In a local bill introduced in the N.C. House of Representatives today, Buncombe County’s method of electing its governing body would change from at-large elections to district representation, and the commission membership would grow from five to seven.
The bill, HB 471 (Buncombe County Commission Districts), was filed by county Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, who is currently its primary and sole sponsor. It would establish the division lines for the county’s three House of Representatives districts as the boundaries of the three commissioner districts, and would require candidates to reside in the district for which they seek election. There would be two representatives elected from each district, with the chairman continuing to be elected at-large by all the county’s voters.
“I had no clue,” David Gantt, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners said about the new bill’s introduction. “I never had any contact … any discussion — I was blindsided. 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],” Gantt observed. “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.”
Moffitt, who was reached just before leaving Raleigh for Buncombe County at the end of this week’s Statehouse business, ticked off several advantages he perceived in changing to districts. “I’m constantly looking for fair and balanced representation,” he said, relaying his concern that the county commission has only five members while the Asheville City Council — serving less than half the number of people — has seven. “So I thought it would make sense to increase the number to seven,” Moffitt said.
And moving to district elections would mean that people running within their district instead of countywide “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, noting that the four current commissioners would fit within the proposed district boundaries with none having to necessarily forfeit a seat. “I was very sensitive to that,” he added.
“I don’t see this as controversial,” Moffitt said. “I think people in Black Mountain, people in Leister … 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 local identification with commissioners for “ease of communication or redress on the part of the voter.” Asked about Gantt’s statement that there had been no communication from him to the commission regarding the proposed changes, Moffitt stated, “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.”
And while redistricting is on the legislative agenda for this year, Moffitt said he did not think the county’s districts would be changing dramatically. He did build into his legislation the option of having the Board of Commissioners modify the election districts “to the extent necessary” to account for potential irregularities.
Peggy Bennett, program director of Citizens for Change — a local, non-partisan government activist group — told the Xpress that district representation is “long overdue.” Her organization has worked on moving to district elections for over 10 years. “I’m just delighted,” she said regarding Moffitt’s bill. “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 50 percent of the county commissions in the state utilize some form of district representation.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor