The Winston-Salem Local Governance Study Commission is a non-partisan study commission comprising 11 members who have been charged with reviewing the method for electing the mayor and members of the City Council.
Specifically, the commission is to:
review best practices relative to municipal governance structure;
obtain public input as to the type of structure desired by the citizens of Winston-Salem; and
analyze any potential impacts or consequences of proposed changes.
If it determines that a change in the process is needed, the commission will recommend a structure that ensures appropriate representation of all segments of the population. It is anticipated that the recommendations of the commission would be available by the beginning of the 2020 session of the General Assembly.
The study commission is co-chaired by Steve Berlin, the managing partner of the Kilpatrick Townsend law firm; and Dr. David Branch, a local ophthalmologist and community leader. Given the time needed for the commission to complete its work, no changes will occur in the 2020 election process for the Winston-Salem mayor and City Council.
The commission will meet monthly. Agendas and minutes of meetings will be posted on this webpage.
Why the Commission Was Created
The Local Governance Study Commission was created after local members of the General Assembly filed House Bill 519 during the 2019 session of the General Assembly. The bill that would have made significant changes in how the Winston-Salem City Council is structured and elected. Specifically:
The bill would have replaced the current system of 8 council members, all elected by wards, with a new system of five members elected by wards and three members elected at large.
Council member terms would have been reduced to two years, Currently they serve four-year terms.
The mayor would be required to vote on all items at council meetings. Currently the mayor only votes when there is a tie.
The bill also would have changed the process for filling vacancies on the City Council between elections.
The new ward lines included in the bill would have had the effect of placing three African American female council members in the same ward. In response to concerns raised by local officials about the scope of the changes, Reps. Donny Lambeth and Debra Conrad reached an agreement with Mayor Allen Joines to withdraw the bill and jointly form a commission to evaluate potential changes for electing the mayor and City Council members.
Public Input Sessions
The Winston-Salem Local Governance Study Commission held three public sessions in January to brief city residents on the various ways the City Council could be restructured, and to collect public opinion on what changes, if any, should be made. Each meeting opened with a video explaining the various ways the council could be restructured. Afterwards, attendees circulated among stations with more details about the options presented in the video. (Details presented at the stations are saved in the "Documents and Materials" section below). All attendees were asked to fill out a short input form to provide feedback to the commission. Feedback from these meetings are combined with responses to the online version of the form and presented to the commission.
Local Governance Study Commission Recommends 10-Member City Council With Two At-Large Seats
The members of Winston-Salem Local Governance Study Commission voted March 11, 2020 to recommend that Winston-Salem change to a 10-member city council, with eight members elected by wards and two elected citywide by all voters in the city.
Other than this change, the committee recommended keeping the status quo: that council members be elected to four-year terms; that all terms run concurrently; that elections be partisan and held on even-number years; and that the mayor be elected at large and only vote at council meetings to break a tie.
The commission co-chairs, Steven Berlin and Dr. David Branch, will set up a meeting with Mayor Allen Joines and N.C. Reps. Donny Lambeth and Debra Conrad to present the commission’s recommendations. Joines, Lambeth and Conrad jointly announced the commission last May and asked it to evaluate the city’s election process with a goal of having recommendations in place before the start of the General Assembly’s 2020 session.
The recommendations will also be sent to the City Council, which is allowed under N.C. law to change any aspect of the city’s election process except the timing of council elections. Election timing can only be changed by the General Assembly, which also has the final say over all aspects of the city’s election process.
The commission’s vote to recommend a 10-member council with two at-large seats was the clear preference in the responses to a survey that the commission created to collect public input. Of the 921 survey responses, 57 percent endorsed this option. Twenty-eight percent favored a council with five members elected by district and three elected at large, and 14 percent favored six members elected by district and two at large.
Scott Tesh, the city’s director of Performance and Accountability, noted that the survey results cannot be construed as a representative sample of the city population because participation was voluntary. Nonetheless, commission members took the size of the differences between the options as providing some measure of public sentiment.
Given the time needed for the commission to complete its work, when the commission was appointed in last May no changes were expected to be made in the 2020 election process for the Winston-Salem mayor and City Council.