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Who Serves Whom? 

In Charlotte it's hard to tell

You might as well go ahead and clip this column and hang it on your refrigerator. You'll want to refer back to it when your first speed camera ticket arrives in the mail from the City of Charlotte. As you pay that ticket, keep in mind that it has nothing to do with public safety. Those speed cameras are intended to be nothing more nor less than a big money generator for the city, and they just got you. See, if the city of Charlotte gave a rip about public safety or welfare, they'd warn people when 18 Olympic-pools' worth of raw human sewage spews from their pipes into the creek in your backyard instead of pretending it never happened.

If you live in a middle to lower-middle class area and, like the folks in the Windsor Park neighborhood, you've spent the last few years attempting in vain to get city bureaucrats to enforce basic code ordinances against neighbors who've turned their front lawns into junk yards, you'll want to clip this column as well, so that a year from now, when the mess is still sitting there, you'll understand why. And if you voted against a new arena and can't understand why the city is now excavating the land for it, here's your three-word answer: Because they can.

Now, the City Council that brought you all of the above has come up with something even better: electoral districts so skewed that there's virtually no way to remove incumbent council members from office short of killing them.

The issue of City Council redistricting is enough to put anyone to sleep. But the way local districts are drawn is the chief reason that public outcry over the arena, speed cameras and whatever the council thinks up next has been, and will be, largely ignored. Over the last four to six years, the council's Democrats have been gradually drawing districts personally tailored to elect them. Now five of the seven districts are so tilted toward Democrats -- with 20 to 39 percent more Democrats than Republican voters -- that no Republican could be elected there. In two other Republican districts, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 16 and 25 percent. There isn't a competitive council district left in the city.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, was right when he warned that if you're a Democrat in Districts 6 or 7 or a Republican in Districts 1 through 5 you might as well not bother to run for office. I'd go a step further. If you're a Republican in one of the Democrat districts or vice versa, you're among the 85,000 voters -- more than a quarter of all registered voters in Charlotte -- who might as well not bother to vote in your council district elections. Your decision has already been made for you.

Most of the media coverage of this situation has wrongly focused on the partisan nature of the problem. This is simply not a Republican versus Democrat issue. With the exception of one city council member, it would be nearly impossible to guess the partisan affiliation of any member of City Council by how they vote. Our council is made up of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats who could seamlessly swap one party affiliation for the other if they chose to. Doing the right thing for the right people, not party affiliation, has been the main force driving council for the past several years. The redistricting plan council passed last week is about keeping the current council members in office and isolating them from the wrath of the voters, who they have a growing list of reasons to fear.

Most of these council members are chosen by party bosses and moneyed donors and elected in district primaries by a few thousand votes in a city of some 600,000 people. The only place they can be beaten is in the primaries by members of their own party. This almost never happens (see sentence above about party bosses and moneyed donors.)

They don't have to listen, and they don't have to care what constituents think. With the districts the way they are, our council members can get around to resolving citizen complaints when they damn well feel like it, if at all. City crews working near your property have trashed it, costing you thousands of dollars? Join the club. Sure, you can sign up to speak to council at public speaker forums and they'll all nod as if they hear you, but nothing will change. Have a great idea that could make Charlotte a better city? Unless you're with the "right" people, your odds of breaching the wall are virtually nil.

The situation is reaching a crisis point. Without real competition, nobody is forced by a true opponent to go on the record during the races, and when they violate their campaign pledges, which they usually do within months of taking office again, there's no way to hold them accountable in the next election. As a result, a virtual wall has gone up around City Hall. Political debate stagnated long ago. Innovation is all but dead. And for a growing city that could have a bright future, that's a disaster.

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