The North Carolina Senate passed a controversial bill Wednesday night that splits Asheville into six districts for the purpose of electing city council members. Senate Bill 285 is similar to one put forward by Hendersonville Republican Senator Tom Apodaca. It would change the way voters choose city council members by creating six districts with voters allowed to choose only in their districts. The mayor would still be elected at-large. Apodaca’s bill died when a number of Republicans joined Democrats in voting no. Now Apodaca’s successor, Republican Chuck Edwards, is trying again.
Senator Chuck Edwards: “Folks in Asheville, shortly after my being elected, started to come to me, originally from south Asheville, and said ‘This system is simply not working for us.’”
Though he too is from Hendersonville, Edwards represents a small part of south Asheville, a region of the city that rarely has a representative on City Council.
Edwards: “Asheville has grown to the point that it now has… or actually some time ago I would say… should have realized the responsibility to put government closer to those citizens. The only way to do that is through district elections.”
Unlike Apodaca’s bill, which also mandated district lines, Edwards’ bill directs the city to draw the boundaries. However…
Edwards: “In the event that they chose not to follow the law, which I would not expect would be the case, then at the next session, the General Assembly would have the responsibility to draw these districts.”
Senator Terry Van Duyn: “I think this bill is totally unnecessary. The city of Asheville, the mayor, have taken Senator Edwards’ threat seriously and they are moving forward with a plan to put on the ballot in November a referendum.”
Indeed, Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer and the city council are moving forward with a referendum, a plan that would be complicated by this bill, since the boundaries are instructed to be drawn before Asheville voters would head to the polls.
Van Duyn: “What Asheville wants to do is they want to let their city have a say in how they address this problem.”
Van Duyn says because Edwards is dismissing those steps by the city, it feels to her and many others in the city that there is another agenda at play than geographical representation,
Van Duyn: “And that agenda is not so much the way we elect our city council, but the individuals that are on our city council. We are not electing the right kind of people. So this feels punitive to me.”
Van Duyn was making a not-so-subtle reference to a perception that the bill’s purpose is to elect Republicans. South Asheville is considered one of the likelier, if not the likeliest part of the deeply blue city to elect a Republican. She said the will of the voters should be respected, and pointed to a poll the city commissioned asking Asheville residents for their take, in which 72% said the issue should be put to a referendum. Edwards blasted the poll as unscientific and said a referendum would be too complicated because residents would need to be asked more than just a yes or no question.
Edwards: “In a case like this with an issue so complex, a referendum simply will not work. How do you put that on a ballot?”
To which Van Duyn said, ‘easy.’
Van Duyn: “You know it would be a very simple matter to give the voters of Asheville a choice. Would you like a six district city council, or would you like a hybrid four and two? That’s not rocket science.”
In the end, Edwards said the General Assembly created Asheville and it has the authority to govern it.
Edwards: “The General Assembly gave Asheville the authority to grow from that square mile that it took up in 1797 of 1/10th of one square mile, to ten square miles in 1935, to now 45 square miles.”
But Van Duyn says the General Assembly should respect local governments.
Van Duyn: “Although it is true that the General Assembly created the city of Asheville, and we have the power to do this, that doesn’t mean we should use that power.”
But use that power they did. The bill passed by a vote of 34-15 and heads now to the House. But it’s the House where Apodaca’s bill failed just last session.