New bill could add seats to city council

If House Bill 37 is passed, two at-large seats will be added to the city council. Currently, the city council operates with eight council members who are elected by ward and only the mayor is elected at large.

New bill could add seats to city council
February 10
13:35 2021

For the second time since 2019, state lawmakers are looking to get a bill passed that will add seats to the Winston-Salem City Council. 

If House Bill 37 is passed, two at-large seats will be added to the city council. Currently, the city council operates with eight council members who are elected by ward and only the mayor is elected at large. HB 37, which was filed by N.C. House Representative Donny Lambeth, comes less than two years after Lambeth filed a similar bill that received criticism from members of the council and the community and was later withdrawn. 

Lambeth’s original bill, HB 519, would’ve moved three of the eight council seats to at-large seats and given the mayor the right to vote in all city council matters. The bill would’ve also changed the way the council fills vacancies, and changed council member terms from four years to two years.

A press release issued from Lambeth’s office after the bill was filed said adding at-large seats would bring city elections “more in line with other municipalities across the state.” In the larger cities across the state, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Durham, at least two council members are elected at large. 

Before HB 519 was tabled for a vote, Lambeth withdrew the bill and Mayor Allen Joines agreed to form a non-partisan commission to review the best practices relative to the structure of the city council.  Last March the commission voted 8-1 to recommend that the city change to a 10-member council with eight members elected by wards and two elected citywide by all voters. Kismet Loftin-Bell, a professor at Forsyth Tech Community College, was the only member of the commission to vote against expanding. 

When discussing her decision to vote against adding the at-large seats, Loftin-Bell said historically those seats are dominated by candidates with money. Loftin-Bell, who ran for a seat on the city council in 2018, said candidates vying for at-large seats have to reach out to more voters, which means campaigns are more expensive and essentially more challenging for a grassroots candidate. “Generally, in communities like Winston-Salem, oftentimes those who hold the wealth have the ability to run at-large campaigns,” Loftin-Bell said.

The commission was tasked to look at what different communities in N.C. and across the country are doing with their city councils, Loftin-Bell said after looking at all the studies and information from other cities, there was nothing that said one method was better than the other. She said she was shocked when no one else voted against changing the make-up of the council. 

“We looked at what different communities are doing and literally they were all over the board. There was nothing that said this makes more sense than the other,” she said. 

House Bill 37 is aligned with the recommendations made by the commission. If approved, the at-large candidates with the most votes will join the council. Terms will remain the same and the mayor will only vote if there is a tie.

Loftin-Bell said although she thinks there will be some push-back from the community and several members of council, inevitably the bill will be approved. She said the only hope is that the community rallies behind someone who represents the best interests of the entire community and not just a select few. 

“At this point, given the commission that was pulled together and that several members of the current council were in support of expanding to include at-large seats, I think it will be approved,” she continued. “I think there still will be some push back for the very reasons that I mentioned and because of representation … is everybody being represented on the city council. The question is, who’s missing and will these two at-large seats allow for full representation or is it still going to be limited? That is what we have to think about.”

Because the HB 37 was filed as a local bill, it doesn’t need the approval of Gov. Roy Cooper. If the bill passes, changes will go into effect in 2024.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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