The College Park City Council discussed considerations Tuesday night surrounding a possible city charter amendment that would allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.
The council planned to deliberate on whether the proposed amendment, which would extend municipal voting rights to all College Park residents who are noncitizens, should be changed to only authorize green card holders to vote in city elections.
The council also planned to debate whether a question about non-U.S. citizen voting should be placed on the ballot in November as a non-binding advisory referendum and, if so, what its phrasing would be.
There was no particular language worked out for a potential referendum at the work session, and there was no official proposition brought to the table to change the charter amendment to limit the expansion of voting rights to green card holders.
Moving forward, if there is to be a change to the possible charter amendment as it is currently written or any specific wording of a potential referendum question, council members are encouraged to work with the city staff and have that prepared by Friday, Mayor Patrick Wojahn said.
"I gotta say this," District 3 Councilman Robert Day said as the council began discussing the referendum option. "If you see this issue as a civil rights issue, there's no way we as a council should put this on a referendum … I think we should, as a council, address this ourselves with the communication and insight of our residents, and that's all residents," he said, noting it shouldn't just be those that can vote.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn then noted that they were not voting on the potential of having a referendum question tonight, but preparing questions in the event that they would.
District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir said the council would "not be doing anything illegal by holding a referendum."
But District 3 Councilwoman Stephanie Stullich stepped in, saying some members of the council couldn't vote if their rights were put to a referendum.
"It's not a matter of whether it's legal, but rather if it's the right thing to do," Stullich said.
District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan said it was his understanding that language would be circulating for the referendum question after the last meeting but added he hadn't seen any in particular.
City Attorney Suellen Ferguson said she had not received instruction about a particular question, adding that referendum questions should be clear and straightforward.
As the meeting progressed, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Cook said it was "disturbing and puzzling" that potential changes to the amendment could be postponed, adding that she'd like for councilmembers to come forward with any changes. The work session would be the time to discuss these potential options fully, she said, as the issue is "tearing people apart."
"This is something we really need to be discussing now … there's so many issues we need to consider if we're going ahead with any part of this," Cook said.
Residents clashed at a July 11 public hearing for the amendment. Supporters of the proposal claimed citizens who pay local taxes should be allowed to cast a vote, while others said this privilege should be reserved for those who have earned U.S. citizenship.
The vote on the proposed amendment was originally scheduled for Aug. 8, but was removed from the agenda to allow the council to continue deliberating on the issue.
The amendment, which was introduced at a June 13 meeting, is a possible amendment to the city's charter that would eliminate U.S. citizenship as a voter registration requirement for local elections and authorize a supplementary city voter registration list. If this were to pass, it would not come into effect until the 2019 elections, according to this week's Mayoral Update.
The council will likely vote on whether to approve the charter amendment, approve a revised amendment or to place the issue on the ballot as an advisory referendum at the Sept. 12 meeting, according to the Mayoral Update. Ferguson and City Clerk Janeen Miller will iron out the exact layout of what form the charter amendment will take, Miller said after the meeting.
A decision to place any question on the ballot must be finalized no later than Sept. 19 in order to meet the ballot deadline, according to the work session's agenda.