A local NAACP branch wants Beaufort to ditch at-large City Council elections and adopt single-member districts to improve the chances of minorities earning a seat on council.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, at the request of the Burton-Dale-Beaufort branch, wrote a letter to Mayor Billy Keyserling dated Nov. 4 requesting districting.
"(We have) substantial concerns that this particular method of election, under which no Black candidate has been elected to office in recent history, may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ... by denying voters of color in Beaufort the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and participate equally in the political process," the letter states.
The letter also references a section of the act which prohibits methods of election, including at-large representatives, that were put in place intending to racially discriminate, or that result in racial discrimination.
City Council met in executive session Tuesday to discuss the letter with city attorney Bill Harvey. Afterward, the members voted to allow Harvey to release a response.
It states the NAACP is incorrect about the lack of recent black council members -- Fred Washington Jr. served from 1979 to 1993, and Alice Wright served from 1982 to 1987. Harvey's response also cites case law and argues there is not a way to draw four districts to meet what the NAACP desires.
"If you have a proposed map or other demographic information which satisfies this precondition, please send it to me, and we will be willing to review and give it consideration," Harvey wrote.
Burton-Dale-Beaufort branch president Daryl Murphy laughed at the city's response about recent candidates.
"Twenty years, that's what it's been since we've had a representative," he said. "That's not recent history."
The idea of districting is not new, he said. Census data from 2010 shows about 27 percent of the city's population is black, and Murphy said it's not right that there hasn't been a representative member of council for so long.
"To be honest with you, that's an insult, and it's embarrassing," he said.
Washington, who later served on the Beaufort County Board of Education, and recent council candidate Larry Holman, who is president of the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce, both said they support single-member districts.
Washington said it would equalize representation in many ways.
"My hope was to try to get representation and get diversity not just in terms of racially, but also demographically, geographically," he said.
Districting wouldn't necessarily guarantee a black council member, Washington cautioned. An African-American or other minority would still have to show interest in serving and campaign hard. Washington and several others could think of only three black candidates since he last served on council -- Holman, Charlotte Pazant Brown and Roy Gibbs.
"I tell my minority friends that you have to be engaged, you have to work," Washington said.
Keyserling said the city is too integrated to draw districts that would favor black candidates. Councilman Mike McFee said the population -- 12,361 according to the 2010 census -- is too small to cut into districts effectively.
"Realistically, it would be totally counterproductive -- not relating this to black or white votes -- with as small as we are," he said.
Councilwoman Donnie Beer said she thinks districting would be a detriment, but would comply if that was what the law required.
"I think it would do a lot more damage for Beaufort, for a small town, than anything else, because if you're broken up in districts, then that's the only thing you're taking care of, because those are the people who are going to get you re-elected," she said.
Councilman Mike Sutton said he thinks districting based on race would be a step in the wrong direction.
"I don't understand why we would need to segregate our city to get people of quality," he said. "... To do boundaries and try to carve out our small community into districts based on the color of your skin, I think that's wrong."
Murphy said he appreciates the city responding to the NAACP letter, and the conversations he's been having with Keyserling. He hopes litigation, which the NAACP letter refers to, will not be necessary.
"We want to have open lines of communication," he said. "We want them to come up to a remedy to the concerns, and if they don't, we'll have to go back to the table and strategize our next move."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.