Op-Ed: Forget pay raises and longer terms, it’s time to eliminate at-large seats

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Last Monday, at the first regular meeting of the newly elected Charlotte City Council, freshman councilman Braxton Winston expressed his desire to see his and his peer’s jobs as full-time roles. Mr. Winston explained that a part-time council required to run for re-election every two years doesn’t have “enough time to deal with all of the issues” and cannot effectively serve the community.

If the goal is for council to more effectively serve this community, Mr. Winston’s focus is on the wrong problem and he should be talking about at-large seats. At-large seats allow for supermajorities to have monopolistic government control, which can obviate critical debate essential to the effective operation of any oversight board.

A monopoly is generally defined as greater than 75% control of the market share. With ten Democrats (nine members and our mayor) and two Republicans, Charlotte has an 83% Democrat council, despite having only 48% of the registered voters in this city. Remove the at-large seats and council is a 75% majority with a one seat shift bringing it to 63%, in line with the proportion of the vote the average mayoral winner in Charlotte earns.

Some claim that Republicans need to work harder and win one or more of the at-large seats, but those arguments fall flat on a community that has not had fair representation since 2009 (see Secession in Charlotte).

This is not an attack piece on the Democratic party. Regardless of your party affiliation, and especially if you have no party affiliation, at-large seats decrease the diversity of political opinion and allows the majority party in power to ignore the voice of the minority. In fact, in 2013, Fayette County, Georgia was ordered to eliminate its at-large seats that were ruled to be discriminatory against their minority population and in conflict with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. How can Charlotte’s city council serve the entire community effectively when one party has monopolistic control over all decisions and the voice of dissent is powerless?

At-large seats also grow this board from eight members (seven district representatives and a mayor) to a twelve-member body. That’s a large board. Studies have shown that smaller boards, averaging around nine members, are more effective. Mecklenburg County and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools operate with nine members, why would a body covering a smaller region need twelve?

If Charlotte City Council wants to have “politically difficult” discussions around the structure of its board, they must have an honest conversation on the larger problem of at-large seats that stifle critical debate and turn pluralities into supermajorities. They must ensure that the structure of council will allow the council to truly serve the entire community effectively, regardless of how many hours they are paid for.

Robert Watson is the founder of various grassroots activism groups including #breakupMeck which is currently considering a petition to place a referendum on the ballot to eliminate at-large seats

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