City Council silenced the voices of nearly 63,000 Charlotteans this week.
The setting was a day-long meeting at which the city’s elected officials and top administrators discussed a wide range of issues, including the city budget, COVID relief, potential changes to the city’s form of government, and reform of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
As a safety precaution during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Council has regularly provided officials with the option of participating virtually in meetings. Members have regularly done so for months.
But when at-large Councilman Braxton Winston, a Democrat, expressed a desire to remotely participate in the Council’s October 5 strategy session, a majority of his colleagues balked, shutting him out of the deliberations and suppressing his voice — along with the voices of the 62,607 citizens who voted for him in the last election.
The Council’s two Republicans, Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, joined Democrats Julie Eiselt, Malcolm Graham, and James Mitchell in stripping Winston of his right to participate. Democrats Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, Victoria Watlington, Renee Johnson, and Matt Newton voted to allow Winston to participate remotely.
Mayor Vi Lyles, who is also a Democrat, cast the tie-breaking vote to suppress Winston’s voice.
Lyles didn’t explain why she voted to bar Winston from participating, a move which seemed to contradict her remarks from the opening of the meeting that emphasized how “we need every voice to be heard.”
Like the leader of his party, Driggs downplayed the risk of the pandemic in justifying the vote to silence his colleague.
“I appreciate Mr. Winston’s concern about health issues, but we have to make tough choices in order to get on with our lives while this is going on, and what you see here is how that can be made to work,” he said.
Driggs spoke without wearing a mask.
Council members were spaced apart from each other during the meeting, which lasted the entire day and was held indoors. Except when eating or drinking, everyone in attendance was supposed to wear a mask.
The decision by Driggs and Bokhari to silence Winston was unsurprising given the recent work by state and national Republicans to sideline minority voices in the political process with what one federal appeals court called “almost surgical precision.”
Not so for the four Democrats who also agreed to quiet Winston, the tens of thousands of city residents who voted for him, and the hundreds of thousands of people he represents.
Mitchell, who could be spotted without a mask during the debate, said nothing before voting, while Lyles’s vote seemed to contradict what she had said at the meeting’s opening about the need to hear everyone’s voice.
Lyles also acknowledged the legitimacy of Winston’s health concerns, making her decision to silence him inexplicable. “I don’t think this pandemic is going to be over any time soon. I think we all wish that, but we all know there’s going to be an issue about it for at least the next couple months,” she said at the meeting’s start.
Eiselt’s vote seemed to be motivated by spite.
“If you’re someone who’s going to other activities, you’re going to protests, then I don’t think it’s fair that at the last minute you decide you want to stay home,” she said, referring to Winston’s recent protest activities aimed at CMPD.
Those protests have been held outdoors, which are significantly safer than indoor gatherings, according to experts on the pandemic.
Graham said he thought the Council would be more effective if its members met in person. He also suggested that if cops, firefighters, and garbagemen can do their jobs, council members can meet to do theirs.
He did not explain why Winston’s remote participation, which has been a regular practice for council members for months, would negatively effect the body’s deliberations during the strategy session.
Those who voted to allow Winston’s remote participation were moved by a desire to respect each individual’s decision related to managing risks during the pandemic.
“I don’t profess to know what’s good for someone else. I think it’s an individual decision,” Newton said. “[The virus] exists across the country. It exists in our community. We’re all taking a risk.”
Lyles and Egleston told Newton to put his mask on while he spoke.
Johnson reminded everyone that the Council had previously agreed to allow for remote participation in meetings through October 12, which would cover the strategy session.
“I think it’s a personal choice. I think we should respect council member Winston and I think we should demonstrate to the public that there are options for getting business done virtually and in person,” she said.
“The number of deaths are still increasing. The president has COVID-19, and I think we should demonstrate responsible flexibility.”
Ajmera noted that allowing Winston to participate remotely wouldn’t pose any practical obstacle. “It shouldn’t take that long. It’s just one click,” she said.
Eiselt dug in, fixated on Winston’s protest activities.
“If it’s a health thing, absolutely. It’s hard to accept that when you’re out doing other things and with other people and posting it and live-streaming it,” she said.
Eiselt was calling Winston a liar.
Lyles called the vote and initially miscounted, saying there were six in favor of allowing Winston to participate remotely, which would have been enough to let him do so.
She moved on to other matters, prepared to let Winston participate, until Eiselt spoke up again.
“Did you count six?” she asked.
Lyles counted again and saw she had erred. The vote was a 5-5 tie.
The mayor announced that absent a majority vote to allow Winston to participate remotely, he would not be permitted to do so. She made it official a couple hours later when someone reminded her she had to formally cast a vote in the event of a tie.
Without explanation, she voted to silence one of the people’s representatives, effectively suppressing their votes.