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District elections? System rigged, proponents claim
Monday, 06 March 2017 12:34
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Accusations of a “rigged” system were voiced during “a panel investigation” into proposed district elections for Asheville City Council that drew about 50 people to an early-morning Feb. 10 issues meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

The panel discussion was intended by CIBO to address questions, such as “Do districts work?” “Are they fair?” “What are the pros and cons?” “How would districts be set-up?”

Panelists included Joe Dunn, spokesman for the Individual District Election Citizen Group; Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville councilman; Joe Belcher, District 3 representative on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners; Dusty Pless, former district representative on the Buncombe County School Board; and John Miall, former candidate for City Council.

Dunn’s citizens’ group, which he says is nonpartisan, has put together a petition asking the state General Assembly to mandate district elections for the six council seats in Asheville, while leaving the mayor’s post elected at-large.

He has said council is totally dominated by a “tsunami of liberal progressives” who have dominated city affairs for more than a decade — and that council needs at least one moderate voice. Dunn has contended that council members wants to hold onto power, so they never would vote to implement district elections on their own. Thus, he has said, the citizenry must look to the state, where he said at a Jan. 10 CIBO meeting, “The Republican legislature will get it done.”

In opening comments, Dunn said,  “In 1776, the colonies had a problem with representative government… I just keep seeing the argument that Asheville is too small” for district elections, leaving many citizens without representation on council.

“Really, too small for representative government?... In 2001, I was the last elected official from South Asheville (the city’s fastest-growing area) — and I was the top vote-getter... As I said, our city is not too small. Our present council will never support it. Just look at their history. I’m tired about hearing about diversity. It’s not there.”

Bothwell then said, “We, as a City Council, have decided to ask the citizens of the city of Asheville to make the decision on whether to split the city into political districts. Personally, I think it would be a mistake to split the council into districts... I don’t see that we’re treating parts of the city differently....

“I have a great deal of concern about the effects of districts over time — and that’s because districts tend to lead to gerrymandering… I think the at-large system is working pretty well for the city — and there’s a South Asheville candidate already for the next election.”

Miall said, “The truth is the system is rigged. I’d be glad to talk about my experiences with the local Democratic Party. It has all to do with a cabal that has a total lock on local government — and a complete lock on City Council.

“Perhaps a system with some at-large and some district seats might be equitable,” Miall said. “I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do know the problem.”

Speaking next, Pless noted that when he ran for Buncombe County Board of Education “it brought out a lot of confusion. Even the Board of Education would bode well for dstricts. It’d be a lot more cost-effective (for candidates), by far.”

Pless added that state Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, who was present at the CIBO meeting, “has to run in a district... It all boils down to a small electoral college... I hope the state legislature will take this up to force Asheville City Council to do this.” The final panelist to speak, Belcher, said, “I was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016, I decided to run several months before the elections in 2012. When I heard about the districts and saw the general layout of my district — the first thought that came to mind is that I know those people. That’s important.

“It was a lot more expensive to run for office that what I thought. It would be very expensive for me to (have had to) run countywide — probably four times what I spent in 2016. It’s on record (what Belcher spent). It was a pretty good bit. When I vote, I vote for the good of the entire Buncombe County, but I also particularly vote for the people of Leicester,,,,, I think it makes a difference to see a face they know,” Belcher noted.

The meeting then was opened to questions, and Dunn was asked about big cities versus small cities for district elections. 

“Asheville is not too small” for district elections,” Dunn said. “When I ran for council, I had to spend $60,000. That’s a lot of money. That’s why a lot of people don’t run. It’s intimidating.”

At that point, Asheville Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler stood up and said she did not have a question, but felt compelled to reiterate — “on behalf of council” — as “Cecil said — that we want to listen to the voices ... and all the voices” in deciding whether to split the city into political districts.

Vijay Kapoor, a South Asheville candidate for council, said, “I heard a lot of people in South Asheville with concerns about how someone from South Asheville gets elected to council. There’s been some concern about Balkanization,” a process that can result from the division of a region into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or uncooperative with one another.

“I worry about the creation of turf wars,” Kapoor asserted. “That said, I think it is worth looking at. I think at this point every member of city should be able to vote for every council seat.”

Kapoor then asked, “Is the concern more about geographical issue or the political issue?”

Belcher replied, “We’re professionals in what we do. It’s not just happenstance. We are elected to represent everyone…. We don’t go in and just represent our neighbors, but our neighbors know us and they feel comfortable approaching us.”

Bothwell added, “The question is whether the interest was more geographical or political… The plan that (former state) Sen. (Tom) Apodaca (R-Henderson) tried to push on us was clearly political. .. It was exactly drawn to eliminate some council people. Whoever is in power tends to gerrymander, so I think it’s clearly political.”

To the same question, Mial said, “I was successful in raising $250,000, but what you’re up against! I was called on the carpet by the party chair, who said there are two Democrats running for the seat and we will be neutral.” However, he said the party ended up supporting his opponents.

“To answer your question,” Mial said, “Asheville is already very segmented, but the system is controlled by about 6,000 to 7,000 people who are very hard-core.”

Dunn then interjected, “Look at the voter turnout in recent elections. The people in my area feel we don’t have a prayer. Our voter turnout is terrible. The City Council represents about 12 or 13 percent of the voter segment. I do believe frustration abounds in the suburbs. I don’t beleive it’s all political — it’s just a lack of representation.”

Under the current system, Pless asserted, “The only way it works, the only way it changes, is that, in South Asheville, we have a candidate and South Asheville people get out to vote for that candidate. Otherwise, nothing changes. I’d like to see the school board go that way (to district elections), too. It would be cost-effective and a lot more people might run.

“The only way it works is if you get to vote for the person in your district and the mayor.”

CIBO member Mac Swicegood, who normally askes tough questions, instead made the following comment: “If I’ve got a pothole and you’ve got to drive across that pothole, it doesn’t matter where you live. I thank each and everyone of you for being here.”

To another question, Miall noted, “As I said, I know the problem, but I’m not sure where the answer is. There’s got to be a better way to get a broader representation of ideology in our community.”

Belcher added that “you’ve got to live in that area to be able to represent it.”

Dunn said, “I think it’s basically representation. I know some of it is political. But it’s mainly geographic. It’s about representation, which is what our democracy is built on, plain and simple.”



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