It’s only been a couple weeks since the new City Council members were sworn in, but differences between them and the old guard are already showing.
At a meeting Tuesday, several new members tried to block a plan initiated by Mayor Bobby Dyer and approved by the previous council late last year to collect public input on the city’s election system. But in a 6-5 vote, the attempt failed and the city will move forward with public input by contracting a consultant and launching an advertising campaign at a cost of more than $300,000.
Councilwomen Sabrina Wooten, Jennifer Rouse, Amelia Ross-Hammond and councilmen Chris Taylor and Worth Remick wanted to rescind the mayor’s plan.
Although the city used a new 10-1 district voting system in November, the City Council learned Tuesday that nothing is set in stone as to how Virginia Beach voters will elect their City Council representatives in the future.
A decision will need to be made, City Attorney Mark Stiles said.
“10-1 is not baked in the cake going forward if nothing else happens,” Stiles said. “You still have to adopt it.”
The district voting system was used after the city was sued and a U.S. District Court deemed Virginia Beach’s at-large voting system diluted minority voting. The city won its appeal; however, the court’s ruling came too late to change the system for the 2022 election.
Some of the candidates who ran said they were encouraged by the district system, which didn’t require the resources to campaign across the city. Voters elected three new Black members. The new council is the most diverse in city history.
Several seats will be up for election in November 2024. Deputy City Attorney Christopher Boynton said Tuesday other voting options may be considered, but could face legal challenges.
A change to the city charter, which requires General Assembly approval, will be needed.
In December, Dyer won support from the former council to collect public input on the election system options by Aug. 18, the deadline to draft a referendum question on the November ballot this year.
Wooten said while it’s always good to hear citizens’ input, she’s worried that the goal of the referendum is to move away from the 10-1 district system, which she supports.
Rouse was concerned that voters will not have enough time to experience district representation before deciding whether they like it.
“I want public input and engagement, but I have a hard time with how quickly this is moving,” she said.
Voters will have several opportunities to voice their opinions about the election system over the next several months, including through town halls and by commenting on a new webpage that will be developed soon.
The process comes with a hefty price tag. The city will contract with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service for $188,958 on the public input process, city spokeswoman Tiffany Russell said. Findings and results would be delivered to the council in mid-June. Additional costs will come with direct mail outreach to residents and media advertising.
Last year, the city spent roughly $60,000 on one postcard mailer to inform 148,000 or so households about the district voting. Virginia Beach also spent about $200,000 in advertising about the election system change, Russell said.
Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, firstname.lastname@example.org