Cary News

Morrisville Town Council’s election districts to be realigned

The Town Council made progress toward realigning election districts Tuesday by establishing the parameters town staff will use to craft new district maps this summer.

In September, a special census showed that the town’s population of 23,700 residents is greater than what was previously estimated during the federal 2010 census. The new population count revealed an an imbalance among the town’s four council districts.

Morrisville’s four districts don’t affect where and how residents may vote, only who may run for a seat based on the candidate’s residence. Three of Morrisville’s seven council members, including the mayor, are elected at large and do not represent a specific district.

But the council has not reached a consensus in deciding whether to adjust the council maps to take growth into account and how it would be done.

The bulk of the debate, which began after last November’s elections, has focuesed on how much variance from a per-district average of 5,925 is acceptable.

The council approved a resolution Tuesday in a 6-1 vote that instructs staff to prepare three maps. The maps will allow variances of 10 percent, 5 percent and as little variance as possible.

The current per-district average is 4,655 residents. Districts 2 and 3 are below that average, or deviate from the average size by more than 10 percent.

Larger margins will allow staff to take neighborhoods and other pre-existing divisions into account; smaller ones keep district sizes closer to equivalent.

Disagreements have included whether to take into account where current council members live in drawing districts for future elections. The approved resolution asks town staff not to consider that information as a parameter for its maps.

But Councilman TJ Cawley, who cast the lone vote against the resolution, said he has a more fundamental problem with the process. He said the months of haggling about how and whether to recast the town’s districts have been “a solution in search of a problem.”

“I do not feel like this effort is the best use of our limited staff resources,” said Cawley, who represents Morrisville’s District 2.

The town is not legally required to re-draw districts after a special census. Town Manager Martha Paige, who will head the map-drawing effort, said it isn’t town staff’s place to make judgments about the council’s instructions. She characterized the council members’ differences of opinion as philosophical disagreements about how best to represent the town’s residents.

Cawley has suggested eliminating council districts altogether and is in favor of a council composed entirely of at-large members.

“If the goal is to reduce obstacles to running, the obvious solution is to remove districts altogether,” Cawley said. “It prevents three-quarters of the town’s residents from running against an elected official they may not agree with.”

Councilman Michael Schlink, on the other hand, said he supports keeping a district-based election model, which he said better takes into account the varied interests of Morrisville’s neighborhoods.

“Some people think it takes staff forever (to draw new maps), but it takes them an hour,” he said.

Schlink said he hopes to complete the task before the end of the summer, adding that further delay would cast doubt in the eyes of the public on the resulting map.

Paige said she and her staff requested a deadline after the town’s budget is finalized. At the earliest, the council will see new maps by the beginning of July and could vote on them within the following month.

Morrisville has revisited both its districts and its approach to drawing them at several points during the last 12 years. In 2004, when the town’s population was roughly half of its current population, voters amended the town charter to grant the mayor a vote and increase the number of districts from three to four.

Tuesday’s vote meant the council is not considering adding districts or at-large council members, moves that would require a change to the town charter.

Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan