RALEIGH — A bill requiring that the Asheville City Council be elected from six geographical districts moved closer to final passage this week after more than a year of legislative efforts to change the city’s system of representation.
Senate Bill 285, introduced early in the session by Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, passed the House on second reading Tuesday afternoon in a 67-49 vote and is scheduled for a final vote Thursday. After that, the Senate would have to sign off on House changes before the bill would become law. Since it is a local bill, it is not subject to a veto by the governor.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said once the bill becomes law the City Council will have to decide how to proceed. A referendum on a district plan is already scheduled for the November election, but that falls days after the November 1 deadline in the bill for new districts to be drawn.
A House amendment to the bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, further complicated the task, by requiring the formation of an independent commission, something Manheimer said the council wants, but would work better given more time.
Turner’s amendment, which passed 101 to 12 with bipartisan support, requires the council to appoint seven city residents to a commission by August 22. The commission would have until October 10 to draw the districts and file its final report to the council. The council is required to adopt the districts and hold its first municipal election using the new system in November 2019.
“That’s a tall order,” Manheimer said in an interview with Carolina Public Press Wednesday. “This is totally uncharted territory.”
Although there are examples from other cities around the country, such as Austin, Texas, Manheimer said the commission would be the first of its kind in North Carolina.
“This is a real challenge for folks to figure out how to navigate,” she said. The city, she said, is likely to continue to pursue both tracks, setting up a commission to work on the districts and going ahead with the referendum.
Manheimer said, according to state law, the referendum doesn’t require specific maps be on the ballot. “All you have to put before the voters is the structure,” she said.
But given the geography, splitting the city six ways will achieve legislators’ goal of a south side district, the mayor said. “No matter how you do it, there will be a south Asheville district.”
In House action on the bill Tuesday, the parallels were obvious: in the final week of a legislative session, a Senate bill sponsored by a Henderson County Republican requiring district elections for Asheville City Council was up for a vote.
It was the same basic scenario as last year, when a move by Sen. Tom Apodaca to draw new districts for the city was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and conservative House members outraged by Apodaca’s late session maneuver, timed just as he was leaving the General Assembly.
This year, a different bill sponsored by a different senator, caused a passing sense of deja vu, but it was quickly clear on Tuesday that the outcome would be different as well.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who led debate for both bills, outlined what had changed since last year’s legislation.
“That bill imposed the districts,” he said. “The city was never given a chance to draw those districts and the big difference here is that this bill allow the city to draw its own districts.”
McGrady said the city was still moving too slowly on districts and the new bill is an attempt to get the process moving.
“City officials have made clear that they would rather litigate than in good faith work to put in districts.”
There were several attempts to amend the bill, but only Turner’s proposal for an independent redistricting commission was successful.
Turner said he had worked with Edwards on the language for the amendment. McGrady, who has supported efforts to form an independent redistricting commission for statewide redistricting, backed the amendment as well.
Turner’s vote for the final bill split the Buncombe County delegation on the issue for the first time, although he did back amendments by Buncombe representatives Susan Fisher and John Ager. The two Democrats proposed amendments similar to those they introduced last year.
Ager proposed a council that would be a mix of district and at-large seats and Fisher asked that the city be given a chance to hold a referendum on the proposal.
Both amendments were defeated on mostly party line votes, along with an amendment offered by Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, that would have moved the deadline for the districts to next April to give the council more time.
Fisher said while she supported the idea of an independent commission, the final bill puts too many restrictions on what the council can do. She warned her colleagues that the legislative intrusions into local politics won’t stop at the Buncombe County line.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the House, Asheville is not the first city to be asked to change the way it elects its governing body and it won’t be the last,” she said. “But I implore you all here today, especially those of you who were here on the last day of the short session last July, to allow the city to go through this process on its own.”
After the House vote Tuesday, Edwards said he was pleased to see his first bill move forward.
“I’m excited for the citizens of Asheville, that they stand to get the kind of representation they needed and deserved for so long,” he said.
Edwards said he approved the Turner amendment because it accomplished the goal.
“What I was looking for is for Asheville to draw the districts with whatever method that they saw fit,” he said. “I simply wanted to see six single-member districts. How they get to that point is not as important to me as seeing they get there.”