A proposed bill would make Winston-Salem’s city council the largest council in the Triad, if it passes.
HB 37, introduced in the state House on Feb. 1 by reps. Donny Lambeth and Lee Zachary (R-Forsyth), would increase the current city council by two at-large seats. Neither Lambeth nor Zachary’s districts cover much, if at all, of Winston-Salem. Currently, Winston-Salem City Council is made up of nine members, including eight ward representatives and the mayor, who is the only official elected citywide.
Currently, the council has four Black members and four white members, with a 7-1 Democratic majority
HB 37 is a result of a compromise reached after Lambeth and Rep. Debra Conrad (R-Forsyth) introduced a House Bill 519 in 2019 which would have redistricted the city from eight to five wards and created three at-large positions elected citywide. That bill caused controversy at the time because the new ward lines included in the bill “would have had the effect of placing three African-American female council members in the same ward,” according to the city’s commission report. The bill was put on hold while Mayor Allen Joines, Lambeth and Conrad helped create an independent 11-member study commission, which reviewed ward structure and election cycles. The commission made the recommendation to add two at-large seats to the current eight-ward makeup of council.
According to the bill, the at-large candidates must be Winston-Salem residents; the two who receive the highest number of votes would serve, like the other councilmembers, four-year terms. If the bill is passed, it would not go into effect until the November 2024 General Election.
Currently, Greensboro — which has eight city council members and the mayor — has a hybrid makeup much like the one that is being proposed for Winston-Salem. The city has three at-large members and five who are elected by district. The mayor, Nancy Vaughan, is also elected citywide.
In High Point, two members are elected at-large while six are elected by district. The mayor, Jay Wagner, is also elected citywide.
After the commission was created, multiple public input sessions were held seeking opinions about the best way to craft a new council. In the end, 57 percent of the public — which was made up of 921 responses — stated that they wanted more at-large representation. The proposed 8-2 split with two at-large members was by far the most popular choice, against the options of a 5-3 split or a 6-2 split. In the end, the commission’s recommendations closely matched the preference of the public. In conducting the study, the commission endeavored to be mindful of not diminishing minority representation and to ensure adequate representation for all citizens, according to the commission’s report.
With an 11-member council, Winston-Salem’s would be the largest city council in the Triad and the second largest in the state — just behind Charlotte, which has 12 members including the mayor. The new council would also have one of the lowest rates of population per elected official with approximately 22,540 citizens per official based on 2019 Census numbers. To compare, Greensboro’s council rate is approximately 32,000 citizens per official while Charlotte’s is 70,000 residents per elected official.
According to the National League of Cities, there is no national standard of proportion for city councils. Across the country, the number of councilpersons per number of constituents ranges greatly from 6,278 in Albany to more than 250,000 in Los Angeles. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be enough data to show whether there is a correlation between the size of a city council and the happiness of the city’s residents. According to a report by the City of Columbus Charter Review Committee in Ohio from 2016, there appears to be an emerging trend showing that the larger a city’s legislature is, the lower on the Best Cities Index the city places. But the converse was also seen in the committee’s research.
During Winston-Salem’s commission research however, one thing appeared to be clear: The addition of at-large seats to the current city council would be beneficial to its residents. During the commission’s meetings, former Durham Mayor Bill Bell and former Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins both spoke in favor of a hybrid system that has district and at-large representation. Two former city managers — Jim Westmoreland who served in Greensboro and Roger Stancil who served in Fayetteville and Chapel Hill — also supported a mix of district and at-large representation.
HB 37 was referred to the committee on election law and campaign finance reform on Feb. 2.
To learn more about the commission’s findings, visit the city’s webpage here.