Emails reveal more about state lawmakers’ push to overhaul Asheville’s elections

More emails obtained by Xpress shed new light on the push by some local lawmakers to impose a district election system on the city of Asheville, including the replies of some Council members.

On June 6, Xpress revealed that Republican state legislators were asking city officials to drop their lawsuit against a state bill forcibly transferring the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. The emails showed legislators, sometimes in the same message, talking about changing the city’s election system and discussing the fate of legislation that consolidates Asheville and Buncombe County’s parks-and-recreation services — a move that could save the city $5 million a year.

Council members have asserted that the legislators are threatening the city with unwanted legislation if it doesn’t settle the lawsuit.

On June 3 Rep. Tim Moffitt asked Mayor Terry Bellamy if city officials would announce a settlement by the end of the business day, and in the next paragraph mentions delaying the city’s local elections for a year.

The newly obtained emails show Bellamy’s reply the next day.

“I am one member of Council, and cannot speak for the entire Council,” she writes. “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.”

She also adds:

“As stated in our complaint, and in arguments to the court, there are some very real legal, logistical and financial issues associated with implementing the Water Act.  We initiated the legal action because we had no choice, and will continue with it as long as needed to protect the water system and its users.  However, a resolution is always possible if the terms are reasonable.  If the State wishes to propose a settlement that is both reasonable and binding, we are willing to listen.  Please provide a written copy for me to provide to council next our the entire board’s consideration.”

On June 5, Moffitt replied “What do you mean?”

The emails also reveal that Moffitt sent Bellamy draft legislation for district elections on April 4, though the email trail doesn’t include any reply from her. On May 28 Moffitt asked Bellamy again about her opinion on the legislation, and she claimed, “I have checked with our City Attorney and Vice Mayor, and no one has seen a proposed bill. Can you please forward me a copy?” He then sends the legislation on, noting that it’s a “confidential draft.”

While the legislation hasn’t been filed, it could be introduced as an amendment any time before the General Assembly adjourns. Rep. Nathan Ramsey, who was trying to get the city to agree to a settlement on the water lawsuit and wrote the parks-and-recreation consolidation bill, claims that city officials have known about the proposal for about six months, and that, in his opinion, district elections are a superior system.

In a June 3 reply to Moffitt, Council member Marc Hunt criticized the district elections proposal, asserting that he had informally spoke to most of Council and they’re against the change:

“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. 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.”

Hunt adds that in his experience district elections aren’t a priority for Asheville’s residents:

“What problem or whose concern is your initiative intended to address?  Having openly solicited frank input from many hundreds of citizens on various policy issues during my time as a candidate and in office, not a single city resident beyond yourself has spoken out or approached me advocating a change to districted elections.”

Changing a city’s election system by state fiat is rare. Usually, city charters — especially the election systems — are changed only after appeals come from the local government or there’s a municipal referendum. The last attempt to change Asheville’s elections was in 2007, when Council narrowly voted to put a partisan election system in place. A movement called Let Asheville Vote successfully put the measure to a referendum, where it lost overwhelmingly, and the city kept its current nonpartisan, at-large system.

However, in 2011 the General Assembly, in another move proposed by Moffitt, changed the elections of Buncombe County Board of Commissioner members to a district system (and added two members) over the unanimous objection of the local board. Critics asserted it was an attempt to get more Republicans on the board. In the 2012 elections, Democrats went from controlling the entire board to a slim 4-3 majority.

The newly obtained emails don’t mention the recreation authority, which passed the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee today, June 18.

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7 thoughts on “Emails reveal more about state lawmakers’ push to overhaul Asheville’s elections

  1. bsummers

    “The newly obtained emails don’t mention the recreation authority, which passed the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee today, June 18.”

    David, what you’re missing here, and which Nathan is apparently not in a hurry to announce, is that the bill has been altered: it won’t take effect for the City for at least two years.

    “The Board of Commissioners may, no earlier than 24 months after the creation of the Authority, expand the Authority to include other municipalities located within Buncombe County.”

    http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2013/Bills/House/PDF/H418v4.pdf

  2. sharpleycladd

    That delay would cost Asheville money, right? David, were you aware of that?

  3. Roger Hartley

    That delay of a merger that still has to be approved by the county and city is nothing compared to the. Cost of the lawsuit and what will likely be paid to Asheville eventually for the system. In the meantime, don’t they keep the asset as the lawsuit goes forward? And the revenues paid into it be customers?

    The threats that these new emals detail are pretty serious stuff to any judge presiding before this case.

    These ails really raise questions on how serious this lawsuit is to those who forced the merger? Why this kind of response? The merger is done, right? Either this is a helluva lawsuit or the delay it will cause is going to cost someone a lot. Who? Those who proposed it? Those who are backing them?

    Why this kind of threat when the the law has already changed and forced the transfer?

    Something isn’t adding up.

  4. bsummers

    It wouldn’t just cost the City money, it would put into limbo the whole idea of transferring the responsibility for funding parks etc. from the City to the County. If the original idea was that shifting authority for cultural and recreation facilities to the County was a good thing, where does introducing a two year delay make sense?

    It’s obvious – it makes sense if your major interest in this move wasn’t as a piece of good government, but as a carrot, or a consolation gift to the City on the water seizure. Now that the City has filed a lawsuit on the water issue, you take the carrot away, or dangle it out in front of them to try to get them to drop the lawsuit.

    It’s all just a game to Mssrs. Moffitt, Ramsey & McGrady. They don’t seem to care about the damage they are risking to the City.

    I’m sure that this latest twist on the blackmailing of the City of Asheville will make it onto the desk of Judge Manning…

  5. bsummers

    “Why this kind of threat when the the law has already changed and forced the transfer?”

    The transfer of the water system from the City to MSD has not happened yet. When the bill became law, the City filed the lawsuit to block implementation. The judge granted a Temporary Restraining Order, which has prevented the transfer from happening while the lawsuit is being waged. The threats from these legislators are intended to make the City drop the lawsuit before the judge can rule in their favor.

  6. Roger Hartley

    Exactly Bsummers…I agree completely. The lawsuit was a game changer. After this session there is not much Moffitt, Ramsey, or Mccrady can do that they haven’t done already. Changing a cities election system as a punitive measure might not even pick up members of his own caucus. Especially in an election year.

    They have essentially created a big mess. Even if the courts allow the transfer its going to cost the state and its taxpayers A LOT of money.and for what really? The region was getting water at a subsidized rate already.

  7. Lamont Cranston

    “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

    That about sums up the collective state political majority’s attitude and heavy handedness of Raleigh towards Asheville.

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