Despite receiving decidedly mixed results from a poll that measured voter preferences on how Ashevillians should elect their city representatives, City Council took the first steps toward placing a referendum on district elections on the November ballot. Backed up by the nods of her fellow Council members, Mayor Esther Manheimer instructed City Attorney Robin Currin on April 11 to draft a plan for appointing a commission to draw the districts and hire a districting consultant in preparation for a referendum.
Why the rush? Manheimer reported that on Monday, April 10, she met with Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville to discuss the bill he has filed to compel Asheville to implement district elections for seats on City Council. Edwards is following in the footsteps of his 48th district predecessor, Sen. Tom Apodaca, who retired last year after a long career in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Before leaving the Senate in 2016, Apodaca tried to pass legislation to force Asheville to adopt district elections over the objections of other members of the local state legislative delegation and all members of City Council. Despite the other lawmakers’ opposition, Apodaca’s bill nearly succeeded. The bill’s defeat in the short legislative session wasn’t the end of the idea.
Edwards told Manheimer on Monday that he intends to move his Senate Bill 285 forward in committee, the mayor said. He said he plans to replace a provision in the bill that would create districts for the city by default if it failed to produce a district map on its own. That change might be in response to an April federal court decision that struck down an attempt by the General Assembly to redraw election districts in Greensboro, Manheimer said. In that case, the judge found that the legislature’s districting scheme did not provide proportional representation for minority and Democratic voters.
Council member Cecil Bothwell pointed out that Edwards’ bill might not make it through the committee, but Manheimer referred to the strong support revealed by the poll for a referendum as sufficient reason to move forward despite the uncertainty surrounding the bill.
To meet state-mandated requirements for getting a referendum on the ballot, Currin pointed out, the city must hold a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to establish districts no later than mid-June.
Council directed Currin to present a timeline for developing the city’s plan at the next meeting of City Council on April 25.
Pollster Tige Watts reported that his company, Campaign Research + Strategy of Columbia, S.C., conducted a telephone poll to determine Asheville voters’ opinions about whether the city should switch from its current method of electing all seven members of City Council in at-large elections to some form of district-based elections. The results of the poll, which surveyed 403 Asheville voters March 20-22, showed inconsistent or even contradictory positions on the issue.
Council member Julie Mayfield asked Watts, “What does it mean?”
“It means,” Watts responded, “people are all over the place.”
For example, 54 percent of respondents said the current at-large system of electing Council members should remain in place. The same percentage said that, if asked in a hypothetical referendum whether the city should switch to single-member districts, they would vote yes. When asked which of five possible methods of electing a City Council represents the “best fit” for Asheville, 44 percent said the current method is best (the highest of any of the options). At the end of the poll, 58 percent said the city should keep its current system, but that same percentage also said the city should hold a referendum on the question of district elections.
Council’s April 11 consent agenda included a resolution ratifying grant awards for the city’s 2017-18 strategic partnership fund. Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee — made up of Council members Gordon Smith, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Mayfield — reviewed applications and heard presentations from community-based nonprofits for $158,000 in available funding on March 24.
Libby Kyles, director of the nonprofit YTL, had some direct words for the committee and especially Mayfield: “I was very disappointed in the way you spoke to us.” As a native of Asheville, Kyles said, she knows what it’s like to live and work in underserved communities. For Kyles, Mayfield’s exhortation to collaborate with other nonprofits was galling. “If you want to see systemic change, and you want to see us working together, I suggest you create a space for that to happen.” Stephens-Lee Recreation Center should be used primarily to provide opportunities for African-American young people and would be an ideal location for those collaborative programs, she suggested.
Dewana Little of Positive Changes echoed Kyles’ remarks, charging that Council members “talk down” to applicants and “devalue our work with disenfranchised communities.” When Council needs support from a person of color on an issue, Little said, “you come to us,” but when community organizations ask for support from the city, they get far less than is spent on consultant fees and other expenses.
Nicole Hinebaugh of Bountiful Cities said Council will never achieve its strategic vision based on the funding it is providing to community organizations. Council’s current practices, she said, amount to “throwing drops of water into a huge ocean of issues.”
Mayfield extended an unqualified apology for the tone and substance of her remarks at the March 24 meeting and offered to visit the community organizations to observe their work firsthand. Council member Keith Young described a new program to fund grassroots organizations through a different process. Though that effort is still in the early planning stages, he said, it received support in the budget work session held before the Council meeting.
Manheimer expanded the scope of the discussion, explaining that, like many other cities, Asheville finds itself squeezed by decreases in federal funding for community programs, combined with a redistribution of sales taxes collected in the city and reductions in other sources of revenue. “Ultimately, if the whole plan works, I think you’re supposed to vote in a lot of Republicans,” the mayor said. She expressed regret for the disappointment in the outcome of the funding awards. “None of us would want it to play that way,” she said.
Council passed its consent agenda unanimously.