Council calls in expert on electing mayor

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 14, 2005

Suffolk City Council has invited a public policy expert to speak at the upcoming public forums on directly electing the mayor.

Robert de Voursney, professor emeritus of government and public policy at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service in Charlottesville, will serve on a panel. He has assisted several Virginia localities that have considered altering their selection methods for mayor.

The city will hold public meetings in the coming days to explore alternatives for selecting the city’s mayor. The initial informational forum is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Nansemond River High School, and a second has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, at Lakeland High School.

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The forums, to include panel discussions, will provide information on the advantages and disadvantages of different methods. Citizens will also have a chance to sound off on whether the city should change its current procedure.

Another panel member is Carter Glass, a Richmond attorney with Troutman Sanders LLP, whose practice includes changes in local government structure and election law.

Currently every two years, the seven members of council pick the mayor, which is considered a ceremonial position in Suffolk. The city manager acts as the municipality’s chief executive officer. Under some scenarios used by cities, the mayor is the lead administrator.

The direct election of the mayor has been among council discussions for at least 10 years. After becoming mayor, council member Bobby L. Ralph immediately made it known that he supported exploring the at-large election of the mayor.

At its planning retreat last fall, council committed to conducting public sessions to discuss this issue.

&uot;We want to make sure our voters understand the pros and cons of making a switch in how we select the mayor,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;A lot of work would have to be done if we seek to change our charter, and we want to gauge citizen interest before deciding whether the council should look carefully at a directly-elected mayor.&uot;

&uot;Most importantly,&uot; he added, &uot;this is an education process to ensure that our citizens understand all the issues associated with direct election of the mayor.

We need to listen to citizens’ thoughts as to what specific problem could be solved if we go to a new system, and whether changing the method of selecting the mayor is the best way to address any issues.&uot;

Panel members initially will talk about traditional arguments that have been considered in other localities for and against the two basic methods of selecting a mayor.

Discussions will address other decisions that would have to be made if the council pursues a charter change, including: the powers the mayor would exercise, possible modification of the size of the council, potential redrawing of borough boundaries, and the length of the term served by a directly elected mayor.

In addition, there will be a discussion of the legal procedures that would be required to pursue a change, and the legal requirements that would have to be satisfied, such as compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.