Stunner at the Legislature as AVL District Bill Defeated

Jul 1, 2016

In a stunning defeat, the North Carolina House voted down a bill that would have made changes to the Asheville city council.  Senate Bill 897 was introduced by Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Henderson County, over the strong objection of the entire city council and all other state lawmakers representing Buncombe County.  Apodaca is considered one of the most powerful lawmakers in the General Assembly.  But this bill went down by a vote of 48-58. 

The bill was defeated in what appeared to be a reversal by many members of the chamber after heated debate that lasted an hour and twenty minutes.  Three amendments brought by Democratic Representatives Susan Fisher, John Ager, and Brian Turner, all of Buncombe County, were voted down.  Fisher called for a November referendum giving the citizens of Asheville the choice.  Ager called for creating 3 districts and 3 at-large races.  Turner called for independent redistricting.  Each amendment failed, and it seemed as if the bill would prevail.  But debate continued after the votes, with one speaker after another registering their support or rejection of the bill.  Several Republicans spoke forcefully against the bill.  Republican Rep. John Blust of Guilford county was so adamant in his opposition that he was told to "lower his volume."  Other Republicans voicing their opposition included Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern and western North Carolina Rep. Josh Dobson, who represents Avery, McDowell, and Mitchell Counties.  

As the debate wore on, it appeared that many members were swayed by the argument that Apodaca was forcing a bill that Asheville didn't want, as every lawmaker from Buncombe County watched their amendment to change the bill go down.  Each spoke passionately and bluntly against the bill, and after the third amendment failed, Rep. Fisher spoke out in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to appeal to the rest of the chamber before other lawmakers started weighing in.  Hear the full report above.

Full audio of the debate is below.

Updated: 6/30 1:42pm:  A bill making changes to Asheville’s City Council has cleared another committee, this time in the House.  The House elections committee passed the measure over the strong objection of the only committee member from Asheville.  WCQS’s Jeremy Loeb reports.

At the start of the committee meeting, it was clear that this bill was not coming from Asheville.

“The chair was asked to announce to the committee that the City of Asheville through its representation to the General Assembly wanted to go on record as being opposed to this bill.”

That was a point seconded by the bill sponsor, Republican Senator Tom Apodaca, who represents a sliver of south Asheville but is from Hendersonville.

Senator Tom Apodaca: “I’d like to say upfront at the beginning of my remarks that the local delegation, other than myself, is not in favor of this bill.  So I want that out front.”

As he did before the full Senate when they gave approval to the measure, Apodaca introduced his plan to divide Asheville into six districts for the purpose of electing city council members.

 Apodaca: “8 of the 10 most populous cities in North Carolina use some type of districting system to elect their city councils.  Asheville would become the 9th.”

Speaking to a Republican-dominated committee, Apodaca found instant support from his party colleagues, including Representative Paul “Skip” Stam of Wake County.

Rep. Paul Stam: “When any kind of geographic area is a large population like that, the at-large representation is a bad idea because it submerges minorities and doesn’t allow their voice to be heard.”

But Apodaca would not find any support from Democratic Representative Susan Fisher, the only member of the committee that actually lives in Asheville.

Rep. Susan Fisher: “None of the rest of our delegation in the House were asked to talk about it, or the city asked to talk about it before this map came up.”

Fisher took issue with the assertion that the current at-large election system was preventing representation from certain parts of the city.  Apodaca says constituents he represents in south Asheville can’t remember the last time they had a member on council.

Fisher: “No one has ever been prevented from running.  No one has ever been discouraged from running.  A person who wants to run for office has every right and should be able to run for office, no matter what the office is.  From anywhere that they live, they should be able to run.  And the qualification for city council is that you live in the city limits of Asheville.”

Fisher continued.

Fisher:  “The one thing that will happen with this is you will create an atmosphere that results in ‘turfdoms,’ where instead of representing the city as a whole for the good of all the people, all the residents that live in the city, you’ll be creating a situation where people say this is MY section of the city and I don’t care what the rest of the city wants or needs. I’m only representing MY section because I ran from MY district.”

Apodaca had a response for that. 

