Beaufort seeks public comment Tuesday on changing voting districts to single-members

City leaders are encouraging Beaufort residents to speak about a proposed change in the way City Council members are elected, based on a request by the NAACP.

 The subject is part of Tuesday’s City Council work session, starting at 5 p.m. in the City Hall first floor conference room. Public participation is sought.

 “Right now we aren’t sure how or even if this will move forward, but we want to hear from more Beaufort city residents about how they feel on the subject,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. “Any change to the process used to elect members of City Council deserves a good public conversation.”

 The Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP branch requested the change late last year and has been working with City Council and the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics in hopes of letting voters decide in November’s general election.

 By state law, the S.C. Election Commission must have referendum language by Aug. 15 for it to be placed on the November ballot, said Bill Harvey, Beaufort’s city attorney. The City Council won’t have time to adequately air the issue with city residents and vote on any reference language – likely meaning the NAACP would need to collect signatures by Aug. 15 from 15 percent of the registered voters within the city requesting the question be added to the ballot.

 Currently, all four Beaufort City Council members plus the mayor are elected in at-large, non-partisan elections. Registered voters from across the city elect council members, regardless of where the candidates live.

 The local NAACP, assisted by the national organization’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, has pushed to create single-member districts, with at least one district having a majority of black residents. Beaufort City Council hasn’t had a black member since 1993.

 Earlier this summer the NAACP drew up voting district maps with four and six council seats elected from specific geographic districts. Under their plan, the mayor, who also serves on City Council, would be elected at-large by all city voters.

 “The question at this point isn’t how many districts or where those districts would be,” Keyserling said, “it is simply a question of, do city residents want to change from electing all City Council members at-large, or do they like the idea of single-member districts? I think we all benefit from this discussion and I hope we hear from as many city residents as possible in our work session.”

 Beaufort City Hall is located at 1911 Boundary Street.

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