It’s a simple decision for Fayetteville voters: Vote yes, or vote no.
But the implications of that choice go deep and could reshape the makeup of the City Council.
A referendum on what’s generally known as the Vote Yes initiative is included on the Nov. 8 general-election ballot for voters who live in the city.
If approved, the plan would amend the City Charter and restructure how City Council members are elected. Instead of all nine members being elected from individual districts, four members would be elected at-large and five would be elected by district. The mayor would continue to be elected citywide.
Supporters of the plan circulated a petition directing the City Council to put the measure before voters in a referendum.
After some council members raised questions about whether the petitioners had followed proper procedures, the Vote Yes organizers took the issue to court. Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons ordered the City Council to move forward with the referendum. The city appealed that decision, but it was upheld by the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Val Applewhite, a former member of the City Council who is running for the N.C. State Senate representing District 19, said she was asked to join the Vote Yes effort, but she declined. She said she challenged the initiative’s organizers that the plan is based on the fact that eight of 10 seats on the City Council are currently held by African Americans.
“Although they said it was not based on race, I was not convinced,” Applewhite said in a CityView election questionnaire. “Perhaps it is not based on race alone, but surely a combination of race, power and control.”
Supporters argue that at-large seats would give voters greater representation, increase turnout in municipal elections and create accountability in city government. They say council members elected at-large would be more likely to make decisions that benefit the city as a whole and not only their respective districts.
Restaurateur Wade Fowler, a member of the Fayetteville Public Works Commission and former member of the City Council, said he supports the Vote Yes initiative.
Fowler said, “I don’t have a problem” with the most council members being African-American.
“I’ll tell you what, I refuse to fall into the trap to think that the biggest thing that’s a distinction I need to make about somebody is what they look like,” he said. “And that’s what their skin color is, whether they are male or female. ... That, to me, honestly is not what’s important. It’s what you think and how you act.
“I want good, honest discussion so that you can come to a conclusion that actually works,” Fowler said.
The change would “allow for more cohesive and representative government that is more responsive,” Fowler said. “When you’re on the council and you’re beholden to more than one small district, it makes you look at the city as a whole more. When I was on council and a district rep, I know that there’s pressures on you about your particular district and trying to do things overall that are good for the city. I think it would help in that respect.”
Fowler said statistics show that cities with at-large representation are doing better on growth, fighting crime and providing public services than those that don’t.
In a nutshell, Fowler said, a reconfigured council would give voters a bigger voice because they would be voting for six members of the council instead of two.
“It gives them more opportunities,” he said.
‘Leaving out the little man’
Religious leader and community activist Adam Beyah is president of the Vote No Fayetteville committee. He said when he sees how much money has been invested in the Vote Yes effort, “it’s indicative of what they’re trying to do in changing for at-large.”
“You’re running their campaign, so you’re running at-large, which takes a lot of money,” Beyah said. “We’re coming from behind moneywise. … This is the type of effort I see this as: We need an effort to overcome the money they’re pouring into this thing.
“When you do it that way, you’re leaving out the little man,” Beyah added. “That’s what got me concerned about this thing. There has to be some motivation that they have to do this.”
Changing the City Charter is a serious matter, Beyah said.
“It’s hard to change it and it’s hard to change it back, either way,” he said. “But I do know if the change is made, there will be less leadership from African Americans. I do know that. I do know that, because it’s the same thing people are doing around the country.”
Beyah said “there’s no guarantee” the change would give voters more representation.
CityView asked some individual voters about the initiative.
“There's a distinct advantage of having your own city representative (elected by district),” said Peter Aubrey, 65, a retired Army colonel. “An at-large representative does not necessarily represent your own neighborhood’s interest. It sounds wonderful in concept; execution is problematic.”
Jacob Zepp, 27, said he is “kind of for it.”
“It’s not like you have huge voter turnouts for each district,” Zepp said. “I’m not against it because I don’t think it’s going to have that big an impact, and I think it gives more exposure to all of Fayetteville rather than nine different districts.”
Magalie Ormond, 44, said she favors Vote Yes because it gives “more of an accurate representation of Fayetteville people.”
Jim Arp, 61, a former member of the City Council, said he believes the initiative will do well at the polls.
“When people look at the opportunity that it provides, you can vote for six people on council instead of two,” Arp said.
Arp said he does not think that racism is behind the measure.
“What bothers me, people make those claims and don’t look at the facts,” he said. “The facts don’t bear it out. This is all about the best interests of the city. How do we get the best representatives to serve the best interests of our residents?
“If the city doesn’t prosper, nobody prospers,” he said. “To be competitive, the city has to do well. Elected at-large, that will give balance. I think we really need this. It’s critical to the future of this city.”
Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at email@example.com.