Though the council had already conducted its annual reorganization on March 24 and selected a new mayor and vice mayor, it deliberated at its July 28 meeting whether to reorganize again after four months.
After more than an hour of impassioned discussion, the council voted 3-2 against choosing a new vice mayor.
Councilmember Edward Wilson had called for the reorganization last month, saying systemic racism led him to be bypassed as vice mayor in March though he was next in line for that position, per the council’s informal rotation schedule. Wilson is the only African-American council member.
In March, the council unanimously chose as mayor Robert Copeland, who had been serving as vice mayor. Outgoing Mayor Lori Woods nominated Councilmember Tina Hansen as vice mayor and Wilson nominated himself.
The council voted 4-1 for Hansen as vice mayor, with Wilson casting the sole vote for himself.
Though she acknowledged Wilson should have been next up as vice mayor in the usual rotation, Woods said she nominated Hansen because of her dedication and seniority.
Hansen is senior to Wilson by three years, first elected to city council in 1994 and Wilson in 1997.
The council then received three letters from residents, which Copeland read aloud at the council’s June 9 meeting, calling for Wilson to be instated as vice mayor and condemning what they said was racial bias against him.
Councilmember Keir Jones asked Wilson what he thought of not being appointed vice mayor in the context of the letters and Wilson said he agreed that the council’s action was racist because there was no reason to change rotation precedent.
“If COVID is a reason to change it– because we’re in a crisis, we need to change it– that, by definition, is racist,” Wilson said.
The council continued that discussion during its July 14 meeting, when Wilson called for a reorganization to allow himself to be vice mayor.
During that meeting, Woods said she hadn’t voted for Wilson as vice mayor in March, not because of race, but because she didn’t want him rotated in as mayor in 2021 when the council will make commissioner appointments.
She said Wilson’s commissioner-nominating process in 2017– when he last served as mayor– was “upsetting and disturbing,” even though it was based on the City Charter.
Hansen also cited Wilson’s commissioner-nominating process as her main reason for wanting to be vice mayor this year and then mayor next year. Copeland agreed that he didn’t like how Wilson’s process didn’t replace all expired commission seats.
See related story: Three open commission seats remain unfilled after controversial meeting
Wilson said Hansen’s comments about wanting to be vice mayor during the pandemic made it sound like she was more qualified to lead than he is and it was okay to bypass him just because he might not allow her to nominate someone for commission appointments next year.
“Systemic racism is ensuring people of color, whoever they are, are moved aside, for a person that is not of color,” Wilson said. “The action of the council was to continue that practice.”
During last week’s meeting, Wilson said that people can do racist actions and not be racist, and those who stay quiet are complicit in that racism. Everyone is a product of systemic racism, he said.
“It’s part of who we are,” Wilson said. “It’s like breathing.”
But Wilson also contended that the council retaliated against him for his 2017 commission-appointment process in bypassing him for vice mayor, adding that the other members’ implicit bias caused them to not even discuss it as a reason.
“The history of this country is [that] people of color, when they speak, they’re not listened to,” Wilson said. “When they do something different than the status quo, they’re called disrupters. And people that aren’t of color get upset. And then they base their actions based on those feelings.”
Woods held that the March reorganization was legitimate and saw no reason to reorganize again, which she said would be “completely disruptive” to the operation of the city, especially with the pandemic and associated financial challenges.
Woods moved to only receive-and-file the agenda item, but her motion was not seconded.
Wilson moved to reorganize for only the vice mayor position, not both mayor and vice mayor as per the agenda. Copeland seconded his motion.
Jones said he supported reselecting both a mayor and vice mayor and expressed support for Wilson in a leadership role, especially now.
“This would have been an opportunity to potentially nominate Councilmember Wilson for mayor during this time when it would be ideal to have our only elected person of color representing our city,” he said. “I think it would be a very powerful statement.”
But Wilson said he favored Copeland continuing as mayor, but was interested in serving as vice mayor and then as mayor in the next rotation, as the city continues to address institutional racism.
It does make a powerful statement to say […] we actually did make a mistake and we are going to rectify that and we are going to move forward with that, knowing that this is going to last […] a number of years,” Wilson said.
Copeland and Wilson voted yes to reorganizing the council to choose a new vice mayor. Hansen, Jones and Woods voted against.
Jones later told the Signal Tribune that he cast a “no” vote because he thought both positions– mayor and vice mayor– should be reorganized to give Wilson a chance to serve as mayor during this time of heightened racial awareness.
He also said he doesn’t believe a vice mayor should automatically be rotated in as next mayor, as Wilson had assumed.
“Each reorganization is at the discretion of the council members elected and the needs of that council at that time,” Jones said. “So I didn’t see a need to reorganize the vice mayor.”
However, Jones suggested that Wilson could still become mayor with the next rotation.
“The discussion of all these systemic structures shines light on the importance of making sure residents of our city understand that the Charter guides the process,” Jones said. “At our next reorganization, the council is able to select any council member to serve as the next mayor, including Councilmember Wilson.”