Pensacola Politics

Viewpoint: At-Large Council Seats Do Not Equal Minority Representation

April 27, 2013

By: George Hawthorne, C.E.O., Diversity Program Advisors, Inc.
The two types of City Council representation in Pensacola are at-large councilpersons, where the majority at the city level elects the representatives on the city council, and district councilpersons, where representatives are chosen in districts. I have been disturbed by recent arguments from the opponents of eliminating the at-large council positions based upon a flawed or manipulative claim that such elimination reduces minority representation. This is simply false and is not consistent with case law and scientific research and empirical data.

The protection of minority rights in Pensacola’s political representation is best achieved and articulated through a combination of majority sensitivity and minority inclusion. Pensacola’s minority groups must enjoy full access to participate in the political sphere, public life and the relevant aspects of decision-making. Such guarantees are also essential components of good governance, conflict management and multi-ethnic accommodation in Pensacola where disputes over racial difference have turned, or have the capacity to turn, into social conflict and serve to perpetuate the region’s economic and civic disparities.

Pensacola must pay particular attention to how its representative bodies are elected and who shares in executive and legislative power. The inclusion of minorities in representative bodies is a necessary condition of conflict prevention and longer-term conflict management. Inclusion implies that members of minority groups can run for office, have a fair shake at winning office, and then have a voice in locally elected government structures. There is not a single case of democratic conflict avoidance in which the minority community is excluded from legislative representation.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was meant to protect the right to vote for racial minorities especially in the South. White majorities in cities of the South reacted strategically to this federal legislation by changing the electoral rules of their cities in order to minimize minority representation. They only partially succeeded. Had they not been kept in check by judicial intervention, they would have engaged in even more openly strategic manipulation of rules. There are case law findings and empirical evidence of such strategic manipulation both around the time of introduction of the VRA and in the after-VRA period.

My evidence to support my position that, “the elimination of Pensacola’s at-large council positions in fact “increases minority representation,” is best supported by the historical evidence, case law and scientific data as revealed in the 2007 Harvard University paper published by Francesco Trebbi, Philippe Aghion and Alberto Alesina entitled, “Electoral rules and Minority Representation in U.S. cities.”

In this paper it shows (in theory and then empirically) that white majorities expecting an increase in black votes after the Voting Right Act adopted at-large electoral rules when the black minority in the city was relatively small in order to win all seats. However, if the minority share was larger (closer to a fifty-fifty split), the possibility of losing the whole city induced the white majority to confine black votes in minority-packed districts and single-member district: electoral rules serve this purpose.

This paper studies the choice of electoral rules, in particular the question of minority representation. Majorities tend to disenfranchise minorities through strategic manipulation of electoral rules. With the aim of explaining changes in electoral rules adopted by US cities, particularly in the South, it shows why majorities tend to adopt “winner-take-all” city-wide rules (at-large elections) in response to an increase in the size of the minority when the minority they are facing is relatively small. In this case, for the majority it is more effective to leverage on its sheer size instead of risking conceding representation to voters from minority-elected districts. However, as the minority becomes larger (closer to a fifty-fifty split), the possibility of losing the whole city induces the majority to prefer minority votes to be confined in minority-packed districts. Single-member district rules serve this purpose. This paper shows empirical results consistent with these implications of the model in a novel data set covering US cities and towns from 1930 to 2000.

Based solely on these facts it is clear that the “interests” of minority voters are better served by supporting the efforts under this charter amendment to eliminate the at-large seats. This is one time that the interests of minority and the majority of Pensacola’s citizens are clearly aligned and African-Americans should not be “utilized by” and “drawn into” supporting a small group of people that are interested in preserving the ability to influence and “buy” the at-large council people on the Council. Let the voters of Pensacola decide this issue, and to quote Councilman Larry Johnson, “The ultimate public input is at the ballot box.”

Diversity Program Advisors is a Pensacola-based firm offering a comprehensive range of professional services specializing in the development, management and implementation diversity inclusion of programs, projects and issues affecting our public/private sector clients.

Supporting Documentation: Electoral rules and Minority Representation in US cities.

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  • George Hawthorne April 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    CJ – Also, specifically, to your statement, “Rallying the African-American community against gerrymandering seems a far more important mission for Hawthorne and others than serving the financial interests of African-American owned businesses all across the 325XX zip code prefix to the disadvantage of non-African-American owned businesses inside city limits.”

