Asheville – The concept of a representative democracy that makes the heart swell in awe of the genius of the Founders is not generally predicated on the assumption that public servants in the halls of power will draw lines around their constituents to get their side the most winning votes. Unfortunately, in recent history, gerrymandering hither and thither has been the order of the day in Buncombe County, and North Carolina in general. Already, the arguments were lame before they were worn out, with one side claiming the boundaries will magically promote whatever the political catchphrases du-jour may be, and the other, of course, denying it.
Then, the Buncombe County Commissioners discussed the latest controversy at their October 5 meeting. The matter goes back before January, as forces organized to lean on Asheville City Council to change the way members come to serve on the Asheville City Schools’ Board of Education. Council had been appointing members, until a slate of popular candidates failed to make the cut. The city, of course, was powerless to authorize the requested transition to popular elections without action by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Representatives Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe), Brian Turner (D-Buncombe), and John Ager (D-Buncombe) drafted a bill in March that passed the House in May but stalled in the Senate. HB400 simply stated that, beginning in 2022, the existing board of five would begin transitioning to an elected body of seven, delays only introduced to accommodate staggered terms.
That seemed to rest silently with the public until August, when Senator Chuck Edwards (R-Buncombe) was featured in the news for sponsoring an amendment that had nothing to do with the Asheville board of education, but instead proposed changing the Buncombe County Schools’ board. Currently, the board of seven consists of a single representative from each of six districts and one at-large member. The constitution would remain the same. Currently, all qualified voters get to vote on representatives from all districts. The amendment (which appears as a duplicate “Section 4” in the text posted online) would allow only voters to vote only for candidates running in their district, as well as the at-large candidate. Candidates must also, as before, reside in the district they wish to represent.
This was sufficient to move the commissioners to adopt a resolution opposing the bill. It states, “The Buncombe County Board of Education has not requested a change of elections that would restrict the ability of voters to only vote for two of the seven positions on the school board.” During the public meeting, it was repeated that nobody on the board of commissioners had requested the change, either.
Other “whereases” were not germane to the concluding resolution. They included the number of students, schools, and subdistricts; a statement of the current method of seating board members; and nice thoughts, like, “public education is one of the most vital functions of local community governance,” and, “the taxpayers of Buncombe County invest more of their local taxes into public education than any other public service or infrastructure.”
Even though the amendment expressly states that this will be a nonpartisan election, Amanda Edwards was among the commissioners who referred to it as a partisan act politicizing the school board, and therefore children. She said she is a fellow of the Hunt Institute, which analyzes the intersectionality of education and public policy. She said new research is confuting conventional wisdom, often promulgated before Asheville City Council by citizen Jonathan Wainscott, that district elections promote equity and inclusion.
Only Commissioner Robert Pressley was opposed to opposing the amendment. He took up the arguments about knowing who your representative is and confronting him at the grocery store or while he’s mowing his lawn. He also said the districts were nuanced and could benefit from specialized representation. His peers disagreed on all counts. Commissioner Parker Sloan, for example, argued that Buncombe County had nowhere near the population of Chicago, where districts actually do make sense; and, furthermore, people in Buncombe County are more alike than they are different due to geopolitical separations.
On the General Assembly’s website, the amended bill appears as “Edition 4,” but a later “Edition 5,” which does not contain the amendment, also appears. This substitute version was adopted but referred back to the Rules Committee, where it sits. Edition 5 was posted and acted upon the day after the commissioners discussed the problem.
In Other Matters –
At their pre-meeting briefing, the commissioners received yet another COVID update. Buncombe County Health Director Stacie Saunders reported the numbers were going down, but precautions were still in order. Rifling through statistics, she showed a breakdown of case numbers by age group. Like other local government presentations, this one used what some might consider a statistical sleight of hand in its histograms. That is, readers typically expect intervals, for ease in comparison of the variable of interest, to be the same size. Instead, these intervals, age groups, were 0-17, 18-24, 25-49, 50-64, 65-74, and 75+. What was truly amazing was that the group spanning the most years, the 25-49 group, also had the largest number of cases. Imagine that.
Then, to better persuade the public, we learned the county was working on focused messaging, which in another era would be considered another term for propaganda. As an example, the COVID team aired a video clip of a minister who spoke of vaccination as the work of the Lord.