Special Edition
Oct 16, 2007

Does Lynchburg's Ward I benefit from an imbalance of power?

by Matt Busse and Ron Brown

A proposal to turn a three-acre field off Boonsboro Road into homes, shops
and offices galvanized many in Lynchburg's politically savvy Ward I to
action.

Dozens have turned out at planning commission and City Council meetings,
hundreds have signed a petition against the development and City Council
members and city staffers have fielded numerous phone calls.

The final decision rests with City Council - where four of the seven
representatives, including all three at-large members, live in Ward I. And
that has many guessing that the call ultimately will be in favor of the
residents, who count so many on council as their neighbors.

"This should not be hard to understand. A majority of the members of the
Lynchburg City Council and the planning commission live in the Boonsboro
area," wrote resident Ryan Lacy in a letter to The News & Advance, echoing a
concern voiced by others as well.

"They are quick to bring in development throughout this area as long as it's
not in their neighborhood."

Council members say their place of residence doesn't mean residents in other
parts of the city are unfairly represented, or that Ward I residents receive
favorable treatment. Background and experience, they say, count more than
the home address.

But the swirl of action over the proposed McKenna Place highlights an
ongoing debate in Lynchburg about the relative strength of Ward I.

The perception that voters there have more clout is reinforced in election
returns and voter registration numbers that consistently show an imbalance
within the voting strength of each of the city's four wards.

While the wards are drawn to reflect a rough population equity, that has not
translated at the polls, where Ward I has exerted considerably more muscle
in both the number of registered voters and voter turnout.

An analysis by The News & Advance of voter registration numbers and turnout
at the last four at-large City Council elections shows:

In 2006, for every voter who turned out in Ward II - a predominately
minority area near downtown - 2.5 voters did the same in Ward I, where voter
turnout was 150 percent more than in Ward II.

Numbers were only slightly better in Ward III, which encompasses Windsor
Hills and Liberty University, among other southern areas of the city. There,
for every voter who cast a ballot, two voters did the same in Ward I, where
turnout was 100 percent higher.

Ward II consistently saw about half as many voters at the polls as Ward I
during the last four at-large elections. The numbers were similar in Ward
III.

Ward IV, comprised of parts of midtown and some southwestern areas of the
city, trails Ward I in turnout, with 15 to 30 percent fewer people voting,
although it consistently surpasses wards II and III.

All three of the current at-large council members live in Ward I. Since
1994, six of eight people elected at-large have been from Ward I.

Disparities exist in the number of registered voters, too, particularly
between Ward I and Ward II. Records show nearly twice as many registered
voters in Ward I during at-large City Council elections in 1994, 1998 and
2002, although the gap did narrow in the 2006 election to where Ward II had
70 percent as many.

Perhaps adding to the imbalance, Ward II has hundreds fewer people than the
city's three other wards. Also, about 600 of its residents are city jail
inmates, who are either ineligible or unlikely to cast ballots.

"I can see why Ward II residents feel they have no voice," said Walter Fore
Jr., president of the Lynchburg Voters League, which is active in Ward II.
"When you look at the numbers, it's rather obvious."

Ward I also consistently has about 30 percent more registered voters than
Ward III, where more than one-third of the ward's total population is
comprised of Liberty University students, who historically have not
registered to vote locally.

Many have noted the voting strength of Ward I on City Council during debate
over the McKenna Place development off Boonsboro Road.

At a June 12 public hearing before City Council, several of those speaking
against the proposed development appealed to the fact that a majority of
council members live in the general area.

After a relatively lengthy public hearing, council members decided to
postpone their decision and discuss the proposal again at a July 10 work
session.

One reason given for the delay was so Ward II Councilman Ceasor Johnson and
at-large Councilman Scott Garrett could weigh in. Both were absent from the
public hearings.

Vice Mayor Bert Dodson Jr. said that while four council members live in Ward
I and a fifth lives nearby, they aren't exactly next-door neighbors. For
McKenna Place opponents to lump all of them into "the Boonsboro area,"
Dodson said, is "totally inaccurate."

The vote on McKenna Place is not a foregone conclusion, he said.

"Development's development, and good development's good development, no
matter what part of town it's in," Dodson said.

Garrett said he sees a connection between high voter turnout in Ward I and
all three at-large council members living there.

Many voters likely think, "if you're a neighbor to the folks, you know them
better or you have more of a say-so or your voice is going to be heard,"
Garrett said.

But Garrett said that doesn't mean residents in other parts of the city are
unfairly represented.

Relatively low voter turnout in Ward II will change if its residents become
dissatisfied enough with city politics, Garrett said.

He compared the political process to the supply-and-demand economics.

"If Ward II feels like it's not being represented, for whatever reason, then
Ward II will have that be known," he said.

Ward I Councilman Michael Gillette said one possible reason for the
difference in voting registration figures is that Ward I is more likely to
contain wealthier residents with higher average levels of education and
income.

More people in Ward I feel "perfectly enfranchised," he said, while Ward II
residents are more likely to feel powerless.

"I think people who feel disenfranchised are more likely to feel like their
votes don't matter and are more likely to stay home or not register at all,"
Gillette said.

Dodson, the vice mayor, said background and experience count more than a
council member's home address.

Although he, Garrett and fellow at-large council member Mayor Joan Foster
live in Ward I, they have different jobs. Dodson heads a pest control
company, Garrett is a retired surgeon and Foster is chief operating officer
of a nonprofit.

"All three of us knew each other maybe before we were in office, but we
didn't know each other that well," Dodson said, adding "it's not a collusion
of a good old boys' and girls' club."

Ward I voters are more likely to vote based on politics and issues rather
than where a candidate lives, he said.

"I don't think people who live in Ward I are necessarily going to vote for
someone who lives in Ward I," he said.

One possible solution to the disparities between voting registration figures
would be to roll back the number of at-large seats on council to one, thus
restoring some of the balance lost by the four-ward and three at-large seat
alignment.

If allowed by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act, the
council could be comprised of four ward representatives and one at-large
seat.

Another solution might compel local leaders to ramp up efforts to register
citizens to vote. Liberty University, for example, is working to get more
students registered to vote in local elections.

Fore said registered voter totals in Ward II could be enhanced if felons had
their voting rights restored.

He said voter registration is also hampered by a perception by some
residents that they would lose their food stamps and other life-sustaining
benefits if they didn't vote the right way.

"Those of us interested in the political process need to take a good hard
look here," Fore said. "We have to address this through city government."

Lynchburg City Council's ward system was once much different than it is
today. The current setup was created in the 1970s, after the city's
annexation of 25 square miles of Bedford and Campbell counties.

Because the U.S. Justice Department thought the annexation would dilute minority voting
strength, it required one ward to be predominately black. Prior to the
change, there were seven members of council, all elected at-large. 

Representation now is comprised of an elected person from each ward, plus
the three at-large seats for which anyone in the city can vote. The wards
are redrawn after each census, as required by federal law.

City staffers and some City Council members oversee the process, which last occurred in 2002
and was based on numbers from the 2000 U.S. Census. The Justice Department
must sign off on any changes to the ward boundaries.


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