Leaders appoint limited voting panel

Published 8:29 pm Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Three county leaders were appointed Monday night to a committee authorized to investigate the possibility of eliminating limited voting in Beaufort County.
Saying he had the authority to appoint committees, Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, bypassed a vote of the board on the issue and appointed Commissioners Gary Brinn, Ed Booth and Stan Deatherage to a committee to investigate changes in the way commissioners are elected.
Langley designated Brinn, a new member of the board, to serve as chairman of the committee.
He also tasked committee members to choose up to nine members of the community to serve on the committee and report back to the commissioners in January with the names of those to be considered for appointment to the panel.
This will be the third time county leaders have studied limited voting.
Reports were compiled in 2003 and 2007 on the system of electing members of the county board, the commissioners were told, but no action to change the election system followed the reports.
Langley told committee members to first “take a look at the work that has been done” to determine if another study needs to be made.
The committee was appointed at the request of Brinn, who recommended that it be given six months to make its recommendations and report monthly to the commissioners on its progress.
Some commissioners said privately that while there was support for the creation of a committee among board members, there may not be enough support among board members to move forward with a change in electing board members.
Beaufort County voters have used so-called “limited voting” to elect commissioners about 20 years, following a 1991 court order from a federal judge enforcing an agreement between county leaders and a group of black residents over changes to the system of electing commissioners.
Under the old election system, the county board comprised five commissioners with each elected at-large by voters countywide.
But a lawsuit challenged the method of election, saying that it denied blacks representation on the board in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The election in November of Brinn and Robert Belcher and re-election of Langley and Hood Richardson created a board of county leaders comprised exclusively of Washington residents or those who live in the Washington area.
That has led to growing dissatisfaction among voters who live in Aurora, Bath, Belhaven, Chocowinity and other parts of the county who believe their votes don’t count, Brinn and others have said.
Brinn envisions a plan that would see some members of the county board elected from districts and others elected to at-large seats that would be subject to countywide voter approval.
That way, county voters would have the chance to choose at least two county commissioners every two years, he said.
On Monday, the commissioners agreed that the study committee’s work could be affected by a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court expected within the next few months.
The high court is considering the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in particular, a section of that law that requires Beaufort and other counties in North Carolina to seek federal approval of any election changes.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, any change to the method of electing county commissioners is subject to prior approval by the Justice Department or a federal court before it can be enacted, a process called “preclearance.”
Brinn said the committee needs to begin its work, despite the uncertainty.
“Anything that we do will be ahead of the curve,” he said. “That way we can be first out of the gate.”