Most states place some limits on what their legislature can do to the localities under its jurisdiction, delegating broad authority to city and county governments. But in North Carolina, things are different.
“The Legislature has absolute control over local governments,” says Frayda Bluestein of the UNC School of Government. “They're created by the state Legislature; all of their powers come from the Legislature. Most of their powers come through general laws, but it's very, very common for those powers to be modified.”
Typically, such changes are requested by the local government, “But there really is almost no limit on what the Legislature can do with respect to modifying the structure, the powers, the property owned. Almost everything you can imagine is within control of the state Legislature.” And the governor can’t veto local bills — those aimed at one particular place, rather than all the state’s cities or counties.
That unbridled power has sparked considerable controversy during the current legislative session. A bill proposed by Rep. Tim Moffitt requiring Buncombe County to expand its Board of Commissioners and switch to district elections has already become law. The board hadn’t requested the change, and amendments proposed by other local legislators that would have required a referendum on the matter were defeated.
The city of Asheville has also squared off against bills backed by the freshman Republican. One reversed the 2005 Biltmore Lake annexation, which had been upheld by a lower court; residents had appealed the decision. Another proposed taking the city's water system (with no mention of compensation) and handing it off to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Modified in committee, it now calls for simply studying the issue. Yet another Moffitt-backed bill (this one originally co-sponsored by the county's two Democratic state representatives, who later withdrew their support) would require the city to turn over the Asheville Regional Airport to a fully independent authority. Both bills are currently before the state Senate and may come back up next spring.
Both the Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members have expressed unanimous opposition to these measures while protesting what they say was Moffitt’s failure to consult with them beforehand.
These dramatic changes raise a fundamental question: Are Asheville and Buncombe County now ruled from Raleigh?
In the following pages, we explore the city’s and the county’s situations in more detail.
— David Forbes