VB mayor proposes holding referendum one night before state could change city voting system

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, along with several City Council members, are making a last-ditch effort to try and stop state lawmakers from changing the city’s voting system without voter input.

At Tuesday’s City Council work session, Dyer announced he planned to send a letter to state Senate leadership to express his support for holding a citywide referendum in November to gauge the public’s opinion on the way the city currently elects its leaders.

Dyer made the statement less than two hours after Republican allies in the Virginia state Senate fought hard to allow him the chance to even write that letter. Senate Democrats pushed back on state Sen. Jen Kiggans’ (R-Virginia Beach) motion to put off a final vote on a bill that would unilaterally outlaw Virginia Beach’s current voting setup.

The battle over the way City Council and Virginia Beach School Board members are elected is nothing new. So much so, that a federal case questioning the legality of Virginia Beach’s voting system is also pending.

For more than 50 years, all voters in the city have been able to vote for all 11 council members — even though seven of them represent specific districts.

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) — the bill’s original sponsor — said the method “disenfranchises voters,” as a candidate could currently have the support of all the people in the district they represent, but lose the election.

However, those in the business, tourism and agriculture communities have fought to keep the current system in place, as they have the ear of all of the council. Under a district system, they would only have five.

Convirs-Fowler’s bill, which already passed the House of Delegates, would in the short-term force the city to adopt a single-member district format.

“We’re in a very tough situation,” Dyer said. “I wish we had a little better opportunity to discuss this.”

In August 2020, Dyer was one of six council members who voted against a proposal to hold a referendum in November on the city voting system. A majority of council said the issue was “too complex” to throw to the voters on such short notice.

Vice Mayor Jim Wood (Lynnhaven District) agreed with him, that making a decision in February to hold a November referendum gave the city greater time to prepare an educational campaign.

Dyer, Wood, Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson and Councilman Michael Berlucchi all spoke in support of Dyer’s letter. The hope is the state Senate would vote down the bill in order to wait for referendum results.

However, others, like Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten (Centerville District), said they would not be signing onto the mayor’s letter. She said time would be better spent preparing residents for the changes likely to come.

“The contents of this bill have no been public for seven weeks and they have had plenty of time to discuss,” said State Sen. Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax,) in response to Kiggans’ efforts to delay the vote.

Ultimately, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said she would give Kiggans the courtesy of delaying the bill one last time.