The North Carolina Senate passed a bill May 18 to expand the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners from five to seven members and mandate district representation in place of the current at-large elections.
The law establishes three commissioner districts, with the same boundaries as the county’s three state House districts. Voters in each district will choose two commissioners, who will have to reside within the district; the board chair will still be elected by all the county’s voters.
The Senate vote reportedly fell along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats against it. An identical bill, sponsored by Buncombe Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, passed the state House May 2. That vote also fell mostly along party lines, with three Democrats joining 66 Republican legislators in supporting it and 48 Democrats opposed. Since the bill only deals with a local issue, the governor doesn’t have veto authority. The law should take effect before the 2012 elections.
Democratic representatives in the House and Senate tried unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to require a countywide binding referendum before it could become law.
The current commissioners – all Democrats – were unanimously opposed to the measure, with board Chair David Gantt asserting on several occasions that he thought it would limit democracy by taking away residents’ rights to vote for all of the commissioners. Board members also said they were upset that they were not consulted or informed about Moffitt’s bill before he introduced it in the House.
However, leading up to the votes in General Assembly, Rep. Moffitt said he didn’t feel the election changes were controversial, arguing that they would make commissioners more accountable to underserved parts of the county and give candidates of more moderate means a better chance of winning.