James Hunn, an organizer of the group that initiated the petition, also has asked Danville City Commission to consider splitting the city into wards, an action affected not by referendum, but by ordinance.
Wards can exist in either form of government, and Hunn thinks they would offer better representation for residents.
State law prohibits the creation of wards within 240 days of a regular election, but it does not require a referendum to approve the change - only an ordinance enacted by the City Commission.
According to the law, the city would be split into districts, or wards, and two candidates would be nominated in a primary election by the voters in each of the respective districts. The two candidates from each ward would then be on the ballot for all city voters to consider.
However, KRS 83A.100 states: "Nomination by the voters of the ward in the primary applies only where the candidates are seeking the nomination of a political party and does not apply in nonpartisan elections." It suggests that in order to have a ward system, cities must have partisan elections.
Danville's City Commission is currently is elected on a nonpartisan, at-large basis.
Nancy Yelton, policy development counsel with the Kentucky League of Cities, says KRS83A.100 and KRS 83A.170 appear to contradict each other.
"If a city elects to have nonpartisan elections, KRS 83A.170 requires all candidates to be nominated in a nonpartisan primary. The exception is that fourth- through sixth-class cities may eliminate the primary by enactment of an ordinance, but must otherwise follow the nonpartisan election process," Yelton said.
Danville, which has a population of 15,409, is a third-class city and cannot enact an ordinance to eliminate the primary.
Covington tried wards
She said Covington had the same issue a few years ago, wanting to stay nonpartisan but with wards. Yelton says the city never really resolved the question, but did as it wanted.
"We had voted at-large for our commissioners since the 1920s," said Mayor Irvin T. "Butch" Callery. Covington, a city of roughly 44,000 and under the city manager form of government, passed an ordinance in 2006 to divide the city into four wards. The 3-2 vote in favor of the ward system, Callery said, was a result of concerns over equal representation, but it created many more concerns.
"What happened is huge confusion to the voters. Someone represented each voter's ward, but each voter could vote for all four wards," Callery said. The nonpartisan race had many wards out-voting others because of name recognition and confusion.
In 2007, some of the commissioners changed their minds and wanted to go back to the at-large election, and the wards were abolished.
Callery said aside from the confusion that the change in the process caused, he would not recommend a smaller city going to the ward system.
"I can see it for larger cities, but not for Covington," Callery said.
Yelton says there are five cities in Kentucky the KLC knows of that currently operate under a ward system: Hopkinsville, Flatwoods, Catlettsburg, Madisonville and Somerset. At least three of those, she says, have partisan primaries - which is specifically listed in the statute.
"I think the commission (city manager) form of government would be better suited for the more urban, metropolitan areas," Mayor Eddie Girdler of Somerset said.
With a population of 11,000, Somerset is separated into 12 wards, has a nonpartisan primary, and Girdler said it has suited the city fine for more than 20 years.
"Where Danville is concerned, I don't think the voting process for wards would be a voter-education or a confusion issue since you already elect your commissioners citywide," Girdler said. He believes the issue in more rural areas is about voters having their own representation from their own area.
"Remember that each person running for the ward must live in that ward," Girdler said.
His understanding of the law is that the city has the option to be nonpartisan.
"I do feel, however, that partisan would be somewhat complicated," Girdler said. He said the city council or commission determines the boundaries of the wards as well as changes them.
"We have close to 30 people running for city council here through the ward system. That indicates there's a lot of interest," Girdler said.
Yelton said, "You can argue that the statue envisions a partisan primary. As far as nonpartisan, you can make the argument that there would just be no primary and only a nonpartisan election in November. But it doesn't say that you can't have a nonpartisan primary."
Unfortunately, the law doesn't address every situation that occurs, said Angela Evans, legal counsel with the Office of the Secretary of State. "So we are often left without clear-cut answers."