Morrisville votes against at-large council system

aramos@newsobserver.comMay 31, 2013 

— Some residents wanted Morrisville’s elected leaders to create a Town Council made up entirely of at-large seats in which all members could live in any part of town. The change would improve transparency and encourage more residents to run for office, they argued.

But their pleas went unanswered Tuesday, when the Town Council voted 4-3 to keep the current hybrid council system in place.

Most council members said they like the existing system, which has four district seats and three at-large seats. They cited several reasons for declining to make the switch to an entirely at-large council: timing, an uninformed public and a need for geographic diversity on the council.

Under the current system, at least four Town Council members can live in the same neighborhood. If the council consisted only of at-large seats, all seven members could live in the same community, argued Councilmen Mark Stohlman and Steve Rao, who opposed the change.

Council members Margaret Broadwell and Michael Schlink also voted to keep the existing system.

“It is always good to have geographic representation across the town, particularly in a growing town,” Rao said. “I just believe that it is better in the long term to have council elected in a hybrid system, where we have a residency requirement but still have the benefits of every citizen voting for any candidate.”

Morrisville is one of two Triangle municipalities in which district residency requirements only apply to candidates. All voters can cast ballots for every open seat, regardless of where they live. (The governing board of Angier in Harnett County also follows this system.)

In Cary and Raleigh, meanwhile, voters who live within a certain district are the only ones who can vote for candidates who want to represent that district.

On Tuesday, Schlink submitted a petition with 62 signatures of residents asking to keep the current system in Morrisville because it better reflects the town’s residents, ideas and neighborhoods.

Broadwell questioned whether the public was well-enough informed about the issue or other potential election options, such as redrawing the district lines or changing the number of districts in town or the number of representatives per district.

“I don’t think changing it from what we have now is in their best interest,” Broadwell said of voters. “I think there is a lot more work to be done. There are a lot more angles to the issue that have not been vetted. ... It’s not something you take lightly. It’s a serious matter.”

But Councilman Steve Diehl, who voted in favor of the change along with Councilwoman Liz Johnson and Mayor Jackie Holcombe, said residents seemed plenty informed.

“We’ve heard from movers and shakers – they want this change,” Diehl said. “We have been elected to make the right decision. ... If you ignore the voice of the people, you do it at one’s own peril.”

Rao said he wouldn’t be comfortable supporting a change to the Morrisville charter without voter approval. Residents can petition to have a charter change put on the fall ballot.

Rao said he was also concerned about timing.

“Any attempt to change the system now, before an election, leads to a perception that we are gaming the system, similar to what the legislature is doing with the school board elections,” he said.

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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