State legislator moves to force Asheville’s hand on district elections

Mayor Esther Manheimer recognizes Steve Mitchell as the city's Volunteer of the Year. Photo by Virginia Daffron
Mayor Esther Manheimer recognizes Steve Mitchell as the city's Volunteer of the Year. Photo by Virginia Daffron

State Sen. Chuck Edwards (R) has taken up the cause of district elections for seats on Asheville City Council, an issue championed by his predecessor, fellow Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, shortly before Apodaca’s retirement last year.

Apodaca’s former 48th district — now represented by Edwards — includes a small area of the city of Asheville. The long-time senator introduced a bill to create district elections in the city at the end of last year’s legislative session.

Though that bill failed, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said at Council’s Tuesday, Feb. 28, formal meeting, legislators told City Council then that “we could expect to see this concept return to the legislature.” With that prediction — or threat — in mind, City Council had been scheduled to vote on a polling effort to gauge Asheville residents’ interest in district elections at Tuesday’s meeting. Edwards sent an email to Manheimer on Tuesday afternoon that appeared to try to force the mayor’s hand.

“I wanted to inform you of my intent to soon file a bill in the Senate that will require Asheville to conduct district elections,” wrote Edwards in the email, which Manheimer read aloud. “It will provide that six will be the number of required districts. It will also offer some flexibility for your Council to determine the geography of the districts. …

“I am open to realistic conversations as to the timing of the requirements. I am confident that this measure will pass both the Senate and the House. As a courtesy I am informing you of this intent, with the hope that your discussion should revolve more around how to district and forego the discussion of should we district. My actions are the result of trends taking place within municipalities as well as the feedback of the citizens of Buncombe County,” Edwards wrote.

Manheimer summarized the message: “That is the, ‘I’m going to do it whether your community says yes or no.'”

In a discussion that culminated in Council’s unanimous agreement to proceed with an effort to poll city voters as quickly as possible on the issue, members of the body expressed their displeasure with the tactics carried forward by Edwards.

“The people definitely need to have a voice,” commented Council member Keith Young.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said it was “extremely disappointing” that “we are back to ‘Raleigh says,’ and it doesn’t matter what Asheville residents say.” While she said she regrets spending money on polling, Wisler continued, “the information we get from polling will assist in making the decision if Raleigh does just unilaterally go ahead and say you’re going to get districted. At least this information will help us determine what those districts should look like.”

Council member Gordon Smith wondered aloud “what’s happened to that core Republican value around local control, because it appears to have evaporated.” Smith called the apparent effort to override “municipalities’ self-determination” an effort to have “affirmative action for Republicans in the city of Asheville.” The city’s elections are non-partisan contests. Six members of the current Council are Democrats; one, Brian Haynes, is unaffiliated.

Saying she had met within the past month with Edwards on “this and a whole range of other things,” Council member Julie Mayfield continued: “He said that he was continuing to get calls. And I said to him, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I haven’t gotten any calls and I haven’t gotten any emails.”

Directing her comments to “the people who are advocating for this,” Mayfield said: “We need to hear from you, who you are and why you want this. … It’s frankly a little outrageous that you would choose to go to the legislature instead of to us first, or even at all. So if you want this, please, please let us know, because I will tell you the emails that I am getting now are saying, ‘Why are we even having this conversation now? Asheville is fine, leave it alone.”

Mayfield also advocated holding a public forum during the legislature’s spring break in April. That would allow citizens to express their views in an open meeting, and also provide an opportunity for legislators to make their case for district elections to Asheville citizens, she said.

City resident Pat Thobe commented that residents need to be educated on the pros and cons of district elections before the poll is performed. “Nationally,” she said, “districting is a very manipulative strategy.” Thobe pointed out that even the language of the issue reveals how districts could impair municipal unity: “The very word dividing Asheville into districts is divisive.”

Proclamations

City Council recognized Steve Mitchell of Malvern Hills as Volunteer of the Year for his work in the service of his neighborhood and the entire city. Council proclaimed  March 10 “Zelda Fitzgerald Day” in the city.