    Belive me any redistricting effort that amounts to “gerrymandering” that dilutes representaion will be dealt with great vigor, if such would occur. As far as a “plan” serving the financial interests of African-American businesses within ESCAMBIA County is just as important to me and is in the works.

  • George Hawthorne April 30, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    CJ – I have talked to Lumon May and I am positive his position on this subject is NOT as you state.

    Furthermore, I have talked to one of the African-American “original litigants” of the Voting Rights Lawsuit that formed the basis of the “consent decree” that brought about the current at-large structure and a CRC members that confirmed my position is correct as to the desires of the “litigants.”

    Specifically, he stated that the consent decree was present to the litigants as a compromise for the current districts and the city would agree to 3 at-large positions.

    This was only agreed to by the litigants who where vehemently OPPOSED to at-large seat (exactly for the reasons I have posted in this Viewpoint) however, they didn’t have the finances to fight the lawsuit to the Supreme Court and this was a “compromise” to get the minority controlled districts that are in place.

    Furthermore, you have the transcripts for CRC and the comments from the African American members of the CRC that were clearly against at-large.

    As far as Georgia Blackmon’s position, I must respectfully say she is just WRONG about the value of at-large in respect to African American representation.

    I will rather rely on the empirical evidence, scientific research and court case law than the opinion of Ms. Blackmon, who I admire and respect.

  • CJ Lewis April 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    George Hawthorne should send a copy of his study over to Tallahassee where they elect all five members of their City Commission (Mayor and four Commissioners) at-large without district residency requirements. Tallahassee has a slightly larger African-American population (35%) versus 28% in Pensacola. The land mass of Tallahassee is about four times larger, 100.3 square miles versus Pensacola’s 22.7 square miles. Tallahassee has a 2010 population of 181,376 that grew 20.4% in the last decade whereas Pensacola’s population of 51,923 declined by 4,332 (-7.7%) in the same timeframe.

    In Tallahassee, Mayor John Marks and Commissioner Andrew Gillum, both African-Americans, exercise 40% of the legislative power of the city. The fact that Tallahassee and Gulf Breeze (0.25% African-American) have the same form of government very strongly suggests that the most important ingredient in a successful municipal government is the high caliber and unimpeachable character and integrity of the people elected to office. On the downside, no one would ever use such terms to describe broadly Pensacola’s ten elected officials.

    On March 19, 2009, I was one of five people who testified before the Charter Review Commission (CRC) lending my support to a Council of seven members, each residing in one of the election districts of the city and elected only by the electors of each district. As I recall, no one on the CRC or among the citizens who spoke wanted to keep the two (At-Large “A” and “B”) Council seats. Natalie Prim suggested that a Council of five was the right size for Pensacola. In hindsight, Prim was right. The big debate at that time was only whether the seven Council members were to be elected as described above or at-large with district residency requirements as proposed by Jim Reeves.

    Each election method has advantages and disadvantage. A local benchmark of comparison is the Escambia County Commission elected by single-member districts versus the Santa Rosa County Commission elected at-large with district residency requirements. In favor of the at-large model, many people to include many City of Pensacola employees are voting with their feet choosing to live in Santa Rosa County. The CRC’s March 2009 vote was 7-3 to recommend single-member districts. Under fire from the Council, and more vocal African-Americans like Georgia Blackmon and Lumon May, who sent an e-mail to CRC Chairwoman Crystal Spencer never made public, on August 19 the CRC voted 7-3 to back down and recommend the status quo. Two of the three votes in dissent came from the CRC’s African-American members Floyd Armstrong and Sam Horton.

    Fast forward to 2013 and State Representative Clay Ford dies. His death was unexpected to me. However, Mayor Ashton Hayward and others were closely monitoring the situation hopeful that Governor Rick Scott would appoint Hayward as Ford’s replacement. Scott ambushed Hayward calling for a special election. Johnson then suddenly had an epiphanous moment deciding at the direction of Hayward that the most important change needed to the Charter right now, and made when voter turnout was expected to be low especially within the African-American community, was to eliminate the At-Large “A” Council seat in 2014 and the At-Large “B” Council seat in 2016. In truth, saving the almost $14,000 annual salary paid to Council members Charles Bare and Megan Pratt seems trivial given the real waste in City Hall and the disproportionate amount of work Bare and Pratt put out relative to the little done by most of the others. Of the seven single-district Council members, only District 2 Councilwoman Sherri Myers works both district “and” citywide issues.

