Asheville voters may face an up or down vote on the city district elections plan making its way through the N.C. General Assembly. City Attorney Robin Currin advised Council to ask voters to choose between the bill establishing districts championed by Sen. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville versus the city’s current at-large election system in a November referendum.
Edwards’ plan cleared a hurdle on the evening of Tuesday, April 24 after City Council’s meeting had adjourned around 7 p.m. The bill passed the Senate Select Committee on Elections on a voice vote, meaning it can now advance to the N.C. House of Representatives for consideration. Asheville Sen. Terry Van Duyn sits on the Senate committee and expressed objections to the bill.
At its previous meeting on April 12, Asheville City Council heard the results of a telephone poll that measured city voters’ attitudes toward district elections. While those polled expressed a wide range of opinions, some of which seemed inconsistent and confusing, a majority said they favored holding a referendum on the issue.
Opponents of creating districts say dividing the city into six separate areas which would each elect a resident of that district as its representative — as Edwards’ plan would do — would pit the interests of different areas against each other and hamper unified collective action. Proponents claim that some areas of the city have been historically underrepresented, and districts would provide city residents with a dedicated representative to address their concerns.
While the telephone poll examined voter reactions to a variety of possible district election formats, Currin advised Council to put Edwards’ plan to voters directly: “My thought is that legally, the best way to make that choice available would be to allow — if you were so inclined — the voters to pick between the bill and the current system. And the way to do that would be to follow the act, divide it into six districts and put that on the ballot for the voters to vote it either up or down.”
Advancing any other alternative, Currin continued, would most likely not default to the current system but to the districts proposed by retired Sen. Tom Apodaca when he first introduced a plan to impose districts on the city last year. Apodaca’s bill was defeated in the General Assembly, but the bill advanced by Edwards (Apodaca’s successor in the 48th district) contains very similar provisions.
To meet state timing requirements for placing a measure on November’s ballot, Currin said, Council must review a description of the proposed amendment to the city’s charter at its meeting on June 13 and hold a public hearing on June 27. On July 25, the city would request state permission to place the question on the ballot.
Although there may be “other concepts that are better suited to Asheville,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said, “we’re running out of time.”
If voters say yes to six districts, Manheimer explained, “we’ll have time to appoint an independent commission to draw the six-district configuration.” If the measure doesn’t pass, she said, “then we can decide as a Council whether or not to take legal action or what we need to do to deal with the bill.”
During public comment at the end of Council’s meeting, current City Council candidate Rich Lee spoke against Currin’s proposed course of action. “We shouldn’t be putting what we all acknowledge to be a bad idea up against the status quo and giving people that choice,” Lee said. Dividing the city into six districts would create “a lot more factionalism and a lot more focus on these separate fiefdoms,” he said.
Lee advocated putting “our best choice” in front of voters, despite the challenges posed by the legislative calendar, “Even if it takes some kind of Manhattan Project-type effort to try to get something ready in the next month or two.”
But Council directed Currin to proceed with developing an ordinance to amend the city’s charter to elect City Council members from six electoral districts, with the mayor continuing to be elected at-large. Currin and Manheimer agreed that the language of the ordinance could be reviewed by Council’s Governance Committee prior to the June 13 meeting of Council.
Sen. Edwards was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday morning.