Several bills altering the makeup of local governments are working their way through the current General Assembly session, raising charges by liberal advocates and pundits that the GOP-led legislature is maneuvering to give Republicans a foothold in local governments that now are under Democratic control.
While one bill would reduce the size of the Rockingham County Board of Education, and another would reduce the size of the Trinity City Council, the measures generating the most controversy are bills that would affect two of the state’s larger cities, Raleigh and Greensboro.
Wake County commissioners now represent seven geographic districts, but voters countywide elect each commissioner. Senate Bill 181, sponsored by Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, would increase the size of the Wake County Board of Commissioners to nine members and realign the districts to coincide those of the county’s Board of Education.
Seven of the nine school board members represent geographic districts and are elected by voters living in their districts. The two other districts divide the county in half. (One district basically covers the city of Raleigh. The other comprises the rest of the county.) Voters choose one school board candidate from their geographic district and a second from the “at large” district in which they live.
Arguing for his bill on the Senate floor, Barefoot said his proposal would provide better representation for Wake County citizens. Representation is too concentrated in Raleigh with the districts drawn as they are now, he claimed.
“Seventy-five percent of towns in Wake County don’t have any representation on the county commission,” Barefoot said. “This bill gives my constituents and all Wake County residents a much-needed voice within their county government.”
Opponents claim Barefoot’s bill is merely a Republican power grab.
At the very least, any attempt to restructure local government should be decided by local citizens by referendum, argued Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. “The local communities ought to decide the policy decisions that affect their lives,” Stein argued.
The Senate passed Barefoot’s bill by a 31-16 margin. By a similar 33-15 margin, the chamber also passed Senate Bill 36, sponsored by Sen. Trudy Wade, a former Greensboro City Council member. Wade’s bill would restructure the Greensboro council by reducing its members from nine to seven. All members would be elected from redrawn districts, with only the mayor elected at large. The mayor also would no longer vote, except to break a tie or when voting to hire or fire the city manager and the city attorney.
Wade did not respond to a request for an interview but has said publicly that her bill would provide Greensboro residents — especially minorities — with better representation, a notion disputed by some council members.
“You’re going from having five people representing you to one person representing you,” council member Marikay Abuzuaiter said during the council’s March 17 meeting.
The vast majority of incumbent council members, some of whom would lose their seats should the bill become law, have expressed vocal opposition to Wade’s bill.
For its part, the Greensboro News & Record aggressively opposes the measure, hammering away almost daily with editorials and blog posts.
That stance has moved past the editorial page, as metro columnist Susan Ladd has used her space in the paper to rally opponents.
“Sadly, politics has become an irony-free zone,” Ladd wrote in her March 9 column. “How else could Wade decry the overreach of government, then use her power as state senator to deny the city its power of self-governance?”
Under the headline “A great example of rotten politics,” Ladd also criticized a perceived lack of adequate notice before Wade’s bill was taken up by committee. Opponents of Barefoot’s bill leveled similar complaints.
At its March 17 meeting, the Greensboro council took the only legal step available to fight Wade’s bill, passing an ordinance extending the terms of members of the City Council from two years to four years, and a resolution to hold a binding referendum on the four-year terms.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan pointed out that ordinance would preserve the current council structure — with five members elected from districts, three elected at-large, and a mayor with veto powers elected citywide — which has been in place for more than 30 years.
“We were faced with a dilemma,” Vaughan told Carolina Journal. “We wanted to preserve the 5-3-1, but how could we tweak it to make the change? So it would be to either go from two years to four years or change the year of the election. Those were the two options we could pursue to preserve the current structure.”
In a CJ phone interview, Greensboro City Attorney Tom Carruthers confirmed Vaughan’s statement that the ordinance change preserves the 5-3-1 system.
“The mayor’s comment is correct — the ordinance as adopted does not alter the 5-3-1 system — it reaffirms it,” Carruthers said. The ordinance change and the referendum “are not symbolic. They’re adopted pursuant to law,” he added.
However, during the March 17 meeting, council member Tony Wilkins — the lone supporter of the seven-district system — characterized the votes as a “legal ploy which I am not privy to.”
In other words, the ordinance change and scheduled referendum — passed while Wade’s bill was still working its way through the legislature — would serve as the basis for a court challenge should Wade’s bill become law.
In a later phone interview, Wilkins described the votes as a “legal maneuver,” adding “I don’t see how it preserves the 5-3-1 system.”
Wilkins also disputed the notion that Wade’s bill would result in watered-down representation for Greensboro residents.
“What services are [opponents] talking about that they say would not be addressed?” Wilkins asked. “I can’t imagine a council member not responding to a constituent.”
As of this writing, both S.B. 181 and S.B. 36 were working their way through the House of Representatives. Both are expected to pass, and since they are local bills, they do not require Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature to become law.
Carruthers says it’s unclear how Greensboro would respond if S.B. 36 become law, effectively making its ordinance and referendum votes moot.
“To the degree that there’s an ambiguity, council would have to decide the appropriate course to resolve that,” he said.
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.