Some voters on Wauwatosa's west side may be casting their ballots in new locations this year.
That's after the city's Government Affairs Committee voted 6-1 Jan. 10 to recommend approval of the Wauwatosa School Board's proposal regarding voting locations for 2017 elections. The common council is scheduled to take up the issue Jan. 17.
The school board voted Jan. 9 to send the proposal to the council after deciding in May 2016 to pass a resolution to discontinue use of schools as voting locations. Oct. 4 the council had expressed its dissatisfaction with the actions of the board and passed a resolution to discuss the matter further with the board. Since then, city staff and school district representatives worked together to craft a compromise.
City Clerk Carla Ledesma said during those discussions two schools — Underwood Elementary School and Whitman Middle School — were identified as polling stations that could be relocated. Voting will continue at McKinley, Roosevelt, Wilson, Madison and Jefferson grade schools.
Five wards affected
If approved, the change would affect registered voters in five wards. People living in wards 9, 18, 19 & 21 would be reassigned to cast ballots at Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, 12012 W. North Avenue. Voters in Ward 8 would vote at the Public Works building, 11100 W. Walnut Road. According to the city, the change would affect approximately 6,100 voters.
Ledesma said right now the city has a "gentleman's agreement" with the church regarding its use as a polling station and that the church had reached out to the city expressing its interest.
The church told Ledesma that they do not intend to charge the city for the use of its facility. The change would cost the city $2,750 due to a postcard mailing that would be sent to affected voters.
In the end, six of the council members voted for the agreement despite having some reservations.
"I think this is a good compromise," District 7 Alderman Jason Kofroth said. "It's not ideal but it gets us closer to what we were hoping for."
Not a permanent solution
Because the solution would only be good for 2017, Alderman Craig Wilson from District 8 asked about the long-term plans for voting in the church.
"We've left it open-ended at this point," Ledesma said. "We will see how it works for both parties. This will be an issue we will revisit later in the year because the agreement with the school district is for one year."
School board president Mike Meier said he would be one of those affected by the change.
"There will be less traffic congestion for morning voters," Meier said. "I see the North Avenue proposal as much more convenient."
The school board had said previously that security at the schools was one of the main factors in deciding to move voting out of the schools. The new agreement stipulates that for the city to continue to use schools the city must provide additional security.
"Schools are secure during the school day and elections are a breach in that security," City Administrator Jim Archambo said. "We will provide an officer at each location during the school hours that security is compromised."
Strong dissenting voice
The lone dissenting vote was cast by District 4 Alderman Michael Walsh.
"(Wauwatosa Superintendent) Dr. (Phil) Ertl pushing this down our throats is wrong," Walsh said. "My constituents don't want this change. I would submit that we don't change voting locations."
Even committee members who voted in favor of the agreement said they felt uncomfortable with the arrangement.
"I have two concerns. No. 1 the school board thinks we have relented and we are done talking about it and I don't want to send that signal," Wilson said. "And two, I am glad that the church is being accommodating, but at the same time, I think it is a little presumptuous for us to, without a written agreement, for us to make a permanent change."
Alderman Matt Stippich of District 1 said he is concerned about the choice of the church but due to time constraints felt he had no choice but to vote in favor of the agreement. He said he believes most of the constituent feedback the council has received on the issue has been to keep the voting in the schools.
"I know lots of communities have voting locations in churches," Stippich said. "I think it is somewhat troublesome because I don't know if everyone is comfortable going to that location.
According to Ledesma, the city needs to notify the state of its polling locations by Jan. 23 due to an upcoming primary for state school superintendent in February.