Amid the local kerfuffle over state legislation affecting the city of Asheville — particularly its water system and airport — there’s been little mention of the fact that North Carolina is not a home-rule state. If it were, the conventional wisdom goes, then the state Legislature would basically keep its hands off local issues and actions.
All municipalities are legal creations of their state government. But about half the states have embraced home rule: the idea that local governments have inherent regulatory powers. State law may set specific limits, but there’s generally minimal intervention by the legislature. North Carolina, however, instead inclines toward the legal concept known as Dillon's Rule, in which municipalities have only those powers specifically granted to them by state statutes and municipal charters.
In other words, Asheville (like Black Mountain, Weaverville, Woodfin and every other incorporated municipality throughout the state) is exactly that: a corporation. Accordingly, it’s subject to the laws of the government that created it — and what the government giveth, the government may take away.
So if a duly elected legislator (say, Buncombe County Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt) introduces legislation dealing with matters specific to the city of Asheville (such as who owns its airport or water system), the 120 state representatives and 50 state senators who convene in Raleigh are free to make whatever decision they collectively choose. Those are the rules of the game.
But what about the wishes of city residents: the voters? What about, at minimum, having public dialogue on such subjects before action is taken? Sorry — there's no mandate that the state facilitate such dialogue, and local officials have appeared trapped, surprised and defensive in that void. There has been no proactive grass-roots action and, perhaps worse, there is a prevailing air of partisanship coloring decisions and dampening dialogue. When, I’m inclined to ask those who complain, did you last have personal dialogue about these issues with a member of the opposite political party?
It seems to me there’s been a strange double standard hovering over the conversations, press coverage and blogs concerning the current legislative session. Take redistricting: Suddenly there’s a much louder chorus than usual demanding a nonpartisan process for redrawing electoral districts every 10 years, as the Constitution requires.
And when someone complains about the lack thereof and blames the Republicans who are now in charge, I am apt to say: "And just how long were the Democrats in power before this? Did they pass nonpartisan redistricting legislation?" Somehow, that seems to elicit the faintest blush of recognition — and maybe even a hint of embarrassment.
Or, at the local level, consider the recently legislated switch to district elections for the Buncombe County commissioners (counties, of course, also being creations of the state). Many local people have protested the lack of prior discussion of the proposal, ending with calls for a referendum. But when someone brings this up to me, I am apt to say: "What about the times when local proponents of redistricting asked the Buncombe commissioners for a referendum, and they refused?" And nobody seems to want to hear that question at all, so there’s not even a blush of recognition.
The legislative proposal to move Asheville's water system into the hands of the independent Metropolitan Sewerage District taps into Asheville's contentious water history, which also involves the governments of Buncombe and Henderson counties. This trio has repeatedly tried to work together for the region’s greater benefit; my oversimplification of this complex situation is that some important initiatives crumbled because one or another entity refused to compromise. That’s a bold statement on my part, so let’s see if anyone can prove me wrong. But having sat through negotiations involving these entities and the former Regional Water Authority, I do speak from some direct experience here.
Other high-profile local issues now receiving attention in the Statehouse include: transferring ownership of the Asheville Regional Airport to an independent authority; changing or curtailing municipalities’ annexation powers; eliminating extraterritorial jurisdiction; and a funding mandate that could undermine the autonomy of the Asheville City Schools.
Were these groundswell issues? Hardly. But consider this: We have a non-home-rule state with the first Republican-dominated Legislature in nearly a century-and-a-half. Is it really so hard to understand the rush to change laws or procedures the Republicans have chafed under for decades, and to initiate legislation concerning issues on which they hold strong ideological positions?
Does that make the legislation wise? Not necessarily. Have the Republicans used the bitter lessons learned as the minority party to rise above pedestrian politics and enact reforms promoting collaboration? Not necessarily. Are the Democrats blameless in their failure to set more inclusive standards when they were in power? Not necessarily.
All of these factors are swirling around the laws and budget now coming out of the Legislature. And though the ultimate outcome is still uncertain, one thing seems clear: This could well be the year the public wakes up to the fact that the General Assembly isn’t strictly a Raleigh phenomenon.
The legislation bandied about down there has a very direct impact on both our community and our individual lives. Just ask the next homeowner whose castle had been slated for annexation — or the next City Council member who thought Asheville’s assets were securely under local control.
— Former Xpress staffer Nelda Holder writes the paper's NCMatters section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.