While the nation’s attention was fixed on this week’s election, Signal Hill Councilmembers Tuesday focused on the municipal election that is scheduled for March of next year. In a vote of 3-1, the Council favored reducing the number of polling places for the March 5, 2013 City election from three polling stations to two. The Willow Ridge Clubhouse will no longer be a voting center, but two voting centers located close to City Hall will continue to accommodate next year’s election. Councilmember Ed Wilson voted against the measure.
At March’s upcoming municipal election, the terms will be up for Wilson, Ward and Vice Mayor Michael Noll. Wilson, Noll and Ward confirmed to the Signal Tribune this week that they plan on running for re-election. Ward did not respond to a media inquiry by to press time; however she is expected to run for re-election to stay on the five-member Council.
At the last municipal election in 2011, the three polling places for Signal Hill voters were located at the Willow Ridge Clubhouse, the First Family Church on 21st Street and Cherry Avenue and the Signal Hill Park Community Center. The last City election saw low voter participation. The number of registered voters for the 2011 election totaled 5,580, but only a little more than 17 percent of them voted, according to a report tally available from Deputy City Clerk Rebecca Burleson. The report also shows that only 376 voters turned out at the polls while the remaining 610 voters decided to vote by mail.
City officials had originally recommended Tuesday to consolidate all three polling places into one neighborhood voting center at the Signal Hill Park Community Center, which is close to City Hall. City Clerk Kathee Pacheco cited the low voter turnout and the greater participation of residents who chose to vote by mail as one the reasons behind the recommendation. According to her report, about 29 percent of the city’s active registered voters have opted to permanently vote by mail.
“Because of the increase in voting by mail, it may be time to look at reconfiguring and/or consolidating some precincts for City elections to make the most of the poll workers’ time,” Pacheco said Tuesday, adding that it would allow the City to recruit bilingual poll workers. Pacheco highlighted the potential to hire bilingual poll workers who speak Spanish or Khmer (Cambodian) if the three voting centers could consolidate into one location. Pacheco spoke about the possibility of reserving available parking near Spud Field for additional parking needed for rear access to the community center.
The decision to eliminate the polling station at the Willow Ridge Clubhouse fostered some debate among the councilmembers. Wilson picked apart the proposed plan.
“And, truthfully, I really have to ask, how does that benefit the voters? Because it shouldn’t be necessarily about staff time and polling workers and what it takes to do it,” Wilson said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Even though the numbers of people voting by mail are increasing,” he continued, “you still have a number of people that go to the polls, and the important thing is to continue to get people to vote… if we start doing things that actually make it more difficult for people to vote, we’re actually moving in the wrong direction.”
Only Maria Harris, a resident and a member of a community organization called Signal Hill Community First, commented on the proposed change. She spoke out against consolidation into a single voting center at the community center, stating that the proposal would create “barriers to voter access and participation.”
She also opposed the idea of using a city facility for a central voting location. “It should be a readily accessible public place with plenty of parking and where a car can be easily maneuvered into and out of parking spaces,” Harris said, stressing that the facility should have ample room for the disabled, the infirm and the elderly to conveniently access the voting location. She added that the facility should be on a major traffic route and suggested an alternative space for a voting center– a tent set up at one or two of the Home Depot parking lots.
Rebecca Burleson noted the benefits of bringing the operations under one roof in close proximity to City Hall and staff. She added there were a few concerns at the Willow Ridge Clubhouse from the 2011 election that some voters were disenfranchised. Pacheco also acknowledged Burleson’s concern in her report. At last year’s election, City staff received calls from both residents and poll watchers who complained about the difficulty of entering Willow Ridge’s private complex, according to Pacheco in her Tuesday report to the Council Tuesday.
Councilmember Larry Forester initially favored the move to consolidate all three polling stations into one voting center at the community center. He underscored the fact that Signal Hill only spans 2.2 square miles.
“I think having one consolidated voting center is consistent and in favor of the voters,” Forester said. The councilmember noted that voters know the community center.
“I honestly believe the route to go is mail, but for now I would like to see a single voting center,” Forester added, indicating that the community center has adequate parking if the suggested additional space at the back parking lot is available to the community center voting center.
Noll agreed with Forester’s prediction that eventually more people will be voting by mail and voting could be consolidated at the community center.
“It makes sense,” Noll said, but he said he hesitated to make another change since voters at both the north end and the west end of the city already vote at the community center. He recommended that the Willow Ridge Clubhouse should be eliminated as a polling station and that the voters who normally go to Willow Ridge should be redirected to vote at the First Family Church. He confirmed with the deputy city clerk that both facilities are handicap-accessible.
“The church has a large facility, has a large parking lot,” Noll said. “And I think that would be the next step.”
Shortly after Noll’s statement, Forester changed his mind and voted in favor of consolidating the voting facilities to two centers. Wilson, however, did not change his mind and still voted against further consolidation of the polling locations.
Mayor Tina Hansen said she favored a proposal to consolidate voting to two locations and voted in agreement with Noll and Forester. Hansen acknowledged that voting by mail is not under consideration at this time, but she said she couldn’t support the idea, explaining that children should see the “physical act of voting” so they can get “excited about it.”
Other City Council highlights
New employees Hansen introduced four employees who are beginning new positions with the Signal Hill Police Department: Barbara Sanchez, who serves as the new dispatcher and jailer; Officers Clayton Crawford and Hayley Mammen; and newly promoted Tom Neinast, who serves as the police records supervisor.
Spotlight on small business The owners of Signal Hill Florist and Elevation Studios offered a short presentation of their businesses at Tuesday’s Council.
Environmental certification The City Council voted to approve a resolution that self-certifies Signal Hill as a One-Leaf Green City. A report from the Community Development Department highlighted where the City achieved or exceeded nine sustainability goals. Hansen presented a proclamation to the members of the Sustainability Committee.
Street-sweeping The Council voted 4-0 to approve a contract agreement extension with CleanStreet for a three-year term. Since 2005, CleanStreet has been providing street sweeping services for Signal Hill, according to a staff report from Public Works Director Steve Myrter. The contract amount should not exceed $150,400 per year.
Police data network Police Chief Michael Langston reported that his department will consolidate the data network into a single secure network.
Arch Insurance Company The Council and the Successor Agency voted to approve a new takeover agreement with Arch Insurance, who is taking over the construction of the police station. Earlier this year, FTR International abruptly stopped construction on the station.
The next Council meeting takes place on Tuesday at 7pm in the Council Chamber.