Asheville Districts Bill Passes; Legislature Gets Win in Long Power Struggle With City

Jun 29, 2017

The long-debated Asheville districts bill is now law.  The North Carolina House passed the bill forcing districts for Asheville city council members, and the Senate quickly concurred.  It passed despite the lone Asheville Democrat in favor withdrawing his support after it was amended.

Senate Bill 285 requires Asheville to create 6 districts for city council members.  It had been opposed all along by Asheville city council members, the mayor, and Buncombe County Democrats.  They’ve argued the legislature shouldn’t be meddling in local politics, especially with all the Representatives in Asheville opposed.  But bill sponsor, Republican Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville, announced recently that Asheville Democrat Brian Turner would offer his support if an amendment calling for the creation of an independent commission to draw the maps was passed.  Here was Edwards speaking about Turner in a House committee.

“He intends to introduce a friendly amendment on the House floor in order to gain his support.”

And when it was presented just days ago in the House, Hendersonville Republican Chuck McGrady, who was presenting the bill in the House, urged his colleagues to support it.

“Colleagues this is a friendly amendment.  I appreciate the fact that Senator Edwards and Representative Turner were able to work on this together.  Having a sort of third body look at this and try to figure these lines and make these things contiguous is a good, and so I recommend the amendment to you.

His colleagues listened, and voted overwhelmingly for it, by a vote of 102-11.  And the bill passed with Turner’s support.  At that point, the bill looked like it was on to the Senate, but then Rules Chairman David Lewis abruptly objected to a final reading of the bill.  And a day went by without the districts bill on the calendar.  Fast forward to yesterday and Lewis offering a further amendment giving the city more flexibility on how to draw the lines, in effect giving the city the choice on whether to use independent districts.  And why?  Perhaps the argument could be made that 102 Representatives had gone on record supporting independent redistricting.  And that could be used to push for it statewide, or in other jurisdictions.   In any case, Turner said the new amendment would essentially give the city council a choice on the matter.  Where Turner would have required an independent body, Lewis lets the council decide how they want to draw the districts, including adopting an independent commission.   But Turner urged the House to defeat Lewis' amendment.  And McGrady?  This time he took no position.

“I think it’s been fairly stated, both sides of this argument.  I’m just carrying this bill.  And my position would be for you to just vote your conscience on this.  There’s a lot of good arguments that can be made on both sides.”

It passed 56-49.  Here was Turner’s response. 

“This really, in my opinion, violates what I have been working on with the bill sponsor and what the bill sponsor had agreed to those months ago.  Because this no longer meets my requirements, and the criteria that had been agreed upon, I am withdrawing my support for this bill and I would ask you to please vote no.”

McGrady said he sympathized with Turner’s position, but…

“This will be going back to the Senate for concurrence, and we’ll see whether the bill sponsor feels the same way Representative Turner does, but we need to move the process on, and we need very much to do redistricting.”

And with that came the familiar pleas from the other Asheville Democrats.  Here was John Ager:

“Please slow-walk this intrusive bill back to the barn and let Asheville finish its referendum process.  Just a few more Reps doing the right thing can stop this Raleigh overreach.”

And Susan Fisher:

“I would appreciate you relieving the General Assembly from taking this parental role with regard to cities in our state, cities who, like Asheville, are doing a darn-good job of adding to the economic viability of the state, of doing their own governing, and doing it well.”

Those pleas fell on deaf ears.  The final vote was 63-47 in favor.  And in the Senate, Edwards urged quick passage of the House’s changes.  By a vote of 31-12, the bill was law.  Governor Roy Cooper cannot veto a local bill.  Now the ball is in the city’s court.  They could comply with the law or, if they see fit, go to the courts.

EXTRA:  Brian Turner discusses the stripping of his amendment in a blog post, in which he calls on the Asheville city council to lead by example in creating an independent commission to draw districts.

BPR has extensively covered the Asheville district bill story since Tom Apodaca filed the original bill in the last session, documenting just about every public hearing and committee meeting in full.  To see how the story progressed over time, see the links below.  

CORRECTION:  A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Lewis' amendment removed Turner's.  In fact, Turner's amendment remains in the bill.  However, the Lewis amendment effectively made the independent commission optional.