Reality Check: Why is Asheville waiting to draw required council districts?

If the referendum results go against state law, the issue could be decided in court. (Photo credit: WLOS)

A state law passed in June requires the city of Asheville to draw city council districts by Nov. 15. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city has all the information and resources it needs to draw districts, but she and two other council members said districts will not be drawn before election day.

"We strongly believe that this is a citizen's of Asheville decision, not a Raleigh decision," said Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler.

"I think, if we're going to go to districts, it needs to be by the decision of the people in Asheville, not by a decision in Raleigh," said Council Member Cecil Bothwell.

"City council hasn't moved ahead with drawing districts because the voters have not voted on the issue yet," said Manheimer.

With a state imposed deadline 49 days away, council members want to see what voters think before drawing districts. On Nov. 7, Asheville voters can, in a referendum, say whether or not they want council districts. So, it's possible state law will require districts, while Asheville voters may choose otherwise.

If it comes to that, Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper expects the judicial system to get involved.

"I think we're in uncharted territory here, kind of a game of chicken between the city of Asheville and the General Assembly, and we're going to have to have a referee, probably the courts, come in and decide," explained Cooper.

"If the voters vote against the districts we will take the state to court," said Bothwell.

Wisler hopes for a less contentious resolution.

"I would hope that the legislators in Raleigh would rethink the law and maybe back off of the requirement to draw districts," said Wisler.

If voters choose to have districts, the city would have eight days to comply with state law.

"As we've seen with the state recently, it's quite possible to draw districts quickly if needed. It is not optimal," said Manheimer.

"The truth is, we almost would certainly miss the deadline, but, as a practical matter, there isn't a city election for two more years. So, it isn't like we need them on the 15th," said Bothwell.

Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-District 48, proposed the legislation.

"While I would never expect that the Asheville city leaders would consciously choose not to follow state law and offer all their citizens the opportunity for representation in their local government regardless of where they live, I included the following provision in Senate Bill 285," Edwards said, pointing out the law says if districts are not drawn by Nov.r 15, then the General Assembly would draw them in its regular session.

Legislators usually go back into session in the spring, but they could return for a special session.

"I don't think they'd call a special session to come back in and draw districts for Asheville, but it wouldn't surprise if they went ahead and implemented the law, which means drawing districts for us," said Wisler.

"I don't think it would be crazy at all. I think it would be likely, if anything, that the General Assembly would come together for some sort of a special session if we don't have a clear resolution of this issue," said Cooper.

The three council members said, if they need to draw districts, they'd like an independent group to draw them. The law requires six, single-member districts. The referendum can only ask voters if that's what they want.

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