The mayor of Greensboro said Friday that she plans to look at legal options after the General Assembly abruptly changed the makeup of the City Council and threw this fall’s elections into turmoil.
The law that passed Thursday came days before the scheduled start of candidate filing, leaving candidates and election officials scrambling in the state’s third-largest city.
“It’s really ironic on the eve of July Fourth we have our ability to self-govern taken away,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan said.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who opposed the bill, called it “shameful.”
“Clearly this was not something the city of Greensboro wanted,” she said Friday. “And they could do it to any municipality.”
It was the second time this year the Republican-controlled legislature has waded into local politics. In April, it redrew Wake County commissioner districts in a way that appears to favor Republicans. Thursday’s measure changes the makeup of the council in Trinity, a Randolph County town of 6,600.
In 2011, GOP lawmakers changed county commissioner boundaries in Mecklenburg, Guilford, Buncombe and Lenoir counties. And over the years, lawmakers in both parties have stepped into local government.
Sponsor defends changes
In Greensboro, the City Council now has three at-large and five district members, all nominally nonpartisan. The mayor has a ninth vote. Each voter can cast a ballot for five people, a majority of the council.
Under the changes, the council will have eight district members and none at-large. The mayor will vote only in the case of a tie. Six incumbents will be pitted against each other in three districts.
Thursday’s passage carried its own drama.
Lawmakers didn’t see the final version of the bill until a day before the vote. The House initially narrowly defeated the measure, first introduced in the Senate. After recessing to caucus, Republicans forced a second vote, which passed. Two Mecklenburg County Republicans – John Bradford of Cornelius and Charles Jeter of Huntersville – changed their votes and helped it pass.
In March, Jeter had told the Greensboro News & Record that he would oppose the bill unless it included a referendum. He couldn’t be reached Friday.
Thursday’s approval came over the strong objections of Republican John Blust of Greensboro.
“The Senate was so adamant about this, and everyone has business before the Senate that you care about and are working on hard,” Blust told colleagues. “Most of you do not represent Greensboro, and I bet 95 percent do not care about this issue.”
Senate sponsor Trudy Wade, a Greensboro Republican, said she first introduced the measure at the request of some citizens.
“I was contacted by people who felt they weren’t adequately represented, and it wasn’t adequate representation geographically,” she said Friday. “The demographics had changed.”
Asked how, she pointed to the growth of minorities. For example, African-Americans, who made up 34 percent of the city’s 1990 population, accounted for 40 percent in 2010.
Black incumbents pitted against each other
Under the new plan, each of the four African-American council members is in a district with another black member. And three majority-minority districts have populations higher than other districts. Critics say that effectively dilutes the votes of minority voters.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, told reporters the new districts pack black voters into two districts to minimize their impact in the other districts.
Allison Riggs, a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, calls the law “arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
Anna Fesmire, co-president of the Greensboro area League of Women Voters, said the legislation is “beyond outrageous.”
“If this could be done in Greensboro against all the opposition,” she said, “then it could be done anywhere.”
Wade, the Republican sponsor, said the change will spur voter participation even if it creates short-term discomfort.
“Every time there’s a change it creates some chaos,” she said. “Change is hard, and people have to adjust.” Colin Campbell of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.