If you’ve ever wondered about the party affiliations of candidates for city offices, you’re in luck. In a controversial 4-3 vote on June 12, the Asheville City Council decided to switch the city back to partisan elections.
Mayor Terry Bellamy joined Council members Jan Davis and Carl Mumpower in opposing the move.
Partisan elections aren’t new to Asheville. They were the rule until 1994, when a prior Council voted to move to nonpartisan elections. The last significant change to the city’s electoral process came in 1997, when Council amended the city charter to allow for four-year, staggered terms.
City Attorney Bob Oast noted that the change would make Asheville only the 10th out of North Carolina’s more than 500 municipalities to hold partisan elections. Charlotte and Winston-Salem are among those that do, he said in a memo to Council.
Unless there’s a voter initiative to stop it, partisan elections will begin with the Sept. 11 party primaries. [Editor’s note: Last Friday, a nonpartisan group called Let Asheville Vote began a petition drive in an attempt to force a referendum on the matter. Visit www.LetAshevilleVote.org for details.] Under state law, the city must publish public notice of the ordinance within 10 days of passage. Voters then have 30 days (until July 23, in this case) to gather at least 5,000 signatures from registered voters and file them with the city clerk, which would force a special election. If a simple majority votes against it, the ordinance immediately dies. If voters approve the change, Council members would be required to reaffirm their original vote for it to become binding—though at that point, it would be too late for the change to apply to the upcoming election cycle.
At a May 22 public hearing on the matter, about a half-dozen speakers weighed in, most of them opposing the idea. A few more aggrieved people tried to speak out against the measure during the public-comment period at the end of the June 12 meeting, but they ran afoul of a rule reserving that time for topics not on the current agenda. Brother Chris Chiaromonte, who plans to run for Council this fall as an independent, was nearly thrown out by Bellamy, and local talk-radio host Matt Mittan was escorted out of the chamber.
Chiaromonte, a colorful street preacher and advocate for the city’s fringe population, said the measure would unfairly hurt independent candidates. Under state law, he would now be required to collect more than 2,000 petition signatures (representing at least 4 percent of the city’s 56,211 registered voters) just to gain a place on the ballot. So far, said Chiaromonte, he’d collected 260 signatures. In the current nonpartisan system, independent candidates simply pay a $75 filing fee.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws!” Chiaromonte railed before being warned by the mayor to change the subject.
Mumpower floated a motion to reopen the public hearing, which won support from Bellamy and Davis, but the rest of Council dissented, setting the stage for Mittan’s ouster. Libertarian candidate Tim Peck, who opposes partisan elections, did not attempt to address City Council but is among those attempting to gather enough signatures to force a citywide vote on the matter.
The day after the vote, Mittan struck back on Take a Stand, his radio show on WWNC-AM. Calling the measure a “Democratic-incumbent protection act,” he noted that there are far more registered Democrats in the city than registered Republican or unaffiliated voters. According to the Board of Elections, there are 28,421 registered Democrats, 12,722 Republicans and 15,079 unaffiliated voters in Asheville.
“Explain to me how, in America today on a local-government election, you can set up different standards of access to the political process simply based on whether or not someone chooses to be part of a partisan party,” Mittan told his listeners, talking about the extra hoops unaffiliated candidates would be forced to jump through to gain ballot access. “The other impact for unaffiliated voters is, you cannot simply go in and choose who you think the best three candidates for City Council are [as is the case in nonpartisan elections]. That’s not how it’s going to work. You’re going to decide—from either the Democrat side or the Republican side—a slate approved by the partisan parties … [in order] to make your voice be heard in the primaries.”
Three Council seats—currently occupied by Democrats Davis, Freeborn and Newman—will be up for grabs in the November election.
Several Council members took time to explain their positions before the vote. Brownie Newman said that while nonpartisan elections have “obvious appeal,” they have not produced a more diverse City Council, as supporters had predicted. Newman also maintained that elections aren’t truly nonpartisan now, since the major political parties remain key players in the process. “To call [the current elections] nonpartisan is disingenuous,” he declared.
Partisan elections, added Newman, would help voters determine where candidates might stand on key issues such as a living wage, taxation, environmental protection, public safety and growth management. Asked a few days later why this is needed when we already have candidate forums as well as Web sites, mailings and TV ads, Newman said that packed slates of candidates often make it hard for voters to process all that information. “You’d be amazed,” he said, “just how many people ask about party affiliation—even on Election Day.”
