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Referendum could lead to court battle over Asheville council districts

Asheville City Council is comprised of six council members and the Mayor, Esther Manheimer.

A bill requiring elections by district of six Asheville city council members is expected to pass a final vote Thursday at the statehouse in Raleigh. In Asheville, council members are making plans to take the proposal to Asheville residents for a vote this December. That could set up a potential showdown in court similar to the battle over control of the Asheville water company.

“I certainly think the water bill, to essentially take way control from the local government and allow the state to take control, I think that's a pretty significant parallel,” said councilwoman Gwen Wisler.

“We hear from Sen. (Chuck) Edwards that he hears from many people who are upset about our council,” said councilman Cecil Bothwell. “I haven’t heard from those people.”

Bothwell, Wisler and Mayor Esther Manheimer have all stated publicly Asheville City Council’s plan to write a referendum which will come in the form of a question to voters on the ballot in November asking city residents if they want council members to be voted in from districts rather than voted at-large, as they are now.

The district proposal bill introduced by Edwards, R-Henderson) would have voters in specific districts vote for a representative for their district to serve on council. The mayor would be an at-large seat.

State Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, is supporting the statehouse bill after introducing an amendment that would have a committee of Asheville resodents oversee the creation of the district boundaries. Turner thinks the district bill could pass possibly by Friday, although legislators could take steps to stall it.

“We've authorized the legal department to go ahead and create the language for a referendum,” said Bothwell.

The referendum, he said, would be reviewed at council’s next meeting, July 25. The specific wording for the referendum has to be to the Board of Elections by mid-August, which would be 2 1/2 months before the Nov. 7 election, where it would be placed on the ballot for Asheville residents to vote on.

“If the people of Asheville vote against districts and if the legislature votes for districts, its going to court,” said Bothwell. “Greensboro fought that and won not long ago based on equal treatment under the law. So, I don’t know why we wouldn’t win the same thing.”

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