By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
When the Democrats take control of the Virginia General Assembly in January, Virginia Beach’s chance of having its charter changed to adopt its new 10-1 election system should be assured.
A federal court order two years ago forced the city to abolish its old hybrid district/at-large system because it deterred African-Americans from selecting council members of their choice.
The city crafted 10 single districts to elect council members and elect the mayor at-large.
The city held a council election last year using the new system and this attributed to a historic four African-Americans being elected to the 11-member governing panel for the first time in the city’s history.
Recently after a series of city-sponsored meetings, a survey indicated that more than 75 percent of the city’s voters approved of the new 10-1 system.
But Black civic and religious leaders and allies in the white community, have been keeping a wary eye out for political forces who may be seeking to undermine the new system and revert back to the old one.
According to Rev. Gary McCollum, chairman of the advocacy group “Due the Right Things,” that effort is being led by former Virginia Beach City Treasurer John Atkinson.
In a late August and a recent edition of the “Princess Anne Independent News,” Atkinson noted in a paid ad that the council approved the new system without the consent of the voters via a referendum.
Atkins’ ad said “The Charter of Virginia Beach controls the makeup of the City Council and requires a Citizen Referendum before it can be changed. So, where was the referendum when the Council took away 9 of our votes and gave us a 9-1-1 WARD system for the last election?”
His 9-1-1 reference is that two of the districts are designed to elect a council member-at-large.
“Our original 1962 City Charter called for a 7-4 City Council, each member having a four-year term … this process lasted through our fast growth years.”
McCollum said Atkins is coordinating with groups of powerful political donors, developers, and other elements of “the city’s shadow government” to pressure the city council to reverse its stand on the 10-1 elections system.
McCollum said the same “Shadow Government” alliance worked to pressure the city council to abandon its support for connecting the Light Rail line from Norfolk to the resort city.
“The council was poised to approve funding to build Light Rail to Virginia Beach,” said McCollom. “It was a very racist campaign. This is why we do not have light rail in the Beach now.”
McCollum wrote an editorial highlighting his talking points in a recent issue of the New Journal and Guide headlined “Virginia Beach’s New 10-1 Election System Promotes Fairness, Trust, and Accountability.”
McCollum said the new district system proved that voters know what’s best and that common citizens have the power to directly elect their representatives.
“However, there is an effort to back a referendum to go back to the old system. Those who supported the old at-large election system led by former Virginia Beach Treasurer John Atkinson who has taken an ad in support of this effort and helped to lead the effort to kill the city’s previous attempt at establishing rail options, claim that the new system limits voters to one vote for or against. However, this is the case in most cities and in state district elections. Further, the one person-one vote doctrine is the main basis of the Voting Rights Act.”
Another supporter of the new system, who spoke off the record on the issue, said if the city asked the Legislature to change its charter to approve the new system, could it be assured?
Virginia Beach now has three African-American lawmakers (a Senator and two Delegates) in the Legislature.
Virginia Beach State Delegate Kelly Convirs-Fowler, sponsored a bill two years ago that blocked the city from using the at-large system to elect council and school board.
All support the new system and may block any efforts to sabotage approval of the city’s request to change the city charter and adopt the new system during the upcoming legislative session, according to McCollum.
McCollum said that not only is the system more politically fair for the minorities in Virginia Beach, but it also reduces the cost for politicians.
He explained in the past, candidates in at-large/district, races had to spend money across the city to gather voter support.
“Now all they have to do is run their respective districts,” he said.
McCollum said many supporters of the 10-1 system also do not care for the council’s system of naming “interim” council members when elected ones leave their seats.
Rocky Holcomb left the council to run for Sheriff and the District 1 seat is still vacant until a special election is held in January.
An interim replacement has not been selected by the council for the seat yet. But McCollum said that interim council members may not be the choice of the district voters.