Cary News

Morrisville’s uneven Town Council districts draw scrutiny

Council members may be elected differently in the future as leaders explore possible changes to the current districts.

The town board has seven members, including the mayor. The mayor’s seat is at-large, as are two of the council seats. The other four council seats are in districts.

The town doesn’t use a traditional district system, however. The districts only apply to candidates, not voters. Voters can vote in any race, but only people who live in a district are allowed to run for that district seat.

The districts established a decade ago are unequal in size.

If four districts serve a town with 23,700 people, each district would have close to 6,000 residents if evenly distributed. Instead, the largest district has nearly 7,700 people who could run for office while the smallest district has about 4,900 people, according to a town report presented at the council’s meeting Jan. 12.

The discussion was prompted by the special census that Morrisville held last year, which found a significantly larger population than the official census previously estimated.

Three of the four districts deviate from the average size by more than 10 percent.

▪ District 1, represented by Michael Schlink, has 1,701 residents more than average.

▪ District 2, represented by TJ Cawley, has 596 fewer people than average.

▪ District 3, represented by Liz Johnson, has 1,099 fewer people than average.

▪ District 4, represented by Vicki Scoggins-Johnson, is seven people off the average.

Town Attorney Frank Gray said the imbalance wouldn’t prompt a lawsuit against the town.

Legal challenges to redistricting, he said, typically revolve around race composition or the concept of “One person, one vote.” But because Morrisville’s districts apply only to candidates and not to voters, Gray said, the uneven districts are acceptable in the eyes of the law.

“It’s certainly a legitimate conversation, but it’s not illegal,” he said.

Mayor Mark Stohlman, though, said he still wants to make changes because three of the four districts are so “out of whack.”

“It does make sense to redistrict now,” he said. “We have the data, we have the opportunity.”

The council agreed and asked staff members to start redrawing the lines. There could be an update later this month.

Other options

The town’s district system might also face more substantial changes from the council later on, although officials didn’t commit to any changes at their meeting.

Cawley said the town shouldn’t keep the districts and advocated for an at-large council. He said districts could discourage people from getting involved in politics.

“I think we shouldn’t take any options off the table if we’re talking about the future of our town,” Cawley said.

Most local governments in the area use that format already.

However, that option has been on the table in recent years, with little support among the council. Stohlman said as much Tuesday, asking to keep the discussion focused on the uneven districts.

Stohlman was more preferential to a compromise suggested by council member Steve Rao – to eliminate one district and move to a council with three district seats and three at-large seats, plus the mayor.

Stolhman said he likes the idea of keeping districts because it ensures some geographical diversity on the council and prevents scenarios such as an entire council made up of people from the same neighborhood.

Future growth

Even if the town redistricts now, officials may have to redraw the lines again in 2020.

Officials are expecting continued growth, largely in the north part of town, but Town Manager Martha Paige said it’s against state law to take future growth into consideration when drawing election districts.

District 1’s oversized nature is a testament to growth in the north part of town, closer to Durham and RTP. It covers the neighborhoods west of N.C. 54 and, for the most part, north of McCrimmon Parkway.

“That’s Breckenridge and Kitts Creek, which is where a substantial amount of the town’s growth is occuring,” Paige said. “So that’s not a huge surprise.”

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran