Courts gavel scales

GREENSBORO — A tweak to the controversial council redistricting law made in the last hours of this year’s long General Assembly session could have a big impact on the city’s 2017 elections.

On Tuesday night, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 119, which made technical revisions to laws passed during the assembly’s nine-month session.

Among them: an important change to a law passed in July to restructure and redistrict the Greensboro City Council.

Legislators changed the text that called for permanently removing the city’s ability to redraw its own council district lines. That provision, which would have made Greensboro the only city in the state without that power, was at the center of a federal judge’s decision to halt the law in late July.

The judge ruled there were constitutional problems with the law and issued an injunction until the matter came to trial, likely early next year.

The tweak to the law, initiated late Tuesday, would allow the council to change its own lines — after the 2020 census. The law does away with at-large council seats in favor of eight districts and a mayor who is voted on by the entire city. It also limits the mayor’s vote to ties and dramatically changes the council’s district lines.

Council members said Wednesday that the change is obviously aimed at scuttling the lawsuit and getting the changes to council the General Assembly wants. They seemed less sure if the move will work.

“Obviously, it was done to address the concerns of the judge,” said Councilman Justin Outling, who is also a lawyer. “If there’s a trial, they’ll be able to argue that the change supersedes the previous version of the law and ask that the injunction be lifted. I don’t know if that will satisfy the judge.”

Outling said most of the council expected the General Assembly to make such a move — either at the close of the recent long session or during the short session in the new year.

“I’m disappointed, to say the least,” he said. “I was hoping they would do the right thing, hear the people of Greensboro and let them decide their own local government.”

Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson said the council hasn’t had the opportunity to speak to its lawyers about the change. But the lawsuit raises multiple problems with the law, and she believes it should stand.

“I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that this General Assembly tried to do,” Johnson said. “But it’s still a bad law.”

State Rep. Ralph Johnson said he voted against the change, believing the issue should be debated in the open rather than dealt with at the last minute without discussion of the consequences.

“It’s just trying to resurrect something to help out in court,” Johnson said. “I believe we ought to put all of this on the table in the open and let the people decide.”

Passed by the assembly, Senate Bill 119 will now go to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk for final approval.

McCrory was critical of the redistricting law when it was passed in July, calling it “a bad bill and a shameful process.”

Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoekillianNR on Twitter.

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