Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said he’s working on legislation shifting the Asheville City Council to district representation, but the plan and how to go about it have yet to be finalized.
“They’re not drawn up,” he said in an interview with Carolina Public Press on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know what the Asheville paper thinks they’re doing.”
Apodaca said an Asheville redestricting map published in a Citizen-Times report is not the final version of proposed new districts and that legislation detailing the transition of the six-member city council is still in the drafting stage. He said he’s not surprised at the reaction. “Everything is kind of moot right now. But they’re working themselves up.”
Apodaca, who is retiring this year after seven terms, said he expects the bill to be taken up soon, given that the legislature’s short session is expected to wind up within the next two weeks. “Hopefully, I’ll get it rolled out next week,” he said.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the issue of districts is not new. It had been unsuccessfully attempted in 2014 by former Rep. Tim Moffitt, who is now a Buncombe County commissioner. Manheimer said there had been rumors flying about a bill prior to the state of the session.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” she said. “The only part of this that was is the timing.”
Members of the Asheville legislative delegation got its first look at the plan and the six district map in a meeting with Apodaca on Tuesday.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said delegation members were then given 48 hours to study the Asheville redestricting plans and suggest changes.
From the outset, she said topping the list of their concerns is the lack of local input.
“I’d prefer that this not even happen,” Fisher said Friday morning. “But if it does it should be something based on a referendum.”
Fisher said any district lines should be drawn by an independent commission and not the legislature. “It’s another example of the state calling the shots,” she said. “It’s not healthy and doesn’t allow for local decision-making to take place.”
Manheimer agreed that a referendum is the right procedure under state law said the lack of a referendum would likely be a main part of any future legal action against the legislation. Given court decisions in recent attempts to change local elections in the City of Greensboro and Wake County, she said, the city would have a strong case.
“Asheville opposes any mandate from the state on how to govern our city,” Manheimer said. “At the very least they should allow the citizens to decide by referendum on how to impose districts.”
Delegation members said the other major flaw in Apodaca’s plan is that it appears likely to overturn at least some of the results of the 2015 elections.
The plan as presented would have placed two and in some cases three city council members in the same district.
“The way the districts are drawn right now, half the City Council will be unseated,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe. “That’s not very democratic.”
She said she supports an idea put forward by Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe, of creating a hybrid system of at-large and district seats and phasing it in over time.
“That way you’ve got some balance between turf wars and people looking out for the whole city,” Van Duyn said. The plan would also allow more time to build trust in the change. Right now, she said, the perception is that Apodaca wants to pick the City Council.
Apodaca said the response he’s gotten has been mostly positive, “especially from those folks in the south and west who haven’t had a voice in forever,” he said. “The negative comments are all from — imagine this — downtown Asheville.”
Ager said he also believe that whichever plan is decided on, approval in a referendum is essential. His three at-large and three district members system would be phased in starting with the 2017 election.
“That would solve the problem of people being thrown out of office two years before their terms are up,” he said.
He also agreed with the idea of an independent body drawing the maps. His first impression of the maps, he said, was that they looked forced.
“It looks like they were pushing it to come up with six good districts,” Ager said.
“We need somebody to help draw the maps so you get neighborhoods that make sense. If you look at that map we have, it’s crazy.”