Vote For 6

Myron B. Pitts: Is Fayetteville’s council hopelessly broken, or are there other motives in push to change it?

Myron B. Pitts, Fayetteville Observer

 In 2017, Mitch Colvin easily defeated incumbent Nat Robertson for mayor. 

Colvin ran unopposed in 2019. 

However, other incumbents on the Fayetteville City Council lost in those two election cycles. In 2019, Ted Mohn lost to Courtney Banks-McLaughlin in Dist. 8, and Jim Arp lost to Yvonne Kinston in Dist. 9. In 2017, Chalmers McDougald lost to D.J. Haire in Dist. 4. 

When the smoke cleared in 2019, Fayetteville had a council that looked like no other in its history. There are eight African-American council members, and five women. Both are records on the 10-member council. 

Last week, Robertson, Arp, Mohn and McDougald became four of eight lead signatories on a petition to overturn the entire council structure. 

“Vote Yes Fayetteville” is collecting signatures to put a referendum on the ballot that will give voters a chance to throw out the single-member format, where nine council members represent nine districts. The petition seeks to shrink the district seats to five and add four at-large seats. This, they argue, will improve city government. 

In 2007, a nearly identical effort that would have added three at-large, or citywide, seats led to months of racial tension. Voters approved the change, but the U.S. Justice Department blocked it on grounds the new council structure harmed African Americans’ voting rights. 

Monday night, McDougald sent an email to three other members of Vote Yes to say that he no longer wanted to be associated with the petition for “personal reasons.” He had been the only African American among the original eight signatories. 

“Please remove my name as a supporter from all correspondences, websites, and social media platforms,” he wrote in the email. 

I remember the big fight in 2007. I was there. 

I am not anxious to go down that road again, especially after the 2020 we just had. 

But here we are. We will see how it goes this time. 

Another lead signatory on the Vote Yes Fayetteville petition is four-term Mayor Tony Chavonne, who in some respects, is the heaviest hitter on the list. He pushed hard for the 2007 change too, when he was still mayor. 

The others are former council members Bobby Hurst and Wade Fowler, and Wesley Meredith, a former state senator who was beaten twice in recent elections by Sen. Kirk deViere, most recently last year. Both Meredith and deViere formerly served on the city council. 

No one can miss that this new effort contains so many who recently lost elections, including three who lost to sitting members of the council. A person I know who follows local politics called them the “Sour Grapes Gang,” but I am not even trying to go there with it. 

Terrible timing 

I do think there is an inclusive discussion to be had about at-large seats. 

I am not convinced this particular group should be leading the discussion, however. The optics and timing are … not good. 

McDougald is the only Black person in the group. There are no women. 

Arp and Mohn, who are white, both lost to Black women. Robertson, who is white, lost to Colvin, who is Black. 

None of this means that race is a primary factor or factor at all in the Vote Yes movement. But again — optics matter. 

Chavonne and McDougald are registered Democrats, and Mohn is registered unaffiliated. The other five are Republicans. 

Fayetteville City Council races are supposed to be nonpartisan, but it’s not lost on many that the council, now and historically, is dominated by Democrats. 

There has been a sense among the city’s political class that the GOP has wanted to change that. This sense was heightened when Republican operatives online jumped into the 2017 race between Colvin and Robertson and turned it ultra-ugly. 

The wider racial and political context cannot be ignored, either. Since the November presidential election, Republicans in states across the U.S. have passed more than 250 bills designed to restrict voting access. Nearly all are bad-faith efforts that supposedly target “voter fraud” but are thinly disguised attempts to suppress the votes of Blacks and Democrats. 

Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp last week signed a 95-page monstrosity full of voter restrictions that is being called “Jim Crow 2.0.” It even outlaws people from handing out food and water to someone waiting in a voting line. 

I talked to Chavonne Friday afternoon and again on Monday. 

“I would say the timing is terrible,” he freely acknowledged. “I would be of the same opinion, like most people I know, that these things that are happening across the country — that’s sad.” 

