The city of Asheville is one step closer to having districts for city council members. A House committee passed a bill Wednesday to require just that. And it appears to have picked up key support for eventual passage.
The issue of districts has been a contentious one in Asheville. A bill put forward by former Senator Tom Apodaca, a Republican of Hendersonville, would have split Asheville into six districts for the purpose of electing council members. But in a dramatic turn of events, the bill failed in its final stop in the House last session. Apodaca’s now retired, and his successor, Republican Chuck Edwards, also of Hendersonville, is trying again, with Senate Bill 285. But Edwards says a few things make this time different than the last attempt. First is the city will have the ability to draw the districts rather than lawmakers in Raleigh. And the second is that there’s been no surprise.
“I am simply here in front of you with a sincere request that you listen to the citizens of Asheville through me and ask for support of this bill.”
But when Edwards says listen to the citizens of Asheville, that’s where there’s some dispute. Edwards represents a small part of south Asheville, which hasn’t had a member on city council in years. He says he’s heard from lots of residents complaining about that fact. But other officials from the city claim there’s been no huge outcry about districts. Representative Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, spoke against the bill, saying the city IS trying to listen to the citizens of Asheville, by offering them a vote on the matter.
“People who are for this type of election are in favor, also of having a referendum, so that they can at least express their opinion and their choice about whether or not to do it.”
But the idea of a referendum is something Senator Edwards rejects.
“I really must commend the city of Asheville, and I mean that somewhat sarcastically, because on June 13th, they did pass a resolution to run a referendum in Asheville regarding city districts. They are going to offer the citizens of Asheville two choices: to either follow this law, if passed, or not… That is just one of the reasons that I feel like the attempts are insincere.”
Edwards calls Asheville insincere, but in fact the city council has been looking at the issue, even commissioning a poll on the subject that produced somewhat unclear results, but did show support for a referendum. Members of the delegation from Asheville are suspicious that the real aim of the bill is to help elect Republicans. South Asheville is considered a more conservative part of the city. In fact, two of the public speakers at the hearing in support of the bill cited the liberal leanings of the city council as their primary concerns, including former city council member and south Asheville resident Joe Dunn.
“Asheville is being run by a left-wing voting cartel made up primarily of residents of the central part of the city.”
The bill is looking more likely to pass. One reason Apodaca’s bill failed was because many Republicans joined with Democrats in opposition. Rep. Michael Speciale was one of those. But he said he’s for this version, primarily because it lets Asheville decide on the districts.
“Now there’s nothing fairer than that, as far as I’m concerned. They get to draw it, themselves, into districts.”
And in a surprise, Edwards declared that the bill would have support from Democratic Rep. Brian Turner, who also represents south Asheville, on the condition of an amendment he plans to introduce.
“Which I will gladly accept in order to gain his support.”
Turner told BPR his amendment would have the city, instead of draw the districts themselves, set up an independent commission for the task.
“If my amendment is not accepted, I would have a difficult time supporting this bill. When you look at what’s going on currently, not just in North Carolina, but across this country with gerrymandering, I really think that an independent commission is the way that we should be doing these for all of our elections.”
Turner says he has heard from residents concerned about geographical representation and says Edwards has been receptive to hearing out his concerns.
“If the maps are going to be drawn, my primary goal here is to create a process where the maps are drawn fairly and done as independently as possible.”
Turner could support the bill. But Fisher remained opposed. She had a warning for the other lawmakers in the committee hearing.
“If this can happen in Asheville, it can also happen in your city, and I would hope that you would vote against this measure.”
The bill passed on a voice vote. It would still need support from the full House, and though it already passed the Senate, it would have to approve again if the bill is amended.
Below, Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) speaks about his amendment to SB285 he plans to offer.