Ed. — This story originally ran in the Sunday, Feb. 28, print edition.
VIRGINIA BEACH — Following a recent vote in the State Senate, Virginia Beach is bracing for a likely massive change to its unusual local election system, which mixes at-large City Council and School Board seats, as well as geographically defined district seats represented by people who are selected by all city voters.
What that means is even city voters who live outside the districts determine who represents them, an aspect that has long been problematic for some.
Proponents of the current system say it ensures all 11 members of the City Council or School Board are accountable to all voters. Critics say it makes it costly to seek local office, prevents people from determining their own representation and weakens the ability of minority communities to have a say in city government.
Now, the contentious matter may have been decided for city leaders who have differed over how to address such concerns. The system is also at issue in an unresolved federal lawsuit that says it unfairly denies minority voters the chance to elect candidates to local offices.
A divided City Council last year voted not to hold a referendum asking voters to weigh in on the system, as they have in the past. This year state Del. Kelly Fowler, D-21st District, authored a bill that says only local voters within wards or districts in Virginia municipalities can vote for representatives of those wards or districts. City officials here have said they did not know the bill was coming.
The Virginia State Senate, controlled by Democrats, on Wednesday, Feb. 24, passed the bill, 21-18. It will become law if Gov. Ralph Northam signs it. His deadline to take action is Wednesday, March 31.
The Senate vote in February came moments after the defeat of a substitute motion introduced by state Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-8th District, that essentially would have left the decision up to voters through a referendum. DeSteph represents parts of Virginia Beach, and he is a former member of the City Council here.
Speaking in the Senate, DeSteph told his colleagues the substitute motion gave citizens of Virginia Beach a say. Though Fowler’s bill may mean change for two other municipal governments besides Virginia Beach, DeSteph also argued that the bill targeted the Beach, as city officials have said, though that has been rejected by the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.
“At least five times on the floor of the Senate, members of the majority have called this the Virginia Beach bill,” DeSteph said during remarks on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
State Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-7th District, also supported changing the bill to include a referendum: “I don’t think it’s good government that we make all the decisions for the localities, especially things like elections.”
State Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-5th District, has been an advocate for the bill in the Senate. In remarks, he has used the system in Virginia Beach as the example of a flawed process. This year, Spruill led an effort to move all local elections from May to November, another change that has passed in the General Assembly and could effect cities such as Chesapeake if made law.
Speaking on Tuesday, Feb. 23, about the Fowler bill, Spruill said, “What we’re asking you to do is let the people in that district vote for whom they want. Let the people at-large vote for everybody. It’s not right to have seven districts and everybody in that district, if they want to, can vote for that one person and still they can lose the election.”
In an interview following the Senate vote, Fowler said change will allow for fair elections and let district voters pick their own leadership. Additionally, she reiterated that the city election process does not need to look much different for Virginia Beach in 2022. The change would mean that only district voters would choose representatives of the districts. “It doesn’t look any different,” she said. “The ballots may be different.”
In the days leading up to the vote, which had been delayed for a few days in the Senate, several members of the City Council reached out in opposition. The council on Tuesday, Feb. 23, discussed whether a referendum about the system here would appear on the November 2021 ballot and writing to the Senate as a body.
During an interview after the Senate vote on Wednesday, Feb. 24, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer said he will speak to Northam about the impact of the legislation, but local officials have said the change has clear party support in Democrat-controlled Richmond and it is likely to become law.
“I’m just very disappointed in the outcome. … We got handed this mess, and we have to figure out how to implement it,” Dyer said.
Fowler said she has no reason to believe the governor will not sign the bill. “The Governor is for fair elections,” she said. “I feel like if there was an issue with the administration, I would have heard about it a long time ago.”
Dyer said the city could now look at a variety of ways to address the new requirement, though what a new system would look like is unclear. It will likely come up in March when the council meets for a retreat. Earlier, Dyer had said the city intended to discuss the voting system and a referendum then, but discussion will now include what may come next for Virginia Beach.
The possibility of increasingly parochial politics at the city level through a ward system has been a point of concern for Dyer and Vice Mayor Jim Wood, who have opposed the Fowler bill and spoke out against other legislation that would affect the city while it awaits resolution in the federal suit.
“It’s going to be brutal,” said Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, speaking of a possible ward-based system – and noting that it is not yet certain what form the local system could take. “You go from a city where everybody is concerned about every area of the city, and now you’re going to have basically one person concerned about your neighborhood.”
“Are we still going to look at the city as a whole?” said City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District. “Or are we going to be wards and, you know, bring home the bacon?”
Henley was among the members of the City Council who wrote to the Senate. Her letter asked the body to “allow the citizens of our city to choose their system of electing local officials as they have in the past, by referendum and not simply by government imposition.”
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