increase voter turnout.
Opponents say voters would be confused because there would be too many candidates on the ballot and that candidates would find it more difficult to raise funds and recruit volunteers to work on their campaigns.
"There aren't enough lawns in town to put all those signs on," said Councilman Charles Gilb, who supports the special election but says he is unsure whether consolidated elections are a good idea. "I ran one time when there were 16 candidates for City Council."
Recent council elections have attracted at least 10 candidates, while school board elections have drawn at least five.
Increased voter turnout is not a priority for Councilman Robert Harbicht, who opposed one plan to hold a consolidated election in November.
Harbicht said he thinks March is the proper time.
Local Interest Questioned
"Some people never vote in local elections," he said, "so we would end up having decisions made by" residents apparently uninterested in purely local affairs.
School board members favor consolidation because of the cost savings and possible increased voter turnout, said member James Bryant.
The only school board member who voted against the resolution favoring consolidation was William Spuck, who said he is mildly opposed because he doubts that the savings would be significant.
"I also want people who care enough and are informed enough to vote," he said. "I don't want to create gimmicks to get people to vote."
Spuck also said council elections overshadow the school board contests, making it harder for school candidates to get public attention.
A survey by the Arcadia school board of other districts in the county that have consolidated local elections showed that Glendale and Santa Monica have had a significant cost reduction and larger voter turnout.