Residential Shuffle

Published 9:47 am Monday, February 1, 2016

Someone once said that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

We would say that depends on where you live, especially in Ahoskie, especially if you choose to seek a seat on Town Council.

Decades ago, Ahoskie went through a legal battle over the way council members were elected. That was in 1989, a time where Ahoskie’s population was 50.5 percent black (voting age was 45.6% black), but yet only seven blacks had sought to earn a seat on the council in the town’s history up until that point, with only two being successful in their efforts.

Edna Hines and several other black plaintiffs challenged the at-large election system in Ahoskie, claiming it “impermissibly diluted black voting strength.” Her lawsuit made its way through the federal legal system as it pertained to the Voting Rights Act. Eventually, the town established two voting districts – Ward A where the voting strength was white, and Ward B where the majority of the voters were black. The Council’s fifth seat remained “at-large” – meaning voters in both Wards could cast their ballots for that candidate or candidates.

Since that time the racial make-up of Ahoskie’s Council has followed that district system – the two Ward A members are white while two blacks represent Ward B. The at-large seat over the years has been dominated by a white Council member.

That brings us to the present and all the flap over where Ward B Councilman Maurice Vann lays his head at night. Vann, who will now lose the seat he won back in November following a recent decision by the North Carolina Board of Elections, testified before the Hertford County Board of Elections that he lived at 317 North Maple Street, but the papers he filed with that board as a candidate for the November 2015 election stated he resided at 222 Malibu Drive. The first address is in Ward A; the latter in Ward B.

The person that brought the question of Vann’s residency to the attention of the local board was Donald Kirkland, who challenged Vann for the Ward B seat in the 2015 election. Many will say that Kirkland’s election protest was only filed because he lost by a wide margin. However, Kirkland lodged the protest on Oct. 29, five days prior to the Nov. 3 election.

We agree with Kirkland that Ahoskie needs fair representation on its council of government. We feel Ahoskie citizens, especially those in Ward B, have been denied that equal representation, and for a lot longer period of time that they are aware of.

Case in point is the 2007 municipal election in Ahoskie. There, Vann, seeking political office for the first time, defeated incumbent C.R. Askew (105-60) to win the Ward B seat. However, it was discovered during the canvass process held after the election that Vann (also living at that time at 317 North Maple Street) actually resided in Ward A. Vann had been allowed to file as a Ward B candidate because both he and the county Board of Elections believed that his address was in Ward B.

The local board had no other choice than to declare Vann ineligible due an error in his residency requirements. Thusly, his Ward B seat was declared vacant, meaning it was up to the other members of Ahoskie’s Council to appoint a person to fill that vacancy.

And guess who filled it – Maurice Vann. On Dec. 5, 2007 he changed his residency to 222 Malibu Drive. State law requires a person to maintain residency for a minimum of 30 days before being elected or appointed to public office. On Jan. 9, 2008, the four seated members of the Ahoskie Town Council appointed Vann to fill the vacant Ward B seat.

Vann went on to win reelection in 2011 and in 2015, but yet told the local and state election boards that he was living at 317 Maple Street, yet “domiciled” at 222 Malibu Drive. The state board, at a Jan. 15 hearing in Raleigh, failed to find enough evidence to believe Vann lived on Malibu Drive and disqualified him as a candidate.

That decision means Ahoskie’s Town Council has been represented by three residents of Ward A while Ward B has only one…..a violation of the Voting Rights Act as it applies to the 1989 court case.

Thankfully that balance will shift back to a true two-two split because the state board ordered the county board to hold a new election for Vann’s Ward B seat on March 15. Hopefully, the county board will take the time to ensure that the candidates seeking that seat are both legitimate residents of Ward B, for this election and all others to follow.

– The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald