Limited-voting saga continues

Published 5:16 pm Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don’t look for a change in the way voters elect county commissioners in Beaufort County anytime soon.

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners want to know how much possible legal fees related to changing the limited-voting system now used to elect commissioners could cost the county. On Monday, the board tasked County Manager Randell Woodruff with determining such possible cost. The board also indicated it wants to further study the issue.

The board’s action came after a public hearing on a proposed alternative to the current limited-voting method. Commissioner Gary Brinn, chairman of the committee that recommended the proposed alternative, went as far to make motion to approve the alternative, but withdrew the motion after several commissioners — and members of the public — expressed some reservations about it and called for further study of the issue.

The proposed option, submitted to the board by the Beaufort County Limited Voting Committee with a 6-2 vote of endorsement, recommends that in elections when four seats on the seven-member board are open for election, that voters are allowed to vote for two candidates, and in elections when three seats on the board are up for grabs, voters may vote for only one candidate. That plan is derived from a study in 2007.
The panel considered two other options. One option retained the current seven-member configuration but with commissioners elected from districts (one commissioner per district) across the county. The other option called for four commissioners to be elected from districts, with one commissioner elected from each district. That option provided for three commissioners to be elected at-large across the county.
Since 1991, Beaufort County voters have used limited voting to elect commissioners. The method was imposed on the county by an order from a federal judge. The judge issued the order to enforce an agreement between county leaders and a group of black residents concerning the system of electing commissioners.
Under limited voting, a voter may vote for only one candidate no matter how many seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs in any election to choose board members. Currently, four board members are elected every four years, with three board members elected every four years. The two elections are held two years apart, providing staggered four-year terms for the commissioners.

During the hearing, Washington attorney Keith Mason and Wayland Whitley, a member of the limited-voting committee, each questioned whether the committee received adequate public input concerning the issue. Mason contended the committee’s meetings were poorly advertised, saying he was not aware of when the committee was conducting its meetings.

“I question whether or not there’s been enough input from the citizens to be able to synthesize the feelings of the electorate about this issue. … I’m just concerned there hasn’t been sufficient input from the electorate for you to make an informed decision about what your constituents want in this case. I’m just not sure that it’s something you can have confidence in as you try to decide what you should do tonight, ” Mason said.

Whitley noted the existing limited-voting method is the result of a lawsuit filed nearly 25 years ago. A federal judge decided the county had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and put limited voting into effect. Whitley believes any change to the existing voting method could result in another lawsuit. Whitley does not want to change the existing limited-voting method.

“If we are going to change it, we’re going to have to sue Beaufort County again,” Whitley told the commissioners. “We need more study. We need more people involved.”

For additional coverage of the board’s meeting, including more details of the limited-voting issue, see future editions of the Washington Daily News.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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