The dividing line: On Raleigh’s rules and local rancor

On June 22, Jake Frankel, Nelda Holder and I delved into the contentious topic of state power over local government [Ruled from Raleigh?]. The disputes are not new.

The controversy hasn’t diminished. On Friday, July 1, North Carolina Republicans released their proposed Congressional maps, which split Asheville, a Democratic stronghold, between the 10th and 11th districts. The governor cannot veto the maps, and there is limited opportunity for public comment (a public hearing will be telecast on Thursday, July 7, at AB-Tech). Democrats allege gerrymandering, just as Republicans were angered in previous cycles.

Both issues illuminate the degree of control state government has over local, and it’s worth delving into the topic further.

In 2005, I was newly arrived in Asheville, covering a meeting for another media outlet. In a room in the Buncombe County courthouse, a special joint session of Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners ended at an impasse. The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on Asheville’s withdrawal from the regional water authority. The tension in the room was palpable, as then-Council member Terry Bellamy sharply criticized the county’s position and Commissioner Bill Stanley grumbled about Asheville’s untrustworthiness.

In the end, the impasse was decided by legislators in Raleigh, where Buncombe’s local delegation passed two new additions to the Sullivan Acts — Depression-era state laws governing the Asheville-area water system and preventing either the city or the water authority from charging higher rates to customers outside the city limits. The amendments furhther limited what Asheville — and only Asheville — could do with its water system, how it could set its rates and expand its borders. No other water system or municipality in the state may be limited in this way.

After a long legal battle, the courts eventually ruled the Sullivan Acts legit. A later study, conducted by researchers from the North Carolina School of Government, declared that state legislators threw a wrench in the city/county negotiations by pushing the Sullivan Acts forward.

The situation illuminated simmering conflicts related to the power the state could exercise over local affairs. Those have only intensified.

Since then, when either city or county officials seek changes on everything from boundary changes to local pollution cleanup, I’ve heard the phrase “go ask Raleigh” more times than I can count.

More recently, with the first GOP-controlled legislature since 1870, the General Assembly passed bills overhauling the way Buncombe elects its commissioners and revoking annexations Asheville made in 2005. There have also been bills seeking to seize Asheville’s water system (later changed to studying a transfer) and give the airport to an independent authority. Critics have specifically targeted Rep. Tim Moffitt, the county’s sole Republican, who has sponsored the above bills (though Buncombe’s two Democrats initially backed the airport bill, and one voted for its passage). The legislation attracted a heap of criticism from local officials. When the articles came out, some readers saw a double standard in Xpress‘s coverage, as Republicans made similar complaints during the Democrats’ years in power.

While we, as reporters, took pains to emphasize the history of state control of local affairs, including by Democratic legislators during their long reign, I see the critics’ point: This is not a new issue. With some exceptions, such as Asheville Council members’ arguments against the Sullivan Act, Democratic officials both state and local generally enjoyed the power provided by the status quo. In Holder’s excellent column, she points out multiple examples of Democratic legislators using the same powers their party members now criticize.

Sure, there’s partisan positioning going on here: Any politician that tells you they’ll never play politics is lying or delusional. Politics is what they do. At the same time, some critics of the newest crop of legislation are driven by more than just losing power to the GOP.

Whether one thinks they’re unforgivable intrusions or necessary corrections, Moffitt’s proposed bills are more far-reaching than previous state legislation affecting this area. The legislation was proposed more quickly, with less agreement among the local delegation and less consultation with local officials. The change to district elections — without a local referendum or proposal — is unprecedented in state history. Moffitt’s bills are an example of the wide powers state government can exercise, without the requirement for much say from local elected officials.

At the heart of the issue is one of the oldest political questions: In the relationship between local and central governments, where do you draw the line?

The individual set-ups vary widely, but many states have settled on some variation of what’s known as “home rule.” While counties and cities across the country are creations of state law (the state grants a “charter” to the municipality), constitutional rules leave some local issues up to municipalities. For example, if a city wants to pass a hotel occupancy tax, the city council simply votes on it.

Not in North Carolina. Here, local officials need to ask permission for such a change. If Raleigh wanted to dismiss an entire city council, appoint a new one and transfer the city’s assets, it could do so.

In fact, North Carolina legislators have done just that — multiple times in the early 20th centry, notes Frayda Bluestein, of the UNC School of Government. Our state’s powers are closer to home-rule’s opposite, Dillon’s Rule, a late 19th-century legal precedent that declared local government totally subordinate to states. Those rules were forged in a different time, when city governments were often seen as corrupt and, later, when the state bailed out localities rendered destitute by the Great Depression.

Of course, North Carolina legislators don’t usually exercise the full extent of this authority. They’ve had the general custom of proposing local bills at the suggestion of locally elected officials and, as a courtesy, looking for agreement from the entire delegation. However, customs are not rules, and legislators of both parties have ignored those precedents over the years when they felt they had reason to do so.

This division of power affects diverse issues. It’s harder for tourism destinations (like Asheville) to raise money without extensive legislative processes. A lack of home rule impacts another hot-button issue: annexation. Home-rule states generally prohibit involuntary annexation, but allow municipalities more authority to raise revenue without the appealing to state authorities.

Often, reassessment of an issue comes after both sides have felt some pain. By now, we’ve seen advocates of home rule and state control from both political parties. There is more discussion locally than I’ve heard before, but we’ll see if it goes anywhere.

What is clear, however, is that with a drastically changing state, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the old rules and ask if they still work for today. I hope that discussion isn’t limited to a single news cycle.


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