Apodaca: “I want to thank Representative Fisher for making the case for ‘turfdom.’  If you’ll look at this map, right here is where the current city council lives.  All of them, is this little area right here.  So, we have ‘turfdom,’ and here it is.”

Fisher wasn’t backing down.

Fisher: “It’s really incumbent upon us as the creators of cities and counties not to come off as authoritarian in our ‘parenting’ of our cities and counties.”

But while Democrats may have been on Fisher’s side, Apodaca clearly had the numbers.  Republican Representative Michael Speciale of New Bern:

Rep. Michael Speciale: “I don’t like stuff like this coming up at the last minute.  However, it does sound legitimate that they should have representation by district.”

And Republican Representative Jon Hardister of Greensboro registered his support as well.

Rep. Jon Hardister: “It can be very difficult to hold an at-large member accountable, whereas in a district the area is smaller, and I believe you can develop a more personal relationship with the person who represents you on the council.”

With the numbers clearly against her, Rep. Fisher was left with only a blunt warning for the rest of the committee members.

Fisher: “This is something that can happen to you, and if you care about your city and the fact that the legsiatlure can come along and tell your city what to do, at any time, for any reason, I would hope that you would vote against this bill.”

The bill passed by a vote of 17 to 9 and moved to the full House.  After the vote, Apodaca was asked for any last words.

Apodaca: “Well the good news is this is probably my last House committee in my legislative career.  I know y’all are disappointed.”

For WCQS News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.   Full audio of the committee debate is below.

Earlier in the week, by a vote of 33-16, the North Carolina Senate approved Senate Bill 897.  The bill would need to get through the House committee and the full House before lawmakers finish their business.  That could happen this week.  WCQS's Jeremy Loeb reports.  

The bill changes the way Asheville elects its city council, moving it from an at-large system to one in which candidates would be elected in one of six districts.  Bill sponsor Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville explained the bill after introducing it.  

Sen. Tom Apodaca: "The reason this bill is before us today is because of concerns raised by citizens in south Asheville.  The people in south Asheville can't remember the last time they had a representative on city council.  If you look at the map on your dashboard, you will see that nearly every member of the current council lives in central Asheville or north Asheville.  The best way to remedy the situation is to create a districting system for the city of Asheville."

 

Apodaca went on, addressing one of the most contentious parts of the bill, that he was doing it over the will of the voters of Asheville.

 

Apodaca: "I have been asked to consider allowing a referendum on this plan.  I will not.  And there's a simple reason why.  If Asheville were allowed a referendum, I have no doubt the current council would work to defeat.  The current council is satisfied by a system that suits their political interests while denying people who don't live in central Asheville a voice on the city council.  

 

Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County blasted the measure.  She, along with all members of the North Carolina House representing Buncombe County:  Susan Fisher, Brian Turner, and John Ager, offered that suggestion as well as several others since news of the bill broke.  

 

Sen. Terry Van Duyn: "Not a single one of our requests was considered.  Nor were request made by the duly elected mayor of Asheville.  That unwillingness to compromise has left many in Asheville, including myself, feeling like this bill isn't so much about finding a solution to a problem as it is retribution against the citizens of Asheville for electing the wrong kind of people."

 

Van Duyn, speaking for the frustration of the Asheville City Council members, the mayor, and the delegation, all who have spoken out against the bill, continued.

 

Van Duyn: We are elected to represent our districts, not rule them.  And we are elected to represent all the people in our districts, not just the people who voted for us.  Inviting the stakeholders to the table may slow down the process, but it preserves faith in the system.  

 

But probably the most interesting exchange came next, when Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham also spoke against the bill.  

 

Sen. Floyd McKissick: "This is another one of these bills where we're going in and redistricting local government without a request of the citizens that live there, without putting it to a referendum, without even the local body seeking this approval.  I think frequently we're better off letting local governments come to us if this is the type of radical fundamental change we're going to make."

 

After McKissick spoke, he was criticized for speaking about the bill despite not living in Asheville, by Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), who ALSO doesn't live in Asheville.  

