Asheville voters may get to cast an up-or-down vote on a state bill that would break the city into districts for City Council elections — but the possible impact of Asheville voters’ preferences is unclear.
At City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, April 25, Council members decided to move forward with preparations for a referendum on the district plan championed by Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville. Reached on Friday, April 28, Edwards criticized the city’s referendum plans, saying the district question is so complex as to be “impossible to put to voters.” The state must step in to protect voters who feel disenfranchised by the current at-large system for electing City Council members, Edwards said, even if the majority of Asheville citizens feel and vote otherwise.
“It seems like a very unfair way to approach the problem at hand when you’ve got a group of citizens saying they feel underrepresented by the system,” said Edwards. “Why would we send them to that same system for a resolution?”
Edwards’ bill would divide Asheville into six districts. Each district would elect its own representative to the council, while the mayor would be elected citywide. According to the bill, if Asheville failed to map out its own districts by Nov. 1, the state would step in and draw the districts. Council members would be elected from the districts starting in November 2019.
Meanwhile in Raleigh
The day after Council’s meeting, Edwards’ plan passed the N.C. Senate on April 26 on a 34-15 party line vote. The bill will now advance to the House of Representatives. Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville said he will lead the bill in the House. In his weekly newsletter on April 27, the Republican representative wrote, “Some might find that strange since I represent Henderson County, but I’m the senior House member who is supporting the bill from the greater Asheville area.”
Since Election Day falls on Nov. 7, the bill’s Nov. 1 deadline would require the city to create districts before Asheville voters have a chance to weigh in on whether to switch to district elections or maintain the current at-large system for choosing Council members.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had been well aware of the timing set forth in Edwards’ bill when Council agreed to move forward with the referendum. “I knew that he was still going to require us to draw districts by Nov. 1,” and she knew that Edwards “doesn’t care for polling; he does not want the referendum,” she said.
In fact, Manheimer explained, an earlier version of the bill specifically prohibited Asheville from holding a referendum on the issue. According to the mayor, that language was removed at least in part because a federal court ruled in April that a similar provision in a bill that imposed districts in Greensboro violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The legislation that created districts for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners also contained language blocking the county from holding a referendum, she continued, but no municipality had challenged the provision before the Greensboro case.
Assuming Edwards’ bill is approved by the House and signed into law, Manheimer said, she expects Asheville to move forward with the referendum. If the bill fails, on the other hand, “Then I think the question is, do we need to go ahead with this referendum?” she said.
Edwards said he views the referendum as a waste of the city’s time since he fully expects the bill to pass and Asheville will be required to abide by its provisions.
Asheville, Manheimer said, is “running kind of a parallel process here, where we are insisting on having control of this situation.” If voters reject Edwards’ district proposal, she said, “We won’t put six districts in effect.”
What would happen then? According to the mayor, “If the state disagrees with that and doesn’t honor the referendum that’s allowed by statute, and not banned by this bill, I think we’ll end up in litigation. The state would have to sue us to enforce the bill if they think it pre-empts any voter referendum. And our position would be that it doesn’t.”
If Asheville voters accept the six-district arrangement, Manheimer said, she would prefer that an independent commission draw the lines.
But would the state allow Asheville to draw its own lines after the Nov. 1 deadline? “Good question,” said Manheimer. “Everybody get all your lawyers together and figure that one out. It’s like chicken or egg — who knows?”
Pro and con
Opponents of creating districts say dividing the city into six separate areas would pit the interests of different areas against each other and hamper unified collective action.
Edwards said one of the most convincing arguments he has heard in favor of districts has come from Buncombe County commissioners. “At first they were resistant to changing to a district structure, but now they recognize that with districts they can be closer to their voters,” he said. Commissioners speak of meeting their voters in the community, whether at school, church or in the grocery story. “It’s a far better system of government. … With districts, it’s very clear where to go to resolve a problem, and it’s clear to the representatives whose concerns they are responsible for.”
Because Asheville already has six Council members, basing the electoral system on six districts is the least disruptive model to implement, Edwards said. And as the city continues to grow, he said, the six-district structure will serve it well. “This is not only a system for today — it also positions us better for the future,” he explained.
Asked whether he has plans to implement a district election system in Hendersonville, Edwards pointed out the difference in population between the two cities. “When Hendersonville gets to 91,000 people, you can be sure I will have switched it to a district system by then,” he said.
Almost out of time
To meet state timing requirements for placing a measure on November’s ballot, Asheville City Attorney Robin Currin said on April 25, Council must review a description of the proposed amendment to the city’s charter at its meeting on June 13 and hold a public hearing on June 27. On July 25, the city would request state permission to place the question on the ballot.
Although there may be “other concepts that are better suited to Asheville,” Manheimer told Council, “we’re running out of time.”
During public comment at the end of Council’s meeting, City Council candidate Rich Lee spoke against Currin’s proposed course of action. “We shouldn’t be putting what we all acknowledge to be a bad idea up against the status quo and giving people that choice,” Lee said. Dividing the city into six districts would create “a lot more factionalism and a lot more focus on these separate fiefdoms,” he said.
Lee advocated putting “our best choice” in front of voters, despite the challenges posed by the legislative calendar, “Even if it takes some kind of Manhattan Project-type effort to try to get something ready in the next month or two.”
But Council directed Currin to proceed with developing an ordinance to amend the city’s charter to elect City Council members from six electoral districts, with the mayor continuing to be elected at-large. Currin and Manheimer agreed that the language of the ordinance could be reviewed by Council’s Governance Committee before the June 13 meeting of Council.