Here’s why some Virginia Beach City Council members are trying to change the city’s charter

The changes involve issuing debt and the city's election system

VIRGINIA BEACH — Residents here will voice their opinions about two proposed changes to the city charter during a public hearing at City Council Tuesday.

The changes, if passed, would be sent to Richmond as part of the city’s legislative packet.

One change to the charter would limit how much debt the city can authorize, while the other seeks to change the city from the current at-large system to a ward system.

If City Council votes to pass these measures, they would be sent to the General Assembly to get sponsorship from legislators and be packaged into a bill.

The General Assembly must approve all changes to city charters, Councilwoman Jessica Abbott said.

But the proposed changes took Councilwoman Barbara Henley off-guard, who said she was surprised to see them in their legislative packet.

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“To see these major changes slipped in, with no discussion here at City Council, no discussion with the public, is anything but transparent,” Henley said to Councilman John Moss and Abbott during the Sept. 25 council workshop.

Abbott, who proposed changing to a ward system, said her colleagues on City Council “didn’t like that I didn’t tell them what I was going to do” regarding the legislative packet, even though there is no requirement to do so.

Abbott added that a lack of clarity regarding who was responsible for securing sponsors of the legislation in the general assembly delayed Abbott’s proposal.

Abbott also noted that Virginia Beach resident Latasha Holloway sued the city last year over its at-large elections, claiming in court documents the city’s election system “has the effect of unlawfully diluting or minimizing ‘minority voting strength,'” and claims that it is in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Currently, members of City Council must live in the district they represent, but residents from any district may vote for them. Under the proposed changes, residents would only vote for candidates running in their district and at-large.

Moss proposed the charter change limiting the city’s ability administer bonded debt.

Although Henley complained about not knowing about either proposal, Moss insisted during the Sept. 25 council meeting that he “would in fact be preparing the legislation and that it would have to be advertised. I told everyone about this. You can watch the video tape.”

Although Henley asked Moss and Abbott to withdraw their proposed charter changes, they refused to do so.

All city council members won their district last election, Abbott said, which indicates that changing to an at-large system would not necessarily be a threat to incumbents’ reelection.

“The city is not wrong in what they’re doing, which is what most cities do,” Abbott said. “But there is still reason to be concerned.”

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