But he stressed that he and the former council members who stand with him on the referendum are “not part of that.” 

He said at least two of the council members who lost their races took responsibility for their defeats. 

“They don’t put it on anyone else,” he said. “They don’t say someone did something bad to me, or I was mistreated. They say, ‘I didn’t work. I took it for granted.’” 

He defended their intentions. He called for people not to spend time shooting the messenger but instead should discuss the issue. 

‘Difficult for Mitch to lead’ 

I asked Chavonne why the council structure had to be changed instead of voters just picking new council members. 

He said the council under its current, single-member structure cannot see the “big picture.” 

“I think it’s very difficult for Mitch to lead. I think it’s difficult to get traction,” he said. 

“I know it is,” he added, citing his own experience dealing with single-member districts. 

He pointed to understaffing in the Fayetteville Police Department as one big issue the council has not dealt with. The department has 384 sworn officers, and is budgeted for 443 — down 59 officers, according to department figures 

Chavonne said he recognized the challenge for all police departments in recruiting and stresses that his criticism is not personal. But he says recruiting officers to work in Fayetteville is hampered by the department’s decision to “stand down” during a downtown riot related to George Floyd protests on May 30. Several property owners sustained damage at their buildings, and the Market House was set on fire. 

He also blamed recruiting challenges on the city council’s extended discussion on whether to create a police review board. He said that when he was mayor, the council 

also faced retention issues but worked with the police department to fix it — creating a step plan for pay increases and even raising taxes to expand the force. 

Chavonne said the current council is not focused on the big issues. In a March meeting, the city was facing a high crime rate and the Police Department was also dealing with attention on traffic stop numbers that showed a disproportionate impact on Black drivers. 

But: “The council spent time talking about making a policy on race-based hair discrimination,” he said. “I’m not in any way minimizing it. I’m saying, with these other things going on, where is the big picture focus?” 

He said he is hearing the big items do not get traction, “because people who have a certain thing they really feel strongly about, it sucks the air out of the room.” 

Chavonne continued that the downtown area was “not a goal” of the city’s strategic plan, a departure he said from previous councils, including ones where my brother, Marshall Pitts Jr., served as mayor. 

“Everybody appreciated that (downtown) was your living room, you gotta be concerned about it,” he said. “I tell you as someone who lives there and who speaks for people who live there — it’s tough times down there.” 

As for at-large seats, the mayor said the city and county have changed, as evidenced by looking at the registered voters. (Registered Black voters outnumber registered white voters in Cumberland County, a situation that was the reverse in 2007.) 

“We can’t ignore that,” he said. “We can’t pretend we’re in 1960 and everybody lived on Haymount. It’s not that way.” 

He said there is a diverse group of people under the Vote Yes tent. 

This tent, he said, includes people who want to tear the Market House down and people who want to save it. It includes people who want better police protection and even 

people who just want to figure a way to go back to school — anyone who doesn’t feel listened to by city government, he said. 

Big picture, big tent 

I have little doubt Black candidates are much better positioned to win at large than in the past. We have seen the evidence, to include Colvin himself. 

I don’t however buy into the idea that district council members are unable to see the big picture. It was this council structure over 20 years that saw the biggest leap forward in quality of life in the city’s history. 

I am talking structure, not individual council members. Multiple council members and mayors played a hand over time, including the former members who are a part of “Vote Yes.” 

A $43 million parks bond, from which we are still reaping rewards, passed in 2016 after failing three times in the past. Just in the last few years, this council structure tripled the number of pools from the single pool we had for many years. This council structure also landed a new baseball stadium and new minor league team, a long-time wish of leaders and residents around here. Along with the stadium, this council structure approved a few years ago the largest investment in downtown in city history — a plan that was since been bumped off track by the pandemic. 

Those are all big picture items. 

In the end, whether this change in structure happens depends on the so-called big tent. How big is it, really? 

Chavonne himself said if the Vote Yes movement is cast as just white, or just Republicans or just male — “None of those win. It will only win if it’s a big tent thing.” 

On that, we agree.