Abby Church, The Fayetteville Observer
A group of former Fayetteville city councilmen and two former mayors have joined together in an attempt to change the council’s structure.
On Tuesday, they launched Vote Yes Fayetteville, a group that proposes implementing a model that would change the makeup of the city council and how many votes constituents can cast. They’ve started a petition, hoping to get voters to consider the proposal.
Signers of a letter supporting the initiative are former councilmen Bobby Hurst, Ted Mohn, Wade Fowler, Wesley Meredith, Jim Arp and Chalmers McDougald, and former mayors Nat Robertson and Tony Chavonne.
According to the group’s website, the model they’re pushing includes the mayor, four at-large members and five district representatives. Currently, the council is comprised of the mayor plus nine district representatives.
Under the proposed restructuring, voters would have an opportunity to cast six votes: one for each of four at-large seats, one for mayor and one for their own district representative.
Mohn said Friday that the timing for the suggested change was right because the City Council has to redistrict anyway due to the population imbalance in some districts.
Chavonne said nine of the 12 largest cities in the state have some combination of at-large and single members. He also said other government bodies in the Cumberland County have at-large members. He said the model will give constituents a greater voice in elections.
The desire for a new structure came about because of lack of movement in the current council, Chavonne said Friday. He said that with a nine-person structure based solely on districts, it’s difficult to get everyone to agree and focus on what’s important.
Chavonne said the new structure will let voters elect more council members who can be held accountable for the “big picture.” He also said the police department is understaffed. Mohn said the city needs more focus on bonds for infrastructure and public safety.
If the petition gets 5,000 signatures, it’ll appear on the ballot for the next city election, giving voters the chance to decide if they want to give the structure a shot. The change, if implemented, wouldn’t affect council’s structure until 2023, Chavonne said. On Friday, neither Chavonne or Mohn could give an exact number of signatures the petition had received so far. Mohn said all signatures have to be from registered voters.
The proposed model’s history in Fayetteville is complicated. In 2007, a similar structure that included three at-large council members and six district representatives was passed locally. It was later denied by the U.S. Department of Justice under the premise it made it harder for Black candidates to be elected.
Vote Yes Fayetteville’s most recent push has been met with contention. Some have pointed out the model’s racial underpinnings. Chavonne said that over the past few years, the city’s done well with electing people of color to at-large seats in the county, specifically mentioning the sheriff and the current commissioner’s chairman.
Mohn said in a Facebook post that some have claimed that the initiative will bring about voter suppression, but he disputes the notion, adding that he believes voting is accessible in Fayetteville. Chavonne said he believes that the proposed model would increase voter power.
Currently, seven Fayetteville’s City Council members and the mayor are Black. Some current council members beat some of those who signed on for Vote Yes Fayetteville out of their own seats in recent years. Robertson lost what would’ve been his third term as
mayor to Colvin in 2017. Mohn was beat by Councilwoman Courtney Banks-McLaughlin in 2019. Jim Arp was beat by Councilwoman Yvonne Kinston in 2019. McDougald lost to Councilman D.J. Haire in 2017.
Colvin said he found out about the proposed structure through Mohn’s Facebook post, and he was surprised that former members of council suggested it.
“They know better than anyone the history of our city, to where there was a significant imbalance between minority leadership being elected because of the way the system was set up, so much so the Justice Department had to come in and make the adjustment for us,” Colvin said. “And so it just looks a little disingenuous that past council members, most of which who were beaten in this system, now want to change the rules and dilute the voting power of the minority community.”
Colvin said that Chavonne normally reaches out if he’s planning to take a stance on an issue.
Chavonne, in response, said the group sent out the proposal to everyone at the same time. He said the initiative is not meant to criticize anyone in office, but instead is intended to show that people who have been in those positions are saying the structure doesn’t work.
Colvin said he finds the proposal suspicious. He said he’d like to know when the members of the group decided the system was broken and wonders if it’s related to the current “majority minority” makeup of the council. He said that since he joined the council in 2013, he hasn’t heard anything about changing the system.
“And so now, why all of a sudden is this meriting this kind of request?” Colvin said.
Chavonne said the referendum isn’t about the people in office, but the structure, and that the referendum isn’t “personal.” Mohn said his loss didn’t have anything to do with the referendum and said he just likes the idea of being able to vote for six people for council.
Given the model’s history, whether it’ll go through or not is up in the air. Chavonne said that when the model was rejected in 2007, the Department of Justice was making sure some parts of the country weren’t violating voters’ rights, particularly with representation and the way districts are drawn. Chavonne said the policy that got the last plan rejected has since been deemed unconstitutional.
This time around, he said Fayetteville is a “different community.”
“I think we’re demonstrating that by the people and the variety of people that are being elected in our city, which is a good thing,” Chavonne said. “And it’s been 20 years of trying the model, and I think we continue to see the disadvantages of this particular approach. So you look for best practice models, and everywhere we look, including in Cumberland County and across the state, the best practice model is some combination of at-large and single member district.”
Mohn said he sees the change in the community in voter records. According to data from the Board of Elections, Mohn said Black voters currently outnumber white voters in Cumberland County. The data states that there are currently close to 54,500 registered Black voters. More than 40,220 registered voters in the county are white.
In 2007, Mohn said there were about 6,000 more white registered voters than Black registered voters.
Mohn said there needs to be community conversation on the referendum. He likes that there is enough time to discuss the issue.
Both Chavonne and Mohn said there are no formal discussions planned at this time.
Government watchdog reporter Abby Church can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.