Consent agenda

Manheimer introduced discussion of Council’s consent agenda with a last-minute addition: a resolution denouncing threats against those of the Jewish faith. In response to a bomb threat received on Feb. 27 at the Asheville Jewish Community Center, and at Jewish institutions across the country, Council affirmed its previous commitments to “being a welcoming and diverse community where all citizens can live and work without physical violence, threats or intimidation.” Further, Council “strongly denounces the vandalism and threats made against those of the Jewish faith.”

Council passed its consent agenda unanimously.

Presentations and reports

A report on the city’s finances in the second quarter of the Fiscal Year 2016-17 is available online, the mayor said.

City Transportation Director Ken Putnam provided a report on the city’s work on the Interstate 26 connector project with the N.C. Department of Transportation. Putnam directed citizens to a project page with the latest information on the project at the city’s website.

The NCDOT is scheduling neighborhood meetings for the Hillcrest and Fairfax and Virginia avenue neighborhoods in West Asheville on March 21, Putnam said; the time has not yet been finalized. The agency, he continued, recently met with the Burton Street neighborhood, which will be eligible for “special money for improvements” because of the project’s impact on that community.

Putnam reported that the selection of a consultant to assist the city in evaluating DOT proposals and other design considerations for the project, which was recently approved by Council, is underway. The city team that will evaluate the consultant proposals will make its recommendation to Council on April 25, he said.

Unfinished business

Prior to its formal meeting, City Council interviewed six candidates for three seats on the Asheville City Schools Board of Education. During its regular meeting, Council voted to appoint Patricia Griffin, James Lee and Joyce Brown for terms beginning on April 1.

After Council’s vote on the school board appointments at around 6 p.m., Manheimer proposed reopening discussion of one aspect of the city’s homestay ordinance for a certain type of accessory dwelling units. Currently the city’s homestay ordinance allows residents to host short-term visitors in no more than two bedrooms of their primary residence. The homeowner or tenant host must be at home overnight during the homestay. Rooms in accessory units — including basement apartments, garage apartments or accessory structures — are not eligible for the homestay program.

Manheimer suggested considering allowing homestays in accessory units under the same roof as the primary dwelling, such as basement apartments. She did not specify whether one unit of a duplex would be eligible.

Mayfield said she’d be open to a new discussion on the possible expansion of the homestay program if it included a push to involve online short-term rental websites like AirBnB to assist with the city’s enforcement efforts.

Wisler, on the other hand, said she would give a “thumbs down” to reopening discussions about homestays less than four months after a citizen task force on the issue narrowly recommended retaining the existing rules.

Council directed city staff to conduct further research and bring a proposal to City Council for review. Any proposed changes would then go to the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission for a vote before coming back to Council for final approval.

Smith then changed the subject to the free electric car shuttle service Slidr, saying Council members had gotten “a raft of emails” from River Arts District residents and business owners asking Council to allow the service to sell advertising on the outside of its vehicles. The requests came in the context of discussions about how the city might reduce the traffic and parking impacts of upcoming major road and infrastructure construction in the District.

City Attorney Robin Currin explained that it is currently legal to advertise a business on the exterior of a vehicle owned by that business. Third-party advertising on vehicle exteriors is not legal in the city. All sign ordinances, which place limits on speech as defined by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Currin said, must apply equally to all businesses and individuals. If a municipality does place limits on mobile advertising, she said, the courts have indicated that those limits should involve “important government interests” such as aesthetics, traffic safety or pedestrian safety.

Thus, summarized Mayfield, Council cannot allow Slidr to advertise on its vehicles without changing all of the city’s sign ordinances and giving the same right to all businesses and individuals in the city.

Smith urged Council and the public to “consider the underlying need,” which he said was “How are we going to insure mobility needs throughout this construction process?”

City Manager Gary Jackson said staff is planning to come back to Council’s Planning and Economic Development committee with more information about how the city plans to work with business groups and property owners in the RAD over the next 18 to 24 months. “It will be intense for several months,” he said.

