COURTHOUSE — The Virginia Beach City Council may consider putting a referendum on the November ballot that could lead to big changes to the way people choose local elected leaders representing specific voting districts.
A proposal by City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District, would ask whether representatives of the seven district seats should be selected from voters who reside only within those respective districts.
Voters from throughout Virginia Beach now pick district representatives, even if voters do not live in the district. Language proposed by Abbott specifies City Council seats, but, since City Council districts correspond with School Board districts, change would likely apply to both.
Under the city’s current hybrid election system, there are at-large seats and district seats. People elected to represent districts must live within the district, but, again, voters from throughout the city elect them to office. At-large representatives are represented by someone from anywhere in the city and are selected by all city voters, and, on the City Council, that goes for the mayor, too.
The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on draft language for a referendum question on Tuesday, July 21, during its meeting at 6 p.m. at City Hall. The council also wants to hear whether people think they should vote to put the question on the ballot, which would require action by the City Council at the following meeting.
Abbott discussed the need to revisit the system for local elections during the City Council retreat in February, when she said a generation of Virginia Beach citizens have never had the chance to weigh in on how they select their local leaders. District voting was last on the ballot in 1996.
“Referendums to change the city charter are ideally conducted during the highest voter turnout elections, usually during Presidential cycles,” Abbott wrote in a statement posted to social media on Thursday, July 16. “Also, the earliest that it could be implemented would be 2021 after the updating and redrawing of districts, which would be after the upcoming census. We can agree that much has changed in Virginia Beach over the past 24 years, and I believe we need a reliable, updated indicator of support for the issue from the public.”
Some proponents of change feel it would make elected leaders more responsive to people within the district they want to represent. Change could influence how answerable some district members of the City Council and School Board may be to people outside their districts if those voters are not part of the process of electing them.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, during an interview on Friday, July 17, said she does not support rushing a referendum question onto the ballot when the significance of such a change has not been discussed. The Princess Anne District includes much of the southern half of the city, including rural communities and the vast majority of the city’s farming industry. Henley, a farmer who lives in Pungo, said she cannot remember an at-large representative from the rural area of city.
“When we had this on the ballot the last time (in 1996) it was defeated because people realized they were going to be giving up six votes,” Henley said. “We have a unique system because we have a unique city. … What the people who set up our government realized is every member of council votes on each issue and, therefore, they should be responsible to every voter, no matter where they live.”
Abbott addressed the proposal during a City Council informal session on Tuesday, July 14, saying 62 percent of the current electorate has never weighed in on district voting and this would give the city an “updated pulse” on the issue.
City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, supported the effort, and he sought a public hearing prior to City Council considering whether to put the question on the ballot. He said — given the response to the light rail referendum in 2016, when voters rejected extending The Tide to Town Center — there should be no concern about voters understanding the question in a presidential election year, a concern expressed by some.
“I think we often underestimate just how informed the public really is and when we ask them something that they care about they participate a lot more than when we don’t,” Moss said during the July 14 meeting at City Hall.
Vice Mayor Jim Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, said this question is different from light rail, which came from a grassroots effort to place a question on the ballot.
“I haven’t heard anybody mention this issue, aside from Ms. Abbott, in years,” Wood said.
City Councilmember Guy Tower, who represents the Beach District, said the city should provide information about the pros and cons of the issue for the public. He also said he heard about it when running for office last year – and he also he encountered people who simply didn’t understand the hybrid system.
City Councilmember Sabrina Wooten, who represents the Centerville District, also said she supported asking the question, and noted that this was an issue when she ran for office.
City Councilmember Aaron Rouse, who holds an at-large seat, said the city should put the question to the people.
“This is a very interesting subject that comes up all the time in the community … whether they know or not how the voting system is that’s in place or the pros and cons of the district voting system or the at-large system,” Rouse said.
City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat, said he timing of this during the novel coronavirus pandemic could make it hard to get information out through events such as forums. “I’ve never seen an election like this,” she said.
“This will totally change our city for the future, and I think something of this magnitude needs a tremendous amount of public discussion,” Henley said during the meeting.
“This is quite a substantial change,” said City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District. “And it’s one that requires conversation, dialogue and carefully crafted language.”
He was among the people who supported including merits of the present system in the discussion while also agreeing the people should have a say about how they select their leaders. Moving the issue along too quickly could hurt a conversation about pros and cons, he added.
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