 

Sen. Jerry Tillman: "Senator McKissick is a very varied individual, and I'm sure he lives in Asheville part of the time.  I'm sure he does, Senator Apodaca.  We are talking about a districting bill that involves Asheville.  And I believe, Senator Apodaca, although you may be one of two of that delegation, I believe you keep pretty well with what goes in inside the city and outside the city.  And I trust your judgment."

 

McKissick shot back.  

 

McKissick: "I'd first like to state that both of my parents grew up in Asheville.  My two oldest sisters grew up in Asheville.  More importantly, since this bill was presented in the redistricting committee, I've heard from over 250 residents from the city of Asheville, all who oppose it.

 

Apodaca: "Senator Van Duyn, Senator McKissick and myself all have one thing in common.  None of us live in the city limits of Asheville.  Senator McKissick had family there.  I actually represent 14,000 residents of the city of Asheville.  So my 14,000 are quite a few more than the 200.  And believe me, my office has heard more favorable comments than negative.  So I recommend this to you: it's only fair that if you live in a particular place, you should know who you'd like to vote for, not who someone else wants you to."

 

Passage of the bill means it now moves to the House.   Full audio of the Senate debate is below.

 

The following is a previous report on a committee hearing on SB897: 

 

 

The bill would make changes to the way Asheville City Council members are elected.  It's heading to the full North Carolina Senate.  Senate Republican Tom Apodaca introduced the bill that would split Asheville into six districts, scrapping Asheville’s system for at-large elections.  Apodaca says he’s heard from his constituents in South Asheville who say they aren’t being represented on the city council.  No one on the 7 member Council is from that area.  The controversial bill came before the Committee on Redistricting.  The Committee is dominated by Republicans, who in recent years have made changes to a number of municipal governments over the objections of local representatives, primarily Democrats.  In this case, Senator Apodaca is hoping to force the changes despite unanimous opposition from the Asheville City Council, and all other state lawmakers representing Buncombe County.  Democratic Senator Jane Smith from southeastern North Carolina brought that up to Apodaca in the committee meeting.    

Sen. Jane Smith: “My only concern is that we seem to continue to be going into local areas and telling them what to do, even if they don’t necessarily want that.  Would you be open to having a referendum from the citizens of Asheville to see whether they would be willing to support that?”

Apodaca said no thanks.

Sen. Tom Apodaca: “Like I said in my remarks, I never heard anything from Asheville until this bill was proposed.  And I think what you would find, Senator, is if you look at this map and you see the consolidation in the center, that it would not give fair representation to District 1, District 4, and District 6 where no one is serving.  So I think the fairest way, and it’s hard to argue, that if people live in an area, why can’t they elect their representative from that area?  And I think this is the fairest way to make sure there is representation and I’m hard-pressed to see a reason it isn’t.  So I guess the short answer is, no, I don’t think that’s the way we need to go.”

Republican Senator Ralph Hise, who represents six counties in western North Carolina, had praise for Apodaca. 

Sen. Ralph Hise: “Being near the area I’ve also heard lots of complaints about the Asheville council and its failure to represent many of the people that live in those communities that’s coming in.  And I Just want to comment that when individuals are currently serving and have a tremendous advantage in being elected as is obvious in this case, I hate to make them the arbiters of whether or not we should make any changes on it when they’ve developed a system that obviously benefits them in that process.  So I thank you for working with Senator Apodaca all these years and I’ll tell you it is your voice that I trust on the city of Asheville.”

But though Apodaca had support from his colleagues, Democratic resistance continued.  Senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County said there could be some advantages to having a district election.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn: “But there’s also some advantages to electing a council that can look holistically at the entire city and keep the best interests of the city in mind.  And I believe that is in fact the way Hendersonville elects their city council.  Now they happen to elect a Republican city council, and I won’t speculate as to whether that’s an important criteria in this.”

Apodaca had a response to that.

Apodaca: “I think Hendersonville is less than 10,000 people, if I’m not mistaken.  Asheville is up around 90,000 to 100,000.  So as it gets larger, it’s harder for the districts or the areas to have their voice heard.”

But Van Duyn said the idea should be up to the residents in the specific community.

