A plan to let voters decide whether the city of Beaufort should adopt City Council districts is up against the clock.
The Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP branch has campaigned for the change since late last year and has been working with City Council in hopes of letting voters decide in November's general election.
Mayor Billy Keyserling is among those who have said they hoped to give the public time to comment before adding a referendum to the ballot, "so we don't get accused of ramrodding something through without proper input from the public," attorney Bill Harvey said.
However, Harvey said he learned last week that there is little time for that.
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By state law, the S.C. Election Commission must have referendum language by Aug. 15 for it to be placed on the November ballot, according to Harvey. City Council has only one meeting scheduled before that deadline, for next Monday, and districts will be discussed during a closed session that night, according to an email from Harvey.Currently, all four council members are elected in at-large, nonpartisan elections. The NAACP branch, assisted by the national organization's Legal Defense and Education Fund, has pushed to create districts, with at least one containing a majority of black residents. The council has not had a black member since 1993.
The NAACP mapped plans that would have either four or six council seats elected from districts. The mayor, who also serves on council, would continue to be elected at large. NAACP and city officials sat down with state demographer Bobby Bowers, director of the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics, last week to look at the options.
But those options would not be on the ballot. Rather, voters would simply be asked if they want to elect representatives at large or by district.
"Once everyone realized that you don't have to put specific districts on the ballot -- you put changing the form of government on the ballot -- the focus quickly changed," Keyserling said. "... We have to look at the bigger question before looking at the specifics."
Harvey said the council could still put a referendum on the ballot, with either a one-vote resolution or a two-vote ordinance. However, neither possibility allows much time for public input on whether there should be a referendum.
So with it appearing less likely that the council will act to put the question on the November ballot, the NAACP might pursue another route to a referendum, according to NAACP attorney Leah Aden. State law allows voters to petition for a referendum, however, that would require the NAACP to collect the signatures of 15 percent of the city's registered voters.
That would require much work in a short amount of time, Aden said.
"We are trying to move as fast as possible, knowing that every day matters," Aden said. Other options include trying for a special election after November or waiting for the next regular election in 2016.
"Personally, I want it on the November ballot," local NAACP branch president Darryl Murphy said. "And the branch wants it on the November ballot."
Branch leadership will meet this week to decide a course of action.
"I have got to do what I gotta do to make things happen," Murphy said. "For me, there is no such thing as 'cannot be done,' because we're mobilizers."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.
- Demographer has reservations about NAACP's proposed Beaufort council districts, June 22, 2014
- State demographer to weigh in on proposed Beaufort City Council districts, June 14, 2014
- NAACP creates maps showing Beaufort City Council district options, May 7, 2014
- NAACP continues battle with Beaufort for City Council districts, March 15, 2014