By Myron B. Pitts | The Fayetteville Observer | May 5, 2022
Fayetteville voters will likely get a chance to change how they elect their City Council in the fall general election.
The Vote Yes Fayetteville organization seeks to reduce the number of district seats and add at-large, or citywide, seats. It has collected more than the 5,000 signatures needed to put a voter referendum on the ballot, according to Bobby Hurst, one of the organizers of the effort. Hurst dropped off the petitions with signatures on March 18 to the Cumberland County Board of Elections.
Angie Amaro, interim elections director, said the board was currently evaluating the petitions, making sure addresses and other information represent valid county voters. If enough voters are verified the process goes to the City Council, which must then set a date for the referendum.
Hurst estimates Vote Yes turned in a little more than 5,100 signatures. He said his organization cross-checked the names on the petitions with information on registered voters it had obtained from the Board of Elections.
“There were some that weren’t registered in the city of Fayetteville,” he said. “Some claimed they signed it, or claimed they were registered to vote and they weren’t.”
Those signatures were eliminated, he says.
“The day I submitted that, it was a Friday, it should have been pretty accurate,” he says. “I feel pretty confident that it’s pretty close to being accurate.”
Hurst, who is a former City Council member, said the language of the referendum has been looked at by the city’s legal staff as well as officials with the state legislature. The state had a few tweaks, he said, but voters should expect the referendum to appear on the ballot as follows:
“Should the City of Fayetteville, North Carolina change from a nine-member city council where each council member is elected from one of nine separate districts, to a nine-member council where five council members would be elected from five districts (one member elected from each of five separate districts) and four members would be elected at-large (from the city as a whole), consistent with the Model of Election described under G.S. (General Statute) 160A-101(6)(d). ”
Nacarla Webb, a city spokeswoman, said when the petition returns to the city, the council will adopt a resolution that calls for a special election.
“That would most likely be November,” she said in an email. “Public notice will be given of any special election at least 45 days in advance.”
For more than 20 years, Fayetteville City Council members have been elected in nine, single-member districts. Only the mayor is elected citywide.
The Vote Yes organization wants to reduce the number of district seats to five and add four at-large seats. The mayor under this structure would continue to be elected at-large.
Petition organizers say the current council structure causes members to focus on their own districts and miss the big picture, which can lead to inaction on key city issues. They say at-large seats will give voters more say because they will be able to vote for more council seats; currently, they can vote for just their district representative and the mayor.
Critics of the Vote Yes proposal say the change will dilute the voting power of Black voters and make it harder for candidates with smaller budgets. In 2007, Fayetteville voters passed a similar referendum to add three at-large seats and reduce district seats.
That change was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, which concluded the model would harm Black candidates’ ability to win seats. It is not clear the same protections would be in place today; a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down provisions in the Voting Rights Act that required Fayetteville and other jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department to draw new districts.
Critics of Vote Yes question the timing of the latest effort to change the council — on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and at a time when the City Council comprises eight Black members out of 10, including Mayor Mitch Colvin.
In-person, early voting is underway for City Council elections, with a primary scheduled for May 17 and election scheduled for July 26. The city elections were delayed from last year due to late U.S. Census results. If voters approve a change to the council later this year, it will not affect the current election or the council seats won in July.
Councilman Larry Wright, who represents District 7, said he believes Vote Yes will be on the ballot, probably in November. He does not favor the change.
He was out campaigning during early voting Wednesday morning at Cliffdale Recreation Center.
Wright, who is African American, said he worried Black voters would “go to sleep” on the effort and not pay enough attention.
“It will be much harder to raise funds to run at-large,” he said if the proposal passes. “It will diminish our vote.”
Not just Black and white
But the issue is not just about race. At a City Council candidates forum last week, two candidates running for the open District 6 seat addressed whether they supported the ballot initiative.
Peter Pappas described himself as “a little torn by it” and said he had not fully researched the issue or who was behind the effort. He said running at-large could lose the sense of neighbors helping neighbors.
He added: “Very honestly, running at-large to me would remove the opportunity for a businessman or your minister or somebody local or even our mailman to run for office.
“Because … I feel like you would turn these guys into professional politicos.”
He said the problem with Washington, D.C., is politicians were trying to appeal to the largest group possible.
“Let’s just bring it back to our community,” he said.
Joy Marie Potts said she had already heard of campaigns raising $20,000, and said adding at-large seats to council would only make it worse.
“That’s great that you can do that,” she said. “But if we have an at-large seat, whose gonna be running Fayetteville? Somebody in Raleigh? I’m totally against it. One hundred percent.”
Timing of referendum
Hurst said it did not matter to him when the referendum appeared on the ballot, though he was glad it would not be during the July general election for City Council seats.
“You don’t have any, ‘They’re trying to rig it or fix it, or lower turnout’ and all that. So I think November will be good.”
The referendum’s likely presence on the midterm ballot in November will put it before the most number of voters in 2022. Cumberland County voters will already be at the polls to vote on U.S. Congress and statewide and county seats.
There are indicators that both Vote Yes supporters and those against changing the council have work to do: Two voters interviewed at Cliffdale Recreation Center on Wednesday had never heard of the initiative; a third reported she had heard something about the effort — but did not know any details.
Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3559.
Note: A previous version of this story placed Councilman Larry Wright in an incorrect district. It has been corrected
The original story can be found on The Fayetteville Observer.