AVL Council Worksession Will Grapple With Big Question: To Sue Or Not?

Jul 1, 2019

Asheville city council will hold a work session Tuesday evening on whether to take legal action stop the imposition of electoral districts for future city council elections.  Council members appear split on whether to sue the state in an attempt to stop districts, which were created after the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a measure creating districts last year.  

The General Assembly bill came on the heels of a 2017 voter referendum in Asheville where three-quarters of city voters rejected districts.  As of now, five districts will be created for next year’s election, with one seat (as well as the position of mayor, whom is a member of city council) remaining at-large.  Currently, all seats are elected at-large. 

As for Tuesday evening’s work session, it starts at 5 and is open to the public.  It will take place at the banquet hall in the U.S. Cellular Center.  A live stream of the meeting will also be provided on Youtube.  City attorney Brad Branham will outline the legal actions city council could take, and residents will be able to offer public comment.  Council isn't expected to take a vote Tuesday on what path it will take, though that could happen according to councilman Vijay Kapoor.

It’s unclear now if there is enough support on council for suing to stop districts.  Council members Sheneika Smith, Keith Young, and Brian Haynes all wrote in an op-ed for the Citizen-Times that council owes it to city voters to sue given the results of the 2017 referendum.  Mayor Esther Manheimer believes the city does not have a strong case however.  In a June 4th thread in the Asheville Politics Facebook group, the mayor said about potential legal action "we have a s****y case, in legalese."

Meanwhile, Councilman Vijay Kapoor has evolved the most on districts.  He campaigned against them in 2017 when he was the top vote-getter in the city council election.  But now Kapoor has changed his mind and now supports the district plan currently in place, believing it will best serve city residents.  He sat down for a lengthy interview with BPR's Matt Bush, which touched on why Kapoor changed his mind on districts, and why he believes legal action to stop them won't work.  

EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW

Do you think council should take legal action and sue? - "My take on this is that I don't think it's a good use of taxpayer dollars.  North Carolina has been ground zero for gerrymandering issues.  And there have been no deficit of non-profits and voting rights groups who have sued on behalf of voters in North Carolina either claiming political or racial gerrymandering.  Any voter in Asheville has standing to challenge this, and any non-profit group could use that individual as the named party in a lawsuit challenging this.  And to date no one has.  I think that is a pretty good indication of the legal case the city has."

In 2017, roughly 75% of Asheville voters rejected the use of districts in a ballot referendum, yourself included.  The General Assembly still approved a bill months later creating districts.  What can you say to those who feel their voice isn't getting heard? - "I think that's absolutely a fair question.  In my mind, I'm looking at this as what I think is in the best interests of the city of Asheville and the problems that we face day to day.  And I realize that's put me at odds with a lot of folks.  I've had some people tell me this is a political decision, and that all I want is a South Asheville district.  I've told those folks, if you talk to anyone who knows anything about politics, me changing my position on this could be one of the most politically stupid things I could do...I truly believe the needs of neighborhoods are not being met.  Under the current system - the maps that will be used for the 2020 election - I believe they are politically balanced, geographically balanced, I think they are more likely to ensure an African-American is elected to council."   

INTERVIEW TIME CODES -

0:07 - Details of Tuesday's work session

0:40 - Will there be a vote Tuesday?

1:15 - Why his position has changed on the use of electoral districts

3:53 - What examples are there of his assertion there have been 'narrow viewpoint' voting blocs on council?

6:02 - Does he think the council should take legal action and sue to stop districts?

7:29 - Roughly 75% of voters rejected districts in the 2017 referendum.  Is their an obligation to sue because of that?

9:37 - The General Assembly bill creating districts came just months after the 2017 referendum.  What do you say those who feel their vote doesn't count?

11:37 - What option is there to change the city charter to make all council seats elected at-large?

13:46 - What is the timeline for a decision by council?

14:50 - Council election years were moved to even numbered years. Explain how any legal action might affect that

15:52 - Why does he feel primaries need to be re-instated for city council elections?

17:35 - Explains his belief the 2020 council election maps are not a gerrymander