AG opinion: Partisan primaries for municipal races OK

The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday issued an opinion that a Pine Bluff City Council-approved resolution directing partisan primary elections for municipal offices beginning this year is lawful.

The AG’s opinion negated an argument that a resolution is non-binding.

“Resolutions can have the same legal force as ordinances, especially if the legislature requires a given action be accomplished by a resolution,” the written opinion said, further noting that state law is inclusive of a procedure a city council may employ to initiate a process leading to a political party primary.

Partisan primaries were endorsed by the council in a 5-3 vote in December 2012. Supporting the resolution were Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown and George Stepps and Alderwomen Irene Holcomb and Thelma Walker. Holcomb is no longer a council member.

Opposing the notion were Aldermen Bill Brumett, Wayne Easterly and Steven Mays.

Arkansas Municipal League Executive Director Don Zimmerman said in September 2013 that non-partisan elections had become a statewide trend for several reasons, including a condensing of races and the allowing of candidates to avoid sometimes having to campaign throughout a calendar year.

Zimmerman said, too, that an incumbent could lose a primary and then be placed in an undesirable position of being a lame-duck officeholder until the end of the election year.

The council decision was immediately condemned by Jefferson County Republican Committee Chairman Peter Smykla, who said the GOP considered the resolution illegal. Stu Soffer, the lone Republican member of the county board of election commissioners, also questioned the measure’s legality.

Smykla charged that the resolution was a tool with which the county’s Democratic Central Committee looked to suppress municipal candidates and fill the organization’s “coffers with high-dollar filing fees.”

In a written statement issued Wednesday night, Smykla again stated his disapproval.

“Although the Pine Bluff City Council went against the statewide trend,” he said, “with any luck a fresh council will do what is in the best interest of the citizens of Pine Bluff and the Arkansas taxpayer and change back (to non-partisan voting) before the next election.”

Smykla said that with the AG’s decision, taxpayers will now “have to bear the burden of two additional, unnecessary elections and any runoff elections that result.”