Asheville City Council

If three candidates leave the train station at 6 p.m., and three more leave at 7 p.m., which one will make it to City Hall on election day?

That depends on how you do the math — and whether Asheville holds a primary followed by a general election (the current system), or a general election followed by a runoff (if needed). Council members did the math during their Feb. 16 work session, but came up with more questions than answers.

For the past few years, Vice Mayor Ed Hay has been pushing for a switch to the runoff system, arguing that it would save money, both for candidates and the city. It costs $25,000 to have the Board of Elections conduct an election, and candidates have to plan and raise money for two elections instead of one, he reminded Council.

A runoff system might save everyone some money, provided that no runoff is requested — but you’ll have to get out your calculator to figure out who won. If there are three open Council seats, and six people bid for them in a general-runoff election, the candidate (or candidates) who draw a majority of the votes will win; if there’s no clear majority, the top three vote-getters win — unless the candidates with the next-highest vote totals don’t request a runoff, explained Assistant City Attorney Patsy Meldrum (who always seems to get the complicated, technical issues to explain — like the city’s cable-franchise deal). “This [gets] to be a bit mind-boggling,” she cautioned.

You see, a “majority” isn’t what you think: If 10,000 votes were cast in the above example, a majority for each seat would be 1,667 votes (dividing the number of votes cast by the number of vacant seats, and then dividing the result by two).

“I’m disappointed that this is so complicated,” Hay confessed when Meldrum had finished her presentation.

Council member Barbara Field pointed out that the runoff system might confuse voters, since the general election would be held in October, instead of November. And, she added, if there were a large number of candidates running for a mere three seats, it could be difficult to garner a clear majority (24 candidates ran in the first Democratic primary Field participated in, back when Council elections were partisan).

Council member O.T. Tomes noted that less than 50 percent of Asheville’s registered voters participate in general elections in the city, and even fewer in primaries. “What about the the effect on the [turnout] … for an October general election?” he queried.

Mayor Leni Sitnick reflected that, although a runoff system probably would keep campaign costs down, it might favor incumbents and those with strong name recognition.

It’s also not readily apparent which candidates get to participate in a runoff, if one is called for. Hay put one hand to his head and asked, “If you’re vote-getter number five, but [vote-getter] number four doesn’t request a runoff, do you get [to ask for one]?”

Meldrum said she thought so.

“We could just do a lottery,” joked Sitnick.

“Do it like jury duty: Everyone should have to serve at least once,” Field tossed in.

Meldrum noted that — in order to change the system in time for this fall’s election, when the seats held by Council members Tomes, Earl Cobb and Tommy Sellers will be up for grabs– Council could set a public hearing for as soon as March 9, adopt a resolution of intent to make the change, and then actually adopt it at the next formal session, on March 24. Or they could put the issue to a referendum vote, which would lengthen the process.

Hay suggested scheduling the public hearing, saying, “We could take public comment, but do nothing.” In the meantime, he asked Meldrum to get statistics on voter turnouts and other relevant data from Wilmington, which uses a runoff system.

With Cobb and Chuck Cloninger absent, Sitnick suggested putting the issue on the agenda for the Feb. 23 formal session, for further discussion.

Pritchard Park: the misunderstood plan

“We have things we need and things we want. And, as much as I like Pritchard Park, it’s more of a want than a need,” proclaimed Vice Mayor Hay on Feb. 16.

He was referring to the $1.4 million price tag on a Pritchard Park renovation plan proposed by the Genesis Group (consultants hired by the city). “Some of our planning projects are misunderstood,” asserted Hay. The Genesis proposal is just that: a proposal. “We haven’t spent anything yet,” he emphasized.

And whatever Council does decide to spend won’t all come from the city coffers, Hay and other members stressed.

One-third of the cost may end up being paid by the city, with the rest coming from donations, public/private partnerships and grants (federal, state and private), Asheville Assistant Landscape Architect Alan Glines reported. A month ago, Council directed city staff to consider funding options for renovating the park. They came back with several scenarios, all variations on the theme of launching a fund-raising effort — whether it’s coordinated by staff, a paid professional fund-raiser or a fund-raising task force.

However it’s done, fund raising would take one-and-a-half to two years, said Glines.

Council member Field commented, “I’m willing to do what it takes.” As a downtown resident, she noted that Pritchard Park is her front yard. She also clarified that only about $300,000 of the $1.4 million is targeted for the park itself; the remainder would pay for streetscape around the park, artwork such as statues — which are optional — and installing roundabouts in the adjacent streets.

Council member Tomes told staff to be sure to clearly communicate that city taxpayers won’t shoulder the whole cost.

Some state and federal transportation funding may be available, mentioned Glines, because part of the proposal calls for redesigning the adjacent streets.

Returning to staff’s fund-raising scenarios, Hay said he favored number four: a fund-raising committee coordinated by city staff and composed of both staff and representatives of nonprofit agencies.

Sitnick said she liked the idea of combining that one with the second recommendation, which calls for hiring a professional fund-raiser whose salary would be paid either through a grant or with a percentage of the money he or she raised for the project. She mentioned that local organizations — such as the French Broad River Garden Club Foundation — are willing to assist with the effort. “Call Mimi [Cecil, whom Sitnick said is a club member]. Tell her I told you to call her,” instructed the mayor.

She directed staff to put the issue on the agenda for Council’s Feb. 23 formal session, so that Council members Cobb and Cloninger — absent from the Feb. 16 session — would have an opportunity to comment on it.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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