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Clarkson and Head both oppose at-Large charter change

15th October 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Chris Villere and Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writers

Jacquelyn Clarkson, a longtime fixture of the New Orleans political scene, and newly elected at-large city council member, Stacy Head, descended upon the Algiers Regional Library planning to host a forum on improving the West Bank. Unexpectedly, both councilwomen were forced to take a stand on an issue they had previously sidestepped. Both voiced opposition for the first time to the proposed Charter Change—before the local electorate in November—that would move New Orleans to Majority voting in At-Large Council races.

After hearing grievances ranging from the local soccer field to blighted houses, from poor out-of-date sewage systems to the lack of construction on busted up roads, Councilmembers Head and Clark­son—under questioning from this newspaper—voiced their concerns with the proposed At-Large Voting Charter Change.

Two months ago, the New Orleans City Council, passed an ordinance that would reconstitute the way New Orleans elects its at-large city council members. Under the current system, all at-large candidates run together in a single election. Those who achieve 25 percent of the vote in the primary receive seats on the New Orleans City Council without needing to advance to a runoff.

A second election only occurs in the case where two candidates have not gotten a quarter of the vote. Should one candidate reach the 25 percent threshold, for example, and the others do not, the remaining two top finishers face one another in a runoff under the current rules.

The proposed ordinance would do away with that proportional voting system. Instead, the Charter, if amended by the voters in Nov­ember, would require the two At-Large posts to be voted on separately. Runoffs would only be avoided if a candidate received 50 percent in the primary, rather than 25 percent.

Councilmembers Head and Clarkson told The Louisiana Weekly that such a change does not seem necessary. The current system is working.

“I get nervous when it’s being pushed by politicians,” explained Stacy Head. “It’s different than red-light cameras.” The Council-member argued that the system should be influenced by the people it is serving, rather than tweaked by the politicians running it.

Despite her apprehensions about the proposition to change the current system, Councilmember Head pledged not to campaign against it, according to an office aide. Similar guarded reservations were expres­sed by Councilmember Clarkson.

“Its fine, as long as there are public hearings first. I would be in support of the measure contingent with informing the people about it first.” Clarkson went on to tell The Weekly that she would have preferred, “one year of hearings” to discuss the proposed change. As it currently stands, she opposes the effort to amend the City Charter without this input.

It is easy to see why Councilmember Clarkson would like to make sure the public is aware of what the consequences of such a change would be. Her critics contend that her re-election to the council post came due to a division of the Black vote. Had she faced a direct contest against an African-American candidate, they maintained, Clarkson would have not earned a second bid for At-Large.

The councilwoman dismissed this reasoning as nonsense, noting that she defeated Cynthia Willard-Lewis in a direct contest to return to the City Council in the first place. However, Black leaders have argued that the reason that a majority-Black city has two white At-Large members is due to a quirk in the voting rules, rather than the Caucasians running better campaigns than their Black challengers.

District “D” Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, the lead advocate of the Charter Change, does not say that so specifically. Instead, she argued to this newspaper that splitting the offices into two separate elections would, “simplify the process and would ensure that At-Large members are elected by a true majority of voters.”

As she explained, “The office of Councilmember at-Large is the only elected office in New Orleans where candidates may be elected with less than a majority of votes cast in an election. Currently, the top two candidates running for the At-Large seats who achieve a plurality of at least 25 percent plus one of votes cast are elected to the office.”

“Splitting the at-Large elections into separate divisions, as is done in Jefferson Parish, would simplify the process and would ensure that at-Large members are elected by a true majority of voters. Both at-Large seats would continue to represent the entire city. The present system of electing at-Large councilmembers is flawed, as it does not require a simple majority. This ordinance will establish two distinct At-Large Council offices, A and B that are voted independent of one another. In addition, the ordinance assures transparency in the election process as well as places the New Orleans City Council-At-Large offices in sync with federal, state and local best election practices.”

Former interim City Councilmember at-Large Eric Granderson, one of the proposal’s loudest supporters, agreed. “Councilmember at-Large is a city-wide elective office. This amendment would create a more representative process of electing candidates to these positions. All other elected officials in New Orleans, including District Councilmem-bers, must be elected by a traditional majority, and the at-Large Councilmembers should also be determined by the majority of voters. The present provisions for electing Councilmembers At-Large run contrary of fundamental democratic principles and defy good government practices.”

However critics have countered that African-American leaders in Jefferson Parish have long called for a 25 percent margin in a joint primary as a way of increasing the chances that a Black Councilman would be elected parishwide—in a parish where only a third of the electorate is African-American.

At the present time, Caucasians represent a minority in the city of New Orleans making up less than 40 percent of the population (though often half of the electorate).

As a result of special minority protection under the Voting Rights Act, opponents of the Charter Change warn that the Caucasian Community could petition for protection from the justice department. Granderson does not foresee any issues.

“This proposal is color-blind. It is simply to ensure that the At Large seats are elected by a true majority of the New Orleans electorate, like all other elected offices in the City of New Orleans. (OPDEC seats not with­stand ing)…Diversity has historically applied to district seats, not to at large positions.”

As for a federal court challenge, Granderson sees no standing, “No, we are not worried. Although Caucasians are a minority in some jurisdictions, the Department of Justice has not considered that to be relevant in the national context where African Americans have been a historical minority. In the 2010 elections, the city was majority African-American in both population and registered voters, yet we elected a white mayor and two white candidates to both Council at-Large offices, including one who received over fifty-percent of votes cast in the runoff. I don’t see that argument can be sustained given our most recent electoral history.

But, the issue has come up in At-Large races in Watts, California, where Hispanic activists have charged that the run-together At-Large system benefits African-American candidates over their community. (Blacks have gone from the majority to the minority in Watts, but still control nearly all City Council positions.)

When asked about the complaint, Granderson answered, “I am not familiar with the Watts case or if this is a true parallel…We will not know the impact that this proposed charter amendment will have until it is implemented, if it is implemented. Disclaimer, the councilmember is proposing this amendment to the Charter absent of any impact of one racial demographic over another. This is simply an effort to ensure that the at-Large seats are elected by a true majority of the New Orleans electorate, like all other elected offices in the City of New Orleans.”

The Charter Amendment will be decided by the voters on the first Tuesday in November, the same day as the Presidential choice between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

This article was originally published in the October 15, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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