Editor's note: This story did not appear in its entirety in Monday's Tribune. The full story is below.
Hastings city officials hope a legislative bill signed by Gov. Dave Heineman will inspire increased involvement in the City Council and prevent uncontested council elections that have been common in recent years.
Mayor Vern Powers and the City Council proposed a bill to state Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings last year suggesting that first-class cities be allowed to elect up to four at-large council members, as well as keep current ward-specific seats.
The current statute allows for first-class cities like Hastings to have up to three at-large council members. However, as City Administrator Joe Patterson pointed out, "the math just doesn't make sense in cities that have four wards like we do."
Hastings currently has two members for each ward, for a total of eight, and no at-large members.
The makeup of the Hastings City Council can't be changed without approval from Hastings voters. Residents could see the issue on their ballots as early as next year, Patterson said.
Patterson expressed concern that uncontested City Council elections will continue, as in the 2012 general election when all four ward representatives ran without competition. Powers projected that several current council members won't run again in 2014, making the issue even more relevant for the upcoming election year.
"There might be people who are interested in running, but they don't want to go head to head with someone they know and respect who's already on the council," Patterson said. "Hopefully, this will give more people who want to run the chance to do so."
Powers said the new statutes would allow council members who have served for several terms to step down if they chose, knowing a larger pool of candidates might be interested in filling their posts. It also would allow more flexibility and rotation among the council seats.
"A person from the north side of town could fill a seat that had been filled by a west-side-of-town person," Powers said.
The council members have held discussions on the issue, agreeing they want to see their seats consistently filled by people who are passionate about serving the city, regardless of where they live. Powers said people have voiced concerns to him that allowing more at-large members could mean that all of the City Council members would be from the same geographic area.
He said that has been the case in the past, and there was no negative effect on council efficiency.
"The whole time I've been an elected official, the mayor and four or five of the candidates have lived within a strong stone throw of each other," Powers said. "Our town is too small to come down to turf issues. No matter where they're from, if people want to serve, we want to give them the opportunity to do so."
Currently, four members of the City Council are voted on in the general election every two years. The new bill would make it so two at-large council seats and two ward-specific seats would be voted on in each election.