So, Raleigh is at it again. The state legislature never tires of meddling in what ought to be strictly local business. This time they are planning to send more of our sales tax dollars to rural parts of the state. Before that, they stripped Asheville of the right to govern its water system and its airport. A new piece of legislation would require state permission just to add a bike lane to a city street.
This sorry state reflects the state Constitution, which says that cities have zero powers of their own except what is given to them by the state. That leaves Asheville – and every other city in North Carolina – saddled with two unsatisfactory legislative bodies, one that has too much power for its own good (the state legislature), and the second that has too little (the city council.)
What is really bothersome is that this arrangement is nothing more than an accident of history. If we had known from the start how the country was going to unfold, we would never have designed a system of governance that works this way.
In 1776, when the original 13 colonies changed their name to “states,” cities were small specks on a mostly rural landscape. New York City, for example, was about the same size as Shelby, N.C. (pop. 20,000) is today. Boston was significantly smaller than modern-day Boone. And Philadelphia, which then was the largest city in the nation with 40,000 people, was half the size of present-day Asheville.
Since then, the U.S. has become mostly citified. The Industrial Revolution touched off a century-long migration from the “country” to the cities and then to the suburbs around them. At the time of the Revolution, for example, one out of 12 New Yorkers lived in New York City. Today that city is home to 8.5 million people, almost half the population of the state.
The growth of metro areas is even more startling. Metro areas mirror the cultural, social, and economic effects that ripple out from cities and impact populations far from the city’s borders. The Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metropolitan area covers 10 counties, including three in South Carolina. Though Charlotte proper is just over 800,000 in population, the area that it affects includes more than 2.5 million people.
Cities have replaced states as the focal point of our lives, even if our politics don’t reflect that fact. We may reside in North Carolina, but our lives are lived in Asheville, and Charlotte, and Wilmington, and Waynesville.
So, the political problem for Ashevillians, and for every other community that suffers from a lack of home rule, is that we are stuck trying to manage our affairs and build our future with a system of government that precedes the Revolutionary War.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times are not only a-changing, they have long-since changed. It’s time we caught up to our future.
Terry O’Keefe is an Asheville-based writer and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for the Asheville Citizen-Times.