Commissioners may counter state-mandated election changes with referendum

Faced with recently passed state legislation mandating that the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners switch to district elections, the commissioners may counter by holding a referendum on the way the board is elected, Chair David Gantt tells Xpress.

The idea would be to change the system back to at-large elections before any district elections were held in 2012, he explains.

“We think it would change the existing system of representation, which at this moment in time is districts” says Gantt. “There’s a lot of interest in it, and we’re trying to get the facts. I think once we get the facts, we’ll make a decision.”

Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt introduced the change to district elections in March, without consulting or informing either his colleagues in the local legislative delegation or the current commissioners, all of whom are Democrats. Under Moffitt’s leadership, the Republican-controlled Legislature shot down amendments proposed by Rep. Patsy Keever and Sen. Martin Nesbitt (both Buncombe Democrats) requiring a binding referendum on the bill. Passing the law without any provision for a referendum or a local request was unprecedented in state history.

Moffitt argued that the measure would make commissioners more accountable to underserved areas of the county while giving less prosperous candidates in both parties a better chance of winning. Gantt, however, declared that the change would limit democracy by preventing residents from voting for all the commissioners.

Similarly, now Gantt argues that any new effort to hold a referendum would be about more than just partisianship.

“There are a lot of Republicans that have told me they’re concerned about losing the right to vote for all the commissioners,” he maintains. “So it’s not necessarily a Democratic issue. … I would probably support at least a referendum to let everybody vote.”

The commissioners themselves rebuffed a previous attempt in 2008, proposed by then-Chair (and Republican) Nathan Ramsey to put district elections to a referendum. And it’s not yet clear how much support the idea has now from the other commissioners, Gantt says.

“It’s got to be a majority of the commission to pass and I think our commission’s all over the board on that issue,” he explains. “We’ll have to decide by August.”

Meanwhile, “there’s a lot of information we have to get together before we make a call on it,” notes Gantt. And the General Assembly is planning to release new district maps for Buncombe’s commission and House districts Monday, July 11.

A referendum could make it on the ballot this November. There is no statutory deadline for referendums, according to staff at the Board of Elections, though absentee ballots have to be ready about 45 days before a municipal election.

Although Gantt says that “a lot of people” are looking in to the referendum, Buncombe Democratic Chair Emmet Carney declined to comment on whether or not he thinks a referendum was coming.

The commissioners’ next meeting is July 26.

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10 thoughts on “Commissioners may counter state-mandated election changes with referendum

  1. Jake

    Why not? Polls will be open this November anyway, so let’s put it to a vote. I suspect having this issue on the ballot might boost voter turnout, and I like that prospect in any case.

    I’m curious; and I think the referendum might offer a glimpse of what to expect next year. And, as seems to happen regularly these days, this would all raise interest outside Buncombe. You tell me whether that’s good or not.

    Go for it, Commissioners!

  2. J

    That’s great – after opposing it for so long, David’s now for it. A real John Kerry, right here in our home county.

  3. David Gantt likes referendums? Who knew.

    While we’re at it, let’s hold a referendum on county-wide zoning.

  4. Tim brings up a very cogent point…two referendums for the price of one. If they really care what voters think, that is.

  5. LOKEL

    What makes anyone think that the voters will not vote for district elections ……

  6. While I like the idea of a referendum and hope that it occurs, I think the ultimate result will be a complete waste of time and money. The legislators do not care about public comment. They have their own agenda. Tim Moffit has demonstrated that with the top down laws he has written and sponsored to direct action in our local communities. And while there was feedback from the local folks as not being a favorable thing, he proceeded anyhow. As a whole, the new NC General Assembly held their Joint Legislative Reform Hearings across the state. I was like many who took a day off from work to give comment. Outside groups went through the comments of all the hearings and the overwhelming sentiment was to not eliminate things like environmental enforcement. BUT, the General Assembly did just that. They eliminated 160 positions in the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This will play out the same way… even if there was an overwhelming sentiment to not do this, they would do it anyways. Even if the referendum is held and the voice was in opposition, the legislators we have would look the other way.

  7. RHS

    That’s great – after supporting a referendum for so long Republicans are not against it. A real Mitt Romney, John McCain right here in our home county.

  8. Phillip Marlowe

    I find it incredibly interesting that David Gantt who has personally been the primary obstacle to a referendum om this matter as well as the primary reason for previous outcomes via referendum being ignored is now suddenly interested in having a referendum. David Gantt is simply trying to preserve the imbalance of power in this County. He wants the City, which has demonstrated solid 80% block voting for Democrats to continue to call the shots for everyone. At least the Moffitt bill will give a voice finally to the rural areas and to our minorities. I say leave it alone and lets see how it works.

  9. zulu

    Every voter in Buncombe County had the opportunity to vote or not vote for David Gantt. You can’t say the same thing about Tim Moffitt, whose district covers only part of Buncombe, yet who is ruling all of us like a king from Raleigh.
    You can make snide comments about Gantt all you want, but you can’t dismiss that fact.

    I say now that Moffitt has put the issue front and center, let’s vote on it. The polls will be open in November anyway, so putting it on the ballot won’t be very burdensome or costly. If it’s such a great idea, it will pass. What’s the problem?

    Yes, Gantt is displaying a bit of hypocrisy here, but that’s not the point. This is a huuuuge change, and it should be voted on.

    Everyone that was mad about district elections not being offered as a referendum item before should be happy now. After all, you said it was all about giving people a chance to be heard. Was that what it was really about, or did you just want to get your way? Now that your wish has been granted, is it to hell with giving people a chance to be heard???

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