Local Preemption, Bite by Bite

William Harris, NCLM President

North Carolina cities and towns have plenty to be grateful for when it comes to this year’s legislative session.

For a third straight year, state lawmakers in Raleigh provided a tremendous boost to local infrastructure investment, whether involving water, sewer, stormwater, or transportation. With that in mind, I urge you to once again thank your locally-elected legislators for these investments as you see them in your community.

That being said, we also cannot overlook another trend that occurred as the General Assembly met over this past year. And we need to acknowledge that it is troubling.

We saw a number of local bills filed, and several passed, which eroded local control over land-use planning and how municipal elections take place.

Local bills are those that can only affect a small portion of the state and can only cover certain subject matter areas as laid out in the North Carolina Constitution. For example, the state constitution prohibits local bills affecting health and sanitation, and there have been some overturned in the courts when they have strayed into this area.

The governor also has no veto power over local bills.

In recent years, the League of Municipalities—its members and staff working effectively together—has done a great job beating back statewide legislation that undermines our local decision-making. But it is these local bills, often due to some specific and unique circumstances in individual communities, that have gained traction.

This past year, we saw local bills de-annexing property in the Town of Holly Springs and making permanent a ban on the use of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the Town of Leland. There was also local legislation that made all municipal elections in communities in Madison County partisan, against the wishes of local officials.

A local bill also creates local civil service boards in Greensboro and Winston-Salem—against the wishes of those cities—to review personnel actions, potentially disrupting the chain of command with local police departments and making it more difficult to remove officers involved in the misuse of force.

Yet another local bill switched the election methods in the City of Gastonia from at-large, districted elections to ward district elections, again, against the wishes of local officials.

Finally, the state budget bill saw some last-minute provisions pop up that pre-empted municipal zoning codes in Dare and Wake Counties under select circumstances.

Many of these changes were made in bills that began as fairly noncontroversial measures, only to be amended to include the controversial provisions late in their consideration, giving local officials little opportunity to allow their objections to be known.

That being the case, there is really only one means to try to stop this type of legislation: Talk to the members of your local legislative delegation.

Do all you can to develop good relationships with them. Let them know specifically about these types of developments with local bills and urge that they come to you for discussions if there is some matter in which someone wants changes via local bills that affect your city or town.

If you have strained relations with a particular legislator, seek out common allies to help.

As I end this column, I want to wish all of you a happy holiday season and New Year. I know that each of you does great work in your city or town, and I appreciate all of the work that many of you do to help make NCLM a strong advocacy and service organization.