Lines in the sand: Fight brews over Asheville districts

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.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. Photo courtesy of Manheimer
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. Photo courtesy of Manheimer

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.

Game theory

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.



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32 thoughts on “Lines in the sand: Fight brews over Asheville districts

  1. cecil bothwell

    The GOP is grasping at every straw to control municipalities.
    If Asheville citizens want districts, all well and good. (But, that seems really stupid for many reasons.)
    The GOP is working at every governmental level to impose their goals and impede the will of the people. This is simply one more example.
    So, hey, if the people of Asheville want districts, fine and dandy … but first let’s ask them for their view.

    • Lulz

      LOL. what amazes me about you and the rest of council is that’ll you’ll go to Raleigh for the water but somehow remain silent on the TDA. And use the excuse that the legislature needs to change how hotel tax money is used. But if no one is petitioning Raleigh by opening up their now closed mouths, why how is that going to happen? And of course want me to fund your park but not the tourist who’ll be sitting in it. Time and time again locals have written that downtown is no longer for those who live here. And yet you want them to fund your crap. That’s where all this stems from. Under representation and over taxation. But of course you pass the buck when it’s convenient like a typical out of touch politician.

      • Lulz

        Has it occurred to you Bothwell that you represent the interests of the rich developers more than residents? Because you do. The more you push residents to finance development, the less investment others have to put in simply to buy in and make bank. As long as people like you are around, Asheville will continue to gentrify while not only billing the residents for it, but eventually forcing them out for wealthier people to continue the scam. We went from leaf pickup in the past to city provided bags and now you don’t even do that. What does the city exactly do for me? Here’s a hint, make life miserable.

      • NFB

        “what amazes me about you and the rest of council is that’ll you’ll go to Raleigh for the water but somehow remain silent on the TDA. And use the excuse that the legislature needs to change how hotel tax money is used. But if no one is petitioning Raleigh by opening up their now closed mouths, why how is that going to happen?”

        Wow! I actually agree with Lulz on something!

        Many times on these board when the issue of the TDA’s slush fund comes up I have asked a question that no one has ever made an attempt to answer. I’ll try again but am not holding my breath:

        When City Council approved plans by John McKibbon more than a year ago to renovate the BB&T building, Mr. McKibbon said he would start advocating for a portion of the hotel room tax to go the city. Does anyone have any updates on how this advocacy from Mr. McKibbion is going?

        • bsummers

          I appreciate that you keep asking that – I have wondered about that too.

          Virginia, anyone at XPress – any idea where that stands?

          • Lulz

            City schools are asking for 5 million more this year. Bothwell wants a park so the tourist can sit in. What’s your priority? And why have we gotten to the point that out of control spending by both local gov bodies is the norm? And what’s even more absurd, funding amenities for tourist so rich cronies in the tourist industry can make money while others are simply working to pay the government? In order for me to pay the taxes here, I have to give up other things. And yet that is never an issue for Bothwell now is it. It’s not only shameful, but downright ludicrous that someone may lose their home for tourist amenities because they can’t afford the rising taxes. And that the tourist who are using them aren’t paying anything.

        • Rich

          I understand the TDA has agreed in principle to fund big downtown infrastructure projects (ie, sidewalks) with millions of dollars over several years under the current law requiring that their funds go to tourist-oriented projects. This is the “working toward a compromise” TDA board members mean: locally-appreciated infrastructure with a nominal tourism benefit. However, it looks like they’re still requiring a match from the city and an onerous application process, so unlikely we’ll move on it soon, least of all while all those bond projects are in the pipeline.

          • NFB

            From an ACT article reporting on the BB&T renovation approval:

            “Along with giving money to affordable housing, McKibbon said he would commit staff to work with a nonprofit housing developer to increase affordable housing stock.

            He said he has been a proponent of allocating some of the $14 million in county hotel tax to city services and said he would continue to do so. Currently state law gives control of the tax to a board made up mostly of representatives of the lodging industry. The tax must be used for marketing and projects to boost the hotel industry, the law says.

            “We need to modify that with the state and I will support that,” the hotel developer said”


            Mr. McKibbon’s statement indicates he would support changes to the state law in regards to the TDA and the room tax which goes beyond merely agreeing, in principle or otherwise, for the TDA to fund some “big downtown infrastructure projects.”

        • Lulz

          If you notice, Bothwell is strangely now silent. And that’s all you need to know to realize that these people in local government are not interested in issues that impact anything other than to keep the scam going. And Asheville is a scam.

  2. NFB

    Interesting. Republicans only seem to be concerned with the plight of the minority when THEY are the minority, only seem to support affirmative action when it benefits them, and only seem to support the notion of local control when they don’t have control in Raleigh.

    Funny how that works.

  3. “[Progressive] City Council candidate Rich Lee advocated putting ‘our best choice’ in front of voters..”

    Yes. In order to signal to voters how they should vote so the hegemonic progressives can get the desired result as they gear up for taxpayer-funded litigation.

    Rich Lee: “We shouldn’t be putting what we all acknowledge to be a bad idea up against the status quo and giving people that choice”

    Instead of fighting democracy, I should think Democrats should be embracing it.

    And just who is it that is opposed to a referendum?

    Manheimer1: “Edwards ‘doesn’t care for polling; he does not want the referendum..”

    Manheimer2: “If the bill fails, on the other hand, ‘Then I think the question is, do we need to go ahead with this referendum?”

    Of course not. Dragging their feet on a referendum is precisely why Senate Bill 285 was introduced. Progressives have had since early 2013 to hold a referendum on district elections. What did we get? Nothing. Now a referendum is all the rage; and one hastily drawn, to be put on the ballot after the deadline for submission of a district elections plan will be required by the bill.

