Friday, November 9, 2007

Ward System For Governing Roanoke City

A history lesson for those not around in 1997.


The Headline in the Roanoke Times November 5, 1997 read:


After finding the above map online I became curious as to what happened to this STUPENDOUS idea. All search engines came up empty. I could find no articles associated with this map. Matt Chittum of the Roanoke Times to the rescue! Matt sent an original article printed on November 5th, 1997 – the day after the ward idea was sunk – 54 percent against to 46 percent for the ward system. If you have not visited Matt’s DataSphere you are missing some good stuff. At least to us “geeks” that are always hungry for another bite out of a “pie chart”.

According to the November 5th, 1997, Roanoke Times article it took TWENTY years – yes that is “2 0” years to get a ward system on the city ballot.

Some things never change. The article could have been easily written in 2007 just the same as it was in 1997 (10 years ago). Just as in 1997 we have a business lobby pulling the strings. This quote from the 1997 article is just as today:

“I hope this puts the ward system to bed for a long time,” said Bill Poff, the lawyer who was co-chairman of the business-backed committee that lobbied against wards.

Two South Roanoke precincts went against wards 2-to-1. The vote was still closer then expected.

The Roanoke Times article continues:

Audrey Wheaton, the retired social worker who headed One Roanoke Inc. with Poff, said “Our citizens are confident in our present form of local government.”

Under the modified wards proposal, the city would have been split into five wards. A council member would have been elected from each ward, and the mayor and vice mayor would have been elected at-large. Instead, all seven council members continued to be elected at-large.

Gary Waldo, a leader of the pro-ward faction, faulted Vice Mayor Linda Wyatt, labor union members and civic leagues for failing to speak out for wards.

City government studied ward proposals twice before, in 1977 and 1992, but this was the first referendum on wards.

More than any city campaign in years, the wards vote brought the city’s establishment into open conflict with scrappy, populist types such as the Roanoke Education Association and the NAACP. Powerful lawyers, wealthy Roanokers and business executives worked hard against wards. They noted that voters who now get to cast ballots for all seven council members would have had just three votes under a ward system – ones for the candidate from their ward and one each for mayor and vice mayor.

Ward detractors also called forth an image of Chicago in the days of ex-Mayor Richard Daley – a city of back-room deals and corrupt, cigar-chomping, ward-healing politicians. They warned that council members would be fighting over provincial matters within ward borders instead of promoting the larger interests of the city.

Advocates said that was just fear-mongering that obscured the ward-bashers‘ real worry – that neighborhoods would steal power from a privileged few already pulling strings in the back rooms of government.

The pro-ward camp said neighborhoods have gotten little personal attention from council members and that members are not held accountable for their treatment of neighborhoods. Ward advocates pointed out that some sections of town, most notably Southeast Roanoke, have not had a representative on council for decades.

But Southeast voters supported wards by only a scant margin.

Members of Bill Bestpitch’s Committee for Better Representation, the pro-ward group of which he is chairman, said at a gathering at his house Tuesday night that city administrators tried to make the wards issue confusing to voters. “They fought us every step of the way,” said Lisa Farthing, also a member of the city task force that drew up a ward proposal to take to voters.

“It was a huge threat,” Waldo said of the ward proposal, “because for too long the affluent, the elite, the people in the southern tier of the city have controlled everything.”

Even though the railroad no longer dominates the city, Roanoke still operates as a company town, Bestpitch said.

Waldo said the ward proponents were outfinanced by One Roanoke Inc. While that group used a public relations firm, placed numerous newspaper ads and produced slick materials, “all we had were some TV ads paid by one of our friends, our brochures” and volunteers traveling all over the city to speak to civic leagues and church groups.

At polling places in Southeast Roanoke Tuesday, People would be voting for neighborhood interests, not for the city as a whole, said a middle-aged man. “Roanoke has too little progress as it is.”

Bud Chisom, a 67-year-old truck driver and former city firefighter, voted for wards. He said he did it because too many council members are clumped together in South and Southwest Roanoke. “They get the honey and we get the rest,” he said. “You’d have a whole lot bet
ter chance of representation, instead of a guy sitting out yonder in a rich section of town. He might never have driven through Southeast.”

“We just don’t have a mouthpiece is what it amounts to,” said Southeast resident Howard Spangler, 61.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Politics, Roanoke City Politics

Tags: ,


No Comments


November 9th, 2007 at 4:44 AM    

After observing the un-ward system in place in Roanoke City from the outside over the past ten years, I’m not at all surprised that 3/5ths of the city is politically invisible.

I found that article very interesting, but not just as a civic history lesson. There’s a social story there that you may not be aware of.

Before serving on City Council, Linda Wyatt was very active in the Roanoke Education Association. If memory serves, she was the local president back in the late 80’s during a time when I was a president of a small local in Central Virginia. At the same time, Gary Waldo served as the “Uniserv Director” for this area. Basically as an employee of NEA, Waldo worked closely with local education associations in the area, representing teachers in contract Directors work closely with local presidents, advising them of every public step they make.

So in a sense, Waldo helped build the political Wyatt. To see him publicly criticize her in 1997 (after he had retired from Uniserv work) is quite amazing to me.


November 9th, 2007 at 6:36 AM    


Thanks for more background on this. People can turn on a dime when it comes to politics. It makes people do uncharacteristic things. It is very hard being an idealist in politics. Throw in the towel?

“When one ceases from conflict, whether because he has won, because he has lost, or because he cares no more for the game, the virtue passes out of him.”
-Charles Horton Cooley,


November 10th, 2007 at 10:16 PM    

One of my favs, and from time to time it comes to mind about Roanoke:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” – Mario Savio

Comments are not moderated. Notify any abuse at put ABUSE in the subject and the offensive post.

Leave a Reply