Ed. — This story originally ran in the Aug. 9, 2020, print edition. It was archived in January 2021.
COURTHOUSE — A divided City Council voted against a resolution that would have led to a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot to ask citizens whether officials elected to city offices representing districts should be selected only by voters who live within those districts.
Under the city’s hybrid elections system, City Council and School Board members who represent seven districts within Virginia Beach are selected by all city voters, meaning people outside a district help select a district representative.
City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District, brought the matter forward, and she has said the majority of the city’s current electorate has not weighed in on district voting, which was last the subject of a referendum in 1996.
Opposition has come in criticism of the question and concerns about educating the public with relatively little time before the coming general election.
Ultimately, the effort failed on a 5-6 vote, but Mayor Bobby Dyer, among those who opposed placing the question on the ballot, said he would work with Abbott to study the voting system.
Abbott said she wanted the council to form a commission to study the issue. Dyer said he would help get that process off the ground.
Abbott, in remarks before the vote, said the matter has been discussed for some time and voters should have a say.
“Every year, we have talked about bringing this discussion to the table,” she said. “We’ve talked about it at retreats. We’ve talked about it during our legislative packet. We talked about it in December when I passed this originally around. And we talked about it at the February retreat. I don’t want the public to be confused. No discussion moved forward on this because not enough people in this room wanted to move it forward.”
Abbott noted that most of the modern voting public has never weighed in on district voting. She said the world is changing. “If we are resistant to this change, we will be left behind,” she added.
She said a referendum is the start of the conversation, not the final word on a system.
City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, spoke against arguments that voters would not have enough time to understand the issue before the November election and more public education about strengths and weaknesses of the system is needed before asking what voters want.
“I think voters are very smart,” Moss said.
Moss said citizens should pay attention to supports putting the question the ballot and who does not. “Because do they believe you are smart enough, that you really are the sovereign people, that we serve at your consent, but not if you get to vote on how that consent is derived,” Moss said. “There’s something inherently wrong with that.”
Vice Mayor Jim Wood disagreed with the question going forward, noting there had been no input on the question and voters had a more robust discussion prior to the 2016 light rail referendum in which voters opposed extending the Tide to Town Center. That referendum, however, resulted from a grassroots campaign to place the question on the ballot, not council action.
Wood said business groups have expressed concern about placing the question on the ballot. “I think when you talk to them, they’re not opposed to the concept,” Wood said. “They’re opposed to the speed in which this is progressing.”
He said the city has had multiple hearings, public engagement efforts and study of other issues “and arguably I’d say none of those are as transformative as this particular item.”
And he added that the matter effects the School Board, but there hasn’t been engagement with those members. “They have not been brought into this,” Wood said, adding that the School Board has process questions about potential change.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, noted that the citizens voted to keep this system in 1996.
“I think once they realized they would be giving up six votes, they said we’ve got a good system,” Henley said. “We want to keep it. So please don’t make it sound like the people never got to vote on this. The people did vote, and they voted to keep the system.”
“They voted in 1994 also to get rid of it,” Moss said, referring to another referendum.
“But they voted after that to keep it,” Henley said.
“True,” Moss said.
“The question was not clear,” Henley said, which is why the matter went back to voters.
City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat, said the conversation during the meeting in July was the biggest discussion the council had had on the topic so far. And she noted that it is unfair the School Board did not get a chance to provide input about a referendum that effects that body and its membership.
“There’s a lot of power when you have eleven votes, when you can vote for eleven people,” she noted. “And you’re going to give up that power and only have five people accountable to you.”
City Councilmember Sabrina Wooten, who represents the Centerville District, has supported the idea and that the issue of district voting was an issue during her campaign for office. However, she said she is concerned about the timing. More time may be needed for citizens to do research and be educated on the issues.
“I think we need to ensure we do it right,” Wooten said.
She said the resolution may not have enough support, and she sought an indefinite deferral to do more research for the resolution.
Henley noted there was only a limited amount of time to ask the court to place the matter on the ballot. Moss suggested that was the point of the motion.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Moss said, addressing people who were watching – and urging them to pay attention.
Wooten said her motion was not to say no or “silence the people” but to give the resolution enough time for more education, discussion and research.
City Councilmember Louis Jones, who represents the Bayside District, said the council should resolve the matter that night.
“Deferring it is just adding more indecision to what goes on in the city,” he said.
Vote it up or down, he said.
Dyer said he was concerned about outreach due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions. He said he would like to use academic resources to study the issues related to changing the system.
“I am open to change, but this is just one option we’re voting on,” Dyer said.
The council did not vote on Wooten’s motion, and the original proposal failed in a vote, 5-6. Abbott, Moss, Wooten and Councilmembers Aaron Rouse and Guy Tower voted to pass it. Dyer, Henley, Jones, Wilson, Wood and Councilmember Michael Berlucchi voted against the resolution.
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