Myron B. Pitts | Fayetteville Observer
June 9, 2021
Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin invited former Mayor Tony Chavonne onto his local radio show Monday. The main topics were Chavonne’s desire to change the city council’s structure and the Fayetteville Police Department response to the protests and riots last spring.
But toward the end of the cordial, nearly 50-minute discussion, a bit of news dropped: Chavonne has not ruled out a run against Colvin for the city’s top spot.
“A lot of people want to know, will you and I face off in the next election?” Colvin asked.
Chavonne did not answer that question. Instead, he referred back to his push on behalf of Vote Yes Fayetteville, which seeks to collect 5,000 signatures toward changing the City Council makeup.
He said: “One hundred percent of my focus right now is getting 5,000 people so that I can give every citizen in this community the opportunity to vote for the kind of government they want.”
Colvin responded: “That’s a good political answer.”
The exchange happened on the “Mayor’s Moment,” a show hosted by Colvin on WIDU radio station, 1600 AM and 99.7 FM. The full show is available at the station’s Facebook page.
A contest between Colvin and Chavonne would be titanic by Fayetteville metrics.
Both men defeated two-term incumbents in their mayoral campaigns. Colvin is in his second, two-year term and ran unopposed in 2019. Chavonne served four terms from 2005 to 2013 and did not face a serious challenge after his first race against Mayor Marshall Pitts Jr. (brother of this writer.)
Exactly when the next municipal elections will be held is up in the air. The original date in November may move because of delayed figures from the U.S. Census. Colvin said on the radio Monday a state Senate bill was gaining steam that could put municipal elections in March.
In the mean time, Chavonne in recent interviews has aired his frustration over the current city council structure, which comprises nine members who represent nine districts, and a mayor elected citywide, or at-large. He has thrown full support behind Vote Yes Fayetteville.
The group wants to reduce the number of district seats to five and add four at-large seats. The mayor would continue to be elected citywide. A successful petition drive would put the issue on a future ballot for city voters to decide.
Chavonne backed a similar measure with three at-large seats in 2006 and 2007, when he was mayor. Fayetteville voters approved the change, but it was overturned by the U.S. Justice Department on grounds it harmed African-Americans’ voting rights.
Colvin: Timing of Vote Yes effort is suspicious for some
Colvin said Monday the effort to change the council struck many in the community as suspicious. In November of 2019, the council elected eight Black members out of 10 seats, to include Colvin, the city’s second Black mayor.
“I’ll be honest with you, a number of people in the community, and I am of that opinion as well, that the council is getting a bit too diverse for many of the powers that be,” Colvin said to Chavonne. “Fifty years, I think, when we talked about redistricting there were only two or three African-Americans that had represented the city, then there was a change that happened.”
Chavonne said changing the structure has nothing to do with the color of the council members. He noted that when he first sought to change the structure, there was not an African-American majority on the council.
“That structure of single-member, nine people representing individual pieces of the pie makes it extremely difficult to get traction on the big issues,” he said. “That was true in 2006, it’s true today. It has nothing to do with the color of the people in the room.”
Colvin asked if that was the case, why didn’t the structure change come up in the municipal election years of 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Chavonne said in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Justice Department policy that had overturned the previous referendum and ended that era.
As for 2015 and 2017, he said, “I can’t really say why it didn’t come up.”
Chavonne noted changes in the city since 2006, including Black candidates who had run in citywide or countywide races and won, including Colvin himself. He noted as well that 45% of registered voters in the city are Black, vs. 37% of white voters.
“That’s a fact, and we just need to acknowledge that,” he said.
Colvin asked: “Are you saying that because there are more registered Black voters, the process needs to change. Is that the basis for the change?”
Chavonne said no, the numbers are just a reflection of our community.
Chavonne: We lost something on May 30 of last year
Chavonne said he did have at least one personal motivator for his push to change the council: The Fayetteville police response to the downtown riots of May 30, 2020, that grew out of the protests for George Floyd.
Chavonne lives downtown but was away at the time. His wife’s call to police for help went unheeded. It was a common complaint of downtown residents and property owners that night.
Colvin and Chavonne have already talked privately about the issue.
Colvin said on the radio that as mayor, he does not directly hire the police chief. He said he does not intervene in on-the-ground decisions made by Chief Gina Hawkins.
Chavonne countered that the buck stops with city leadership.
He acknowledged: “It’s different when it’s personal. It is different. To be honest with you mayor, if we had not experienced May 30 collectively as a community, I wouldn’t be here today. But I am. Because it hurt.
“Not just because I was really scared for my wife but because of what it was doing to our city … We can’t as a city ever tell our citizens that we’re not protecting them.”
Colvin acknowledged Chavonne’s frustration but noted that Fayetteville did not see the level of property damage that other cities had experienced. He said the one reported injury downtown was when someone who tried to set fire to the Market House burned himself.
“How do results not matter?” he asked. “Our downtown is thriving but there continues to be a message right now that it’s not. Property values are up 12-and-a-half percent according to a recent report” from the Cool Spring Downtown District.
But he said critics claim “no one’s coming” downtown.
“Why are these false narratives being attached to this particular council?” he asked.
Chavonne maintained: “We lost something that night, and it’s gonna take us a while to regain.”
He said police officers and the police chief have a difficult job but “you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
“I don’t think you have to compromise answering a 911 call. There is a line there.”
Chavonne said city leaders must sometimes make difficult decisions. He said his council met with a former police chief around 20 times on the issue of Fayetteville officers stopping and searching Black drivers in disproportionate numbers, an issue dubbed “driving while Black.”
Finally, he said, the city council had to “stand up and stop it.”
He said: “Ultimately, that police chief is not with us and neither is the city manager. But the people accountable to the citizens, the people who have to answer to them every two years at the ballot box — they stood up and did the right thing. And sometimes that’s what it takes.”
Everyone at the table
Colvin said the city’s African-American residents have lacked confidence in leadership a long time and are familiar with feeling unsafe when it came to “those who police them and protect them.” A district model helps address their concerns when they see leaders who come from their neighborhoods and communities, he said.
“The people you have at the table — what perspective do they have?” Colvin asked. “I’ve served as a council member, unlike yourself, and I’ve represented the districts, and then I’ve represented the city, and I’ve seen both sides.
“It all does fit together.”
He added that some council members probably could perform better at their jobs. But he said Chavonne’s councils did not face the challenges the current council has seen over the last 18 to 24 months.
“I don’t remember you having a pandemic,” he said. “I don’t recall you having civil unrest and I don’t recall you having an economy on the brink of collapse.”
Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3559.