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.