A rare breed

Most of South Carolina's 270 cities and towns never had partisan elections or have changed to nonpartisan elections.

These are the only municipalities still with partisan systems:

Aiken

Florence

Georgetown

New Ellenton

North Augusta

Olar

Source: The S.C. Municipal Association

GREENVILLE -This city recently decided to join South Carolina's other large cities by removing political parties from its municipal elections.

But the way the change was made - by two consecutive 4-3 votes that pitted City Council's only two black members against its GOP majority - has caused some ill will that might cause the city to end up in court.

Mayor Knox White said he thought the idea of going to nonpartisan elections had merit, but he ended up voting against the change because so many people spoke out in opposition.

"My argument became more a matter of the process," he said. "The idea has merit, but Greenville is not ready for it, and we don't shove issues down people's throats."

But that is what many felt was exactly what happened, including longtime City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming.

"They said they did their own study but nothing was ever reported to us about who they studied and what they studied," she said. "Right now there is a lot of bad will. It's like 'It doesn't matter what you say.' People kept saying this over and over."

Her husband, the Rev. J.M. Flemming, is head of the Greenville branch of the NAACP, which has said it will file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"What was so disheartening was that the public gave ways to increase voter participation and reduce campaigning time," the main reasons that nonpartisan supporters cited for making the change, the NAACP statement said.

When Charleston converted from partisan to nonpartisan elections more than a decade ago, the issue was placed before city voters, who approved it. There was no such referendum in Greenville, so the change will take effect next year, barring any legal roadblock.

The issue didn't break down partisan lines: Both of the city's parties opposed it, and City Councilwoman Gaye Sprague, a Democrat, was one of its chief supporters. She was joined by three other GOP council members.

The change comes as Greenville is seeing its black population ebb. Currently, the city is about 30 percent black, but two of its City Council districts - districts that once were more than 60 percent black - are now between 50 and 52 percent black.

Flemming said she is concerned about the change's impact on minority representation.

"It doesn't have to be black," she said. "We worked so hard for single-member districts to make it fair and now you want to undo that."

White said he is concerned that the city might have unnecessarily used up good will in its black community, good will that it might need one day to usher in redevelopment projects. And he noted the clear majorities who spoke out during neighborhood meetings and council meetings didn't want the change.

"I do think we put people through a lot of discord. It wasn't just the black leadership but the presidents of neighborhood associations, who are mostly white," White said. "A great part of democracy is showing up, and if there was anyone out there who feels strongly (about changing to nonpartisan elections), they didn't show up."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.