Emails obtained by Xpress reveal that some state legislators have asked city of Asheville representatives to drop their lawsuit contesting a state-mandated transfer of the water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. The emails also show legislators discussing the fate of legislation that consolidates Asheville and Buncombe County parks-and-recreation services — a move that could save the city $5 million a year. Further, the candid discussions shine a light on a long-rumored proposal that the state may force Asheville to switch to district-based elections.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer says the city is being “told to settle the lawsuit or else” face more unwanted legislation.
On June 3, Rep. Tim Moffitt emailed Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, asking if the city would reach a settlement by the end of that day. “As we are approaching the end of the long session, is it the intent of the City to continue with the legal action against the State and MSD?” Moffitt writes. “Representative [Nathan] 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, he brings up changing the city’s election system and delaying this year’s elections so that district elections could take place (such a move could keep Bellamy and three Council members in office for another year):
“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?”
A draft bill to switch Asheville to district elections already exists, though it has not been officially filed. The draft, prepared in March and recently obtained by Xpress, proposes plans for district elections, with seats for north, south, west, east, and central Asheville, as well as a mayor and one at-large seat. City officials would draw up the boundaries, but the state would approve them.
City officials have not requested such a change. In 2011, North Carolina legislators mandated that Buncombe County’s Board of Commissioners be elected in by district; the move is credited with ensuring that the board, long dominated by Democrats, get more Republican representation.
Ramsey claims city officials have been aware of the possibility of district elections since at least January, and “district elections have worked in my view pretty well in the county.”
On June 4, Council member Gordon Smith wrote Ramsey to ask his “sense of the CRA’s [the recreation merger bill’s] progress in the Senate. It’s been weeks with nary a word. If passage of this bill is explicitly tied to other policy decisions, that would be helpful to know for sure. If it’s just a hold up because of Senate logjams, that’d be helpful information, too. We’re trying to build a budget, and it’s awfully hard when we don’t know what our revenues and expenditures are going to be.”
Smith claims he did not receive a reply.
Ramsey tells Xpress that he doesn’t know what the bill’s fate in the Senate will be, but “if somebody wants a bill passed in the Senate, they need to contact their Senator. I’m in the House.”
On June 5, Rep. Ramsey wrote to city leaders and senior staff that he “spoke with Asheville representative Mr. [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, City Manager Gary Jackson replied, “Repeal the law taking city property, state pays fair market value, and structure authority with fair elected representation?”
State Rep. Chuck McGrady also weighed in, writing, “Usually, you’re pretty diplomatic, Gary, but clearly there was no diplomacy in this response.” He continues:
“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 also praises the city for its work on getting a regional airport authority going.
Ramsey replies to Jackson, “I have discussed with city representatives a financial benefit to the city of $7.5 million via the CRA and $1.1 million via the MSD, is that not acceptable? I have discussed with city representatives giving the city ½ the votes on matters concerning water, is that not acceptable?”
Jackson asks if he’s speaking for himself or his whole delegation, and requests more information about the process before proceeding. Ramsey then writes, “If the city is willing to meet with the delegation, I’d suggest you come to Raleigh since we are in the midst of the budget, and I will work to set up that meeting.”
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 says, “Who knows what the hell is really going on, but what appears to be happening is that we’re being told to settle the water lawsuit or else. … Those appear to be the options on the table.”
She explains 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.”
Ramsey says that the emails show the city officials have been saying one thing in public — that no settlement is in the cards — and another thing when they discuss terms in private.
“For well over two months, we have been discussing specific proposals to reach a settlement,” Ramsey says. “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 that say one thing publicly and another privately.”
In a May 2 email to other legislators and local leaders, McGrady questions proceeding forward with the recreation authority bill while the legislature’s facing a lawsuit from Asheville:
“I’m not going to oppose the 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]?”
Ramsey wrote back, “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.”
Manheimer believes that Ramsey is sincere, “and not as punitive as Moffitt — frankly it’d be hard to be that punitive. [But] unfortunately he can’t act alone, and folks in the legislature are tying together the water system with parks and rec or any bill that might benefit the city.”
“There’s clearly not an agreement on their side about what should happen,” she adds.