Hearing on Wake redistricting bill takes opponents by surprise
Posted March 5, 2015
Updated March 6, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Members of the public got their first say Thursday about a bill that would redraw Wake County's Board of Commissioners districts, if they found out about a Senate Redistricting Committee meeting in time.
Senate Bill 181 would add two commissioners to the current seven-member board. It would also redraw districts to align with the school board districts that were put in place by the legislature in 2013. That new configuration, as detailed in documents handed out during the committee meeting, would include two regional districts, one of which would be focused on the urban core of Raleigh and the other which would take in the outlying areas of Wake County.
"This bill gives my constituents and all Wake County residents a much-needed voice within their county government," Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, told the committee. "Citizens from suburban and rural communities ... work hard and contribute greatly to our tax base, yet have virtually no representation on the board. That's just not right."
Under the current system, commissioners must live within geographic districts, but all county voters have a say in their election. Under the new system, each voter would end up selecting one local district representative and voting for one of the two regional representatives. That arrangement, Barefoot said, would make representatives more accountable to their constituents, particularly to voters in rural areas.
Democrats say that, rather than a rural-urban split, Barefoot has partisan concerns on his mind. This bill comes mere months after Democrats took control of all seven seats on the Board of Commissioners.
"I urge opposition to this bill because it doesn't reflect the will of Wake County citizens," said Commissioner Matt Calabria. "It seeks to gerrymander the districts for partisan purposes."
Little warning given
No vote was taken on the bill Thursday. The public's next opportunity to weigh in will come on Monday, when Wake County's legislative delegation holds a 3 p.m. meeting at the Legislative Building.
The Senate Redistricting Committee will next meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Those who wish to speak at that time can register to speak online. Chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said he plans to take a vote on the bill then. The measure would then go to the Senate floor.
"Sen. Barefoot's bill is a way to give power back to its citizens," said J.T. Knott Jr., an 88-year-old former Wake County commissioner. "I truly believe Wake County is the garden spot of the world, and this bill that's before you ... has the means to keep it that way."
Knott's remarks were typical of speakers on behalf of the bill, who said that rural Wake County needs a bigger voice in county affairs, ranging from funding of the school system to rural land regulation issues.
Opponents of the measure, including members of the current Board of Commissioners, focused as much on process as substance Thursday. They said both the bill and the committee hearing were sprung on them with little warning.
"I just learned about it (the bill) last evening," Board of Commissioners Chairman James West told the committee.
West said legislators were rushing through a measure that would have lasting consequences for the county.
"I don't think we've had enough time to look at this bill," he said. "I think it needs further study."
The bill came as a surprise especially because West and other county officials met with Wake County's legislative delegation earlier this week, according to Commissioner John Burns.
And as for Thursday's hearing, Burns told the committee neither commissioners nor other opponents had much advance notice.
"I found out about this meeting as I was on my way to an important meeting at the Belk Arena at Davidson College," Burns said, a joking reference to a college basketball game scheduled for Thursday.
While the committee meeting has been scheduled for several days, it was initially noticed as a hearing only on a proposed redrawing of Greensboro City Council districts. Public notice that the Wake County bill would be on the agenda didn't come until 11:36 a.m., less that two hours before the meeting.
Some of those who spoke apparently did get a somewhat earlier heads up.
"I knew last night after a supporter called me," said Frances George, an early backer of the bill, when asked when she found out about the public hearing.
Asked if supporters of the bill got early notice of the hearing while potential opponents did not, Barefoot said, "I'm not in charge of the committee."
Pressed as to the timing and whether supporters got an early heads up, Barefoot shot back, "These aren't supporters of the bill. These are the people who are the reason the bill was initially drawn up."
Debate over accountability
The substantive debate over the new districts boils down to whether the existing seven-member plan or the new nine-member plan provides better representation.
Greg Flynn, a Democratic activist who is the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the school board districts upon which the new commissioner district lines are based, likened the maneuvering behind the bill to the political drama "House of Cards."
"Please leave my school board and my commission alone to go about the business of making up for the deficiencies in your (state) government," Flynn said, adding that the lawsuit challenging the school district is still before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
After the meeting, Barefoot pointed out that suit was on appeal because a federal judge had dismissed it and let the districts stand.
"I support Sen. Barefoot's bill because I believe this is a better process," said David Cozart, of Wendell. "It will allow us to have more accountability between our county commissioners and the residents of eastern Wake County."
Opponents of the map pointed out that Cozart might not get that local representation he's looking for under the proposed plan. Wendell would be in the newly drawn county District 1, which would sweep from near the county's southeastern edge outside of Garner, take in Wendell and Zebulon before turning west and running along Wake County's northern border through Wake Forest and to the New Light area near the Granville County line.
While there are some areas of the county that lack a commissioner living nearby, County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said that would be the case under either plan and is not unusual.
"There are counties in North Carolina (where) a senator doesn't even live, such as Franklin County," Hutchinson pointed out, making a subtle dig at Barefoot, whose district runs from southeastern Wake County north and then encompasses all of Franklin County.