It was a relief to learn last week that state Rep. Donny Lambeth reached an agreement with Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines to withdraw his proposed bill to change the structure of the Winston-Salem City Council. Kudos to the mayor for speaking up on behalf of the city and to Lambeth, a long-time Winston-Salem resident, for listening to the considerable pushback to his proposal and having the flexibility to take a step back.
Kudos also to members of the public who, once alerted, voiced their concerns.
Lambeth and state Rep. Debra Conrad, also representing Forsyth County, proposed House Bill 519 back in March. The bill called for reducing the number of Winston-Salem city wards from eight to five and adding three at-large positions. Council members would serve two-year terms and the mayor would be allowed a vote on every item that came before the council.
Many saw these proposed changes as detrimental. They would have increased the work load for council members — more territory means more constituents — and had the potential to decrease minority representation on the council — three districts that are currently represented by three black Democratic women would have been combined into one.
Also, running every two years would be more expensive for candidates, limiting who could run for office — and more draining for citizens, who already have to suffer almost constant election cycles.
But one of the most offensive parts of the proposal was that it was sprung on the city by surprise. There was no public discussion. Neither Lambeth nor Conrad had so much as hinted to anyone on the City Council that such a bill was being filed.
There also seemed to be a certain amount of partisan politics involved in the proposal, and perhaps a heavy-handed attempt to change a council that leans Democratic, 7-1.
All around, it was a bad idea, so we’re glad that the public spoke up and glad that Lambeth has nixed it.
This concession, however, doesn’t mean that the issue is dead. The agreement between Lambeth and Joines calls for naming a local 11-member study commission that will look at the city’s ward structure and election cycle. The commission can look at how other cities run their elections, Lambeth told the Journal, and will make recommendations if it sees a need for a change.
“I want to have a very nonpartisan group to look at it,” Joines told the Journal. That’s as it should be.
For at least the time being, the ward structure will remain the same.
It may be that the commission will find cause to change the structure of the City Council. If so, it will be after everyone has adequate opportunities to discuss the matter. That’s the way it should be done.