AVL Districts Bill Passes Committee Over Strong Local Opposition

Jun 30, 2016

This is WCQS News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.  A bill making changes to Asheville’s City Council has cleared another committee, this time in the House.  The House elections committee passed the measure over the strong objection of the only committee member from Asheville.  WCQS’s Jeremy Loeb reports.

At the start of the committee meeting, it was clear that this bill was not coming from Asheville.

“The chair was asked to announce to the committee that the City of Asheville through its representation to the General Assembly wanted to go on record as being opposed to this bill.”

That was a point seconded by the bill sponsor, Republican Senator Tom Apodaca, who represents a sliver of south Asheville but is from Hendersonville.

Senator Tom Apodaca: “I’d like to say upfront at the beginning of my remarks that the local delegation, other than myself, is not in favor of this bill.  So I want that out front.”

As he did before the full Senate when they gave approval to the measure, Apodaca introduced his plan to divide Asheville into six districts for the purpose of electing city council members.

 Apodaca: “8 of the 10 most populous cities in North Carolina use some type of districting system to elect their city councils.  Asheville would become the 9th.”

Speaking to a Republican-dominated committee, Apodaca found instant support from his party colleagues, including Representative Paul “Skip” Stam of Wake County.

Rep. Paul Stam: “When any kind of geographic area is a large population like that, the at-large representation is a bad idea because it submerges minorities and doesn’t allow their voice to be heard.”

But Apodaca would not find any support from Democratic Representative Susan Fisher, the only member of the committee that actually lives in Asheville.

Rep. Susan Fisher: “None of the rest of our delegation in the House were asked to talk about it, or the city asked to talk about it before this map came up.”

Fisher took issue with the assertion that the current at-large election system was preventing representation from certain parts of the city.  Apodaca says constituents he represents in south Asheville can’t remember the last time they had a member on council.

Fisher: “No one has ever been prevented from running.  No one has ever been discouraged from running.  A person who wants to run for office has every right and should be able to run for office, no matter what the office is.  From anywhere that they live, they should be able to run.  And the qualification for city council is that you live in the city limits of Asheville.”

Fisher continued.

Fisher:  “The one thing that will happen with this is you will create an atmosphere that results in ‘turfdoms,’ where instead of representing the city as a whole for the good of all the people, all the residents that live in the city, you’ll be creating a situation where people say this is MY section of the city and I don’t care what the rest of the city wants or needs. I’m only representing MY section because I ran from MY district.”

Apodaca had a response for that. 

Apodaca: “I want to thank Representative Fisher for making the case for ‘turfdom.’  If you’ll look at this map, right here is where the current city council lives.  All of them, is this little area right here.  So, we have ‘turfdom,’ and here it is.”

Fisher wasn’t backing down.

Fisher: “It’s really incumbent upon us as the creators of cities and counties not to come off as authoritarian in our ‘parenting’ of our cities and counties.”

But while Democrats may have been on Fisher’s side, Apodaca clearly had the numbers.  Republican Representative Michael Speciale of New Bern:

Rep. Michael Speciale: “I don’t like stuff like this coming up at the last minute.  However, it does sound legitimate that they should have representation by district.”

And Republican Representative Jon Hardister of Greensboro registered his support as well.

Rep. Jon Hardister: “It can be very difficult to hold an at-large member accountable, whereas in a district the area is smaller, and I believe you can develop a more personal relationship with the person who represents you on the council.”

With the numbers clearly against her, Rep. Fisher was left with only a blunt warning for the rest of the committee members.

Fisher: “This is something that can happen to you, and if you care about your city and the fact that the legsiatlure can come along and tell your city what to do, at any time, for any reason, I would hope that you would vote against this bill.”

The bill passed by a vote of 17 to 9 and moved to the full House.  After the vote, Apodaca was asked for any last words.

Apodaca: “Well the good news is this is probably my last House committee in my legislative career.  I know y’all are disappointed.”

For WCQS News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.  

Full audio of the debate is below: