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Defying General Assembly, Asheville City Council OK's Keeping Elections At-Large

Matt Bush
Blue Ridge Public Radio

Defying a bill passed by the General Assembly last year, Asheville City Council Tuesday evening voted to change the city's charter to ensure future city council elections continue to use an at-large system.  This stops election districts from being used for next year's election.  But the General Assembly could act again to impose districts.  

Council on Tuesday approved two amendments to the city charter.  The first required that city council seats be elected at-large, re-instituting the system that had been used through the last council election in 2017.  It passed by a 6-1 vote, with councilman Vijay Kapoor casting the lone dissenting tally.  The second amendment - which passed unanimously - restores a primary election for council seats, something that the 2018 state bill did away with.  That primary for the 2020 election will take place in March.

Republican state senator Chuck Edwards of Henderson County sponsored the bill that passed the General Assembly in 2018.  It created five election districts for future city council elections, with one seat remaining elected at-large.  The position of mayor, which is a part of city council, also remained elected at-large in the bill.  Its supporters argued that districts would ensure that all parts of Asheville were represented on council.  Edwards senate district contains portions of South Asheville, an area where no council member hailed from prior to the 2017 election.  That part of Asheville is also considered more moderate politically compared to the rest of the city, and opponents felt the use of districts was an attempt by GOP leaders in the General Assembly to dilute Asheville's progressive politics.  No Republican has been elected to Asheville City Council this decade.  

Kapoor, from South Asheville and the top vote getter in the last council election in 2017, was the only council member to speak about the charter amendments during Tuesday's meeting.  "I think going back to an all at-large system is the worst route we could have taken," said Kapoor immediately before the vote on the two amendments.  "While it might be better for certain council members individually, I think for the city as a whole, the average resident, and minority communities seeking better access to their representatives, it's the worst system out there."  Kapoor was against districts when he ran in 2017, but has since come to support their use, believing they would best ensure fair representation on council.  He also noted the growing inequality in the city between communities of color and the white population of Asheville - an issue that is increasingly dominating city politics - occurred under the at-large system.

While supporters of keeping the at-large system did not speak during Tuesday's meeting, their voices were heard over the summer when lawmakers began to craft their response to the state bill.  Council members Keith Young, Shaneika Smith, and Brian Haynes all wrote in an op-ed for the Citizen-Times that the city had an obligation to sue because of the results of a 2017 referendum.  City voters that year by a 3 to 1 margin rejected the use of election districts.

The General Assembly still approved districts the following year.  Whether GOP leaders will try again is unclear, though any measure may not come in time for the 2020 election.  Speaking to reporters at an Asheville Chamber of Commerce event on October 4th, Edwards said he'd wait to see what council did before deciding whether to introduce another districts bill in the General Assembly.  "I am just as interested now as I have been in the past to see a district city council election system and see the election system in Asheville modernized," Edwards said.  "What actions I might take...I can't be certain of yet but I'll be looking at all the possible options."  Republicans still control both chambers of the General Assembly, and local bills like the 2018 districts measure do not need the approval of the governor.  That means Democrat Roy Cooper still would not be able to veto a repeat version.

Matt Bush joined Blue Ridge Public Radio as news director in August 2016. Excited at the opportunity the build up the news service for both stations as well as help launch BPR News, Matt made the jump to Western North Carolina from Washington D.C. For the 8 years prior to coming to Asheville, he worked at the NPR member station in the nation's capital as a reporter and anchor. Matt primarily covered the state of Maryland, including 6 years of covering the statehouse in Annapolis. Prior to that, he worked at WMAL in Washington and Metro Networks in Pittsburgh, the city he was born and raised in.
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