Diversity showdown in Asheville: ‘Ruling cabal’ defies state over control of City Council

by WorldTribune Staff, November 19, 2017

The scenic mountain city of Asheville in western North Carolina is being torn by a power struggle over the political diversity of its City Council.

A North Carolina state senator said the city held what he called a “sham” referendum in order to preserve the City Council’s power after the state General Assembly passed a law this summer mandating the city be split into six districts with an at-large mayoral election.

Voters in Asheville on Nov. 7 rejected a referendum question asking if they wanted to impose the district election system for the City Council, the Citizen-Times reported.

Asheville, North Carolina City Hall

North Asheville voters, who as a bloc essentially control the City Council, are predominantly white and consistently vote in support of liberal causes and candidates, conservative critics charge. East, West and South Asheville are more racially diverse, more conservative, but less inclined to vote along partisan lines.

North Carolina’s Republican-majority General Assembly on June 29 passed a law (State Bill 285) mandating Asheville create a six-district system by Nov. 1, or the state would do it. That deadline has passed, so Asheville is technically in violation of the bill, State Sen. Chuck Edwards said.

Edwards said the Asheville City Council “doesn’t seem to understand what most ordinary citizens do – that following the law isn’t optional. For months, they have blatantly ignored the law, then organized and helped defeat a referendum in an attempt to preserve the status quo system from which they personally benefit.”

Edwards added that “despite the fact that they’ve wasted taxpayers’ time and money on a sham of an election that they knew would attract such a low turnout, it still does not change the law.”

Edwards also said Asheville is one of just two of the state’s 15 largest cities that have not changed their election charters to a district system.

Democratic State Sen. Terry Van Duyn, who represents most of Asheville, charged on her Facebook page that Edwards “is choosing to ignore his constituents” and instead “forcing his personal agenda onto Asheville.”

Van Duyn and other state House members who represent parts of Asheville fought SB285.

“Senator Chuck Edwards did not work to gain the support of myself and other legislators from the Asheville delegation. Instead, he pushed this bill through under the assumption that he knows best,” Van Duyn said in her Facebook post.

The Citizen-Times noted that the referendum asked whether voters supported the General Assembly-mandated six-district system in which voters of those districts elect only their council representative, while the mayor is elected in a citywide vote.

The City Council on July 25 voted unanimously to put the issue on the ballot.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the Nov. 7 referendum “is binding, so there is a question about what happens when you have a local (General Assembly) bill that requires districts, but you have a vote, using a statutory process locally, that says, ‘We don’t want districts.’ ”

The citizen group Neighbors for Asheville said in a statement that the current at-large system has resulted in a “monolithic, ruling cabal.”

The group noted that, with two new council members elected on Nov. 7, the city’s south will have representation, along with the north, west and central areas, though no council members will be from the east or far west.

Others said the change would allow conservatives to break up the progressive-dominated council.

Edwards also contends the city ignored their own poll showing “a clear majority of respondents agree single-member districts are a good way to ensure differing political views in Asheville have equal representation on city council.”

Manheimer said it’s clear Asheville voters do not want the state-mandated system.

“I think Asheville once again has sent a message to the legislature about how they feel about the legislature imposing their will on us,” Manheimer said. “That’s one of the issues we can actually determine on our own, and so we don’t need the legislature deciding how we’re going to elect representation in our city, and I think the voters are sending that message.”

In a letter to General Assembly leaders, Asheville City Attorney Robin Currin said the council could not draw districts as directed by Senate Bill 285.

“Based on the foregoing the City of Asheville does not intend on adopting district maps or doing anything further on this matter,” Currin said in the letter.

The council “thought it was important to allow the citizens to have a voice in how their City Council members are elected,” so the elected officials tied such a charter change to the result of the Nov. 7 referendum, she said.

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