Public comment

City resident Mike Lewis had nearly the final word of the meeting, demanding that Council member Keith Young clarify his residency. As recently reported by the Asheville Citizen-Times, Young’s voter registration lists his address as Martin Luther King Drive in Asheville, while the Deed of Trust for a property he purchased last year in Arden contains a statement that the property would be his primary residence. If Young’s primary address is in Arden, he is not eligible to serve on City Council, Lewis maintained. And if Young’s primary address is in the city, his Deed of Trust contains inaccurate information and “false pretenses,” Lewis said.

Smith closed out the session with a reminder that this weekend’s Southern Conference Basketball Tournament in Asheville is the only Division 1 tournament of the NCAA that will be held in North Carolina this year. Smith attributed that distinction to Asheville’s reputation for inclusiveness and the leadership of those in charge of the SoCon tournament. Many major sporting events left the state in the wake of legislation passed last year that requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates, among other provisions.

City Council’s next meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14  in Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville.

For more information on the Feb. 28 meeting of City Council, see Council to pick Board of Education members on Feb. 28.

For more of the latest city and county news check out Xpress’ Buncombe Beat.

 

Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 1, 2017 at 8:47 a.m. to reflect that Brian Haynes is unaffiliated; Cecil Bothwell is currently registered as a Democrat.

 

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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48 thoughts on “State legislator moves to force Asheville’s hand on district elections

  1. luther blissett

    When Chuck Edwards speaks, Tom Apodaca’s lips are moving. What an obedient little functionary he is. As a courtesy, the residents of Asheville should show up in Hendersonville and not leave the council chamber until their mayor is replaced with a goat who can be called “Mayor Chuck” for the duration of its term of office.

  2. Peter Robbins

    There are arguments about district elections pro and con. See http://www.nlc.org/municipal-elections. And there is something to be said for a mixed system of, say, three at-large seats and three districts. In my opinion, Asheville is a little too small to be messing with any alternatives right now, but that’s its business. But the bigger question is this: where did Chuck Edwards acquire the expertise to impose his wisdom on the people of Asheville? His business background hardly entails giving customers careful and individualized attention, unless you count the extra ketchup. Let Asheville decide its own future. The General Assembly currently has its hands full figuring out how to repeal that law that everyone knows should be repealed.

    • NFB

      “where did Chuck Edwards acquire the expertise to impose his wisdom on the people of Asheville? ”

      Contrary to convention wisdom, Republicans apparently are big supporters of affirmative action, so we must have quotas and “set asides” for Asheville City Council.

      • Lulz

        LOL, no. It can’t possibly be to motivate more people to take part in local elections? After all, there’s only so much cover up of A SPECIFIC defacto big lawyer firm, big developer interests, big pharma, and big tourism interests before people realize that big tax increases don’t equate to any improvement anywhere except for the select few.

  3. bsummers

    From the Buncombe County GOP “OUR PRINCPLES” page:

    PRINCIPLES OF THE NORTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN PARTY

    “We Believe… the most effective, responsible and responsive government is government closest to the people.”
    http://www.buncombegop.org/our_principles

    “Except where it doesn’t get us what our local GOPers want, and then we’ll bring the Raleigh hammer down on ’em, because we’ve gone drunk with the Power of the State and we’ll use it to push local governments around, to hell with those “principles”…”

    • Lulz

      And what are your interest in city elections? Do you live in the city limits?

  4. luther blissett

    Some creative districting models:

    – “south” district covers Joe Dunn’s house and nothing else.
    – de-annex SAvl into North Arden and make providing services entirely the county’s problem.
    – draw districts by letting Mayor Chuck, the new goat-mayor of Hendersonville, micturate on a map of the city.

  5. bsummers

    The Asheville Chamber has said in their eNewsletter mailed out today, that City Council should roll over for this, with an hilarious choice of words:

    “Regardless of the plan put forward, let’s not waste time or taxpayer money on figuring out if. That decision ostensibly has been made for us.”

    The Oxford dictionary definition of “ostensibly” is: “apparently or purportedly, but perhaps not actually.”

    GOPers in the NCGA rejected this loudly last year, and enough of them are on the record that it would be really hard for them to walk it back. Especially if the City has a fresh poll in hand showing that residents don’t want it. Hey, Virginia – did Joe Dunn ever share his petition on this that he announced over a month ago? If you announce a petition & people start signing it, I think you have some obligation to share the results.

