A bill introduced March 24 by Rep. Tim Moffitt would expand the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners from five to seven members while mandating district representation in place of the current at-large elections.
The bill, HB 47, would establish three commissioner districts, with the same boundaries as the county's three Statehouse districts. Each district would choose two commissioners, who would have to reside within the district; the board chair would still be elected by all the county's voters.
"I had no clue," David Gantt, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said about the bill's introduction. "I never had any contact … any discussion — I was blind-sided. It would have been nice to have been at least discussed.
"It's going to take away people's rights to vote for all of [the commissioners]," predicted Gantt, a Democrat. "It automatically limits the geographic talent pool to a specific area, and you lose your right to vote for a majority of the board." Asked if he saw any advantage to the proposed change, Gantt replied succintly, "I don't."
Xpress caught up with Moffitt just before he left Raleigh at week’s end to return to Buncombe County. The Republican cited several advantages in shifting to district elections. "I'm constantly looking for fair and balanced representation," he said, pointing out that the Asheville City Council, which serves less than half as many people, has seven members. "So I thought it would make sense to increase the number [of commissioners] to seven."
District elections would also mean people "wouldn't have to put on an expensive campaign," allowing for "true grass-roots" representation, Moffitt added. "I looked at our county commissioners now, and I wanted to make sure they're unaffected," he said, explaining that all the current commissioners would match up with the proposed district boundaries — none would have to forfeit their seat. "I was very sensitive to that," he stressed.
"I don't see this as controversial," continued Moffitt. "I think people in Black Mountain, people in Leicester … need to have a voice. When people have a problem with a state issue, they know who to call." He'd like to see the same kind of local identification at the county level, for "ease of communication or redress on the part of the voter." Asked about Gantt's complaint about the lack of communication concerning the proposed changes, Moffitt said: "That's correct. This information was leaked from within the delegation to the county commissioners before I had a chance to talk with them. … I was disappointed."
Although redistricting is on this year’s legislative agenda, Moffitt said he doesn’t foresee the county's districts changing dramatically. His proposed legislation gives the Board of Commissioners the option of modifying the election districts "to the extent necessary" to account for potential irregularities.
Peggy Bennett of Citizens for Change — a local, nonpartisan activist group — believes district representation is "long overdue." Her group has been pushing for the change for more than 10 years. "I'm just delighted," she observes. "I think the county will thrive with seven commissioners. Right now, it only takes three votes to pass any agenda item. We need a larger voting body."
Statistics from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners indicate that more than half the county boards in the state use some form of district representation.
— Nelda Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow our state news at mountainx.com/special/ncmatters.