by Chad Barefoot
I recently introduced Senate Bill 181, Wake County Commissioner Districts, to increase representation and geographic diversity on the Wake County Board of Commissioners and to ensure that every Wake County voter has a voice.
Wake County is the state’s most populous county and is part of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Currently, the commission is made up of seven members – five of which live within the City of Raleigh. Seventy-five percent of towns in Wake County don’t have a single representative on the county commission.
This bill gives my constituents – and all Wake County residents – a much-needed voice within their county government.
Residents from small towns and suburban communities — like those in Wake Forest, Rolesville, Zebulon, Garner, Wendell — work hard and contribute greatly to our tax base, yet have virtually have no representation on the board.
And that’s just not right.
Senate Bill 181 increases representation on the Wake County Board of Commissioners from seven to nine. One of the new member districts will represent the city at-large and the other will represent the small towns at-large.
The bill changes the current at-large elections to single member district elections to ensure geographical diversity on the board.
The bill also aligns the Wake County Commission districts to the Wake County School Board districts, which have been upheld by the courts. This will provide increased accountability and transparency between our elected officials.
The current, archaic system was developed more than 30 years ago – before I was even born – when Wake County’s population was only about 300,000 residents.
It requires candidates to run costly countywide campaigns – limiting the pool of those who are financially able to run. It forces our commissioners to serve almost 1 million constituents each or more constituents than members of congress.
The politicians argue that running at-large is fair and gives everyone a voice. And both Republican and Democrat controlled boards have lacked the political strength to fix this problem.
But the most recent election proves the current system ignores our small towns and, most importantly, ignores the will of the people. It does so by denying communities the power to choose their local officials.
An example of this is Fuquay-Varina Commissioner Matt Calabria who now represents a district that voted to elect his opponent in the 2014 election.
Boosted by heavy voter turnout inside the Raleigh city limits, Calabria won his countywide race by a wide margin. But he lost his own district by nearly five points or 2,400 votes and so did the people of Apex, Holly Springs, Fuquay Varina and Garner.
This bill ensures this kind of injustice will no longer occur. Under Senate Bill 181, if a county commissioner candidate receives the most votes in the district in which they run, then they will represent that district.
In fact, those opposed to increasing representation for Wake County citizens have heralded their districts as proof that everyone in the county has a real voice.
But how can that be true if communities such as Apex, Holly Springs, Fuquay Varina and Garner don’t have the power to elect their own representatives?
The fact that local districts are represented by a person the majority of citizens in their district rejected proves just how flawed the current system has become, and proves furthermore that the deck is stacked against most of Wake County small towns and communities.
This is why we don’t elect the legislature by popular statewide vote as some of the opponents have, by implication, suggested that we do.
I also represent another county, Franklin County. Franklin’s population is roughly 60,000 people. They have seven county commissioners – five residential districts and two at-large.
Wake County has 1 million people and only seven members.
Our county commissioners run to represent more people than the Governor of the State of Delaware. Meanwhile, citizens get lost in the numbers.
The current election process is unjust and we need to fix it.
Representation is strongest when it is closest to the public. The county commission is a local office but there is nothing local about running to represent 1 million people.
—N.C. Senator Chad Barefoot represents Wake and Franklin Counties.