    I have a feeling this is an attempt to bully the City into something. I wonder what it could be…

    • luther blissett

      “enough of them are on the record that it would be really hard for them to walk it back.”

      Sadly, I don’t think there’s money to be made betting on the consistency of the NCGA Republican contingent. It really depends how many of them think that Edwards is nothing more than a puppet of Apodaca (who retired early to become a lobbyist sooner) and who are willing to challenge his continued influence on the chamber. It’s all about petty power games in Raleigh with little concern for what happens far far away.

      • Peter Robbins

        But an argument can be made to thoughtful Republicans that arbitrary power corrupts, and what they do to disfavored localities now can be done back to them when their power recedes (soon, one hopes). As Winston Churchill said in an analogous (though somewhat more dramatic) political context, you don’t feed the crocodile in hopes that he will eat you last.

    • Lulz

      LOL, and yet one council member doesn’t even live in the city. I know that’s irrelevant considering you don’t either but then who is this council member really representing? Maybe we need not only district elections but all criminal investigations into just how and who is benefiting from local elections.

  6. The General Assembly operating rules do not permit taking up controversial local bills in the Short Session that do not have support from the local delegation. Senator Apodaca’s bill, Senate Bill 897, did not have that support and failed a second reading. That is why his attempt to establish district elections in Asheville was ultimately unsuccessful.

    The General Assembly is now in the Long Session which has no such rules concerning local bills. Senator Edwards will have no trouble getting his bill approved in both chambers. And that is all it will take. A local bill does not need the governor’s signature to become law. Neither can the governor veto a local bill. A local bill becomes law upon ratification by the General Assembly.

    NOTE: Anyone having trouble with the concept of Dillon’s Rule in North Carolina should do the slightest research to close the gaps in their knowledge.
    http://bfy.tw/AOZ0

    • SpareChange

      As I read the comments, I don’t see much indication of a knowledge gap regarding the state possessing the legal authority to take such an action. Rather, most seem to simply be arguing some combination of, 1) that they do not think the plan is a good idea as a matter of policy, 2) that they resent the idea that such a plan would be forcibly imposed by legislators who seem motivated by little beyond political expediency and/or the desire to stick their thumb in the eye of Asheville’s council and citizenry, and 3) that much of the state GOP’s rhetoric about respecting localism and the will of the people is a bunch of disingenuous BS.

      • Like 1, 2, and 3.

        The question of authority has been a sticking point for many in the past as this legislation has been developing.
        http://bit.ly/2llGGkx

        I think the plan is a good idea and I’m glad legislators agree with me. Besides, cities in North Carolina exist at the pleasure of the state and it is the job of the General Assembly to determine how much “localism” is permitted in a state operating without home rule. In other words, the state gave Asheville too much rope and they hung themselves with it. I’m happy to be in at the death.

        • SpareChange

          I’ve been a “student” of at large vs. district elections for 40 years, in cases ranging from the Boston School Committee case in the 70s, to the federal court ruling in the Miami-Dade County Commission case in the 90s, to innumerable similar disputes in hundreds of cities, counties, and governing boards across the country. People who understand the basics of these issues know intuitively that government structure is not neutral, and that how we structure elections has at least some bearing on who gets elected and who has power. That’s what Republicans in the state assembly are counting on. However, while a switch to district elections in Asheville would likely bring some minimal change to the make-up of the council, I don’t believe that there would be any significant change in the “types” of people elected, in the overall politics and governance of the community, or in the general direction of policy. It is almost always the case that advocates of such changes end up being not only disappointed at the ultimate results, but often at least somewhat regretting the inevitable unanticipated consequences. After all of the disruption and expense, it may not make a damn bit of difference in much of any way that really matters.

          • “It is almost always the case that advocates of such changes end up being not only disappointed at the ultimate results”

            I doubt there will be much disappointment in this case. The goal is to establish more democratic district-based representation on a governing body in a growing city no matter what “types” are elected to city council using this method. That goal, I think, will be achieved straight out of the box.

