Durham Reacts to Vote on Council Size
Posted December 8, 1998
DURHAM — Thousands of voters turned out Tuesday night to decide whether to reduce the size of the Durham City Council.
The turnout was larger than expected; 20 percent of registered voters went to the polls, more than the turnout for some off-year elections.
The majority -- 62 percent -- overwhelmingly favored decreasing the council from 13 to seven members.
The mayor says the whole vote is a reminder to citizens that they can have an impact.
"This is a very large impact and the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed so we don't know really know what the downstream impact will be for sure," Mayor Nick Tennyson says.
"But the idea that citizens mobilized, were concerned, got organized and showed up, is not something anybody can criticize," he continues. "That's just the way it's supposed to be. If somebody has a contrary opinion, the same opportunity's open to them."
Many are saying that the referendum really means that people can fight city hall.
"Absolutely, you can [fight city hall]," says political activist David Smith. "We proved that if you don't like the system you can change it, and there's nothing more democratic than a group of citizens petitioning the government to change it's structure."
Smith led the group that paved the way for the historic change in Durham's city government. He says what most people do not know is that any registered voter in any locality can do the same thing his group did.
Smith says it is a lot of work, but any citizen can potentially change the number of council members, their terms, or whether the mayor can cast council votes. However, the people have to support it.
"It's not like we sat around a table and said, 'I've got an idea, let's put this into action,'" Smith said. "There had to be enough popular support before we began it or that would come around afterward."
The Institute of Government in Chapel Hill and the North Carolina League of Municipalities say they know of only three times in history that something like the council reduction has occurred somewhere else.