The Council of Independent Business Owners returned to the topic of district elections for seats on Asheville City Council at its monthly issues meeting on Feb. 10. The organization invited five panel members with different perspectives on the topic and moderator Buzzy Cannady allowed audience members to pose a number of questions to the panelists. The 45-minute discussion covered considerable territory, including the possible impact of district elections on representation, Council decision making, voter turnout and the cost of mounting a campaign. Participants also weighed in on the question of who should decide what electoral system the city should use.
The six members of Asheville City Council and the city’s mayor are currently elected in at-large, nonpartisan contests. Last June, retiring state Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, whose 48th district includes a small slice of South Asheville, filed a bill to institute district elections for City Council. Apodaca’s bill would have created six electoral districts, with each district electing one resident representative. The city’s mayor would continue to be elected by a city-wide vote.
Though Apodaca’s bill was defeated, Asheville City Council on Jan. 10 instructed city staff to gather public input on how Asheville residents would prefer to elect their city leaders.
Panelist and former City Council member from 2001 to 2005 Dr. Joe Dunn kicked off the discussion. Dunn is leading a petition campaign to urge state legislators to implement six electoral districts for seats on City Council, with the mayor continuing to be elected at-large. The current system, Dunn said, is not representative of residents of certain areas of the city. “The suburbs have no voice,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing about diversity and inclusiveness. It’s not there in the way that our City Council elections are run now.”
City Council member Cecil Bothwell explained Council’s recent decision to survey citizens about how the body is elected: “We … have decided to ask the citizens of Asheville whether they would prefer district representation instead of at-large representation. … we believe the citizens of Asheville should make the decision.” Bothwell said his personal opinion is that “it would be a mistake to split a city of our size into districts.” As Council operates today, he continued, “I just don’t see that we are favoring any one part of town against any other.”
Over time, Bothwell said, districts lead to gerrymandering.
Former city employee John Miall, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013 and for City Council in 2015, said he is “a bit of a convert” on the issue of district elections. While he previously opposed the idea of districts, he said, “I have completely changed my mind.” Far more problematic than the concern of gerrymandering, Miall said, is a system that favors certain types of candidates. “It has everything to do with a cabal that has a total lock on local government,” he said. “I’m not sure I know the answer, but I know the problem.”
Dusty Pless, a former member of the Buncombe County Board of Education, said he ran as an at-large candidate in the school board election. Combining at-large and district-specific seats in a single system was very confusing to voters, Pless recalled. It was also more expensive for candidates to run district-wide races, he said. “It all boils down to a small electoral college,” he said. “That’s the only fair way to go about it. I hope that the state legislature will take this up and force the Asheville city to do this.”
Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher said knowing the people in District 3 has been critical to his success in winning election in 2012 and re-election in 2016, as well as in serving his constituents. He emphasized the importance of answering constituents’ questions in person in the community. “Our neighbors know us and they feel comfortable approaching us. They don’t feel comfortable coming to a Commissioners’ meeting and standing up there for three minutes with that little red light going off. No. But in Ingles they will wear you out,” he said.
Belcher agreed with Pless about the financial advantages of district elections, saying, “It would be very expensive for me to run county-wide, probably four times what I spent in 2016.”
South Asheville resident Vijay Kapoor, who announced his candidacy for City Council last week, said he’s heard a lot of concern from his neighbors about a lack of representation on Council for their part of the city. At the same time, he said, those residents are also concerned about the way in which districts would be structured. “I worry about the creation of turf wars,” Kapoor said. “At this point, I think that every voter in Asheville should have the ability to elect every member of City Council.”
Kapoor asked the panelists whether their concerns about districts have more to do with geographic representation or with providing a greater diversity of political views on the Council, saying he had heard both concerns cited. Bothwell responded that drawing geographic boundaries is inevitably influenced by political calculations. “If we do draw lines,” he said, “I think it should be the people of Asheville who decide and the not the legislature. Whichever party is in power, it always seems to gerrymander.”
Buncombe County Commissioner Mike Fryar pushed back against the idea that creating districts invariably leads to gerrymandering. “My district is not Republican,” he said, explaining that in 2012 he won District 2 by 87 votes, and in 2016 his margin of victory was 137 votes over challenger Nancy Nehls Nelson. “You have to get out and work hard for what you get,” he said.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer asked whether those in attendance would be in favor of putting the question of district elections on the ballot in 2017. “I’d put $100 on that failing right now,” responded Miall.
If districts were drawn, continued Manheimer, who should draw them? “Should there be an independent panel selected, and who would select them?” she asked.
Miall suggested sitting down with the Western North Carolina legislative delegation to draw districts.
“How hard is it to draw North, South, East, West and Central?” asked Pless. Referring to her experience in working on districting at the state level, Manheimer said the challenge should not be underestimated.
Several participants predicted that moving to district elections would have the effect of increasing voter turnout in the city.
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