Electing the mayor still up for debate

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 9, 2005

Should Suffolk follow in the footsteps of other Hampton Roads localities and allow residents to elect the mayor?

Or should this growing city of 70,000 continue allowing the seven-member Suffolk City Council to choose one of its members to hold the largely ceremonial office?

Approximately 30 people showed up to Tuesday’s informational forum to learn more about changing to direct election of the mayor, a proposal that the Suffolk lawmakers have tossed about for more than a decade. That’s more than twice the number who attended

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last month’s meeting at Nansemond River High School.

Two experts who have helped other localities study the ramifications of moving to direct election, Robert de Voursney, a retired University of Virginia professor who works for the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, and Richmond attorney Carter Glass, spoke at the forums.

Mayor Bobby L. Ralph was hoping turnout at the forums would accurately gauge community support for the proposal.

&uot;There was improvement in attendance over the first forum but I was hoping there would be a little more attendance last night,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;I don’t see a great deal of enthusiasm right now.&uot;

Copies of the direct election panel presentation will be shared with council members during the next couple weeks, said Ralph.

Suffolk and Norfolk are the two only cities in Hampton Roads where councils select the municipal leaders. And that’s about to fade into Norfolk’s history; in a 2000 referendum, voters supported moving to direct election.

A general mayoral election plan is now being reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department.

Although their number may have been small, several people at Tuesday’s forum said they believe Suffolk residents should be allowed to elect the city’s leader.

&uot;We need to get with the system,&uot; said May Burke of Suffolk. &uot;Every other city around here uses direct election.&uot;

According to 2004 statistics from the International City/County Management Association, 32 percent of the 2,195 council-manager cities nationwide use the council selection system of mayor.

Exactly 50 percent-19 of the 38 council-manager cities in Virginia-use the council selection process, said de Voursney.

According to his presentation, the pros of direct election could include:

Stronger, more effective mayor.

Focus attention on citywide issues.

Could raise visibility of city government.

May give mayor more legitimacy in eyes of voters and when dealing with other localities and levels of government.

City leaders shouldn’t make the decision to move to direct election quickly, he said.

The action raises a plethora of issues that would have to be addressed: How much power will the mayor have? How many members will be on council? Will the mayor represent a borough or be elected at-large? Will voting boroughs have to be redistricted to meet federal voting standards? Will the plan withstand the approval of the U.S. Justice Department?

&uot;All these and other questions would need to be asked,&uot; de Voursney said. &uot;It just isn’t a matter of making change.

&uot;Norfolk spent two years deciding to make the change and another four years deciding how to implement it.&uot;

Suffolk’s city charter does not allow city lawmakers to call for a referendum to gauge community support, Glass said.

But city leaders or even interested citizens could approach state lawmakers and ask them to support a call for a special election for a referendum, Glass said.