Van Duyn: “I think this should be a local issue.  Senator Apodaca has received lots of input?  I, quite frankly, have received none.  In fact until this issue was brought up by Senator Apodaca, I had never receieved one single request for a change in the way the city of Asheville elects its city council.”

The opposition wasn’t done yet.  Also attending the meeting was a Democratic member of the House representing Buncombe County, John Ager.

Rep. John Ager: “897 has no place in the last minute agenda of the short session and it has no business being crammed down the throats of the citizens of my county.  It represents nothing less than one more example of overreaching being visited upon our local government by the legislators of Raleigh.  I was elected in large part because of past meddling in our local affairs and I join with the citizens of other local governments in our state to say enough is enough. Mandating district elections by the North Carolina Senate is politics at its worst.”

After Ager, the last speaker was Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer, who made the trip to Raleigh, and as she noted, not for the first time.

Esther Manheimer: “This is the 4th time in my 6 ½ years of serving on the Asheville City Council that I’ve come down to this legislature to speak in committee.  And each time I’ve come down here, it hasn’t been to ask you for something.  It’s been to ask you not to do something.  And I’m doing it again.”

Manheimer asked the committee to vote down the bill and that if it didn’t, to at least allow a referendum.  But her pleas fell on deaf ears.  The committee chairman Senator Bob Rucho called for a voice vote.

Sen. Bob Rucho: “All in favor, please say “Aye.”  Opposed “Nay.”  “Ayes” have it.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate.  After the vote, WUNC reporter Jorge Valencia caught up with Senator Apodaca, who WCQS has been trying to speak with for over a week.

Jorge Valencia: “This objection that the mayor has, that the other members of the delegation have.. the city didn’t ask for this, so why do it?  What’s your response to that objection?”

Apodaca: “That’s the exact reason we should do it.  Sometimes when a government body doesn’t ask for something, it needs to be done.  (laughs) How’s that for an answer?”

For WCQS News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.  

***WUNC reporter Jorge Valencia spoke after the committee meeting with Sen. Tom Apodaca and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer.  Those interviews are below:

Updated 6/24 10:50am:  On a voice vote, the Committee on Redistricting passed SB897 and sent it to the full Senate.  The vote came over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, who complained that Asheville didn't ask for the bill and doesn't want it.  Senator Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) said she hasn't heard any groundswell of people wanting the change.  That sentiment was echoed by Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who noted that it's the fourth time she's come to the General Assembly to ask them "not to do something."  Also speaking was Democratic Representative John Ager of Buncombe County, who called the bill "politics at its worst" and "another example of legislative overreach."  Bill sponsor Republican Senator Tom Apodaca, who represents a part of southern Asheville, shot down the idea of a voter referendum, saying it wouldn't achieve the desired results.  Senator Ralph Hise, another western North Carolina Republican, said the city of Asheville had created an unfair system and so they shouldn't be the ones who get to decide how to fix it.  Several lawmakers protested the idea of Raleigh mandating legislation for local governments.  During the hearing, the committee also took up a bill switching Transylvania County School elections from non-partisan to partisan.  Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham asked Apodaca whether the school board had asked for it and whether they were in favor of it.  Apodaca replied they were opposed to it.  Hise said local authorities only have authority granted by the General Assembly.  That bill also passed the committee on a voice vote.  Full audio of the hearing is below (joined in progress during comments from Sen. McKissick)

Updated 6/243 7:04am: Republican Senator Tom Apodaca's Senate Bill 897 has been referred to the Committee on Redistricting chaired by Republican Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County.  The committee is scheduled to meet to consider the proposal this morning (Friday) at 10am.  Apodaca and Republican Senator Ralph Hise of western North Carolina are members.  Hise declined an interview request from WCQS, but said he would support whatever Apodaca proposed.  Rucho referred all questions about the bill to Apodaca, who WCQS has been unable to reach since news of the bill emerged.  Of the twelve members of the committee, just four are Democrats.  Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham says the proposal should have come from the people and elected representatives of Asheville if they wanted districts.  His full comments are below. 

