Sunday, March 26, 2023

[Commentary] Virginia Beach Needs a New Voting System for City Council

Businessman David Nygaard is a candidate for the Virginia Beach City Council. (Source: David Nygaard)

Growing up here, I always was confused about our city council races. When I first started voting, I remember in the voting booth scratching my head as to whether I was allowed to vote for districts where I didn’t live and agonize if I was cheating by voting for someone in Rose Hall. Years later I understood the history behind the current system for voting and recognize it as the flawed system that it is. We are the only city in America where we vote for everyone’s representative, whether we live there or not. We were supposed to change this system when we were first incorporated as a city in 1963 and given seven years to accomplish it. 55 years later, nothing has changed and the flawed system remains in place.

Why do I say “flawed” you might ask? Because the system as currently constituted is rigged.

The point of “local” government is that it is to be local. In our case, one would think that would be civic leagues and neighborhoods, but not in our city. In Virginia, a state Senator represents approximately 200,000 people while a state Delegate represents about 80,000. In both cases, only those residents vote for their representative. Also in both cases, it is easy to raise constituent contributions because the policies affect the entire state. There are broader interests and more people willing to contribute who have the means.

In the city of Virginia Beach the entire city population of about 450,000 votes for representatives for every district. That would be like having the population of Roanoke or Springfield voting for our local Congressman, Scott Taylor or Elaine Luria. How would you feel if Lynchburg determine which of them would win?

The only comparable race in Virginia Beach is a congressional race which is just shy of 300,000 more voters. A city council election encompasses more square miles and is the equivalent of 8 House of Delegates seats. It is far more expensive to run a city wide race, yet because of the Dillon Rule, the city council only has authority over so much policy. The result is that the only people with deep enough pockets and economic interests to fund a city council race are local developers and others tied to real estate. These are the types of people who will have significant financial interests before city council. This makes the system ripe for corruption.

Moreover, the current system dilutes the votes of minority voters. I’m no lawyer but I do find it strange that we have had only a handful of Blacks and other minorities elected to council. In addition to the minority vote, I’d also add that the system dilutes the low income vote which is concentrated in certain areas of the city. By having all areas elect candidates even from the poorer parts of the city, we are denying low income families from having a voice over their own destiny.

How can we find city council representatives who are not beholden to developers? I believe by making these elections more localized, and smaller, we can recruit candidates who are independent from large developers with significant financial interests before council. I understand a two billion dollar budget is a lucrative target for developers looking for assistance with their projects. But, we need to evaluate each project on its own merits and objectively where council members do not have a vested financial

interest in their votes. And, sometimes those interests are not as clear as they should be. Sometimes they are indirect financial interests, but nevertheless, impact the final result. Recently, we have seen revelations of inside deals by city councilmen, and other forms of corruption and cronyism. It is time to end this corruption and the clear path is to change the system that is rigged.

We have a chance to register our opinions in a non-binding referendum that I filed with the clerk of court last week, which was approved. Please join with me by signing the petitions so that we can have a referendum on the ballot in November 2019. Isn’t it time to change the way we elect city council members in Virginia Beach?

Editor’s Note:  David Nygaard is a lifelong Hampton Roads resident and businessman and is currently a candidate for the Virginia Beach City Council.

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