N.C. committee hears pros and cons on Senate Bill 36

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N.C. committee hears pros and cons on Senate Bill 36

By Amanda Lehmert/News & Record amanda.lehmert@news-record.com

Mar 5, 2015

RALEIGH — The Senate’s Redistricting Committee heard passionate pleas Thursday afternoon from opponents and supporters of the bill to restructure Greensboro City Council.

Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) made her first, brief public explanation of Senate Bill 36, which will create a smaller council with no at-large representatives and a non-voting mayor.

Wade argued that the proposed seven-district system would encourage more people to run for office, cut down the costs of local political campaigns and provide better representation across the city.

“(It will) allow that elected official from that district to be more accountable to the people,” Wade said.

Senators listened to the public comments for nearly an hour without debating the merits of the bill. Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) said the committee will vote Tuesday whether to support the measure. If approved, it would then go to the full Senate for consideration.

The council has five members elected from districts and three members and a mayor elected by the full city. Under the proposed system, the city would be divided into seven districts and each voter would have a single representative. The mayor would only vote in rare instances.

Proponents of the bill — who have mostly been quiet in the local debate about the legislation — were better organized Thursday than they have been in the month since Wade filed the bill.

The eight Greensboro residents who spoke in favor of the bill included prominent Republican former Mayors Bill Knight and Robbie Perkins, Councilman Tony Wilkins and former Democratic County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston, a long-time Wade ally .

They backed Wade’s argument that her proposal would provide better representation.

They said the current system allows power to be concentrated in the northwest part of the city, an affluent, politically active region. Five council members live in that area.

“(Wade’s bill) gives all the people all over the city a representative that they can reach out and touch,” Perkins said.

Thessa Pickett, a Greensboro resident, told the committee the current system is “unjust.”

Wilkins said the result is that taxpayer-funded projects “on the outside of the power loop are delayed fairly regularly.”

“We’ve waited 10 years to get a park in District 5,” Wilkins said. “The new system that you have I think is a more fair representation and I believe it would lead to a more fair distribution of tax-funded projects.”

Bill opponents only slightly out-numbered supporters. They included former Councilwoman Goldie Wells, local Democratic activists, UNC-Greensboro students and representatives from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Several questioned the way the district lines were drawn.

Greensboro resident Tim Moreland II said the districts seemed arbitrarily drawn. Wells said she was concerned that the new lines would split the precincts around N.C. A&T and Bennett College between several districts, something she worried would decrease the power of black voters.

Jim Saintsing, a Greensboro attorney, asked senators to reject the bill since it would exempt the city from a law that lets local municipalities determine the makeup of their governing bodies.

“Why is Greensboro being singled out for this treatment? There is not a reasonable answer,” he said.

Dylan Frick, a UNCG student, said the bill’s purpose is “to limit the power and the voice of Democrats,” something Wade denies.

“It’s evident. No one is naive enough to think that this bill encourages a nonpartisan system or doesn’t advance the will of one party — the party of Mrs. Wade, the party of Mayor Knight, the party of Mayor Perkins,” Frick said.

After the meeting, several Republican committee members wouldn’t indicate which way they are leaning on the legislation.

“Right now, I’m just listening,” said Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover). “It was interesting to hear from both sides today. I plan to do some research on my own.”

Democratic committee members Sens. Erica Smith-Ingram and Floyd McKissick said they have concerns about the bill.

“I haven’t seen a compelling reason to reduce the representatives from nine to seven,” McKissick said. “I get concerned when you talk about reducing the level of representation.”