MYRTLE BEACH — A new issue is dominating the campaign in the final days of the mayoral runoff: single-member districts on City Council.
Businesswoman Brenda Bethune netted a key endorsement in her race against three-term incumbent John Rhodes this week, in part because she signaled she was open to the idea of specific districts for council members. Currently, all six members are at-large.
"It does deserve being looked at," Bethune said. "As along as everyone is represented fairly, I do not have a problem at all with single-member districts."
In a televised debate two days after that endorsement, Rhodes also backed the idea and said he would push for council districts to be put to a referendum in November 2018.
Bethune was the top vote-earner and beat Rhodes by nine points as five candidates competed for the seat nearly two weeks ago, though she was short of winning a majority. Voters will decide between Bethune and Rhodes this Tuesday.
As the city grows, Rhodes said, the districts look more attractive.
"With the growth we’ve had in the last four years in this city from all directions, I think it's possible now that that can be achieved, to have the districts where you can have equal representation," he said.
The idea is appealing to many voters in the fast-growing Market Common neighborhood, which includes the biggest single precinct in the city. None of the current or newly elected members of City Council live in the area. Only one, Mike Lowder, lives south of Mr. Joe White Avenue.
Rhodes came in third in that precinct in the Nov. 7 vote, behind Bethune and Ed Carey, a resident of the area and who has since endorsed Bethune.
If Myrtle Beach did move forward with separating its council members into districts, the issue would have to be decided in a referendum, according to Bill Taylor of the S.C. Municipal Association. The referendum could be put to a vote with either a majority approval by council or a petition signed by 15 percent of registered voters in the city.
Taylor said that typically, staff from the state would help cities draw the districts.
"What they try to do is divide that equally, so that within a few margin points, every district has the same amount of people in it," Taylor said.
The idea has also been floated in other fast-growing areas, like Mount Pleasant, where a group of residents on the north side of town tried this year to put single-member districts to a vote. They fell short in collecting the required signatures, however.