An earlier comment by a poster reminded me that I needed to write a piece on the ward system. Come May, the ward system in place in Norfolk since 1992 will change slightly, expanding from its current seven members to eight with the election of a mayor. The mayor will be elected at-large, meaning he will be elected by, and represent, the entire city. Two members of council are elected from the superwards. Each superward represents approximately half of the city. Further, there are five small wards, each representing a portion of the city. At the root of the ward system are issues of race.
Prior to 1918, the city of Norfolk employed a ward system. During that time, blacks were elected to serve as council members. Beginning in 1918, Norfolk used an at-large system of electing the city council. From 1918 until 1968, the at-large system produced an all-white council. In 1983, seven individuals and the Norfolk Branch of the NAACP sued to overturn the at-large system. After a seven year legal battle, Norfolk was forced to change to the ward system, with the decision being affirmed by the US Supreme Court on October 29, 1989. Throughout 1990, the city grappled with how to best implement the ward system. In 1992, the first ward system elections were held.
That year, Paul Riddick become the third black member of council, joining Father Joseph Green and Dr. John Foster. The east side of the city gained representation with the election of Randy Wright. Two years later, the lead plantiff in the lawsuit, Herbert Collins, was elected to replace Dr. Foster. In 1996, current vice-mayor Daun Hester was elected to replace Father Green. In four short years, the majority of council seats were held by newcomers and the ward system brought about a dramatic shift in power. Prior to its implementation, the majority of the council were neighbors of each other in the West side of the city. Council undertook such projects as the early 1980s’ rehabilitation of Ghent and the construction of Waterside. The $300 million MacArthur Center Mall was the last of the big downtown projects. Focus – and resources – shifted, with the 100-acre East Beach project, site of the 2004 Homearama. The Broad Creek Renaissance project, site of the 2005 Homearama, is a major redevelopment project expecting to cost $200 million when it is completed.
The shift to the ward system has not been all good, however. It is said that in order to get anything done, one has to be able to count to four. With the addition of the elected mayor, one will have to be able to count to five. As an individual citizen, that is impossible. The reason is that each of us only gets to vote for three members of council: our two ward representatives and the mayor. The other members of council have no reason to listen to our concerns; after all, we can’t vote them out. As the result, the citizens have to band together across neighborhoods to force council to hear us. Rare is the case that this happens. The ballpark in Riverview comes to mind as a case where such a tactic has been effective.
The addition of the eighth member to council is likely to have other repercussions. The possibility now exists for tie votes. Council has admitted that it appoints board and commissions with the same racial makeup as council has. For now, that means all boards and commissions reflect a 4-3 white majority. If this is carried forward, then all appointed boards and commissions will reflect a 5-3 white majority.
I am in favor of the ward system, warts and all. The key to getting it to work in the citizens favor is to elect people who truly represent our interests and to kick out those who don’t. That is our challenge. I urge everybody to participate in the great experiment that democracy is by going out to vote.