    Posted on July 17, 2013 by David Forbes: “Rumors had been flying for months that Republican state legislators wanted to unilaterally change Asheville’s electoral system.”

    2017-2018 Long Session
    Senate Bill 285:
    04/26/2017 – Passed Senate 3rd Reading. The vote:
    04/27/2017 – Referred To House Committee On Rules

    • Manheimer: “If the state .. doesn’t honor the referendum that’s allowed by statute, and not banned by this bill, I think we’ll end up in litigation.”

      Senator Edwards needs to amend the bill and include a financial penalty for failure to comply.

      • bsummers

        Anyone who understands how things work in America understands that availing ones self of the judicial system is not “failure to comply”. But hey, go ahead & try that. Any judge will see that as unconstitutional bullying and a disrespect for the concept of judicial review, and the entire legislation will get tossed out all the faster.

        Take a lesson from the water fiasco – just because you really want them to lay down & take it, doesn’t mean they have to.

      • Hey, kids, a failure to comply is a “failure to comply.” If you want to litigate the noncompliance with the law, fine. Maybe the city will get its money back. Maybe not.

        • bsummers

          Going to court to challenge the validity of a law is not “noncompliance”. Calling it that is a misrepresentation of how our system of government works.

  4. bsummers

    Let’s give a tip-o-the-hat to our pal Carl Mumpower, for his massive flip-flop on this issue. He also confirms that this is simply a partisan power grab, that it has nothing to do with geographic representational fairness:

    In an April 26 press release, Mumpower backed the proposed change. The chairman noted that all seven council members are progressives and said a city that values diversity should also value “diversity of thought” and make some room for more conservative viewpoints.

    But the former vice mayor once held a different position. I remembered when Mumpower and said a district-based system could result in “seven mayors,” with elected officials more concerned with their individual districts than Asheville as a whole. When I asked him about the change Mumpower said he still thinks districts could create a “mini-mayor” syndrome. But he said “that was back when we had at least one conservative on the council.”

    “It’s a different reality and there is persisting proof our progressives are more sincerely interested in power than diversity.”
    Inside AVL: Downtown activist runs; GOP chair rethinks districts

    Carl, the point here was supposed to be: Don’t come right out and say that this district thing is about putting Republicans on City Council. Bless his heart, he’s going to be a continuing source of humor and off-message comments, isn’t he?

    • NFB

      Why is he even still a Republican? He had said that if Republicans in Raleigh went forward with taking Asheville’s water system away from the city he would leave the party. They did, but he didn’t. Looks like the “principles” he’s always championing are pretty flexible after all.

      • bsummers

        When we challenged him on that, he redefined what he meant – he says he “meant” to say that if the takeover legislation survived a court challenge, then he would leave the GOP. The issue isn’t what they got away with, Carl – it’s what they tried to get away with.

        Yep, he’s fairly limber and flexible on the ol’ “principles” front. Just the guy to run the BCGOP.

    • NFB

      ““It’s a different reality and there is persisting proof our progressives are more sincerely interested in power than diversity.””

      One thing he seems incapable of grasping is that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t that voters in Asheville don’t want a conservative on City Council, but that they don’t want THIS conservative on City Council. But give his love of the spotlight I guess it would all be about him.

  5. Peter Robbins

    I don’t see why the North Carolina House should wait for the results of a referendum to address this crisis. Since when does democratic government turn on the consent of the governed?

  6. cecil bothwell

    In the years I’ve been on Council we have consistently lobbied the legislature for a change in the hotel tax rules. We have brought it up during every long session. Unfortunately the Democratic majority didn’t care to do anything, and now the Republican majority won’t change it. The TDA has made some progress IMHO. At least they quit funding private companies. They have helped out the City with Civic Center remodeling, turf for the soccer fields, promised $750K for the Beaucatcher Greenway (if that happens – though the price is now through the roof – $5 million)

    • Lulz

      And then you know what you do? Dissolve the board and go to court if they object. Cut off all taxes that go to it. You’ll gladly go after people that want to use their homes for tourists but not the TDA or even the industry that is using their influence in local government to get by.

      • Lulz

        Also cut off the Chamber of Commerce. They are nothing more now than the political arm of the tourist industry.

      • bsummers

        Huh! How about that? Why did it never occur to anyone on City Council to just wave a magic wand and make the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority disappear, and “Cut off all taxes that go to it.”? Brilliant! While we’re at it, maybe Asheville City Council could make the Buncombe County Commission vanish. Or the Henderson County Commission. Or the General Assembly in Raleigh. Now you’re onto something, lulzy! Just snap your fingers and make any State-chartered entity they want disappear, and claim all that room tax money for themselves. Who knew that City Council was so powerful?

        • Lulz

          Point being is to take it to court. Bad press for the TDA and also the legislature. And yet your proposal is what? Come on here and write snide remarks?

          • bsummers

            Point is there’s no court that the City can challenge the TDA’s very existence in. You’re slamming them for not doing something they don’t have the ability to do.

  7. cecil bothwell

    Meanwhile, if the people of Asheville want districts, I’m good to go. But I think it would be a serious mistake. Other small towns that district have often ended up with competing interests that block forward motion, and gerrymandering is rampant. And why 6? If 3 offer better representation for Buncombe with 260,000 people, why 6 for 90,000? Chicago has districts, each one with 80,000 or thereabouts.

    I haven’t received any e-mails or phone calls asking for districts, so I have serious doubts about the “many” calls Edwards has received. And it isn’t clear to me that any part of the City has been ignored in terms of police, fire and garbage – our big three functions, nor in paving and sidewalks. and street lights and parks.

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