Updated 6/22 7:30pm:  Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville has filed a bill that would impose district elections for the Asheville City Council.   He's doing so over the objections of the entire Asheville City Council and all other state lawmakers representing Buncombe County.  Apodaca represents part of south Asheville.  WCQS spoke with a member of Apodaca's office this morning but was told he would be in meetings all day.  We have yet to hear directly from him, despite repeated calls and e-mails.  In a story published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Apodaca says he's heard from residents of south Asheville who complained they haven't been represented on city council.  The Citizen-Times obtained a map nearly identical to one published a week ago on this website that was obtained from Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County.  The other lawmakers representing Buncombe, all Democrats, had been told by Apodaca they would have 48 hours to comment on the map.  All of them objected, but the latest map shows little, if any, change, and the bill does not call for a city referendum on the issue or give the issue of drawing the map to an independent body, as called for by council members and other lawmakers.  The Citizen-Times found the map would lump 5 of the 7 current Council members into 2 districts, forcing the elimination of at least 3 members right off the bat.  The bill would take effect in January. 

Updated 6/20 6:30am:  In an interview with Carolina Public Press, Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville says he wants to roll out changes to Asheville city council this week.  The plan would scrap Asheville’s current at-large system for electing council members in favor of districts.  In that same interview, Apodaca said a map of 6 proposed districts for the city published by the Asheville Citizen-Times was a draft version and not yet complete.  WCQS also published the map, which it got from Democratic state Senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County.  Van Duyn said the map was shown to members of state legislators representing Buncombe County by Apodaca.  They say he gave them 48 hours to offer comments.  All members of the delegation expressed opposition and said it appeared Apodaca intended to go forward with the plans without their support.  The Asheville City Council, including Mayor Esther Manheimer, are unanimous in their opposition to the plan. 

The Citizen-Times analyzed the map and found it would eliminate almost half of the current members of council.  five of the seven current council members would have to square off against each other in just two districts, meaning 3 of the 7 members would be eliminated automatically.  The state legislature has the power to regulate cities.  Since Republicans took over all branches of state government, they’ve made changes to a number of municipalities, including Buncombe and Wake County and the Greensboro City Council.  WCQS attempted to reach Senator Apodaca last week for comment, but we were unsuccessful.  However, other lawmakers in the meeting with Apodaca say the reason he gave for making the changes was that he was hearing from constituents of his in South Asheville, who expressed frustration that they have no one from their area on the city council.  

Updated 6/16 1:10pm:  WCQS has made multiple efforts to reach Senator Tom Apodaca regarding his proposal for Asheville City Council, including multiple calls and emails to his Raleigh office.  Meanwhile, WCQS has heard from every other member of Buncombe County's legislative delegation to Raleigh, and have spoken with Asheville's mayor, Vice Mayor, and multiple city council members.  Everyone we have spoken to, all Democrats, oppose the idea.  Apodaca is a Republican.  We are updating this story with comments from Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and councilman Gordon Smith.

Original Story Posted 6/15: 

A proposal from Senator Tom Apodaca, Republican of Hendersonville, would change the way elections for the Asheville City Council are conducted.  Sen. Apodaca met with lawmakers from Buncombe County Tuesday about his idea to create six districts for the city.  Council members would be elected based on the vote in that particular district, rather than the current city-wide vote method.  The mayor would continue to be elected by a city-wide vote.

WCQS reached out to Sen. Apodaca's office but was told he was busy in meetings.  His office has not responded to an e-mail request for information regarding the proposal or an interview request. 

We did reach several lawmakers representing Buncombe County in the state legislature, Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn and Democratic Representatives John Ager and Susan Fisher.  Van Duyn blasted Apodaca for not consulting them or allowing for a conversation with the affected parties.  Ager said he asked Apodaca whether he expected their support, and that Apodaca said he didn't, and that he shot down the idea of a voter referendum or independent districting commission.  Fisher called it another example of the state unnecessarily exercising control over local governments.  Each of their full comments are below.

Asheville city councilwoman Julie Mayfield said she knew little about the proposal but that she was opposed to the idea.  She said Asheville was a small enough city that council members should represent the whole city, not just one district, and that she would prefer to see the issue put to the voters of Asheville in a November referendum if the idea is to move forward.  Her full comments are below.