Asheville City Council is making moves on an issue that’s been stuck in limbo: state-imposed districts for municipal elections. Minutes before she adjourned Council’s June 11 meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer announced that she and her colleagues would publicly discuss the city’s options for challenging the law.
“There has been a lot of talk about districts, the district election bills, and we’ve had a lot of public outward discussion about it,” Manheimer said. “You’ve heard a lot about, ‘Should there be a lawsuit? Should there be a charter amendment? Should there be both? Should there be neither?’ These are all the things that we will need to lay on the table and some things to consider in this conversation.”
In recent months, several speakers have urged members of Asheville City Council to challenge the state law during the public comment portion of Council’s meetings. Asked in a 2017 referendum to weigh in on district elections, three-quarters of Asheville voters rejected the district plan then being considered by state lawmakers.
An amended version of legislation establishing Asheville election districts introduced by Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, passed the General Assembly last year. Under the new law, five of seven Council seats will be elected in districts, with one member and the mayor elected at large. The legislation also eliminates Council election primaries and moves voting to even years in alignment with general and state elections — giving all currently elected Council members an extra year in office.
While a previous districting bill, proposed by former Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, removed the Asheville’s right to amend its charter, the current bill left that option in place. Manheimer said that change removed a possible precedent for Asheville to challenge the law, since the city of Greensboro based its successful challenge of state-driven redistricting on the loss of its ability to make charter changes.
“I don’t know if there’s anything more chicken and egg than this situation, because it’s hard to know what will happen,” Manheimer said. “The question is, ‘What is the appropriate action?’ because we have a couple of options that the public hasn’t had a chance to hear about.”
Until recently, Council members have stayed quiet on the possibility of a legal challenge to districts. Sheneika Smith, Brian Haynes and Keith Young called for action to oppose the law, which they referred to as the “latest fiasco to come out of Raleigh,” in a June 6 op-ed in the Citizen Times.
The Council members voiced concern that the districts amount gerrymandering that will favor more conservative candidates while diluting the impact of black voters. “These changes are a direct attempt to see that members like the three of us rarely get elected and certainly never make up the majority,” they wrote.
Council member Vijay Kapoor, who as a candidate opposed districting, released a 15-page statement on June 10 explaining a change of heart on the issue. Dividing the city into districts, he said, will provide greater representation of Asheville neighborhoods and allow Council members to focus on the needs of the smaller group of constituents each will represent.
Kapoor also argued that district opponents haven’t supported their claims of racial gerrymandering. “It’s not enough to say to a judge that we ‘feel’ that the 2020 district map is a gerrymander — we need facts and evidence, and I would very much like to see that from those who are asserting it is, as we haven’t seen it,” Kapoor wrote.
While Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler opposed implementing district elections for seats on City Council during her 2017 reelection campaign, she hasn’t weighed in on whether Asheville should challenge the state law.
Manheimer said any decision would likely not come soon enough to restore a 2019 primary should elections be held this year.
The discussion on legal options regarding districting is set to take place during a work session on Tuesday, July 2, at 5 p.m. in Council chambers. All Council members are expected to participate, and members of the public will be permitted to comment. Any resulting action would require a vote of Council during a regular meeting.