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Poor turn-out for election was unexpected

Date: 11/11/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD While Mayor Domenic Sarno and the winning candidates for City Council celebrated their victories on the evening of Nov. 3, one question about the election arose: why did so few people vote in a historic contest?

For the first time since 1959, voters had to select members of the City Council who would represent their ward as well as decide a heated mayoral contest and determine if the mayor's term should be extended to four years.

Despite those factors and the fact the city has about 10,000 more registered voters in 2009 than in 2007, the percentage of participating voters went down for this election.

In 2009, 27.35 percent of the city's voters went to the polls. This year, 25.04 percent voted.

Looking at two wards that haven't had a representative on the City Council for years, Ward One the North End neighborhood and Ward Three which includes Maple-High Six Corners and the South End one might expect participation would have been greater.

According to the figures supplied by the city's Election Commission, in Ward One there were nominal increases in only four of the eight precincts. In Ward Three, there were only gains in four of the eight precincts.

Springfield-based political consultant Anthony Cignoli told Reminder Publications he was concerned about the lack of turn out, especially in light of how long and how much effort achieving ward representation took. He noted the change in the City Council took a federal lawsuit that cost the city "in excess of seven figures," as well as two referendum votes.

He added that in the last presidential race, he was astonished to learn that only 223 voters in Ward Three cast a ballot in that historic election.

"Barack Obama didn't bring them [the voters] out," Cignoli said. "It's just hard to believe."

Two candidates who had a stake in the City Council race were long-time Councilor Timothy Rooke running again for an at-large seat and John Lysak, who was competing for the Ward Eight seat.

Lysak, whose campaign visited 3,700 homes in the ward, said that during the primary race, many people didn't understand what was changing with the City Council. Lysak believed the city's media should have covered the primary in greater depth. Instead, he said, the press emphasized the low voter turn out for the primary.

After the primary, while he did fund some people excited about the chance of having a councilor directly representing the neighborhood, Lysak found "a lot of apathy."

"They didn't think anything was going to happen [because of the new council]," Lysak said.

Still, Lysak laid part of the blame on the press. "There was no excuse for not covering it," he said.

Rooke was against ward presentation and did not agree with the premise it would increase voter participation. Looking at the number of voters who participated in the Holyoke and Chicopee races as compared to Springfield's turn out, Rooke believed that voters have been "frustrated by un-kept promises."

"What we [elected officials] should be doing is not making promises but taking actions," he said.

He said that some voters told him the two candidates for mayor were "weak" and voted for Domenic Sarno or Bud Williams on the basis of "who would do the least amount of harm."

"We shouldn't be going to vote and holding our nose because it's a weak field," Rooke added.

Rooke believes the passage of the extension of the mayor's term of office will attract candidates and said the next step is to increase the mayor's salary.

While Rooke admitted he didn't know all of the reasons contributing to the poor turn out, he said he believes that a "lack of confidence" contributed to it.

Cignoli said what concerns him is the precedent set by this election: that a candidate can make it to the City Council in some ward by marshalling just 250 committed votes.

He said there is a danger "a sharp political operative" could target wards with low participation and stack the council with candidates to achieve an agenda.


Williams didn't arrive at the carpenter's union office, which he used as a base of operations, until almost an hour after the polls closed. Waiting for him were about 10 supporters, most of them grim-faced.

While Sarno and his supporters saw the lop-sided results a "mandate" and a "landslide," the final numbers didn't prevent his opponent from saying he will remain active in the issues confronting the city.

Williams congratulated Sarno on his win, but added, "The issues remain the same."

"The issues are still the same. Nothing has changed, just an election."

He said that he plans to "keep this organization intact" and that he would continue to speak out on the issues.

When asked if he would run again for public office, Williams, replied, "I have not ruled out anything."

Williams was also surprised by the low turnout.

Much of Williams campaigning centered on what he saw as Sarno's broken promise of not eliminating the trash fee and inability to stop violent crime. By the results, voters didn't accept Williams' often-negative campaign.

Over at the storefront on Island Pond Road that served as his 2007 campaign headquarters, it was a different story. The room was fairly full with supporters and well wishers who came in, sought out the mayor, congratulated him and mingled.

Sarno, who said he was "honored and humbled" by the outcome, said he believed the voters affirmed the positive message his campaign ran.

In the next two years, Sarno said the city will face a budgeting challenge and he would continue to be fiscally prudent. His top priorities, he added, would be creating jobs and continuing efforts to address the gang and drug violence in the city.