By a vote of 7-4, Hopkinsville City Council approved nonpartisan city elections on first reading, but not without some firm objection from most of the black council members.
Before the first reading of the ordinance, Councilman Darvin Adams — who represents Ward 1 — asked to read a letter where he urged the council to table the nonpartisan elections vote.
However, the council opted for City Clerk Crissy Fletcher to read the ordinance first and then hear Adams’ letter, which he released to local media via email an hour before Tuesday’s meeting.
The ordinance calls for nonpartisan elections of city officers while maintaining the current ward system and only allowing residents of each ward to vote in the primary election for Hopkinsville City Council. No party information for the candidates would be on the ballot, and every ward resident could vote regardless of party affiliation.
Also in the ordinance, the two candidates in each ward with the highest votes would face off in the General Election where the whole city would be allowed to vote for the candidates regardless of ward.
Council members Tom Johnson and Amy Craig motioned and seconded the ordinance immediately after Fletcher’s reading.
Adams read his letter during the discussion. In part, he said, “As elected leaders of the city, we should not make a hasty or rushed decision during an election year which features the COVID-19 pandemic. There are issues of timing, issues of motive, issues of method and various other informational unknowns that are at play when it comes to the Council pushing this very important piece of legislation throughout the city of Hopkinsville in virtual zoom meetings.”
Adams motioned for council members to postpone the vote on the nonpartisan elections ordinance, and Councilman Phillip Brooks made a second of his motion.
During that discussion, Councilwoman Patricia Waddell-Bell said she has pondered over the issue for weeks and spoken to colleagues about it, and she decided now was not the time to pass the nonpartisan elections ordinance.
“My problem with this change is the fact that it is being brought up at a time when public comment cannot be made,” said Waddell-Bell, who represents a predominantly black Ward 9. “... Remember this one thing, the same way we go up, we can also come down, and the landing won’t be easy.”
Due to the meeting being live-streamed on Facebook, comments rolled from social media users.
Facebook user Caleb Ballard said, “Nonpartisan elections will give people more choices in who represents them!”
Another user, Tammy Mason responded saying, “They should let it ride til people can attend a meeting and speak (though).”
Ward 3 city council candidate Alethea West wrote in the comments, “The non-partisan election topic should not be priority of topic at this time. It is a distraction during this crisis.”
Waddell-Bell recommended that the ordinance be placed on the ballot as a referendum for the citizens to vote on, but her suggestion was overlooked.
Adams’ motion to postpone the nonpartisan elections issue was voted down 6-5 by council members Terry Parker, Tom Johnson, Amy Craig, Paul Henson, Don Ahart and Travis Martin, who are all white. Councilman Jimmy Dossett was absent due to being in rehabilitation.
Additionally, Brooks asked for amendments to the ordinance before the vote on the first reading. He noted that in Section 3 it states that the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes will be nominated to run in the General Election.
Brooks said that part should be changed to allow the candidate that gets 50% of the vote in the primary election be deemed the overall winner, instead of being put on the general ballot in the fall.
“One thing I would like us to do is to look further into this,” he said. “On most elections, if two candidates run and one candidate gets 50% of the vote, they get the seat.”
City Attorney Doug Willen said that amendment would require the legislature to revise the state statute on elections and possibly the state constitution.
“We cannot by ordinance provide that the General Election be decided by the primary election,” Willen said.
Brooks and Adams said that’s where their issue was with the ordinance, noting that predominantly black wards could be outvoted in the General Election, where the city is majority white.
According to the latest Census, Hopkinsville is 64% white, 30% black and 4% Hispanic and 1% Asian.
“What you basically have happening is your city election has superseded what the people of the ward have voted on, and that’s where I think there is a major conflict that has not been addressed or discussed,” Brooks said. “The one who wins the primary could go on to the general election and lose by vote of the overall city. ... Within your ward, you could have those people not be represented.”
Willen said, based on the city’s current partisan election ordinance, the whole city can already vote for all the wards in the General Election.
No other council members responded to Adams or Brooks’ issues with the ordinance.
Adams said he didn’t agree with how the ordinance was being handled.
“It disengages, it dis-empowers and it weakens the minority vote,” he said. “I think this is something that we need to put more critical thought into.”
Voting on the nonpartisan election ordinance passed 7-4 on first reading, with Craig, Parker, Martin, Johnson, Ahart, Henson and Jason Bell voting in favor.
Waddell-Bell, Brooks, Adams and McCarley voted no.
In closing, Henson clarified his reason for voting in favor of nonpartisan elections.
“Although I had a very dear friend not in favor of this ordinance whom I respect dearly, I had to vote in favor of my constituents,” he said. “The vote in my contacts (of constituents) was 34-2 in favor of nonpartisan, so I had to vote in favor of this ordinance.”
In other business:
- The council unanimously approved the amended Housing Authority Cooperative payment in lieu of taxes agreement. A sentence was added to the municipal order to include a 3% annual increase each year based upon $102 per housing unit.
- The council approved a zoning code ordinance for cell towers on second reading.
- The Beautification Commission ordinance is officially repealed after a 10-1 vote on second reading. Adams voted no.