May 11, 2013

Editorial | Is it time for Myrtle Beach to switch to council districts?

Voters in Myrtle Beach will be electing their mayor and some council members this year – primaries are just around the corner – and the elections bring with them a perennial question: Should Myrtle Beach transition to a system built around district representation rather than the current at-large offices?

Voters in Myrtle Beach will be electing their mayor and some council members this year – primaries are just around the corner – and the elections bring with them a perennial question: Should Myrtle Beach transition to a system built around district representation rather than the current at-large offices?

Opponents of the current system point out correctly that politicians from the north end of the city have dominated City Council for years. Of the current seven-member council, six live north of 16th Avenue North – five are north of 46th Avenue North. Only Mike Lowder, who lives around Fifth Avenue South, lives in southern Myrtle Beach.

Is this disparity a problem? Southerners will tell you yes. Horry County Councilman Marion Foxworth, who lives near the center of the city around Third Avenue North, has complained for decades now about the issue. He said he’s been working as a county leader to bring more money to his area of Myrtle Beach for parks and amenities because it’s been too long ignored by City Council leaders who don’t live nearby, while “you couldn’t find 6 square inches to plant another daffodil on the north end.”

On the other side of the debate, city leaders have no problem with the current setup.

“Our small town, with one of the largest municipal budgets in S.C., I believe is better served by the at-large model,” said City Councilman Phil Render, “where in our situation, each councilmember is very well acquainted with the citizenry in all parts of the city.”

Council members and city officials cite a number of problems with any move to establish districts: the city’s not big enough to make districts worthwhile, population numbers mean there’s simply more people on the north end anyway, the city doesn’t have the concentration of minority residents needed to establish a majority-minority district that would be required by the Voting Rights Act, residents would go from having seven people representing them to just their individual council member and the mayor, and there simply haven’t been major problems with the current setup. Sounds plausible, but we’re not quite convinced.

To take those counter-arguments one by one:

First, the city’s not big enough? Talk to the state Municipal Association and you’ll find out Myrtle Beach is one of the largest cities in the state that hasn’t established voting districts. Plenty of smaller cities – including North Myrtle Beach – are functioning just fine with regional districts.

The second and third arguments are linked. First, there aren’t more people on the north end. The 2010 census showed that the city’s 27,000 residents were split evenly between north and south somewhere around 16th Avenue North. Around 40 percent of the city’s residents live south of U.S. 501. It also showed that most of the city’s minority population (which grew to 28 percent in 2010), is concentrated in the center of the city, an easy place to create a majority-minority district if the Justice Department required one.

The fourth contention, that single-member districts would reduce representation, is questionable. Yes, if voters were limited to voting for only the council member who represented their area, it would mean city leaders were accountable to fewer residents. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Myrtle Beach could take its cue from North Myrtle Beach, where some council members are elected by district, but are voted upon by the entire city. A hybrid system is certainly possible.

The last counter-argument, that the current system is working just fine, is the best. While we can sympathize with Foxworth and other south-end residents, we have no real issues with the city’s current leaders. And the city has completed a number of projects in recent years that benefits the south end, including most notably the Market Common, Grand Park, the Harrelson Boulevard extension and South Ocean Boulevard improvements.

City Councilman Randal Wallace also pointed out that part of the issue may come down to simple voter apathy.

Despite “all the complaining they do on the South end,” he said, “that area traditionally hasn’t voted.”

And a look at voter registration and turnout in recent city elections bears him out. While the city’s southern precincts have some of the highest numbers of registered voters, those who actually cast ballots on the north end easily outnumbered their neighbors to the south in the 2009 and 2011 city elections.

In general, we believe that our elected leaders work best when they’re closest to the area they represent. A council member is more likely to see the needs of a neighborhood or area when they drive through it every day. With that in mind, a hybrid system such as North Myrtle Beach’s, where council members are still accountable to the whole city yet reside in specific districts, is an attractive idea.

That being said, Myrtle Beach is not an enormous city, and it’s easy enough for council members to get to all reaches of the city.

The city’s shifting population makes this a good time to revisit this conversation. With more residents moving into neighborhoods in the Market Common every day, the south could soon outweigh the north. Is an entirely new system the best solution? Perhaps not, though Foxworth – who in the past led a petition drive to force the issue – said he continues to talk with leaders of the ACLU and NAACP about a possible lawsuit. If city leaders want to get out ahead of such hassles, taking the lead in establishing districts may help avoid an expensive fight.

The best solution may again be the one that former City Councilman Wilson Cain – the lone southern voice on council for years – offered to The Sun News’ editorial board back in 2003: If you want more southern leaders, find some good candidates, get behind them and make sure voters get to the polls.

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