Ed. — This story ran in the Sunday, Feb. 14, print edition. Since then, the Virginia Senate approved the bill at issue [HB2198], and it will go to the governor. Further coverage will appear in print this coming Sunday. Click this link for a PDF version of our graphic about the current local election system in Virginia Beach.
VIRGINIA BEACH — A bill that would change the unusual voting system in Virginia Beach is advancing in Richmond, where the state Senate is now considering whether to make local governments ensure representatives of districts or wards are selected only by people who live within those areas.
That is not how it works here in the largest city in the commonwealth, and local officials say Virginia Beach is the obvious focus of the bill.
Seven of the 11 local government seats in Virginia Beach are tied to districts, but all city voters help fill them, even if they live outside a district.
The bill [HB2198] by state Del. Kelly Fowler, a Democrat whose 21st District seat includes part of Virginia Beach, passed the House of Delegates this month on a party-line vote. As this story initially went to press on Thursday, Feb. 11, the bill was in a Senate committee. After the story appeared in print, the bill advanced to the full Senate.
The outcome of the bill is not yet certain, but Democrats have the majority in both houses of the General Assembly and control the governor’s office.
Some Virginia Beach officials have objected to the bill, which caught them by surprise. Local officials also are dealing with tension among members of the council about how the city responded to the bill, as well as the relationship with a member of the local delegation who filed it without consulting the government they say it it clearly targets.
Last month, Mayor Bobby Dyer told The Independent News he only found out about it through a social media post. In late January, he and Vice Mayor Jim Wood wrote a letter about the bill and another voting bill to the entire Virginia Beach General Assembly Delegation, urging opposition.
The City Council has since discussed such matters during meetings on Tuesday, Feb. 2, and Tuesday, Feb. 9. There has been criticism of a process by which a city lobbyist told the General Assembly a majority of the council opposed the bill though there had been no discussion or vote about it. Others have reiterated concerns Dyer and Wood have stated — an increasingly possible change is happening without local input, and they had no choice but to respond in some way to the bill due to time constraints.
“It happened this way because we were blindsided,” Dyer said on Thursday, Feb. 11. The mayor added that he has spoken with Gov. Ralph Northam about the bill, which Dyer hopes will not make it out of the Senate.
Fowler has stressed that the bill gives voters of districts and wards anywhere in the commonwealth assurance they determine their own representation. During an interview on Thursday, Feb. 11, she said the bill is meant to address all localities in the state and would not change Virginia Beach aside from “who would vote for who” within the residency districts.
And she addressed criticism from Dyer and Wood in her own letter to the City Council on Wednesday, Feb. 10. “HB2198 does not target Virginia Beach or any specific locality,” Fowler wrote, though she noted that “a few localities” might have to adjust voting systems.
“Furthermore,” Fowler wrote, “this bill only clarifies who is considered a ‘qualified voter’ in a district. This is a procedural change with the election system. Only those who live in the district would be considered qualified voters. Everything will remain the same for City Council seats and their districts.”
The system for electing members of the City Council and School Board in Virginia Beach is unusual because it mixes at-large seats, where candidates can be from anywhere in the city and are selected by all city voters, and district seats that cover specific sections of the city but are voted upon by all city voters. [Ed. — See the graphic on Pages 10 and 11.]
Who votes for district seats is the wrinkle in Virginia Beach’s system of electing local officials that is at the heart of the bill and in an unresolved federal lawsuit that alleges the city’s system violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act, disenfranchising voters and making it harder to gain representation by minorities in local offices.
Concerns about this system are coming to a head now, but they are longstanding, dating back to before a pair of referendums about the system in the 1990s brought opposite recommendations from voters.
Fowler, in remarks to the General Assembly, even read the language of the question asked of voters in 1996 in Virginia Beach, a referendum that reversed the opinion expressed in a 1994 vote. Fowler noted — as critics did at the time — language of the 1996 referendum framed the issue in terms of voting for more or fewer members of the council. Because of this, Fowler argued, the result was not surprising.
“The question should have been, ‘Do you want to disenfranchise voters?’” she said.
Last year, a divided City Council rejected an effort led by Councilmember Jessica Abbott of the Kempsville District to place another referendum about district voting on the 2020 ballot. Previous coverage related to that effort is online at princessanneindy.com. And officials, including Dyer, have said engaging the public about the voting system here will be a topic during a City Council retreat scheduled for March.
As reported in the Sunday, Jan. 31, edition of The Independent News, Dyer and Wood on Thursday, Jan. 28, sent a letter to the Virginia Beach delegation – members of the General Assembly whose districts cover parts of the city – to object to the bill introduced by Fowler and another bill [HB1890] which would change, among other things, standards for legal defenses to issues such as the a challenge of the voting system that Virginia Beach now faces in federal court. Those matters should not be considered while the case is unresolved, the letter argued.
