by John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives
Once the Short Session ends in the General Assembly, any hard-fought-for bill that does not pass is sent to the trash heap of failed legislation. Therefore, the last week, and especially the last day, can be full of political trickery and dubious arm-twisting. Under the pressure of time, someone’s pet bill can get brought up and escape proper scrutiny. It is often sausage making at its worst.
One such bill was Senator Apodaca’s Asheville City Council Districting bill. Currently, all Asheville city council members are elected “at large,” with no specific districts. In North Carolina, as cities grow, they often go from at-large voting to either all districts or more often a combination of districts and at-large. There are a lot of options. Some say a district candidate loses sight of the big picture in their governance. And some make the argument that there must be an effort made to bring representation to all parts of a municipality.
My own view is that there is certainly an argument for district voting, but any new election system needs to be aired out by all who are affected. Senator Apodaca wanted to create six districts, against the wishes of the Asheville City Council and four members of the General Assembly who represent Buncombe County. There was going to be no referendum. There was no local input on the geography of the maps. It was once again a powerful Raleigh legislator dictating policy to Asheville.
After meeting with Senator Apodaca to view the map, and expressing displeasure over the process, the political fight was on. When the bill (SB 897) was filed, it was as a local bill, with the stipulation that it was non-controversial and had the support of all the legislators representing Asheville. Senator Apodaca signed that certification in the bill jacket. When brought to his attention, he called it a clerical error, and reintroduced it as an elections bill. (He was the Rules Chair.) He routed the bill through a Senate Districting committee and scheduled it for a Friday morning. The discussion was sparsely attended but Senator Van Duyn and I spoke vehemently against it. It passed on a party vote, as it also did on the Senate floor. It was a political train that was going to be hard to stop.
This bill was sent to the House, read in and assigned to an elections committee. A good debate took place in committee and once again it passed on a party line vote. Next stop was the House floor. Interestingly for me, several days elapsed before it was listed on the House calendar for what was the last day of the Session. Perhaps it was hoped that legislators would consider the merits of the bill with less scrutiny under the pressure of time running out. My own expectation was that Senator Apodaca, for whatever reason, wanted this bill passed so badly that he was willing to hold House bills hostage. How many House members even cared much about elections in Asheville?
On the evening of July 1, SB 897 came before the NC House for consideration. Susan Fisher, Brian Turner and I all had amendments to the bill to try to make it more palatable to our constituents. First, Representative Fisher wanted to add a provision that a referendum by Asheville voters would be required before implementing the new voting rules. My amendment would have reduced the districts from six to three, with three other members voted on at large. The district maps would be drawn locally. Finally, Representative Turner introduced an amendment to set up a local commission to design the districts in hopes of avoiding a gerrymander. All three amendments were voted down mostly along party lines. As far as I was concerned, the writing was on the wall for SB 897. Senator Apodaca had his votes lined up, and there was little that could be done to change the momentum.
Full consideration of the bill was now before the House. Representative Fisher said she was going to channel Senator Martin Nesbitt and blast away at the way this bill was being managed. I followed with a factual list of reasons why this bill should be voted down. To be honest, I felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
And yet, something remarkable took hold among our Republican colleagues. One by one, they began to denounce SB 897 — on moral grounds, on the fear that Raleigh was once again being a bully, and on the grounds that rules were being broken. When 24 Republicans voted against this bill, jaws dropped all over the General Assembly, including mine. The final vote was 47 to 59.
However, there was still a backdoor way to include the Asheville bill in another bill that the House wanted passed. As it turned out, no such fix could be agreed on. The Senate adjourned, and on the last day of the General Assembly, the most talked about bill was the Asheville bill. It was truly a bipartisan victory, and went a long way to restoring my faith in the institution.
John Ager’s Contact:
NC House of Representatives
16 West Jones St, Room 1004,
Raleigh NC 27601-1096
John.Ager@ncleg.net or firstname.lastname@example.org
628-2616 / 713-6450 cell NCleg.net