ASHEVILLE – On the day that was its deadline for submitting redrawn voting districts to the General Assembly for approval, Asheville’s city government notified Raleigh that it would not be doing any such thing.
Armed with a referendum victory, Asheville is defying the state’s redistricting order.
“The city of Asheville does not intend on adopting district maps or doing anything further on this matter,” City Attorney Robin Currin told lawmakers in a letter.
Asheville’s flat refusal to comply with Senate Bill 285, which ordered the city to divide itself into six voting districts, each to be represented by a single city council member, is the newest development in the ongoing antagonism between the state’s comparatively conservative, Republican-controlled legislature and one of its most aggressively liberal municipalities. (Asheville’s mayor and council members are all Democrats.)
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The city’s defiance was bolstered by the results of a November 7 referendum in which voters rejected the districting idea by a margin of 3 to 1. The referendum was held despite SB 285’s directive to have its districts drawn by November 1, and to submit maps to house and senate leadership by November 15.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, who sponsored SB 285, called the referendum “a sham” and pledged to enforce the law, which he said Asheville is now violating.
After heading off a similar redistricting measure authored by former Sen. Tom Apodaca last year, the Asheville council indicated it would “look into” redistricting on its own.
“But they did absolutely nothing, said John Miall Jr., a member of a group called Neighbors for Asheville, which is pushing for redistricting. “They never intended to think about it. Then SB 285 passed and they had four months to do what it said. They haven’t. They’d like this to go to court so they can score some cheap political points.”
Miall, a former long-time city employee who ran for mayor in 2013 and for council in 2015, said the council “is thumbing its nose at the law” and dismissed Mayor Esther Manheimer’s claim that the referendum’s lopsided rejection was a true mandate.
In all 15,589 Ashevillians voted on the referendum, 11,704 against redistricting and 3,885 for. “There are 92,000 people in Asheville and 60,000 registered voters, so that’s no mandate. It’s the tyranny of the minority,” Miall said.
At present the mayor and all council members are elected “at large,” meaning that all city voters may vote for all nominees, without regard for location. For at least the past dozen years council has been dominated by members from the leafy, old-money enclave of North Asheville. That, Miall’s group says, has created a “ruling cabal” relentlessly pursuing its own agenda. At present the North Asheville faction includes Manheimer and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, both of whom were just re-elected.
Manheimer points to the election of Vijay Kapoor, a businessman from under-represented South Asheville, as proof the at-large system works and redistricting is unnecessary. Kapoor, who spent more campaign money than any other candidate and received the most votes, was endorsed by Manheimer.
Manheimer, a property rights attorney, has said the city has “a strategy” in place for confronting the legislature, if necessary, over its refusal to redistrict itself. That strategy, critics say, doubtlessly involves yet another taxpayer-funded court fight.
The city spent more than $1 million defending its water system against an NCGA takeover in 2014-16 and is presently embroiled in a lawsuit with two private citizens over the legality of $74 million dollars’ worth of general obligation bonds that were approved by referendum last year.