Electing mayor the subject of meetings

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 30, 2005

It’s about more than casting votes.

Switching to the direct election of mayor-a proposal that has been batted about by various city councils for more than a decade-is far more involved than a change at the polls, said Mayor Bobby L. Ralph.

Direct mayoral election will take center stage during two public meetings in the coming weeks-May 19 at Nansemond River High School and June 7 at Lakeland High School.

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Besides giving residents an opportunity to learn more about direct election, the meetings will give citizens the chance to make lawmakers aware of their thoughts on the issue, said Ralph.

&uot;A few individuals have been vocal in their support for moving to direct election,&uot; he said. &uot;But we want to hear from more people.

&uot;The public has really got to decide whether or not they want this.&uot;

Currently, like 23 of the state’s 40 cities, the Suffolk City Council’s seven members select the mayor to serve two-year terms at the city’s helm. The city’s mayor, now largely a ceremonial position, has the same voting power as his fellow council members.

Opening the direct election discussion raises a plethora of other questions: How much power should the mayor have? Should council members be elected at-large rather than by boroughs? Should the mayor vote on all issues-or only in tie-breaker situations?

And most importantly, would changing to direct election have a negative impact on the voting powers of some groups of people?

&uot;We don’t want to create problems,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;We need to make sure any changes wouldn’t dilute the voting strengths of groups of voters.&uot;

Any proposed changes to the system or the voting districts would be subject to review by the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.

Ralph said he hasn’t formed an opinion on direct elections yet.

&uot;I’m still trying to educate myself as to what people really want,&uot; he said. &uot;I need to be convinced as to whether it is the best interest of the city.&uot;

Ralph anticipates city lawmakers will decide whether to proceed with direct election by the end of the summer. That would give the city time to prepare documentation needed for the General Assembly to change the city charter during the January 2006 session.

T.C. Williams, a member of the Rosemont/Lloyd Place Civic League who often attends council meetings, supported the city’s decision to look at direct election.

&uot;I’m in favor of the people (making the decision),&uot; he said. &uot;The seven of them electing one of themselves mayor is a farce because it involves no talent or skill.

&uot;It’s all favoritism. They just look to see who the favorite guy is at this point in time.&uot;