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State passes district elections for council seats
Wednesday, 02 August 2017 13:00

From Staff Reports


The North Carolina General Assembly on June 29 passed Senate Bill 285, an act requiring Asheville City Council members to be elected by district.

Because the bill was strictly local, no gubernatorial signature was required. The new districts will apply to the 2019 election, provided the city fails to win any legal challenges. The idea was largely supported by Republican and business interests that feel the population of South Asheville is underrepresented.It was not the motivation, but it was added later.

As an afterthought, advocates pointed out districts could also help minorities be elected to council, but that depended on where the lines would be drawn.Districting is typically advocated by minority parties, using geography to increase partisan representation.

All members of Asheville City Council are currently Democrats.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Edward, R-Henderson, won support from Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, when Edwards agreed to support having an independent commission draw the district lines. The commission would have seven members appointed by council, with no more than three belonging to the same political party. The bill directs council to divide the city into six districts and change its charter to reflect the election of candidates to council from the districts and by the districts. The mayor will continue to be elected at-large.

If council fails to comply before Nov. 1, the General Assembly will create the districts during the 2018 legislative session. Turner said he believed the commission would advance redistricting reform in the state. Traditionally, the majority party has been able to use their powers to draw representatives and candidates from the minority party out of their strongest constituencies and sometimes double-bunk them. This, in turn, leads to uncertainties with legal challenges, calls for special elections, and holds thereon. Turner was “for it before he was against it” because Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, later amended the bill to give Asheville’s council the option of drawing the lines itself. 

Lewis said the change was “largely clarifying” the bill, while Turner described it as “completely undermining” it and setting members of council up for allegations of self-dealing. The House approved the bill with Lewis’ amendment 31-12; the Senate, 63-47. But Mayor Esther Manheimer said the legislation could be challenged as “unconstitutional.”


Uncertain of whether the proposed legislation would be voted into effect, Asheville City Council began what could be described as a campaign against it. Council commissioned a poll, which determined citizens were largely in favor of keeping council elections at-large, while also in favor of holding a referendum to gauge support for district elections.


Now that the bill has been signed into law, council remains intent to continue with the referendum, a peculiar move, since North Carolina is a Dillon’s Rule state in which cities derive all their powers and their very existence from the good graces of the state. Julie Tisdale, city and county policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, agreed there was probably more to this than meets the eye. The referendum would show public support for the city’s position in a legal battle; but, generally speaking, she said the state has the power to override anything the city does with its charter. City Attorney Robin Currin said she was not going to reveal her legal strategies.

Manheimer did, however, share that, based on certain case law, “We think we’re allowed to do that and let the referendum control.”

 



 


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