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Council allows people to choose mayor, have say on issues

After two public hearings, much discussion and some tweaking, Suffolk City Council finally approved, in a 5-2 vote, to allow residents to elect their own mayor.

The resolution calls for Suffolk City Council to increase from seven members to eight n one from each borough plus one chosen as mayor in a city-wide election. The winning candidate would need the most votes citywide, as well as in at least four of the city’s seven boroughs.

The mayoral term would be for four years, and members of council may run for the position only if they resign from their seat on council.

According to the resolution, the mayor would have the same right to speak and vote as any other member. He or she will have no veto power, but would be recognized as the head of city government for ceremonial purposes and more.

The vice mayor still will be selected from among and by council members. In the mayor’s absence, the vice mayor will fill in.

Council voted to adjusted the resolution before agreeing to send it on to the General Assembly because some council members still had reservations about changing the date of the elections from May to November. The approved resolution will allow for the direct election of mayor in the May 2008 election.

Now the resolution has to be approved by the General Assembly, the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Justice Department before it will go into effect. Council members want a final copy to state lawmakers in time for the January 2007 General Assembly session.

A combined 17 people showed up for two public hearings on the issue, but some of their concerns prompted two councilmen to vote against the change.

William Goodman spoke during the hearing and said he was afraid November elections would cause the local process to become as polluted as current statewide elections. Currently, no council member is affiliated with a political party, but should they start campaigning at the same time as senators, for example, they could be influenced by partisan politics.

“I feel very strongly that we should maintain the May election to keep it local,” Goodman said.

A spokesperson from the Hollywood/Jericho Civic League also advocated keeping local elections in May.

A representative from the Nansemond Parkway Civic League wanted more answers about the ramifications of electing the mayor directly.

Councilman Leroy Bennett voted against the measure not because he disagreed with the direct election but because he wanted more time to answer such questions and concerns before making a final decision.

Councilman Curtis Milteer reiterated that the mayor would not have veto power. Also, even though Council would have eight members it still would take a majority to pass ordinances and resolutions. Those caught in deadlock would die for lack of majority support. As for partisan politics, he said the city charter has required non-partisan elections since 1984.

Besides, Milteer said, from the largest city to the smallest, municipalities across the state are allowing the people to name their own mayor. “We have nothing to lose.”

Suffolk is the last Hampton Roads city to pursue direct election of the mayor.

Still, Councilman Joe Barlow couldn’t be swayed.

“I think it’s the wrong thing to do.”

The people don’t know the candidates (council members eligible for mayor) as well as council members do, he explained. Letting Council retain the responsibility of electing a mayor from their own ranks is the best way to get the right person in the position.

Barlow was also concerned about how direct election might limit the pool of candidates. Interested, qualified individuals who lack the funds for city-wide campaigning likely wouldn’t stand a chance.

As for moving elections for both council and school board from May to November, that decision was put on hold. During the public hearing some residents argued for the change, saying it would save the city money, as well as produce greater voter participation.

Because Council could not reach a decision on the date, they removed it from the resolution so as not to tie up the processing of the mayoral election request.

City residents

will have a say

What they did agree on, albeit a 4-3 vote, was to request a charter change to allow for advisory referenda elections. These could be initiated by the Council or at least 10 percent of qualified voters who voted in the last general election.

During the public hearing on the matter, Roger Leonard encouraged council members to vote in favor of going to the electorate to ask questions. In times when council wants the opinion of city residents, they could hold a referendum; it would be an important tool that could help Council function in a more realistic and appropriate fashion, Leonard said.

Leroy Schmidt, however, said Council should opt for binding referenda elections. “What are you going to have a referendum for if you’re not going to make it binding?” he asked.

Councilman Leroy Bennett, who voted in favor of non-binding, advisory referenda elections, said they should have them in place in case they need them.

Councilman Jeff Gardy worried that sending another charter change request to the General Assembly would jeopardize the approval of the mayoral election change and voted against the the resolution.

Councilmen Barlow and Charles Brown also opposed the change. Barlow said the people don’t study the issues enough to be able to give an informed opinion on issues. That is what they elect representatives for, he said.