This article was corrected on Oct. 21, 2013. An explanation follows.
Some current and former Rockville officials think putting the city’s election on the same ballot as the presidential election could have a chilling effect on federal employees’ willingness to serve on the city’s Mayor and Council.
City elections are currently held in odd-numbered years. Changing the timing so that they coincide with the presidential elections is one of three advisory referendums on the ballot in Rockville this November.
Supporters of moving the race hope it would increase voter turnout at municipal elections. Opponents worry that partisanship would seep over from federal elections into Rockville’s nonpartisan races.
Jim Coyle, a former Rockville mayor who used to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he doesn’t think he would have run for office if the city’s elections were held in presidential election years.
“You have to maintain your neutrality as a government worker, or you put your career in jeopardy,” he said.
Federal employees are not typically permitted to run for elected office in partisan elections. If they do, they risk losing their jobs.
While Rockville’s elections are nonpartisan, Coyle worries that partisan influence would be more likely to sneak into a city election held in a presidential election year, when national partisan politics have a higher profile. If federal employees were worried that city elections were becoming more partisan, they might be less likely to consider running for a city office, Coyle said.
“This could lead to a nullification of federal employees running, because they would be concerned that elections would become more partisan,” he said.
Council member John F. Hall Jr. is an attorney for NASA. He said Rockville’s electoral process would be gravely damaged if elected officials are perceived to be or are in fact influenced by partisan forces.
“If partisan money were to enter into our campaign, partisan endorsements were to enter into our campaign, then we start to lose some of the character of ourselves as independent, community-driven leaders,” Hall said.
Matching the city’s nonpartisan elections to national elections would make that more likely to happen, he said.
“The threat is there,” Hall said. “It’s a threat that doesn’t currently exist, so why introduce it?”
Coyle said the risk of partisan influence outweighs a potential increase in voters who may come to the polls having paid more attention to national politicians than Rockville issues and candidates.
“The presidential cycle will bring all those national partisan issues into our campaign whether we like it or not,” he said.
Rockville’s election is set for Nov. 5. The referendums are advisory, and the Mayor and Council have the final say on whether or not Rockville changes its election schedule.
Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated when Rockville holds its elections. They are currently held in odd-numbered years.