Myron Pitts – Fayetteville Observer – April 13, 2021
A little more than 7,200 people voted to dramatically change the number and kinds of seats on the Fayetteville City Council in 2007. At the time, the city comprised 174,000 residents.
A group called Yes 2 Referendum had pushed a citywide vote that would end the structure of nine members serving nine districts and replace it with a council with six single-member districts and three at-large, or citywide, seats. The mayor would continue to be elected at-large. The referendum was the only issue on a special ballot in February of that year. Just over 6,200 people voted against the change, nicknamed “6-3” during months of community debate.
The light turnout — just 12% of registered voters — underscored that, as passionate as the council structure issue was to some in the political chattering class, most city residents’ minds were on other things. In fact, a 2000 referendum to change the seats to the current single-member model drew more voters, despite the city having less population at the time. That year, more than 8,200 voted in favor and just under 7,000 against.
The small vote in 2007 provides context for a new group’s similar effort, launched last month, to get rid of the current structure and add at-large seats. A question arises: Is this how the majority of Fayetteville residents want to fix what they believe what’s wrong with the city?
The new group, Vote Yes Fayetteville, is trying to get 5,000 signatures for the new referendum. If the measure makes the ballot and is approved by voters, the council would include five district seats and four at-large seats. The mayor would continue to be elected at-large.
Organizers of the Vote Yes petition say it would give voters more of a say, because they could directly vote for more than half of the council. They say a council that includes more at-large members would be better in solving the city’s bigger challenges, such as crime, retention issues in the Police Department and economic development.
The petition, however, has raised concerns it is merely a move to get rid of a council that has an historic number of Black members, filling eight of 10 seats, and women, who occupy five seats. Three of the main petition supporters lost elections to current council members.
Race comes to fore in 2007
Racial issues colored the debate over 6-3, an idea which first began to percolate in 2006. At issue then was whether at-large seats would diminish African-Americans’ voting power by eliminating a council structure designed in part to boost African- American representation.
By that time, the council structure had already been changed three times in 10 years. Former Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne has played a prominent role in both efforts to add at-large seats. In 2007, he was the sitting mayor and was frustrated by bickering on the council, which he said stalled progress. He cited at least one occasion where council members’ infighting cost the city a major business prospect.Some questioned if the mayor was making a power play. Councilwoman Juanita Gonzalez accused him of wanting to create “Tony clones” to help him get his way on council business.
Chavonne’s predecessor, Mayor Marshall Pitts Jr. (brother of the Opinion editor), was also skeptical of attempts to add at-large seats. He was the city’s first Black mayor and was held up as proof that Black candidates, unlike in the past, could win citywide. But Pitts wrote in a 2007 opinion article that at-large seats would favor candidates with more money. He also said the seats could tilt the council in favor of one part of the city over the other, because at-large council members would likely sympathize with the district council members in their own neighborhoods.
A No 2 Referendum led by Karl Merritt formed to counter the Yes 2 Referendum led by Steven Moore. Many in the community who listen to and support WIDU radio station, which broadcasts community news and gospel, also organized against 6-3. The issue helped launch the station’s influential and popular morning “Wake Up” show, which continues today.
Wes Cookman, who co-owns with his wife Sandy the WIDU Radio Network, said the shortage of minority representation in elected offices motivated him to become involved. He said he was also influenced by some of the leaders who spoke about the issue, such as Marshall Pitts Jr. and Dr. W.T. Brown, the late educator. “The system was not working for there to be reflective representation,” Cookman said on Friday. “Our belief then, and now, is when the entire community is part of governance, that’s best.”
In 2007, council meetings captured the intensity of the times with spirited public hearings in the chamber and protest rallies outside of it.
“God had an ark built when a storm was coming,” said Charles Evans, who was a member of Fayetteville City Council, at one rally. “A storm is coming to Fayetteville. It will destroy our sense of identity. We need to grab the hands of two of God’s children and take them to the 21st century’s version of the ark, the polls.”
Evans is currently chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and was himself elected at-large — the first time in 2010, three years after the referendum. He does not support a change to the current City Council structure, according to remarks he made last week on WFNC radio station.
Despite the opposition, the referendum passed on Feb. 2 of 2007, and the city and a redistricting consultant began the process of drawing up the new, 6-3 districts. Its work was largely done by early March. Soon after, the plans were sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for “preclearance,” where the federal agency would make sure the districts did not harm Black candidates’ ability to win seats on the council. In late June, the Justice Department decided that the 6-3 model would do exactly that and rejected the plan in total. Wan J. Kim, an assistant attorney general, wrote a letter to the city, in which he cited the 2005 race for Cumberland County school board, where five Black candidates ran and lost in at-large races.
While Kim noted Marshall Pitts’ successes running at-large, he said Pitts’ loss in the 2005 mayoral race (to Chavonne) was characterized by “racially polarized voting.” Kim wrote that even the city had acknowledged that elections were racially polarized. He also wrote that the city’s predictions on the impact of at-large seats relied on “estimations” rather than detailed election analysis.
Advocates for the Vote Yes Fayetteville petition say different dynamics are in play today. In particular, county records show that African Americans are a majority of registered voters in Cumberland County, a change from 2007.
The Vote Yes website notes that Evans and Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright are examples of African-American candidates elected at-large, and also says that, among Fayetteville’s registered voters, 44.9% are Black and 33% are white. The website states: “In eight of the past 20 years, our city was led by an African American mayor,” which includes Marshall Pitts’ tenure as well as that of current mayor, Mitch Colvin.
Cookman from WIDU says he is taking a wait and- see approach on the current initiative and will listen carefully as more people, including elected officials, weigh in. He believes that, however the issue goes, something positive can came from the discussion if people listen to each other and are respectful.
Meanwhile, the federal courts have taken a more conservative turn due to judicial appointments made by former President Donald Trump. And in 2013, well before Trump took office, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which, along with the city and county’s changing demographics, might make a council with at-large seats more acceptable to the Justice Department. So far, the push for at-large seat this time is tracking to be less contentious. The effort is still in the early going, and even if a referendum makes the ballot and succeeds, any council change would not be implemented until 2023.
Vote Yes Fayetteville organizers did receive one early setback with the exit of Chalmers McDougald, the only Black former council member who had signed onto the petition.
Over time, the city may get a truer sense of whether the issue of council structure is one that motivates a large swath of Fayetteville residents, or just a few, as in 2007. In other words, we may see if people who believe the city is off-track want a different structure or just different council members.
Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-