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Reality Check: Why does the city seek a vote despite law requiring Asheville districts?

A state law now requires the City of Asheville to create six electoral districts for city council elections. The districts must be created by November or the state will step in and create the districts. Asheville City Council is two thirds of the way through the process required by state law to hold a referendum to create districts, and council members expect to vote on moving forward at its next meeting. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

A state law now requires the City of Asheville to create six electoral districts for city council elections. The districts must be created by November or the state will step in and create the districts.

Asheville City Council is two-thirds of the way through the process required by state law to hold a referendum to create districts, and council members expect to vote on moving forward at its next meeting.

State Senator Chuck Edwards, who proposed the legislation, says the referendum essentially allows voters a choice: Comply with state law or get districts anyway.

Sitting in South Asheville, if a problem pops up, retired dentist Joe Dunn feels like he doesn't have a city council member to call. He kept notes from a recent trip to Raleigh, where he asked legislators for districts.

"We've been after this for five years to get the city council to agree with this, and they've put us off. So, finally, we decided that our only other choice was to go to the legislature," Dunn said.

Chuck Edwards took up Dunn's cause and proposed the bill to change Asheville's elections.

"This is not a political issue. This is an issue clearly to get city council folks living in the districts of particular areas of the city.

Voters currently elect council members in city-wide and nonpartisan elections. The current council members don't all live in the same parts of the city, but none live in south or east Asheville. Edwards said his legislation aims to change that.

"I'm excited for the citizens of Asheville that they will get an elections system, finally, it appears, where they feel like they have a voice," Edwards said.

According to data provided by the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Edwards represents 36,590 voters in Buncombe County out of 143,355 total voters.

On July 25, Asheville City Council will vote whether or not to move forward with a referendum asking voters if they do, or don't want districts.

"What the most important thing about it is that the people that live here in Asheville have the option. They get to decide whether or not they want districts," Mayor Esther Manheimer said.

At the next Council meeting, Manheimer said members will talk about the state law, perhaps seeking legal advice in a closed session.

The law requires the city council to appoint a seven person independent commission, which would draw the districts by August 22. Representative Brian Turner proposed the amendment for districts to be created by an independent commission.

News 13 spoke with him in Raleigh:

If voters approve districts, Manheimer says there would be no reason for a legal fight, but if voters reject districts then the city could go to court.

"That's the only way I know of, at this point, other than asking the legislature to repeal it," Manheimer said.

Edwards said the city missed its chance to create districts.

"It seems unfortunate that every time somebody doesn't agree with a law that's passed, the next step they take is to spend the taxpayers money in arguing with that law," Edwards said.

Dunn wants moderate voices on the council like when he was there.

"I was on council from 2001-2005," he recalled.

Dunn was there serving as one of two Republicans. Buncombe County GOP chair Carl Mumpower was the other Republican on the council with Dunn.

"How much of the push in Raleigh is about trying to get a Republican on council," asked a News 13 reporter to Mumpower.

"That's exactly what it's about. This is not pleasant. Senator Edwards is leading the charge. This isn't pleasant for him. He's really serious about the idea we need balanced representation in Asheville," Mumpower said.

If districts are created, Manheimer said council elections will remain non-partisan.

One person spoke at City Council's public hearing regarding a referendum. That person spoke against districts. Edwards said he's heard from people all over the city asking for districts.

To confirm this, on June 13, News 13 sent a public information request to Senator Edwards asking for any emails sent, or received about Asheville districts.

UPDATE

Wednesday July, 13th WLOS received a letter in the mail from Senator Edwards, which you can read in full here. We have followed up to clarify what Edwards means by "Our office does not have any emails regarding 'electoral districts in the city of Asheville' that meet the definition of 'public record..."

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