Clarkston's first runoff in 127 years may be the last

Historic runoff puts financial strain on Clarkston

Until this week Clarkston had never, in its 127 years, had a runoff. Now it appears, in the aftermath of Howard Tygrett’s victory over Pat Davis-Morris for mayor, there’s growing sentiment for this historic runoff to also be Clarkston’s last.

“[The runoff] was unnecessary,” Councilman Emanuel Ransom said. “I’ve lived here 45 years and we’ve always gone with the plurality vote. I mean, here was a case where Howard not only won the election convincingly, he won two elections convincingly.”

When Tygrett won November’s general election he outpolled three other candidates, which also may have been historic. Ransom pointed out that in his four-plus decades here, he can remember only once — “and that was years ago,” he said — when more than two candidates ran for mayor.

Though Tygrett beat Davis-Morris 193-124 in November, he only had 44.68 percent of the total vote. Nevertheless, he, his supporters and just about everyone else for that matter, figured he was the new mayor. As later discovered, there was even a 1970 amendment to a 1967 city ordinance stating “that a candidate may be elected to fill a public office by a plurality of the votes cast in a City Election.”

But this amendment, known as Ordinance No. 31, proved irrelevant. During the two weeks after the election, it was definitively established by City Attorney Bryan Downs that Clarkston had reorganized all its ordinances in 1981. The upshot was that the majority (gaining 50 percent plus one of the votes) was official Clarkston law and had been for 28 years.

Amazingly, the issue never came up until now.

“I think we need to work on this ordinance,” Tygrett said the day after he had been elected. “We have a special election in March [for an open council seat] and we have to be clear on this issue of plurality vs. majority.”

For his part, Ransom is as clear. “We are going to reinstate Ordinance 31. We are going to go back to plurality. We are too small for the majority, and this runoff puts a financial strain on our city. It cost about two grand for that runoff, and that’s not counting administrative and attorney fees.”

Many in Clarkston see the new mayor — Tygrett is a manager for REI and also ran his own outdoors store for years — as a progressive beacon. Current Councilman Warren Hadlock said, “Howard represents something very new for us and, I hope, he represents the end of the good ol’ boy type of government we’ve had for so long.”

If Clarkston has changed very little physically over the years, it has changed a great deal culturally in the past decade. This city of 7,500 claims 57 ethnic groups, and residents boast of being “more diverse than New York City.”

“We need to bring the city up to the standards of our people,” Tygrett said. “In the long run, our diversity is our great strength and will unquestionably shape our direction.”

The question therefore lingers why a city with a fresh mayor and council members who profess a buoyant new vision for downtown redevelopment wants to resuscitate a voting ordinance that’s been obsolete since Reagan was president.

“I think for Clarkston, plurality makes the most sense,” Hadlock said. “In this runoff deal, the two who are left standing are suddenly running around trying to get endorsements from their former opponents or the ones who didn’t make a runoff. To me, that’s like making a deal with the devil.

“To me,” he added, “it’s too much politics. It’s a way of going around the people, and that just isn’t Clarkston’s way.”