Raleigh, N.C. — Fifteen people spoke out Monday on legislation that would change how members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners are elected, with most saying they were disgusted by the partisan nature of the bill and suggesting that the proposal be studied further before any action is taken.
State lawmakers from Wake County held a public hearing on Senate Bill 181 as part of their regular meeting. The bill is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday afternoon by the Senate Redistricting Committee – more public comment will be heard before the vote – and could reach the Senate floor by Wednesday.
The bill 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 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.
Under the current system, commissioners must live within geographic districts, but all county voters have a say in their election. Under the legislation, which would take effect in 2018, each voter would end up selecting one local district representative and voting for one of the two regional representatives.
Bill sponsor Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, said the changes would improve the representation on the Board of Commissioners, giving voters in rural sections of the county more of a voice.
Some residents with ties to eastern Wake County echoed that sentiment during Monday's meeting.
"Five of the seven commissioners live within the city of Raleigh," Frances George said. "Seventy-five percent of towns in Wake County don't have a single representative on the county commissioner board. ... Everyone needs a voice."
Dick Hilliard, who lives in north Raleigh, agreed that the needs of rural voters are different from those who live in the city and need to be reflected on the county board.
"The transportation system in this county is being decided by the county commissioners with little or no attention given to outlying areas," Hilliard said. "Giving attention to outlying areas makes sense.
The overwhelming majority of speakers, however, said Barefoot's bill was a solution in search of a problem.
"If the term representation implies my involvement in electing the person who will be doing the representing, then I will be going from having seven members represent me to having two," Brian Fitzsimmons said. "We can say all we want that this bill is increasing representation, but the facts do not back up that argument."
Several people questioned the timing of the proposal, which comes four months after Democrats swept Republicans off the Board of Commissioners.
"This thing is being raced through in the interest of really reversing the decision of the voters in 2014," said Harvey Richman of Cary.
"As a former social studies teacher who preached to my students day after day that we live in the best representative democracy in this world, I am appalled that we would use the kind of techniques being used to push through this piece of legislation," said Tom Benton, who represents eastern Wake County on the school board.
Some called for a bipartisan study committee to look at ideas to change the make-up of the Board of Commissioners or even put a proposal on a county ballot to ensure local voters get a say in any change.
Morrisville Town Councilman Steve Rao noted that a number of state lawmakers want an independent redistricting commission to draw congressional and legislative districts, and a similar effect could be used in Wake County.
Earlier in the day, the Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution opposing Barefoot's bill.
Chairman James West said the proposal would "fragment" the county.
"It's ridiculous for (the legislature) to even consider this bill," Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said.