DECATUR — At least 16 Decatur residents have taken out forms from the city clerk's office to collect petitions for running for city council or mayor, an early sign that the size of the candidate field could dwarf 2017's, when seven people ultimately ran for four open council seats and a special two-year term for mayor.
"That's the most I've ever known," said City Councilman Pat McDaniel, who is not up for re-election in April. "There will be a watershed, and likely there will have to be a primary."
The petitions candidates need to file with the city clerk by Nov. 26 are the same for mayor or council, so it's still unclear which office each of the petitioners are seeking.
To force a primary for mayor, at least five candidates must file petitions to appear on the ballot; for city council, there must be at least 13 candidates. Decatur's municipal elections are nonpartisan.
"It used to be anything more than twice the amount used to trigger a primary, so it would only take three candidates for mayor and seven candidates for city council," said Macon County Clerk Steve Bean.
That changed when the General Assembly in 2011 raised the threshold as a cost-saving measure for county budgets, according to Bean. "The trouble is there's no cost to the city, everything's bared by the county, so all county taxpayers pay for a city primary that usually does not have a gigantic turnout," Bean said.
Of three council seats that are up for grabs in the 2019 municipal election, incumbent Lisa Gregory has said she is running again, Bill Faber has not yet decided whether to defend his seat and Dana Ray announced she will not seek another term. McDaniel won re-election in 2017 and has served on the council since 2011.
While City Clerk Kim Althoff keeps track of how many people take out forms from the city to collect the needed 115 signatures to get on the ballot, her office does record the names taking them, she said.
The last time Decatur saw a February primary election for city council or mayor was in 2011, when voters whittled down the list of city council candidates from eight candidates to six for the April general election.
Between 1993 and 2005, every municipal election cycle featured a primary contest, according to records from the county clerk's office.
"If everybody turns in their petitions, it'll be a monster election, at least the primary," McDaniel said.
But few have actually made public announcements for their intention to run so far. Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe announced her intention to run for re-election a week before a challenger, Kara Demirjian Huss, emerged.
Other than Demirjian Huss, the only non-incumbent to make a public announcement to run for city office is Marty Watkins, the founder of the "Walk in My Shoes" campaign, which donates shoes to students of Decatur Public Schools. Watkins ran in 2017 for city council and lost with 4,298 votes.
"I'm going try to run off that base and to give it another shot," Watkins said.
Watkins is also the first person of color to announce a run for local office. Ray, who is stepping down after she finishes her term, is the only black city council member in a city that is 20 percent African-American, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census. There are seven seats on the city council, including the mayor.
"I will again be talking about neighborhood revitalization," Watkins said. "I believe it's very important that we do our best to beautify out neighborhoods so we can attract people to move back to our community."
Contact Tom Lisi at (217) 421-6949. Follow him on Twitter: @tommylisi