Carrot and stick: In emails, legislators and Council wrangle over water lawsuit, district city elect

“What appears to be happening is that we're being told to settle the water lawsuit or else.” — Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer photos by Max Cooper
“What appears to be happening is that we're being told to settle the water lawsuit or else.” — Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer photos by Max Cooper

Behind-the-scenes negotiations over a lawsuit, a push from Raleigh to force district-based elections for Asheville, and the fate of a parks-and-recreation bill that could save city government millions — all this and more are revealed in emails between Council members, city staff and North Carolina legislators. Recently obtained by Xpress, the documents show a candid back-and-forth dialogue.

“Pay fair market value” for the water system, Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson demanded in one exchange about how to settle the water-system dispute.

“There was no diplomacy in this response,” Rep. Chuck McGrady tossed back.

Few observers would say there's any great love lately between the city of Asheville and the local legislative delegation. While disputes have occurred periodically in North Carolina’s long history, representatives of the two entities have warred very publicly since a GOP tide arose in 2011, turning the century-long Democratic majority into a minority.

In May, in a sign of heightened disagreements, the city filed suit against Rep. Tim Moffitt-sponsored legislation that would forcibly transfer the water system to a new regional authority run by the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.

Emails from April to early June show Moffitt and other legislators attempting to negotiate a settlement. The emails indicate that their bargaining chips seem to be a parks-and-recreation merger that could save Asheville millions and a forced switch to district-based elections for Council.

For the latter, legislators have a draft bill, ready to go.

Rep. Nathan Ramsey tells Xpress that district elections — imposed by state legislators in 2012 — “have worked in my view pretty well in the county.”

But in the emails, Council member Marc Hunt dubbed the election proposal unwanted and “patently unfair.”

Shuffling the ballot box


On June 3, Rep. Moffitt emailed Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, asking whether the city would reach an agreement on the water-system lawsuit by the end of that day. "Is it the intent of the City to continue with the legal action against the State and MSD?" He also noted, “Ramsey has been attempting to seek resolution and it seems to no avail. I would like to know by COB tomorrow if a resolution is possible and if not, I need to know that as well."

In the next paragraph, Moffitt said, "In regards to district elections and moving City elections to general election cycles — it would require all seats subject to this years’ election to be extended for an additional year. What are your thoughts, since it would apply to you?"

In Council’s staggered terms, the mayor’s seat and three regular seats are up for re-election this fall. Moffitt’s district-election bill would postpone that process and keep Bellamy, Gordon Smith, Manheimer and Cecil Bothwell in place until 2014.

The June email is not the first time Moffitt has raised the long-rumored but rarely discussed district-election idea with Council members. He sent Bellamy a draft bill on April 4. Prepared in March and recently obtained by Xpress, the bill would switch Asheville Council elections from totally at-large to a district system that allocates representation for north, south, west, east and central Asheville, as well as a mayoral and one at-large seat. City officials would draw up the boundaries, subject to state approval.

Neither Asheville officials nor residents have requested such a change, though in 2007 Council members voted to switch to partisan elections and a local group, Let Asheville Vote, successfully put a referendum on the ballot to overturn it. Residents soundly voted against the change, so Council elections remain nonpartisan. Buncombe County’s Democrat-controlled Board of Commissioners didn’t call for a new system either, but in 2011, North Carolina legislators mandated that future members be elected according to redrawn state districts that diminished Asheville’s influence. The change is credited with ensuring that the board, long dominated by Democrats, get more Republican representation, and indeed, the current board has three freshmen GOP commissioners.

In any case, while the election bill wasn't filed before the May 16 crossover deadline, Moffitt could add it as an amendment to another bill at any time before the end of the legislative session. In a June 19 phone conversation with Xpress, he said he hasn’t decided how to proceed with the bill yet, but insisted that it’s not connected to the lawsuit or any other legislation.

Back and forth

On June 5, Rep. Ramsey wrote to city leaders and senior staff that he "spoke with Asheville representative [Jack Cozart, the city's lobbyist] this morning, looking forward to hear if the city has any desire to settle the case filed against the state."

Later the same day, Jackson replied, "Repeal the law taking city property, state pays fair market value, and structure authority with fair elected representation?"

State Rep. McGrady weighed in, writing, “Usually, you’re pretty diplomatic, Gary, but clearly there was no diplomacy in this response." He continued: "Of course, my perspective from dealing with Asheville over a lot longer time than you’ve been manager is that ‘fair elected representation’ is just another way of saying that Asheville is in charge. If you’re stating the basis for any settlement, please consider your conditions rejected.”

McGrady went on to praise the city for its cooperation with a new regional airport authority that added representatives from his county — Henderson — to the board.

Council member Gordon Smith took part in the exchange, too, querying Ramsey about the fate of the recreation authority bill. There appears to have been no email reply.

However, Ramsey answered Jackson, bringing up the recreation authority and tying it to the water-system debate: "I have discussed with city representatives a financial benefit to the city of $7.5 million via the CRA [the recreation authority] and $1.1 million via the MSD, is that not acceptable? I have discussed with city representatives giving the city half the votes on matters concerning water, is that not acceptable?"

