RALEIGH — By tradition, the General Assembly’s short session isn’t the time to take up controversial local legislation, but as seen this year, most famously via the failed attempt to redistrict Asheville, there can be flashpoints.
Much of the western region’s local legislation passed with near unanimous approval. The list includes a bill with rules exemptions to allow a courthouse renovation and another that deannexed properties in the towns of Clyde and Bakersville. Both of those bills passed without a single vote in opposition in each chamber. That’s the case with most of this year’s local acts.
Sen. Tom Apodaca’s Asheville City Council bill deviated wildly from that norm, drawing opposition that culminated in a rare defeat for the powerful Rules Committee chair in his last session.
The bill went down on the last day of the session when 24 Republicans and 35 Democrats combined to defeat the redistricting plan in the House.
Apodaca’s plan, drawn up without input from city officials and not requiring a referendum, was similar to other recent redistricting efforts by the General Assembly, including Greensboro and Wake County, both of which were challenged in court. While much of the debate focused on whether was the plan was fair to Asheville, some of those arguing against the bill were outraged over the route it took to get to the floor.
According to House and Senate rules, in the even-numbered short-session years all local bills must have the backing of the local delegation. Apodaca could not meet that threshold and the bill, introduced late in the session, was eventually moved through the Senate Redistricting Committee, which had not met since July 20, 2015. It convened solely to hear the Asheville bill.
On the House floor, opponents declared the plan a local bill and thus out of bounds.
Switch in Transylvania
The Asheville legislation was not the only election-related bill affecting WNC.
Rep. Chris Whitmire sponsored a successful effort to switch the Transylvania County Board of Education elections from nonpartisan to partisan.
In a committee hearing on the bill in May, Whitmire said the bill was aimed at giving voters more information about candidates.
“Not everyone shows up knowing every detail about every candidate,” Whitmire said. Having a partisan identification, he said, gives voters a better idea of where candidates stand. “Are they or conservative or liberal? What parties do they identify with? This bill seeks to help people have that much more information when they need it,” he said.
Whitmire, a former Transylvania County school board member and the the only House member representing Transylvania County, told the committee that Apodaca, the only other member of the county’s delegation, supported the bill. While that allowed the bill to clear the hurdle of unanimity among the local delegation, legislators received plenty of notice that there was substantial opposition from the current school board and other elected officials in Transylvania County.
Prior to passage, opponents of the bill said making school board races more subject to party politics was the wrong direction and that the bill would make it difficult for independent and third party candidates to get on the ballot.
“Partisanship doesn’t belong in the school boards,” Rep. Susan Fisher, a former Buncombe County school board member, said during floor debate.
Transylvania County joins 22 other school boards in North Carolina that are chosen in partisan elections. With a 100 county districts and many municipal school districts, partisan elections still take place in only a small fraction of districts.
Clearing the books and work-arounds
More often than not, local bills have backing of local governments and are the result of legislative requests from towns and counties. In many cases, the requests are aimed at allow local governments to work around complicated state rules.
That’s what happened in Hayesville, where a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Davis, clears the way for work renovating the former Clay County Courthouse in Hayesville into a multipurpose center for the community. The bill exempts the nonprofit organizing that is working on the building from state contracting and bidding requirements intended for larger-scale renovations to public buildings.
Also this session, the Town of Bakersville in Mitchell County County ended a long-standing dispute over uncollected taxes, a de-annexation measure put through by Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell.
Bakersville Mayor Charles Vines, who also serves as the county manager of Mitchell County, said the property was originally annexed mainly to provide police protection and other services for a pontoon boat manufacturer. When the operation closed down, that no longer made sense, Vines said in a interview with Carolina Public Press earlier this year.
The building has sat empty for years and is in disrepair. Vines said the town is unlikely to ever collect the tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. De-annexing the property, Vines said, allows Bakersville to move on.
“I just want it off the books,” he said.
Other local bills
Other local bills passed by the General Assembly this year include:
- authorization for Henderson County to construct an early college facility on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College
- changes to the Town of Hendersonville charter clarifying how compensation for the town’s mayor and council members is decided
- requiring the Town of Andrews receive approval from the Cherokee County board of commissioners to extend its extraterritorial jurisdiction