Fowler’s bill, they wrote, “targets the residency districts created by the Virginia Beach City Charter” that “ensure all geographic areas of the city are represented on the City Council.” They urged members of the delegation to oppose the bills. The letter followed direction from a majority of the council for a city lobbyist to oppose the bill.
City Councilmember Aaron Rouse, who holds an at-large seat, wrote an open letter to citizens on Friday, Jan. 29, in which he said a “phantom majority” had directed city staff to object to the bills. He said this denied the public their right to have a say, and it did not reflect a council position because there was no transparent process or public discussion.
“These bills, like every bill, deserve scrutiny,” Rouse wrote. “However, everyone that it impacts should participate in its scrutiny, not just a group of politicians denying you your say.”
He wrote that “for any member or members to represent something of this magnitude as the will of the council when there was no formal public process during which the matter was deliberated and acted on is inappropriate and does not give an accurate description of the diverse viewpoints on this matter currently present on this council.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 2, Rouse echoed his concerns during a council meeting.
During the meeting, City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who holds the Rose Hall District seat, acknowledged “very well stated objections to the process that was used to express objection to this legislation,” but he said this did not mean there wasn’t also a flaw in the way the bill came about.
“I also think it’s worth noting – and it’s very important that the people of Virginia Beach understand and are aware of it – a matter of this importance should have been consulted with the City Council,” Berlucchi said. “And I would think, at minimum, that a legislator who was bringing this initiative forward would consult with the mayor and the vice mayor, if not the entire council.”
Fowler has reached out on other matters in the past and not gotten “a lot of support,” said City Councilmember Sabrina Wooten, who represents the Centerville District. Wooten said the council should reflect on the fact that the body is nonpartisan and listen when people reach out to them.
“Process improvement is going to be the name of the game with this,” Dyer said, “and we will have a better relationship with everyone in our delegation going forward.”
City Councilmember Barbara Henley of the Princess Anne District has warned about people within districts losing influence with elected officials when they cannot vote for them. She said the city has been transparent in establishing its own priorities for the General Assembly through its legislative agenda process, which involves multiple meetings and public discussion.
“That’s the way the local side works, but, apparently, the state side is going to work a little differently now,” Henley said. “I – and I can only speak for myself – had absolutely no idea these bills were even being considered, much less introduced. That’s the lack of transparency.”
Henley said there wasn’t time to have a City Council meeting about the bill.
Wood, during an interview on Thursday, Feb. 11, said he respects the concerns that have been raised and knew not everyone on the council would be in agreement. In this case, he said, the city had to respond to a bill they didn’t know about in advance.
“As quickly as these bills move forward, we just didn’t have time to do it,” Wood said.
Debra Bryan, the city’s legislative affairs liaison, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, briefed the City Council about matters under consideration in Richmond, including the voting bills.
Wood discussed the need to open up lines of communication with members of the delegation. “I think we need to go back to ideally having quarterly meetings with the members of the delegation,” the vice mayor said.
“Was that shared with you in advance or was it not?” he asked of the Fowler bill.
Bryan said it had not been.
Fowler, in her Feb. 10 letter, responded to some comments from the city meetings.
She wrote it is not true that she needed to “collaborate” with the city on the bill. In the past, she wrote, she has tried to do so on issues without success.
And the idea that she overstepped by not seeking city approval is a “false narrative,” she wrote.
State Del. Barry Knight, R-81st District, is among the Virginia lawmakers who opposed the bill. He has raised concerns about its effects on Virginia Beach that are not dissimilar to those of Henley. Both are farmers and represent rural communities.
“I don’t think we should put in a state law that only effects Virginia Beach,” Knight said during a Friday, Feb. 5, interview. “Let Virginia Beach control their own destiny.”
Knight said he would watch what happens in the Senate after Fowler’s bill passed the House of Delegates on Monday, Feb. 1, in a 55-45 vote. State Del. Glenn Davis, R- 84th District, spoke against it prior the vote, essentially addressing some of the complaints raised by city officials. Davis represents part of Virginia Beach, and he formerly served as a member of the City Council here.
Davis addressed the “accusation … of Virginia Beach having a system that disenfranchises voters when the patron of the bill is attempting to do the very definition of disenfranchising voters.”
Davis noted that Fowler lives within the Princess Anne District of Virginia Beach.
“Madame Speaker, when the patron’s own district of Princess Anne cannot hold the majority of City Council accountable for violating the Green Line resulting in the subsequent destruction of agriculture community by developers, that disenfranchises voters,” Davis said before offering similar examples.
In her remarks that day, Fowler noted the complicated history of citizens addressing district voting in Virginia Beach in terms defined by people elected through the system at issue. In 1994, voters passed a referendum in favor of district voting, and a charter change came to the General Assembly, Fowler said, but a substitute plan in the legislature ultimately led to the 1996 referendum.
“Just remember that we are trying to protect voters and eliminate voter disenfranchisement,” Fowler said.
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