Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Thoughts on Charlottesville's Electoral System

At last night's Charlottesville City Council meeting, Sean O'Brien, chairman of the Elections Study Task Force appointed by City Council last July, made a formal presentation of the task force's final report.

The report, written in a lively style, makes no recommendations. Instead, it offers the pros and cons on a number of issues derived from the charge given to the task force by City Council These include changing from an appointed to elected mayor; changing Council elections from at-large to a mix of at-large and ward seats; expanding the size of City Council; and other "best practices," including but not limited to term limitations and remuneration. There is also a supplementary section in the report to discuss alternative voting systems, such as instant runoff, proportional representation, or weighted voting. A lengthy appendix includes all of the proceedings of the eight public hearings held by the task force, memoranda on legal issues from the City Attorney, maps of the city showing where Council candidates and members have lived at the time of their election, and statistics about campaign spending.

The report (without its substantial appendices) has been posted on the City's web site and can be read here. In addition, John Yellig wrote an article on the City Council meeting which appeared in Tuesday morning's Daily Progress ("Panel evaluates city election plans"). WINA-AM radio, WVIR (Channel 29), and the new CBS-TV affiliate, WCAV, also reported on the issue.

City Council chambers were packed on Monday night. There was hardly an empty seat in the auditorium. I thought this meant a strong interest in the task force's report presentation. Instead, it turned out that over three-quarters of the seats were occupied by members of a government class from Charlottesville High School. In a rather comic turn, at exactly 8:00 p.m. (one hour into the Council meeting), every one of those students got up and left simultaneously -- just as Councilor Rob Schilling was about to make his oral remarks in response to the task force report.

For the benefit of those CHS students and others who may have missed Councilor Schillings remarks, here they are as they were submitted for the minutes of the January 3, 2005, City Council meeting:

In reviewing the Report of the Charlottesville Elections Study Task Force, I am pleased with the information you present us tonight. I’d like to thank Sean O’Brien for doing an admirable job in what was often a thankless and difficult position. I’d also like to thank the members of the task force for their participation in this report, particularly those who did choose to participate substantially.

I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Sheri Iachetta and her staff for the tireless hours spent, above and beyond the call of duty, in assembling this report and in the staffing of this Task Force.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to thank the members of the public who participated in this process through their many correspondences to and appearances before the Task Force, often in spite of great pressure or duress to remain silent.

Without getting into the specifics of the report, although I urge interested citizens to read the report, and it’s available in its entirety on the city website: www.charlottesville.org; and at City Hall. I would like to comment generally on a few areas of the information presented and then make some concluding remarks:

The History of the Convention of the Elections Task Force:

In the context of a discussion about moving the City’s elections to November in order “to increase our low voter turnout,” I called for a study of three items that I believed would be more effective ways to raise voter turnout, if that was in fact the reason for moving our local elections from May to November. The suggestions for additional areas of study were:

1) Direct election of Mayor
2) Move council to a ward-based system
3) Increase the number of councilors

By a majority vote of the previous council, these ideas were not taken up in the context of the original study to move elections (although they are intricately related to the issue of voter turnout and thus, they should have been), they were, after much discussion and dissention among the previous council, given to this Elections Task Force for exploration and evaluation.

Perceived Problems:

I would like to note that the word “perception” should be considered equally in this report. Just as those people who noted problems are described as “perceiving” them, so should those who noted “no problems” and thus favored the status quo be referenced as “perceiving” their stated positions. If there are “perceived” problems then it is merely the perception on the part of some that our current electoral system is fine just as it is.

Concerns Over Low Turnout:

I attended every public task force hearing, and I do take issue with the report’s description of the turnout as being “low” and statements that there was a “lack of interest” among the citizens of Charlottesville. In fact, when compared to the most recent public hearings held by this body to discuss moving the elections to November (at which 3 or 4 citizens commented at the two opportunities given), the attendance and participation at the Elections Task Force hearings can be considered quite substantial. I would also note that there were more people in attendance for the entire meeting at many of these public hearings than there are in attendance at many of our City Council meetings.

Disenfranchisement of Minority Community:

I was disheartened, but not surprised to read the quote from an African-American citizen explaining the “low” turn-out of African-Americans at the public hearings, as follows: “We’ve tried to change the system so many times; we’ve just grown tired of trying.”

Another section of the report, entitled: “City government is not responsive to the needs and inquiries of the citizens,” goes on to say that many felt there was no point in attending the hearings, that nothing was going to happen—just like the last time (when the City Council disregarded the results of a referendum, which passed in 6 of the city’s 8 precincts, to move to a mixed-ward/at-large system).

