Friday, June 07, 2024

Watauga’s Chance for Home Rule

 By Bricca Sweet, guest-posting

[Editor's Note: For additional background on the redistricting of Watauga's County Commission by Sen. Ralph Hise, see "Does Senator Hise Hate Watauga?" and "Watauga County Commission Sues Over Gerrymander"]

It’s ironic to write this on June 6, the 80th anniversary of D-Day. I’ve stood on the cliffs of Omaha Beach, imagining the grit and terror of the young men coming ashore and scaling those obstacles in the face of withering enemy fire, as they fought for the freedom of a people they didn’t know. Yet on Tuesday evening, I witnessed two of our own Watauga County Commissioners repeatedly reject the notion that Wataugans should decide for ourselves how we elect our county commissioners. Why aren’t they, safely in the comfort of a modern meeting room, fighting for our freedom?

The Hise map for Watauga County
Commissioner Districts

A little background. In the waning days of the 2023 General Assembly (late October), NC State Senator Ralph Hise quickly pushed through a "local bill," legislation specific to Watauga’s county commissioner election process. NC Statute 153A-22 -- proposed without ANY local input -- basically achieved three changes. First, Senator Hise redrew our five County Commission districts so that some of our voting precincts were split into three different districts and the population varied among the districts by well over five percent. Second, Senator Hise changed our voting process from one where we each voted for each commissioner candidate to one where we now can only vote for the candidate from our own district. Third, Senator Hise changed the election rotation basis from terms that depended on the amount of votes each commissioner received to a rotation based on the districts. Conveniently, three of the districts (3, 4, and 5) leaned Republican, and they will be up for commissioner election in 2024, while voters in the Democratic-leaning districts (1 and 2, the largest two districts, with a population of 22,696) can’t even cast ballots for commissioners until 2026. The newly drawn District 1 has no current commissioner residing within it. Commissioner Ray Russell resides in newly drawn District 2, yet his term expires in 2024.

This statute governs how Watauga’s County Commissioner elections will proceed for the 2024 election, unless there is a very expensive lawsuit on the part of the now disenfranchised voters in District 1 or 2. The June 4 County Commission meeting focused on how our elections should proceed in the future. Democratic Commission Chair Larry Turnbow proposed that a referendum be placed on our 2024 ballot, allowing Watauga voters to choose a map of three electoral districts for three commissioners who reside in each of those districts, while two additional commissioners can be elected at-large from a county-wide vote. Turnbow further proposed to seek the services of an independent professional map-maker to provide three proposed maps for the commissioners to consider in selecting one map for the referendum. He imposed these criteria in developing the maps: no use of current voter registration statistics (voter party affiliations); the districts must be equal in population; districts must be contiguous; and no voting precincts can be split. Commissioner Russell added that existing municipalities should be kept intact within proposed districts.

Chair Turnbow stated that the districts in Statute 153A-22, along with the rotation of elections for those districts, were imposed by Raleigh, and did not reflect home rule. All county commissioners have previously stated on record that no one in Raleigh, including Senator Hise, had consulted with them at all in developing these districts or the statute. None of the commissioners had any issue concerning within-district voting, other than the likely consequence of the commission becoming divisive and losing sight of county-wide issues. The ensuing discussion revolved around allowing Watauga citizens to choose how we vote via a referendum, as allowed by state law.

Republican Commissioners Todd Castle and Braxton Eggers repeatedly echoed that they liked the maps as drawn by Senator Hise. They offered no explanation of why they wouldn’t want Watauga voters to decide on district maps along with at-large commissioners. Democratic Commissioner Wallin expressed curiosity as to why, since the terms for Castle and Eggers are not up until 2026, yet the Hise redistricting put their seats up for election in 2024.  Again, there was no reasonable explanation for this. Incredibly, Castle and Eggers explained that they would stay on the commission regardless of the 2024 election. Obviously, if they each win their county commission elections, they would remain commissioners. Astonishingly, they argue that if either or both of them lose, they would then become commissioners for the new Districts 1 and 2. They argued that because they were elected at-large in the 2022 election, this was indeed representation. They couldn’t explain how this would be representation of districts that didn’t even exist in 2022, or how they could be considered commissioners for districts in which they don’t even reside. Neither Castle nor Eggers expressed any concern for the issues that voters from the new District 1 and 2 have over being excluded from the opportunity to vote for their county commissioners.

After all of this laborious and at times heated debate, Chairman Turnbow asked if there was any more discussion of the motion to put the proposed referendum on the 2024 ballot. Commissioner Eggers once again stated that he supported Senator Hise’s maps. The motion passed three to two, with the two Republican Commissioners opposed. It is beyond me to comprehend why there was so much furor over allowing Watauga voters to choose how we would like to elect our county commissioners. I thought that Republicans were all about local control. It’s a quandary.

The point is that we Watauga voters will now be able to exercise home rule in determining how we vote for our own county commissioners. The other bottom-line is that it sadly appears that voters from the new District 1 and 2 (population: 22,696) will likely have no say in their own representation until 2026. It’s vital that we make sure that our fellow voters understand the importance of voting YES on this referendum!


Wolf's Head said...

I'm looking forward to voting for a representative for my district that is not subject to election interference from Boone.

Red Hornet said...

Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is up in Raleigh though.

Anonymous said...

How is the election being interfered with from Boone?

Wolf's Head said...

Boone's politics are not the county's politics.

Why should someone in Boone vote for MY representative?

What's Good for the Goose said...

Wolf's Head: "I'm looking forward to voting for a representative for my district that is not subject to election interference from Boone." Me too, but under this Raleigh scheme, my district doesn't get to vote for who will represent us until November 2026. How is that fair?

Anonymous said...

Boone is in Watauga county too?

Anonymous said...

Good for the Goose, I agree that you should have the chance to vote for new representatives this year. I think it's because some of the commissioner seats are 2 year and some are four. But with the district changes every district should have an election to select a representative that better represents their district.

Anon 5:32, Yes, Boone is in Watauga, but it is incorporated and has a Town Council (spit), and the needs of a small town are very different than the needs of a rural district.

Anonymous said...

Small town citizens still pay Watauga county taxes?

Anonymous said...

If you do or don't, you still have representation on the County Commissioners.

County residents have no representation on the Boone Town Council. (spit)

Anonymous said...

Boone residents have representative on town council and county commissioners because they reside in both?

Pam Williamson said...

Town of Boone and all other Watauga Towns pay BOTH town AND Watauga County taxes.

Anonymous said...

Only if you're a property owner.