          • Huhsure

            “The goal is to establish more democratic district-based representation on a governing body in a growing city no matter what “types” are elected to city council using this method.”

            That’s hilarious and a complete lie, and you know it.

            From the start, the goal was to try and marginalize progressive voices so that the rightists could get a foothold in AVL politics.

            Look at the districts that Apodaca drew up!

            http://bpr.org/post/stunner-legislature-avl-district-bill-defeated

          • luther blissett

            “The goal is to establish more democratic district-based representation on a governing body–”

            Is that an official statement?

  7. For you progressives cringing over district elections:

    Don’t fret. Everything is done. Everything is final. Just lay back and think of England.

  8. Deplorable Infidel

    what kind of ‘Special MONEY’ are they talking about for ‘Burton St’ neighborhood , and why ?

    • bsummers

      Pretty self-explanatory, Fred Caudle. Special NCDOT money, “because of the project’s impact on that community.”

  9. Deplorable Infidel

    neighborhoods nationwide have suffered highway expansion without ‘special money’ doled out unnecessarily.

  10. Peter Robbins

    Has anyone asked Representative Chuck McGrady how he feels about Edwards’ little stunt? You know, the Chuck McGrady who’s desperately seeking Democratic support in general — and Asheville support in particular — for his “compromise” effort to amend HB2?

    • bsummers

      That’s an excellent question. Haven’t heard a peep from Chuck on this yet. He ran Apodaca’s bill in the House with some enthusiasm last summer, as I recall, so he certainly has an opinion on it. Will anyone ask him? If asked, will he answer?

        • bsummers

          “I take full responsibility for including Mayor Manheimer on the list of HB186 supporters that appeared from his (McGrady’s) Twitter account, constituent services website, and Facebook page,” said a representative of InTouch NC who would not provide a name in an email to the Citizen-Times.

          Yeah, I’m not sure that “full responsibility” can be shouldered by someone without shoulders, ie. someone who refuses to give their name.

          The original print version of that story didn’t even tell readers that InTouchNC is owned by former GOP Rep. Tim Moffitt. When I asked about it, the reporter said that it was in an earlier draft of her story, and she “didn’t know why” it hadn’t made it into print. Who knows even who made the decision not to mention Tim Moffitt’s name in that story – the AC-T doesn’t appear to even have any news editors.
          http://static.citizen-times.com/followourstaff/#Editors

          I tweeted a question about Edwards district elections bill to Chuck McGrady, but no response yet.

          • Peter Robbins

            It take it there’s still no response. Which is odd. I took a look at his Twitter page, and he (or whoever is doing his thinking for him today) appears to be quite the chatterbox.

          • bsummers

            I believe the non-uncivil term you’re looking for there is “loquacious”.

            But no, no reply. I tweeted a second time today just for good measure.

            https://twitter.com/Newsforachange/status/838405867565371392

            He’s not usually one for ducking questions, bless his heart. But he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go on the record this time. I wonder why?

    • vrede

      I had a several email exchange with my (sadly) Rep. Chuck McGrady over Apodaca’s bill. He told me that objections were not his concern since it was a “local bill”, even though local Leg. Dems opposed it, that he would vote for it and that it was certain to pass (wrong!), kind of a Pontius Pilate partisan defense.

  11. vrede

    My note to my (sadly) Sen. Edwards:

    Drop your transparent scheme to force a voting change upon Asheville.

    Of course, it’s not really about “representation”. Rather, this is a sleazy and shameful attempt to use the Leg. to exclusively benefit the GOP. This is why your bill won’t be statewide and won’t even include my Hendersonville, which you also represent.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like district representation and hope that the people of Asheville and Hendersonville eventually adopt it. With it, candidates do lots more door knocking and neighborhood meetings while relying less on slates, branding, fundraising and mass advertising. Then, the elected pols do a better job of representing the particular needs of their neighbor-constituents, rather than the citywide power structure.

    So, this plot should die unless it’s put to a vote of the people of Asheville OR it’s imposed upon all cities in the state, thus advantaging and disadvantaging the GOP equally.

    cc: Gov. Cooper, my Rep. McGrady

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