The reason that this sentiment did not surprise me is that after I brought the concept of this Task Force forward, I had calls and contacts from several members of Charlottesville’s minority community, encouraging me to continue, but fearing that once again, their desires for fair representation in city government would fall on deaf ears.

This troubling perception of institutionalized disenfranchisement calls for decisive action on behalf of this council, in order to remedy ongoing issues of equity and access.

Opening the System:

In the broad context of the elections discussion, brought forth by former Vice-Mayor Meredith Richards was the idea of non-partisan elections. This idea is discussed at some length in the report. Notably, the report states that while Charlottesville and seven other cities in Virginia allow parties to nominate candidates to the ballot, most cities require candidates to obtain petition signatures as the only means to be listed on the ballot. Although implementation of this practice does not necessarily preclude party involvement in the election process, it will open our Council elections up to far greater competition, thus increasing voter interest and ultimately, voter turnout.

It is interesting to note that no independent candidate has been elected to the Charlottesville City Council since the 1930s, and that no Independent African-American has even attempted to run for a City Council seat since 1984. While there have only been five individual African-Americans ever to serve on Charlottesville’s City Council, it seems unlikely that, with roughly 25% of our voting-eligible population identifying themselves as African-American in the recent census, so few have been elected or even afforded a nomination to run for Council office.

Moving to a solely petition-based system of ballot inclusion for candidates will open up the process to more people in general and will allow for more diverse representation on City Council as opposed to the “engineered appearance” of succession visible over the past 35 years. I call on this council to explore a charter amendment similar to those adopted in Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and Hampton, as referenced by our City Attorney in the report’s appendix, wherein Charlottesville’s charter, in conformance with State law, can be changed to allow only one method for Council candidates to get on the ballot and that is by collecting enough signatures to do so.


When I originally proposed the formation of this Task Force, I asked that its charge be structured similarly to the charge of the Citizen’s Committee to Study Council Changes, which had been commissioned by council nearly 25 years earlier, to study similar issues and concerns. As was that prior Task Force, I asked that this current Task Force be charged with making recommendations, so that we, as a council, could act, or choose not to act, upon these recommendations. Unfortunately, the immediately prior council to this one specifically denied my request, and in fact, prohibited this Task Force, by charge, from making any recommendations to Council, presumably because Council did not want to be in the untenable position experienced by the infamous council of 25 years ago, wherein the Task Force’s and the citizens’ expressed will was thwarted.

Nonetheless, the last line of the third paragraph on page 4 of the Task Force’s report states: “we believe that the discussions do reflect important concerns of citizens about City Government that need to be addressed by City Government.”

The final paragraph on the same page goes on to state: “We ask the citizens of the City of Charlottesville and the members of the City Council to explore and evaluate the work of the Task Force and develop recommendations for improvements to City Government.”

Implicit in these statements is a recommendation, although none was called for. Many of the problems of 25 years ago still persist today—no “system of patronage,” no “organizational agreements” between political and demographic groups, and no noble defense of the status quo will remedy the ills of our current system and bring a more fair and representative form of government to Charlottesville.

The wait for justice and equity has been long; the time to act is now.

Shortly after the last of the public hearings held by the task force, Charlottesville restaurateur and political activist Michael Crafaik submitted an article to the Daily Progress taking a broad view of the issues involved. Published in the newspaper on Sunday, October 24, but (owing largely to the Daily Progress's pleistocene web site) it has never, to my knowledge, appeared on-line before -- until now:

The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.)
Sunday, October 24, 2004
page B5 (Commentary section)

At-large city system has questionable roots
By Michael Crafaik

In September and October, the Charlottesville Elections Task Force held a series of eight public forums, one in each voting precinct, to obtain citizen input on the subjects it has been exploring: direct election of the mayor, electing City Council by a ward system, expanding the size of City Council, and other “best practices� for improving participation in city elections.

The forums attracted a wide variety of people: those who have lived in Charlottesville only a few years and those whose great-grandparents settled here; black, white, and Hispanic residents; Democrats, Republicans, and independents; professionals and working-class individuals [Editor's note: one might also add, gay and straight--RS].

Whatever their background, the people who participated in these forums brought with them an equally wide variety of ideas about how to improve the electoral process. Some comments were glib, of course, but the vast majority were thoughtful, comprehensive, and sometimes creative. It was impossible to predict what types of ideas and what opinions would come from any particular speaker.

There was one exception, however. There was one group of participants whose views were as dependable as the sun setting in the west. Every past City Council member (and most current City Council members) who spoke at a forum or publicly voiced an opinion expressed the mantralike view that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The opinions of this group were so monolithic that it appeared they were reading from a common script.

