As NC redistricting lawsuits continue, Buncombe hires legal help to study demographics

·4 min read
A map from the Buncombe County website shows current commission districts and precincts.
A map from the Buncombe County website shows current commission districts and precincts.

As legal battles continue in North Carolina courts over congressional maps, Buncombe County government has retained legal counsel to help manage its intrinsic relationship to those maps and help better align Buncombe's commission districts with its demographics.

The county hired Poyner Spruill LLC based on two engagement letters the law firm drafted that described the services it will provide.

One will see lawyers write a letter notifying North Carolina courts about Buncombe's unique ties to congressional maps. In the other, attorneys and experts will help figure out future governance structures consistent with state policy and local population data.

These letters were presented to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 4 by Chair Brownie Newman.

Buncombe stands out among North Carolina counties, Newman said, because its maps are directly tied to General Assembly maps.

"Buncombe County is the only county of the 100 counties in North Carolina where the structure and the districts of the county commission itself are directly tied to the electoral districts created by the North Carolina General Assembly for the North Carolina State House members," Newman said.

About 10 years ago, he said, a local bill passed stating County Commission districts would be the same as the Buncombe County State House districts.

But those districts in 2019 were declared to be unconstitutional by North Carolina courts because of gerrymandering.

Now, with the 2020 U.S. census complete, the state's General Assembly is going through another statewide redistricting process. But there's also a new round of litigation challenging the constitutionality of the new districts, one that's still working its way through the courts and has delayed the state's primary.

More: Asheville, Buncombe County candidate filing suspended, primary rescheduled

More: Democratic Asheville, Buncombe set to get redder with gerrymandered NC maps, analysts say

Buncombe's districts therefore are once again in the spotlight.

"If the newly drawn maps by the General Assembly are also determined to be unconstitutional as the previously drawn maps from the General Assembly were determined to be unconstitutional," Newman said, "we want to make sure that the courts are aware that Buncombe County's own government is actually tied up into that same case because we are the one county in the state that has uniquely had our system for governance and elected districts linked to what the General Assembly maps are."

During ongoing legal matters, Poyner Spruill can provide legal guidance depending on the outcome of North Carolina district map legal cases.

There is a price tag, something commissioners discussed before they voted to approve the relationship with Poyner Spruill during the Jan. 4 meeting.

Though the firm's rates ranged from $270 per hour to $665 per hour, attorneys said in the letter to commissioners "We have agreed to reduce our rates for this matter to $400 per hour."

The demographer’s hourly pay will be $250.

Commissioner Robert Pressley asked Newman how much the project could cost in total. Newman said he didn't think it would require an "extensive amount of legal time," adding he didn't think it would be possible to set a budget for endeavor early January.

When asked Jan. 19 if the county has an idea of what the Poyner Spruill relationship could cost, Buncombe County spokesperson Lillian Govus said, "We do not have an estimate at this time. Our attorney will monitor the costs and report back to the commissioners. We have not received any bill at this time."

Related: Opinion: Can gerrymandering be stopped in North Carolina?

After a four-day trial the first week of January, a three-judged panel on Jan. 11 upheld a new North Carolina political map, saying it could be used in upcoming elections, a move lauded by Republicans.

The state's primary had been moved back to May 17 because of these legal disputes. On Jan. 19, the General Assembly voted to further delay the primary until June 7. That bill was headed to Gov. Roy Cooper, who had not signaled whether or not he would sign it.

The general election is still set for Nov. 8.

Groups opposing the new maps say they will appeal.

Those groups include the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and National Democratic Redistricting Committee. They allege that the legislature used either voters’ political leanings, racial composition or both to draw district lines, according to December reporting from Associated Press.

More: NC racial, partisan gerrymandering accusations 'baseless,' State Sen. Chuck Edwards says

Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow or reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter. Email him at arjones@citizentimes.com.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Buncombe hires legal help during redistricting battles in NC courts

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