Plan for filling East Ward seat on hold, residents call time-out

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Derwin Montgomery is resigning from Winston-Salem City Council to serve in the NC House. (file photo)

It was supposed to be a coronation process, but residents of the East Ward told Winston-Salem City Council on Monday that they weren’t on board.

In the face of objections raised during the public-speakers’ portion of the meeting, council members voted to reconsider a motion that set up a process for receiving applications from interested candidates, with council members then voting to appoint a new representative to fill a vacancy on the East Ward. The ward’s current representative, Derwin Montgomery, has accepted the Democratic Party nomination to fill a vacancy in the state House, and plans to resign from city council.

“I made a mistake, and I’m woman enough to admit it,” said Councilwoman DD Adams, who seconded the motion to reconsider made by Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke. “You’re right: We need to let y’all fight this out.”

After reconsidering the motion, the council voted to table the matter.

Montgomery and other Democrat council members, including Dan Besse, have framed the process of filling the vacancy as a binary choice between a council-led process and holding a special election. They argued that a special election would be the least appealing of the two choices because it would require the East Ward to go without representation for a period of time, while also questioning whether there would be time to get the contest on the ballot for the upcoming November election. But the two choices presented by Montgomery and his allies on council don’t include the very option used in 2001, the last time there was a vacancy on council: The executive committee of the political party for the incumbent member forwarded a recommendation for appointment, who was then approved by the council.

“The Republican executive committee nominated someone — by the way, it wasn’t me; it was another gentleman — he served out,” said Councilman Robert Clark, the sole Republican on the dais. “That name was put forward and he was approved by the council, and luckily or unluckily I beat him in the general election in November. The point being here: If we can’t have a typical election, I’d rather the citizens that serve as precinct chairs and other positions in the Democratic Party to select their nominee than the folks sitting up here…. I’d rather have them pick it then up here where there’s only one person in the East Ward.”

Under a party recommendation process, typically only party officers, including precinct chairs and vice-chairs, who live in the ward get a vote.

“That’s probably going to be a relatively small body of active folks coming in and making a decision in a single meeting,” Besse said.

City Attorney Angela Carmon confirmed in an interview with Triad City Beat on Wednesday that council has the option of accepting a recommendation from the Forsyth County Democratic Party without calling for a special election and placing the contest on the ballot for the November election.

“In the past the party of the councilman resigning has come up with a recommendation,” Carmon said. “The council would vote on that recommendation. That’s what they’ve done typically.”

A popular elected official who enjoys the support of his colleagues on city council, Montgomery has shared with constituents in the East Ward that he would like his seat to be filled by Nicole Little, a young lawyer with a background in racial justice and housing advocacy.

Nicole Little is Montgomery’s hand-picked successor, according to Marva Reid, a community leader with the East Ward Safe Coalition.

“He has shared with some of us who he has selected, and I could not agree more,” said Marva Reid, a community leader in the East Ward. “She is overqualified. She has accepted the selection. I’m excited. I’ve worked with her. I’ve protested with her.”

Little earned her law degree from NC Central University in 2017, and graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2013, according to her LinkedIn profile, which identifies her as a “young and charismatic solo attorney, practicing in areas of criminal defense family law, landlord-tenant, and civil litigation.” Little declined to comment for this story. Nicole Little is not related to Larry Little, a former member of Winston-Salem City Council who has acted as a political mentor to Montgomery.

Montgomery declined to confirm that he’s asked Nicole Little to fill his seat.

“I’m still not going to make any comment on potential successors; I want that to flow up from the community,” Montgomery said. “If folks in the community are supportive of specific individuals, that’s where it needs to come from. I have my thoughts, but I will reserve my thoughts until a later date.”

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