Let's Send a Real Message to Raleigh
Last week, I asked Council to think about this question: “What system best serves the average Asheville resident” as our guide to our decision on Council districts. Since then, I’ve continued to think about my own answer to this question.
We have a unique opportunity to improve access to and accountability of local representatives. I have two additional proposals to my suggestion to add two at-large Council seats: 1) adding an independent redistricting commission to redraw Council district lines after the 2020 Census and 2) term limits for Council members. Here’s how I came up with them and why I’m putting them forward for your consideration and support.
I closely followed the North Carolina General Assembly’s on-going redrawing of state house and senate maps prompted by a court order that found the existing maps a true gerrymander. (Common Cause sued the state in that case, but didn’t sue in the Asheville Council District situation – that should tell you something about whether Asheville’s districts are really gerrymandered as some still try to claim). During the process in the House, the base map for Buncombe County placed Representatives Susan Fisher and Brian Turner in the same district. Whereas other legislators in similar “double-bunked” situations worked out the differences among themselves, Brian and Susan agreed to have nonpartisan staff correct the maps.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise since Brian is a primary sponsor of HB69 which would establish a nonpartisan districting commission so that elected officials wouldn’t pick their own voters. He tweeted out, “As a primary sponsor of H69 ‘Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission’ I was proud to walk the walk by deferring to nonpartisan staff in the redrawing of District 116.”
I called Brian to thank him for backing up his words with action and, during our conversation, he told me something interesting. He said that back in 2016, when then-Senator Tom Apodaca tried to impose districts on Asheville, Brian introduced an amendment that would have created an independent redistricting commission for Asheville but it failed to gain enough support. Brian tried to do the same thing again when the current districts were enacted, and while his amendment was originally in the bill, the House stripped it out because they didn’t want to set a precedent for an independent redistricting commission.
That’s when it hit me. Why couldn’t the City of Asheville become the first city in North Carolina to have an independent redistricting commission draw its Council district lines after the 2020 Census? In addition to being the right thing to do for the average Asheville resident, what a statement that would make to the rest of the state. For those looking to send a message, I can’t think of a better one than for a self-proclaimed progressive city to “walk the walk” and be a true leader in North Carolina.
Regarding term limits, I’ve had several people claim that enacting districts may lead to a “ward boss” system where an incumbent would be consistently re-elected in that district in return for political favors. Some of these people claim that I’m supporting districts because I want to create a South Asheville district (where I live) so that it will be easier for me to get re-elected than running at-large. Ok, fine. In the spirit of walking the walk myself, I’d support a two-term limit for the Mayor and Council members. Again, this would be best for the average Asheville resident.
So to summarize my entire position, here is what I’m proposing as an alternative to going back to the all at-large system:
- Keeping the current district maps for the 2020 election and setting an example for the state by having an independent redistricting commission draw them for the 2022 elections and beyond
- Adding two additional at-large seats to Council for a total of nine members including the Mayor so that we preserve the “pick three” system we have and allow each Asheville voter the ability to vote for a majority of Council
- Implement a two-term limit for the Mayor and Council members
On September 24th, as part of its regular Council meeting, City Council will have a public hearing on the proposed return to the all at-large system – the same system that has presided over the huge disparities we see between white and black residents and white and black neighborhoods. Over my objection, this meeting will be held at the U.S. Cellular center rather than City Hall. I objected because I know that many of you either watch these proceedings live on television or when they are rerun and the video and audio quality will be nowhere near as good as when we are in City Hall.
So what system do you think is better for the average Asheville resident? The system that I’m proposing or going back to an all at-large system or something else? Don’t just tell me, but tell the rest of Council. I remain committed to my promise of working to ensure that all neighborhoods have a greater voice in City issues and that every resident goes to sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued.
There’s still time for us to do the right thing for the average Asheville resident. If we have a March primary, the filing period for candidates will occur in early December and we can call additional meetings if necessary well ahead of this time to make the necessary changes. But we need to hear from you. Email all of us at AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov or call us at 828-259-5604 and let us know your thoughts.