Asheville city attorney Brad Branham told council members Tuesday evening a potential lawsuit over a state law that imposes electoral districts for future council elections could cost the city up to $2-million.
Branham made the statement during an hour-long presentation to city council at a work session at the U.S. Cellular Center where potential legal options for the city were discussed. The Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a bill last year creating five districts, with one council seat and the position of mayor remaining elected at-large (the mayor is a voting member of city council.) That bill came just months after three-quarter of voters in the Democratic-controlled city overwhelmingly rejected the use of districts in a 2017 ballot referendum. Branham told council members litigation costs for a suit against the state could run anywhere from $500-thousand to $2-million. He concluded his presentation by saying if the council decides to sue, districts almost certainly won’t go away - even if they city wins.
"In a lawsuit, under almost all the claims we've talked about, the remedy the courts allow for is re-drawing those districts, not eliminating those districts," Branham said. "It is always important to think about what the prize is at the end of the day is, and if that is the prize you really want."
The other option council members are mulling is changing the city charter – either to keep all council seats elected at-large as they currently are, or to increase the number of council seats to nine as council member Vijay Kapoor is proposing. Branham says that move could be easier, but is not without risk.
"The city can, as we've gone (over this evening) could possibly end up accomplishing as much or more by amending its charter, and without the cost of litigation," Branham said. But the city attorney added any action the city takes regarding its charter is subject to potential counter measures from the General Assembly. After Branham finished his presentation, he took questions from council members. Members of the public were allowed to speak as well, and the majority called on city council to take some kind of action against districts. No votes were taken Tuesday, and council members could make a decision at their next meeting later this month.
What action that may be is still uncertain, as council members who've gone on record are split on whether to sue. Keith Young, Sheneika Smith, and Brian Haynes all wrote in an op-ed for the Citizen-Times that the city has an obligation to sue given the results of the 2017 referendum. Vijay Kapoor, an initial opponent of districts, now supports the five-district map that will be used for next year's election. He's also offering the alternative of increasing council by two at-large seats, which would keep the five districts in place while allowing voters to still pick a majority of council (mayor, three at-large seats, and their district council member). Mayor Esther Manheimer has said she doesn't believe the city has a strong legal case. Julie Mayfield and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler have yet to offer definitive statements on the issue.