It should come as no surprise that members of the political class that has controlled Charlottesville's politics for the past 45 years or more would oppose changes that might have the effect of undermining this control. Elites are loathe to give up power voluntarily.

Let's look at some of the history of the city's political system.

Until the 1920s, Charlottesville elected its city councilors by ward. At around that time, there was a nationwide movement to replace ward systems by at-large systems of elections. It was no secret that the purpose of this change was to dilute the votes of newly enfranchised African-American voters and new immigrant arrivals in big cities. At-large elections gave more control to centralized political elites from either Democratic or Republican parties (depending on the particular city). Charlottesville's at-large system of electing City Council is part of the legacy of Jim Crow and xenophobia.

Since 1960, the vast majority of council members have been elected from Walker and Recreation precincts. A handful came from Jefferson Park; one from Alumni Hall; one from Tonsler; and not a single councilor from Clark precinct.

While defenders of the status quo argue that at-large elections produce councilors who represent the entire city, tell that to residents of Belmont, the largest neighborhood encompassed by Clark precinct. For more years than most of them can remember, they have been begging the city for sidewalk, drainage, and other infrastructure improvements, with their entreaties falling on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Clark Elementary School has teetered on the brink of failure, a situation unique among city schools.

No independent -- that is, non-party -- candidate to City Council has been elected since the 1930s. When minority candidates have run as independents -- that is, run against the Democratic establishment -- they have been defeated citywide even when they won the majority of votes within their own precincts.

This is one of the problems experienced by any city in which one party enjoys a near-monopoly of power. For better or for worse, the reasons the Republican Party in Charlottesville is weaker than its counterpart are beyond the scope of city politics. Most Charlottesville voters disagree with the Republican Party because of issues decided in Washington and Richmond. Let's face it: people don't get actively involved with a political party because they like the way that party fixes sidewalks, collects trash, or erects traffic signals. But those community-level issues are what motivates people to run for City Council.

This leads to the suggestion, made by many participants in the Election Task Force forums, that city elections in Charlottesville should become non-partisan. There is, after all, no Republican or Democratic way to clean gutters or enforce parking regulations.

In a ward system, independent candidates could run for office without political party involvement, because they would be able to spend the campaign season meeting most, if not all, of the voters in their wards. (Meeting nearly 22,000 voters citywide is a daunting task that many otherwise qualified potential candidates are unwilling to undertake.) Party members who disagree with their parties on one issue or more would be free to seek office without pledging to support the party's nominees. The cost of election campaigns would plummet as television and radio advertising would be replaced by door-to-door campaigning, neighborhood barbecues, and early evening teas at private homes. Such retail, personalized politics manifests the slogan "small is beautiful."

Would replacing Charlottesville's at-large system by a ward system be a panacea for all the city's ills? Of course not. But it would go a long way toward solving the problem of people feeling -- and acting -- disenfranchised by a system that favors party elites and ignores the particular needs of individual neighborhoods.

If nothing else, the changes under consideration by the Elections Task Force deserve a fair hearing by the City Council.

Michael Crafaik is a Charlottesville native, University of Virginia graduate, and owner of Michael's Bistro. He ran for City Council as a Republican in 1996 and 1998, and served on the City Council Task Force last spring that studied and recommended moving council elections to the autumn of odd-numbered years.

A few days later (coincidentally, on Election Day, November 2), a response to Crafaik's article appeared in the form of a letter to the editor from Timothy Hulsey (he of My Stupid Dog):

Michael Crafaik's article ”At-large city system has questionable roots” (October 24, p. B5) should prove an important contribution to the citywide discussion about changing our elections to a ward system.

Yet perhaps Mr. Crafaik was too diplomatic. To his credit, he noted the failure of minority candidates to gain election when they run outside -- or against -- our city's Democratic Party establishment. But he ignores how the Democratic Party in Charlottesville has played a disconcerting game of "tokenism" within the City Council. By assigning only one seat to a minority candidate, and never seeking or nominating a black candidate when there is already a black councillor in office, the Democratic Party has kept Charlottesville’s African-American community underrepresented in city government.

Whether the pattern is deliberate, or merely the result of taking the votes of black citizens for granted is a question for another day. For now, the question of how African-American representation might improve under a ward system is something few seem inclined to discuss.

Clearly, as readable (and reasonable) as the Task Force report has turned out to be, there are still a number of issues that remain to be hashed out.

A Council work session on this issue has been tentatively set for February 10 at 5:00 p.m. in the basement conference room at City Hall. Members of the public will be able to attend but there will be no opportunity for public comment.

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