When election day comes around this November, a referendum to elect Buncombe County Commissioners by district will not be on the ballot. A motion by Chair Nathan Ramsey to put such a measure (and expand the board from five to seven members) failed yesterday evening, when no other commissioner would second it.
After Ramsey briefly presented some of the reasons favoring district elections, such as greater local representation, he made an appeal for allowing voters to decide the matter.
“Currently, there has not been a commissioner who has lived west of the French Broad River for 20 years,” he said. “There hasn’t been a commissioner who’s lived north of the city limits in 16 years. It has been over 30 years since we changed the method of electing commissioners. Our population has grown significantly: Today, there’s almost 45,000 people for each commissioner. We should give our citizens the chance to decide whether they think this is a good idea or a bad idea.”
Ramsey, running for re-election as chair against Vice Chair David Gantt, denied he had political reasons for proposing district elections.
“Perhaps I should have done it earlier,” he said. “Maybe we should have done it a long time ago, but we need to go forward with it sometime.”
None of the other commissioners offered any comment at the meeting about their reasons for not seconding Ramsey’s motion.
Earlier, some Buncombe residents spoke in favor of district elections — or in favor of putting the matter on the ballot.
“We need this,” Swannanoa resident and longtime political activist Eric Gorny told the board. “I believe you know it’s the right thing to do. Swannanoa’s trying to incorporate, and one of the arguments they [pro-incorporation advocates] bring up constantly is that there hasn’t been a commissioner from there since 1956 — it is an underrepresented area. It is not perceived that you are representing us. Look at the floods of 2004: There’s still buildings in wreckage in 2008. This is a way we can address that. It’s not a partisan issue, it’s about right and wrong. What we have now is wrong.”
Leicester resident Peggy Bennett brandished bumper stickers from the group Citizens for Change displaying slogans like “Erwin-Leicester needs a commissioner.”
“This has been an issue for us for several years, and we have hopes for getting it on the ballot,” Bennett said. “This is not an election year ploy by Chairman Ramsey, it’s an election-year campaign by the people you’re supposed to represent. For years the majority of commissioners have lived within the city. We feel the county is not well served when the commissioners come from just a few neighborhoods. Put it on the ballot, let the people vote.”
Bennett also said that that district elections would cut down “on the obscene costs of running a campaign.”
Candler resident Kathy Rhodarmer said she didn’t “understand why it’s so hard to let people vote. It seems very paternalistic … . It’s sort of looking down on folks when you tell them they can’t vote on it.”
Enka resident Jerry Rice said that local issues are better understood when the commissioners come from the area, and issued a warning to the board members.
“You didn’t even know about the Enka smokestacks until they were gone,” he said. “I hope we see this on the ballot and, God help us, I’d like to see all of you out of here.”
— David Forbes, staff writer