Morrisville Town Council weighs options for possible election change

08/14/2014 4:39 PM

08/14/2014 4:40 PM

Town leaders are weighing their options as they consider possible changes to Morrisville’s election system.

The Town Council on Tuesday invited a UNC government professor to talk about election options. Mike Crowell, a specialist in election law, ran through the pros and cons of at-large, true district and residency district election styles.

Morrisville uses a combination system in which voters elect two council members at large and four from residency districts. That means those candidates must live in a certain area, but every voter in town is eligible to cast a ballot in each race.

Of North Carolina’s 550 cities and towns, Crowell said, only 10 use the system that is in place in Morrisville. Twenty-three municipalities elect all council members from residency districts, with no at-large members.

Crowell said residency districts aren’t popular because they tend to draw civil rights lawsuits.

“Generally, residency districts are places where racial minorities have trouble getting elected,” he said.

In Morrisville, five of the six council members, as well as Mayor Mark Stohlman, are white. Councilman Steve Rao is Indian-American.

The town has had black council members in the past.

Morrisville has more Indian-American residents than black residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Councilwoman Vicki Scroggins-Johnson said she liked residency districts because they lead to greater geographic diversity on the board by ensuring that representatives don’t all live in the same neighborhood.

“There are different viewpoints depending on where you sit in traffic every day,” she said. “... We do learn from each other because we are spread across the town, and that is a strength.”

Scroggins-Johnson also said she believes that allowing all residents to vote in every race – instead of restricting them to one candidate like in a true district election – encourages higher turnout.

Crowell said that’s not necessarily true, though.

“I don’t mean to offend anyone, but keep in mind, people don’t pay attention to municipal elections,” he told the council.

Only about one in five of the town’s 12,400 registered voters cast a ballot in last fall’s election, even as the mayoral race drew attention and Stohlman unseated incumbent Jackie Holcombe.

Stohlman pointed out that the turnout of about 2,600 voters was nearly double the 2011 figure, which he took as a good sign.

Crowell said residency districts can confuse voters, but Stohlman said later that higher turnout proves that’s not true in Morrisville.

“It kind of dispelled the rumor that it’s confusing, what we do,” Stohlman said.

Morrisville leaders have considered changing the town’s election system for years.

Last year, the council voted 4-3 to keep the current system in place. Some council members said it was too soon before an election to inform voters about a change.

Stohlman said an immediate change isn’t on the table.

If a change happens, it could come about three different ways: through a local bill passed by the General Assembly, through a change in city ordinances or by popular support through a petition to put a referendum on the ballot.

Issue with committees

Morrisville’s citizen-led committees that focus on issues ranging from the budget to recycling are struggling to get work done, Town Manager Martha Wheelock told the council Tuesday.

Many of the committees fail to meet a required quorum, so they can’t conduct business, Wheelock said.

The town disbanded one committee last year, and Wheelock said the council may want to consider disbanding the Community Appearance Commission or merging it with another group.

All committees are allowed up to 11 members; the appearance commission has four, including three whose terms expire in December.

Wheelock suggested that the council create subcommittees, lower quorum requirements, enforce term limits or even allow non-residents to apply for some positions.

The town hosted an open house in July to recruit residents to serve on committees, but Wheelock said the event led to few applications.

“I think there’s a lot more we can do to recruit and involve the community,” she said.

Stohlman agreed, although he and the rest of the council decided to hold off on making any immediate changes.

“There’s some good recommendations here, and we need to consider these things,” he said. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to make those decisions.”

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