RALEIGH — The North Carolina Senate gave approval to revised Asheville election legislation Wednesday night, adding back requirements for six distinct districts and approving the bill in a 34 to 15 vote that split along party lines.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, who represents the southern section of the city said Asheville has grown rapidly in both size and population and it’s time for more residents outside the central area of the city to join the council.
The city, “should have realized the responsibility to put government closer to those citizens,” Edwards said explaining his bill during floor debate Wednesday evening. “The only way to do that is through district elections.”
The bill changed prior to the Senate floor vote as well after the Senate’s Select Committee on Elections on Tuesday approved the elimination of a provision that would impose districts drawn last year by Edward’s predecessor, Tom Apodaca, in legislation that was voted down by the House. The new version of the bill gives the city until Nov. 1 to draw its own districts. If the city doesn’t meet the deadline the obligation to draw the districts passes to the legislature, which is required to draw them during the 2018 session. The new election system would start with the 2019 municipal elections.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, who represents the bulk of the city, challenged Edward’s insistence that a planned referendum on districts would be too complicated.
“I think this bill is totally unnecessary,” Van Duyn said during Wednesday’s debate. The city’s leadership, she said, “has taken Senator Edwards’ threats seriously.” She said the plans for a referendum in November and recent polling on how to approach a new council district plan is evidence the city is moving forward.
Van Duyn argued that the city should have the option of setting up a hybrid system similar to other larger cities with a mix of district and at-large seats.
Edwards called the poll “unscientific” and reiterated his opposition to a referendum.
“The referendum simply will not work,” he said. “How do you put that on a ballot?”
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city plans to move ahead with the referendum even though the bill requires new districts before the election.
“This is a little bit of a bizarre situation in that he’s mandating the city council draw them and put them in place according to the statute by Nov. 1,” she said. “We plan to put it on the ballot two days later.”
On Tuesday, the city council agreed to put only a six-district plan on the ballot. Manheimer said the decision to do so rather than add a hybrid plan would give the city a stronger legal position should it opt to challenge the law.
“The recommendation from the legal staff is that we needed to not put anything other than the six-district structure on the ballot so that it was a referendum on the legislation,” she said.
The city of Greensboro’s successful challenge to a redistricting bill appears to have guided changes to the bill, Manheimer said. The districts drawn last year, she said, were likely too far out of compliance in terms of population. Unlike Apodaca’s bill, the new legislation does not specifically prohibit a referendum. Both were key issues in the recent ruling in the Greensboro case.
Another difficulty with the November 1 timetable, Manheimer said, is that it is too soon to allow for an independent redistricting commission to do its job including conducting public hearings. The city would be the first in the state to use an independent commission, she said, but under North Carolina law any plan would have to be approved by a council vote.
The bill now goes to the House. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who had agreed earlier to handle the bill in the House, said he had not studied all the changes to the bill, but supported an earlier version.
“I was comfortable with the bill Sen. Edwards put forward,” McGrady said. “If he wants me to carry the bill on the House floor, I’ll certainly do so.”
Class size bill moving
Not every bill moving this week is part of the annual flurry of bills moving ahead of today’s crossover deadline.
The Senate took action Tuesday on House Bill 13, which is aimed at giving school systems more time to phase in class size requirements. Dozens of districts have said requirements passed last year would force them to cut music and arts programs and open up new classroom space.
The House passed the bill unanimously in February.
The latest version of the bill gives districts an extra year to phase in the new K-3 classroom requirements.
McGrady said Wednesday evening that he supports the Senate changes and recommended to the leadership that the bill be immediately taken up.
House Speaker Tim Moore added the bill to Thursday’s calendar and a vote is expected later today.