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Wake, Greensboro Redistricting Plans Head To NC Senate Floor

Wake County

At the Capitol, two controversial redistricting bills are heading for debate on the Senate floor. One would modify the boundaries for Wake County Commissioner seats. The other would change the maps for Greensboro City Council districts. Supporters say these measures improve representation. Opponents want state lawmakers to leave local governments alone.

One by one, citizens rose to speak inside of a windowless room Tuesday afternoon in Raleigh. Dozens of  Wake County and Greensboro residents addressed proposed measures that would almost certainly change the makeup of two local governing bodies.

"That you have this power to make this decision for the citizens of Greensboro is an unfortunate aspect of our state government, but it is a power level that you don’t have to pull,"said Anna Fessemeyer of Guilford County.

"I believe the secrecy and speed of this bill reeks of partisan gerrymandering that has already taken place across this state. And this bill undermines the votes of a large majority of Wake County residents," said Richard McCrae from Raleigh.

The two joined a majority who spoke out against Senate Bills 36 and 181 during a public comment hearing. The first of those measures was introduced by Trudy Wade, a former Greensboro City Councilwoman. Currently the council has nine seats. Her proposal would leave it with fewer.

"It’s a seven district plan with the mayor-at-large, is non-partisan and it is fair, equitable and legal," Wade told a Senate Committee.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 181 was introduced by Republican Chad Barefoot of Wake. His plan would grow the group. 

"So this bill increases representations from seven to nine. One of the new member districts will represent the city at large. The other new member will represent the county communities," explained Barefoot.

He says it also moves away from an at-large system to a district system which increases geographic diversity. The Wake county maps should look familiar to any political junkie because they are derived from the controversial new boundaries for the Wake County School board, which were approved two years ago – and are still in dispute in court.  Supporters of the bill say it adds representation to underserved rural areas. Opponents are quick to note that this proposal creates nine districts, five of which would lean Republican. They say the move is purely partisan.

"Lets call this what it really is: it’s a rouse. It’s gerrymandering. It’s divisive because it attempts to solve a non-existent problem while exacerbating partisanship," Patty Williams said.

In Greensboro, any resident can vote directly for 55-percent of the members of the council or five out of nine seats. Senator Wade’s bill would remove some of the Mayor’s voting power and residents would be left voting for one of seven district seats, or 14-percent. Democratic Senator Ben Clark challenged the bill's sponsor on that point:

"So effectively it sounds to me like we’re diminishing the voice of the citizens of Greensboro by moving from the current system to the new system. Is that an accurate perception?" Clark asked.

"Well I would say it’s not diminishing the voice of the citizens because each representative would have one vote in their district and the mayor would vote in a tie," Wade responded.

Wade is a former colleague of Greensboro mayor Nancy Vaughan. She spoke at the committee hearing as well, calling the legislation a solution in search of a problem. The cries against these measures were not unanimous. 

"So finally let me say the current structure hasn’t worked in over two decades. So what’s the risk in trying something a bit different? I wanna see Greensboro led back to prosperity. Give it a shot, let ‘em breathe," Jim Lewis contended.

"In sum, we all deserve to be heard; not just today in this committee hearing. But every day on the Wake County Commission so please, I urge you to vote yes on Senate Bill 181 for more diversity, more representation, and higher accountability," said Cammie Mueller.

The Wake County measure was fast-tracked last week and citizens had less than two hours notification before the first public hearing. There were multiple calls for voter referenda to decide both measures. One lawmaker even introduced an amendment to the bill allowing for voter referenda but it was promptly voted down. The measures now head to full Senate for further debate where each is expected to pass.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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