By a vote of 33-16, the North Carolina Senate gave final approval Monday to Senate Bill 897. The bill changes the way Asheville elects its city council, moving it from an at-large system to one in which candidates would be elected in one of six districts. Bill sponsor Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville explained the bill after introducing it.
Sen. Tom Apodaca: "The reason this bill is before us today is because of concerns raised by citizens in south Asheville. The people in south Asheville can't remember the last time they had a representative on city council. If you look at the map on your dashboard, you will see that nearly every member of the current council lives in central Asheville or north Asheville. The best way to remedy the situation is to create a districting system for the city of Asheville."
Apodaca went on, addressing one of the most contentious parts of the bill, that he was doing it over the will of the voters of Asheville.
Apodaca: "I have been asked to consider allowing a referendum on this plan. I will not. And there's a simple reason why. If Asheville were allowed a referendum, I have no doubt the current council would work to defeat. The current council is satisfied by a system that suits their political interests while denying people who don't live in central Asheville a voice on the city council.
Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County blasted the measure. She, along with all members of the North Carolina House representing Buncombe County: Susan Fisher, Brian Turner, and John Ager, offered that suggestion as well as several others since news of the bill broke.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn: "Not a single one of our requests was considered. Nor were request made by the duly elected mayor of Asheville. That unwillingness to compromise has left many in Asheville, including myself, feeling like this bill isn't so much about finding a solution to a problem as it is retribution against the citizens of Asheville for electing the wrong kind of people."
Van Duyn, speaking for the frustration of the Asheville City Council members, the mayor, and the delegation, all who have spoken out against the bill, continued.
Van Duyn: We are elected to represent our districts, not rule them. And we are elected to represent all the people in our districts, not just the people who voted for us. Inviting the stakeholders to the table may slow down the process, but it preserves faith in the system.
But probably the most interesting exchange came next, when Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham also spoke against the bill.
Sen. Floyd McKissick: "This is another one of these bills where we're going in and redistricting local government without a request of the citizens that live there, without putting it to a referendum, without even the local body seeking this approval. I think frequently we're better off letting local governments come to us if this is the type of radical fundamental change we're going to make."
After McKissick spoke, he was criticized for speaking about the bill despite not living in Asheville, by Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), who ALSO doesn't live in Asheville.
Sen. Jerry Tillman: "Senator McKissick is a very varied individual, and I'm sure he lives in Asheville part of the time. I'm sure he does, Senator Apodaca. We are talking about a districting bill that involves Asheville. And I believe, Senator Apodaca, although you may be one of two of that delegation, I believe you keep pretty well with what goes in inside the city and outside the city. And I trust your judgment."
McKissick shot back.
McKissick: "I'd first like to state that both of my parents grew up in Asheville. My two oldest sisters grew up in Asheville. More importantly, since this bill was presented in the redistricting committee, I've heard from over 250 residents from the city of Asheville, all who oppose it.
Apodaca: "Senator Van Duyn, Senator McKissick and myself all have one thing in common. None of us live in the city limits of Asheville. Senator McKissick had family there. I actually represent 14,000 residents of the city of Asheville. So my 14,000 are quite a few more than the 200. And believe me, my office has heard more favorable comments than negative. So I recommend this to you: it's only fair that if you live in a particular place, you should know who you'd like to vote for, not who someone else wants you to."
Passage of the bill means it now moves to the House. Full audio of the Senate debate is below.