The Town Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to finalize district numbers for recently redrawn council districts, despite one council member’s continued protests about how the new map will affect residents.
The council voted to switch the numbers of three districts because a new map approved in the fall left District 1, the town’s northwest region, without an elected representative until the 2019 election.
The vote on Jan. 24, capped off a process that began almost two years ago when a 2015 special census revealed uneven population growth in Morrisville. Early last year, town officials decided to redraw district boundaries to create districts of roughly uniform population.
The nonpartisan districts only apply to those who wish to run for office. Four of the council’s six seats have residency requirements, although Morrisville residents vote for all candidates – not just those who live in their district.
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Mayor Mark Stohlman and Councilman Michael Schlink, proponents of the redistricting and renumbering, have sparred with Councilman TJ Cawley, the council’s only opponent of the process.
Schlink has said Cawley’s opposition to redistricting, which placed Cawley in the same district as Councilwoman Liz Johnson, amounts to support for gerrymandering. Cawley has said that the adjustment to election cycles approved Tuesday “disenfranchises” potential candidates from his district, who will have to wait an extra two years to challenge the district seat.
New boundaries were approved last fall over Cawley’s objections. He has favored an all at-large council and has said that the rebalancing act is unnecessary. He continued to voice concerns in the last step of this process.
The town wasn’t required to redraw the district maps until after the 2020 census, but town staff and the majority of the council said the population imbalances were large enough to move ahead with new maps ahead of schedule.
Morrisville’s council elections are staggered by two years according to district: Districts 1 and 3 hold elections in 2019; Districts 2 and 4 will be up for election this November.
As the staff renumbered the new districts, Cawley said the resulting adjustment to election cycles would make residents of his district – formerly District 2, now District 3 – wait two years longer than usual to elect a resident council member.
In the proposal presented Tuesday, Cawley and Liz Johnson would be the most affected by the reconfiguring of the districts. In the new map, Cawley will share District 3 with Johnson, whose term expires in 2019.
Because Cawley’s term expires in December, he would would need to run for mayor or for one of the at-large seats in November if he wishes to remain on the council. Otherwise, he would need to wait until 2019 to challenge Johnson for District 3.
Cawley declined to say which option he plans to pursue.
In recent weeks, Cawley asked that the council allow further public comment on the new district numbers. He also asked town officials to solicit opinions from experts at the UNC School of Government.
Stohlman expressed frustration about the process being extended. He said in an interview that Cawley was misleading advocacy groups and the public to gain attention.
“This is simply an effort to make this process more complicated than it really is,” Stohlman said.
He said a letter the council received from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice before Tuesday’s vote was based on inaccurate information.
The letter suggests legal action could be taken against the town if the new number scheme is adopted. It also says almost 6,000 residents wouldn’t be able to run for election and the council isn’t authorized to change the staggering of terms.
The letters refers to potential candidates from the new District 3, who, like Cawley, cannot challenge Liz Johnson for the District 3 seat until 2019. A majority of residents in the new District 3 last voted for a council member in their district in 2013 when they still belonged to District 2.
In council meetings, Stohlman has said that any Morrisville resident can run for an at-large seat or the mayorship every two years. The letter doesn’t acknowledge this.
Cawley asked Tuesday to read the letter into the record. Wednesday, he said he was “precluded from that opportunity without justification.”
“It’s a matter of everyone being given an equal opportunity to run for all available seats,” Cawley said. “That’s the point being made in the letter. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice to run for a district seat. That makes it unequal under the law.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan