Beaufort City Council needs to be proactive in determining whether council members should be elected by districts rather than at-large.
It needs to do more than exchange letters with the NAACP, which is asking for election by districts in hopes of seating more minorities on the all-white council.
The first order of business should be to draw a map, or several maps. Maps are needed to see where, how and if a district could be drawn that would produce a greater-than-average chance for a minority to be elected.
So far, the city has said it doesn't see how that could be achieved. It has invited the NAACP to produce a map showing how it could be done. The NAACP is unwilling to produce a map.
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It is up to the city to resolve the impasse, and to do so in an open manner. It must show that it takes the NAACP's request seriously, or risk getting a black eye locally and perhaps nationally for failing to champion diversity in government.
This is a serious issue that has been visited and revisited nationally for many years. It involves federal law, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It involves the federal government's oversight of law designed to ensure political voice for minorities, and to prevent institutional discrimination by race. It involves volumes of case law, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down the use of some formulas within the Voting Rights Act.
The city should establish a commission to include representatives of the city and the NAACP to publicly tackle the nitty-gritty of this request.
It should turn to the office of state government -- a part of the state Budget and Control Board -- that has been helping local governments with electoral district lines for decades. That office works with census data and the parameters of state and federal law to suggest district lines to political entities.
Invite them to draw maps for Beaufort, and let the public come see them. Let the public decide if it makes sense. They should show options for both a five-member and a seven-member council.
The decision on whether to make a change will rest with the public.
A referendum would have to pass to switch the election method. That referendum could be sought by City Council ordinance or by a petition signed by 15 percent of the registered voters in the city.
Perhaps it also could be decided by court edict, but that would not be a preferable way to settle this question.
Most municipalities in South Carolina, and nationwide, have at-large elections, particularly in smaller towns. The Municipal Association of South Carolina shows this breakdown: municipalities with single-member districts, 56; municipalities with a combination of single-member districts and at-large, 16; municipalities with solely at-large elections, 198. All mayors are elected at-large.
In Beaufort County, The Town of Hilton Head Island is the only municipality to elect Town Council members by ward. From incorporation in 1983, it has had one African-American to serve on the council.
Bluffton and Port Royal councils are elected at-large. Bluffton has for some time had at least one African-American serving on the council, and Port Royal's mayor is African-American.
For Beaufort, which is 26 percent African American, we support the goal of having African-Americans on the City Council. It is especially important for a city with such a deep and rich African-American history and presence.
Furthermore, we support the notion of geographic diversity on City Council.
The next question is whether districts are a reasonable way to achieve those goals.
The city must take leadership in helping the public answer a legitimate question.