Newman also took issue with a recent Asheville Citizen-Times editorial opposing the measure, which said that fixing potholes is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue. “We don’t do potholes—we do policy,” retorted Newman.
Newman also said he supports making it easier for independent candidates to participate in the electoral process. “The state has made it exceptionally hard for third-party candidates to get on the ballot,” he noted.
Vice Mayor Holly Jones, who also supported the shift to partisan elections, said: “Transparency is a big deal for me. I think it’s important and it’s fair” to let voters know a candidate’s political affiliation. Partisan elections might also improve voter turnout, she asserted. In addition, Jones said it’s “flat wrong” to believe that nonpartisan elections promote diversity, noting that Councils elected in the partisan era typically had at least some minority representation.
Council member Robin Cape said she doesn’t believe partisan contests unduly hurt independents, as long as they start early and work hard. She herself “came out of nowhere” to win a seat on the Woodfin Water Board as a write-in candidate, noted Cape, adding that she’d like to have instant-runoff elections. This would supposedly help third-party candidates by allowing voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, in case their first choice is eliminated.
Mumpower, who said he considers himself a conservative but not necessarily a Republican, warned: “Watch this vote. It’s probably the most pivotal vote we’ll ever make. I believe this is about power—progressive power, in this case,” he said, referring to the current Council majority.
“This is not a tool for diversity of opinion and voices,” he continued. It’s wrong, asserted Mumpower, “to require [third-party candidates] to swim through a burning moat in Asheville to get on the ballot. … This won’t make anything better, and there’s reason to believe it will make things worse.”
Calling himself a “proud Democrat,” Davis fretted that other Democrats might think he was betraying them by voting against the measure. But, he said, “This doesn’t feel good to me. … We should be above this. … I’m going to be against this, and I’m always going to be against it.”
Council member Bryan Freeborn also seemed to struggle with the issue, saying, “This is hard for me,” and noting that he’d originally opposed the idea of partisan elections. During his 2005 Council campaign, said Freeborn, he personally knocked on more than 5,000 doors, demonstrating that “working-class people can run for office.” Freeborn lost that race but was subsequently appointed by City Council to fill the vacancy created when Council member Bellamy was elected mayor. Elections, he maintained, are partisan either way, adding that in his experience, party affiliation is always the main question voters ask and a key factor in helping them decide their vote—even in officially nonpartisan races.
“People want to know—they really do,” concluded Freeborn.
Opening the gates
In the evening’s other big decision, Council banned gated communities in the city on a 5-2 vote (with Davis and Mumpower opposed).
Proponents of the move said it would promote a sense of community and preserve vehicular and pedestrian access to neighborhoods.
The vote reflected the sentiments of the only two people who spoke in a public hearing on the issue. “I think it’s segregation by class,” local activist Heather Rayburn told Council. Chiaromonte added that gated communities “are just a manifestation of our own fears—and fear breeds fear.”
Cape said she’d softened her position after hearing complaints about neighborhood traffic and crime. She proposed an amendment allowing communities or developers wanting to erect gates to apply for a conditional-use permit. Other Council members said they might support the idea if the criteria for approving such permits were spelled out clearly. The amendment, however, ultimately failed, with only Davis joining Cape in support of it.
Davis said the ban would only encourage sprawl outside the city limits. Mumpower, meanwhile, said: “I have no interest in living in a gated community, but I think this is unnecessary control of property rights.” While he and others might not like such communities, noted Mumpower, this is “not about our personal preferences.”
In a workshop held before the regular meeting, Council members took another step toward finalizing the budget for fiscal year 2007-08, which begins July 1. At press time, the $129.9 million budget was slated for a few final tweaks at the June 19 Council meeting, followed by a vote.
Council members found consensus on a number of budget items, beginning with a slight reduction in the city property-tax rate (from 42.38 cents per $100 of assessed value to 42 cents). The change, which would cost the city $511,000 in annual revenue according to the staff report, would trim taxes on a $200,000 home from $847.60 to $840.
Property owners will also get a break on recycling fees. Council agreed to cut the monthly charge by 50 percent, to $1.32 per month—an average annual savings of nearly $16 per household.
In other action, Council members eliminated the caps on all business licenses except for manufacturers, whose yearly fees will remain capped at $1,000. All other types of businesses were previously capped at $10,000. The move is expected to affect only 12 to 15 larger retail, wholesale and service businesses such as Ingles and Wal-Mart, according to Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant. The city would gain about $75,000 annually in net revenue, he said.
Mumpower was the only Council member to oppose these items—especially trimming the property tax, which he called a meaningless, “token tax reduction.”