    Once she takes the helm, future Council President Jewel Cannada-Wynn has promised to conduct a comprehensive review of the Charter. That would be the time to revisit the Charter in total to include the size, composition and method of election of the Council members. That would also be the time for those African-Americans like Georgia Blackmon and Lumon May, who support the concept of at-large representation, to press their case for electing at-large some or all of a seven or five member Council starting in November 2014. Electing all Council members at-large, presumably with district residency requirements, could give the city’s fractured 25% African-American electorate massive political power, if it can be of one mind long enough to vote as a bloc. The potential risk is that city voters as a whole may elect a non-African-American or an African-American unpopular in their own district to represent one of the city’s two African-American majority-minority districts.

    The most dishonest words spoken at the last Council meeting were those of Johnson, “There will be no gerrymandering.” That deed is done. Johnson knows that in 2011 the Council orchestrated a citywide gerrymandering scheme using as its instrument a very subservient Districting Commission. Johnson also knows that the city only has two African-American majority-minority Council districts as legally determined by percentage of Voting Age Population. With the Districting Commission first complying with Chairwoman DeeDee Ritchie’s admonition that it must “give respect to the incumbents,” the Council rubber-stamped a gerrymandered districting plan that is not equal, contiguous or compact and may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act mentioned by Hawthorne.

    After glibly rejecting a districting plan prepared by Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford, that rigorously complied with the Charter’s voter-approved districting criteria, the Districting Commission handcrafted a gerrymandered plan that racially diluted the African-American majority-minority Voting Age Populations in Districts 5 (from 56.18% to 50.84%) and Districts 7 (60.19% to 54.50%). On October 7, 2009, I wrote the Council expressing my concerns. Anyone who watched the Council’s October 13 meeting at which it approved the gerrymandered plan saw how doing so broke the heart of District 7 Councilman Ron Townsend who seemed on the verge of tears. Rallying the African-American community against gerrymandering seems a far more important mission for Hawthorne and others than serving the financial interests of African-American owned businesses all across the 325XX zip code prefix to the disadvantage of non-African-American owned businesses inside city limits.

  • George Hawthorne April 29, 2013 at 11:02 am

    What a Joke,

    As far as I am concerned the definition of minority is representaive of all ethnic groups as defined by federal statutes. I also know that this is true with the disparity study that was conducted by City of Pensacola.

    It is also a fact the the African-American comunity is the largest group of minorities in Pensacola and by its sheer size and proven disparities in economic deserve a proportionate share of representation.

    Clearly, no one could dispute that there are a disproportionate amount of African-Americans that suffer from poverty and other economic disparities in the area.

    My positions on representation are based in the need to develop government policies and actions that create an environment that will help improve the socio-economic conditions in this ethnic group in order to improve ALL of the area.

    We, as a whole community, must begin to understand the inextricable link between poverty, crime, education and unemployment and the holistic “economic health and economic vitality” of our City and County which is negatively impacted by these conditions … and make changes to improve these conditions.

    Our community is only as strong as its weakest link.

  • What a Joke April 28, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Wayne — unfortunately, in this community, unless you are Black, you aren’t considered a minority. Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, etc. are minorities from a federal standpoint, but not from a Pensacola standpoint. So sad.

  • Steve Fulford April 28, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    The individual is the smallest minority. The actual reason for at large seats on City Council. Both Pratt and Bare have been catalysts in the development of our local neighborhood association. I suspect other groups benefit as well provided they reached out to all three representatives on council.

  • wayne April 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    One question. Aren’t Mr. Wu, Ms. Pratt and Ms Myers considered minorities in this countryas well? Just asking. That would make 5 minorities on the council.

  • L.Laird April 28, 2013 at 10:38 am

    George stated, “the elimination of Pensacola’s at-large council positions in fact “increases minority representation,”…. Escambia County Democrats totally agree with Mr. Hawthorn. Historically speaking, there has never been an African/American win a county wide, or city wide election. The two current city council at large members have zero credibility in the minority community. One must take all comments by black supporters with a grain of salt. If readers actually knew whom was behind said speakers, the general public would understand why a few black citizens are speaking up to defeat Mr. Johnson motion. Remember the old political sayings “FOLLOW THE MONEY” and then you will see who is control whom….Warning: THE WHITE GOOD OLD BOYS have NOT gone away…they are just hiding in the shadows….