Hours after Sen. Chad Barefoot introduced a bill to change how Wake County elects its commissioners, a Senate committee held a hearing Thursday that drew strong criticism from current commissioners.
Barefoot’s proposal, Senate Bill 181, was filed Wednesday afternoon and was added to a committee agenda the following morning. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Rucho, said a vote is likely next Tuesday, with “limited” opportunity for public comment.
Barefoot and fellow Republicans say the bill would end “outrageously expensive” countywide campaigns that result in a board that mostly lives in Raleigh. But Democrats say the proposal is a power grab launched after all Republican incumbents lost in last year’s commissioners election.
Current commissioners stressed that because they were elected countywide, they represent residents “from Rolesville to Holly Springs.”
“This Wake County commission is as diverse as we’ve ever had, truly representing the people of Wake County,” said commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a Democrat who was elected in November. “I believe this is a solution looking for a problem.”
The bill would change the seven-member Board of Commissioners to a nine-member board, using the maps adopted in 2013 by Republican legislators for the Wake County school board. Instead of all seven commissioners running countywide, the bill would have voters pick the person in the district they live in and in one of two new districts that would each represent half the county.
Several residents of eastern Wake County – part of Barefoot’s district – voiced support for the change Thursday. J.T. Knott, a county commissioner from 1970-1982, called it “a way to give power back to its citizens.” Frances George pointed out that most Wake towns don’t have a resident on the board.
“They need direct representation,” George said. “They need (commissioners) to know how county property-tax increases affect large land owners differently.”
Several current commissioners said they’re open to adding members to their board to reflect population growth. But Commissioner James West said any changes need time for public input.
“This is way too important in terms of the direction our county,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had enough time to look at this bill.”
Asked why the hearing took place with little advance notice, Barefoot cited a bill filing deadline of 3 p.m. Wednesday. Rucho added the bill to a hearing scheduled for election changes to the Greensboro City Council.
“This discussion has been going on for awhile,” he said, adding that he worked out details with other Wake legislators. Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, said he’s looking forward to supporting it in the House. But Democratic Sen. Josh Stein and Republican Sen. John Alexander, both of Raleigh, said they hadn’t seen the bill until it was filed.
Commissioner Matt Calabria dismissed Barefoot’s argument that the change would mean less costly campaigns. Calabria noted that Barefoot’s 2014 campaign spent $1.2 million in a district with fewer voters than Wake County. By contrast, Calabria spent $102,000 to unseat Republican Phil Matthews.
“The size of the district does not correlate with the amount of money needed to win an election,” Calabria said.
After the hearing, Barefoot said more GOP wins are possible in the new system. “If it means that allowing more people to represent the small towns of Wake County will mean the board will become more Republican, well …,” he said, his voice trailing off.
The Senate redistricting committee will hear more public comment before it votes on the proposal. Speakers must sign up before the meeting, at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Room 544, Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St. Sign up at ncleg.net under “News and Information.”