Jackson asked whether Ramsey was speaking for himself or his whole delegation. He also requested more information about the process.

Ramsey then wrote, "If the city is willing to meet with the delegation, I'd suggest you come to Raleigh … and I will work to set up that meeting."

Moffitt told Xpress that these attempts to resolve the lawsuit were Ramsey’s. He also claimed to be “very comfortable the state will prevail.”

In a previous email, dated May 2, McGrady wrote: "I’m not going to oppose the [parks] legislation, but it puts us in an interesting position. … We’re being asked to change the law and the result will be that Asheville’s expected fiscal crisis goes away. Having passed this legislation, we then will be sued over the water system. So we could end up giving a windfall to the City and then still have the prospect of controlling water, is that what could happen, Nathan [Ramsey]?"

"I have always believed a consolidated parks/rec system would be positive for our community and for over a decade have believed that water/sewer consolidation would benefit the City of Asheville, our smaller towns, and Buncombe County," Ramsey replied.

Points of view


The emails do not explicitly say that the state delegation will hold up the parks authority or force district elections if the water lawsuit doesn't go away, but Manheimer has told Xpress, "We're being told to settle the water lawsuit or else. Those appear to be the options on the table."

She explained that in conversations, Ramsey has denied that the recreation authority bill is tied to a water settlement, but "then he'll proceed to give me a 30-minute lecture about while we should settle the water lawsuit."

But in Ramsey’s view, the email trail shows city officials saying one thing in public — that no settlement is in the cards — but another thing when they discuss terms in private, he told Xpress.

“For well over two months, we have been discussing specific proposals to reach a settlement," Ramsey said. "I'm trying to do the best I can and deal with facts. Until they [the city] can deal with facts, it's hard to engage in discussions with people.”

As for the recreation bill, its fate is in the Senate's hands, he said. On June 18, after no action by the Senate in the prior month, the recreation bill moved through the State and Local Government Committee, with two important changes: The latest version reduces the city's representation on the new authority board and declares that no city or town — including Asheville — can join the authority for two years. So Asheville won't see any savings for some time.

The unwanted bill


Regarding the district-election proposal, Bellamy responded a day later to Moffitt’s June 3 demand.

"I am one member of Council, and cannot speak for the entire Council," she wrote. "Among our concerns is that we have yet to see concrete terms for a settlement — only that we drop the lawsuit in exchange for an uncertain promise of inclusion in the Parks Authority bill, which itself provides little certainty as to the revenue that will be generated."

The city has good reasons for continuing the lawsuit, she continued, and if Moffitt truly wanted a settlement, the state should propose one in writing “that is both reasonable and binding.” If he did so, she would bring it before the entire Council, she wrote.

On June 5, Moffitt answered, "What do you mean?"

Council member Hunt also replied to Moffitt’s initial query, claiming that he'd informally spoken to most of Council, and the district system was a nonstarter. "Legislators that do not represent our citizens initiating dramatic changes to how Asheville elects its Council members is patently unfair and conflicts with fundamental principles of self-governance,” Hunt writes. “It is especially offensive when initiated with no advance publicity as an amendment to a larger bill in quick-turnaround fashion near the end of a legislative session."

He added that in his two years on Council, “not a single city resident beyond yourself has spoken out or approached me advocating a change to districted elections.”

In responding to Xpress queries about the emails and negotiations, Ramsey defended district elections, claiming that city officials have known about the proposal for almost six months.

But in her May emails with Moffitt, Bellamy claimed that city officials had not received the election bill. He subsequently re-sent the document, emphasizing that it was a “confidential draft.”

In any case, Ramsey told Xpress, "District elections have worked in my view pretty well in the county."

Reached by phone on June 19, Moffitt said that he’s heard citizens ask about district elections over the years. “Council is once again trying to politicize something that should be discussed in the community. I do believe that a district or ward system does protect the diversity of a community.”

Moffitt also claimed that since elected officials often favor the system that got them into power, “It falls on the state to intercede and do what’s in the best interest of the citizens.”

Could the issue be taken to a referendum vote?

“We’re not a referendum state,” Moffitt said.

But North Carolina law does allow the changing of a city’s charter, including its election system, by referendum, according to the state statutes on local government.

Next move?

By the time the early June emails were circulating, the city had already released its public budget, which assumes significant savings from a consolidated recreation authority managed by Buncombe County. Those savings, up to $5 million per year, would allow the city to fund a list of key projects. But with that authority uncertain, Council has scrambled for an alternative plan and is contemplating a property tax hike (see “Budget Brandishing,” June 19 Xpress).

Manheimer insisted, “Folks in the legislature are tying together the water system with parks and rec or any bill that might benefit the city."

She added, "There's clearly not an agreement on their side about what should happen."

Moffitt said that the rec authority is “just one more step in my move to consolidate as much city and county government as possible.” Asked how far that will go, Moffitt replied, “We’ll find out. I’m looking at other areas… The whole way our government is set up, from the federal level down to the local level, is structurally unsound.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137 or dforbes@mountainx.com.

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