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Council Calls upon District Advocates to Self-Identify

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Asheville City Council focused on how to engage residents in district elections for the last formal meeting.

By Leslee Kulba – On Asheville City Council’s agenda for their last formal meeting was consideration of how to engage members of the public in assessing the will of the people on the matter of district elections. Mayor Esther Manheimer introduced the topic with a brief history. During the last session of the General Assembly, then Senator Tom Apodaca introduced a bill to divide the city into districts for the purpose of electing members of city council. The bill failed, and subsequently members of the local delegation had let the mayor know the concept would be recycled this year.

Under state law, municipalities may be divided into districts for the purpose of electing representatives either by a vote of the elected board, by a referendum, or by an act of the legislature. Manheimer said some of the latter actions have been successfully stricken down when subject to legal challenge. Council was going to consider whether municipal revenues should be spent on hiring a pollster to conduct a scientific survey to gauge public interest in being districted, but Senator Chuck Edwards, who replaced Apodaca, sent the mayor an email that afternoon.

It read, “It has come to my attention that it is the intent of the Asheville City Council maybe as early as tonight to conduct discussions of the possibility and mechanics of partitioning the city into districts for the purpose of municipal elections. I applaud the openness of the council to engage this topic. I further understand that the matter may be tabled and no actionable items may take place. Having learned this, and out of respect for the time and possibly the monetary resources of your council, I wanted to inform you of my intent to soon file a bill in the senate that will require Asheville to conduct district elections. It will also provide that six will be the number of required districts. It will offer some flexibility for your council to determine the geography of the districts. I am open to realistic conversations as to the timing of the requirements. I am confident that this measure will pass both the senate and the house. As a courtesy, I am informing you of this intent with the hope that your discussion may revolve more around how to district and forgo the discussion of should we district. My actions are the result of trends taking place in municipalities as well as a great deal of feedback from citizens in Buncombe County.…”

Manheimer interpreted the message as, “I’m going to do it whether your community says yes or no.” She, and everybody else on council, would end up voting in favor of moving forward with the survey anyway. After Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler referred to Raleigh inserting its will over that of the people as “extremely disappointing,” Councilor Gordon Smith offered, “Disappointing is an understatement. I think that this is more of the same kind of overreach, ignoring municipalities’ self-determination in order to have affirmative-action for Republicans in the City of Asheville. I do wonder what happened to that core conservative value about local control, because it appears to have evaporated. If you’re willing to simply ram something through, saying you don’t even want to know what people think, I ask you whether you’re serving as a representative of the people or not.”

Councilor Julie Mayfield recalled a meeting she had had with Edwards about a month ago. “He said that he was continuing to get calls, and I made the comment to him, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I haven’t gotten any phone calls, and I haven’t gotten any emails.’ And I think I’m probably speaking for most of us up here. And so to the people who are advocating for this, what I would say is: Let us know. Pick up the phone. Our phone numbers are on the website. Send us an email. You can send all of us an email with one email address. We need to hear from you who you are and why you want this.” She said the only emails she gets on the subject ask, “’Why are we even having this conversation.’”

Pat Thobe was the only member of the public to comment. She said a good survey would require respondents to listen to the contents of an information sheet before they decide if they’re for against district elections; too many men on the street are uninformed. “We know on the national level districting is a very manipulative strategy, and I don’t think Asheville got where they are today by having manipulative strategies.” The city’s brand is all about inclusivity, but, she said, “The very [phrase] dividing Asheville into voting districts is divisive. All of a sudden, we’re going to have people with interests here and interests there, and where is the unity in the community?”

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