"I have concerns that the board is being stacked unfairly, and that it [will be] out of balance. I'm not going to support that."
-- Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower
After three days of bonding in the woods, Asheville City Council members returned to their duties with a newfound sense of camaraderie -- along with a commitment to new ground rules for communication.
That commitment was put to the test at Council's Feb. 10 formal session (see "Get Along to Go Along" below), which came on the heels of the annual retreat (held amid the bucolic splendor of Henderson County's Highland Lake Inn). The resort and conference center, a former summer camp for Catholic boys, seemed an apropos place to hold a synod for a group of leaders dogged by controversy and looking to exorcise some demons. Council and city staff have taken heat from citizens lately for alleged communication failures in connection with such hot-button issues as the ill-fated GPI high-rise and a proposed redevelopment plan for The Block. Amid all the clamor, a few days in the woods may have been just what the doctor ordered.
In years past, Council members have spent two days huddling with the city manager, the city attorney, and a full complement of city department heads. After each city staffer had detailed his or her accomplishments and needs, City Council would compile its own wish list, to be passed on to the city manager for inclusion in the next year's budget.
But this year's retreat had nothing to do with budget goals -- and department heads weren't even invited. The cozy group consisted of the seven Council members, City Manager Jim Westbrook, City Attorney Bob Oast, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson and a pair of facilitators from the University of Virginia's Cooper Center for Public Service. The weekend began with everyone taking a Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment (a test that helps identify an individual's learning and communication preferences). After that, the group focused on ways to improve communication: among Council members, between Council and staff, and between Council and the public.
There seemed to be a theme here.
And, communication lines in place, the group then spent the bulk of the weekend trying to define a guiding vision for the city during the next 20 years. An ambitious task, to be sure, and one that Council tackled with the clear understanding that the retreat would have to be conducted in stages. Accordingly, the group will re-retreat in March to wrap things up. Look for more coverage in Xpress after the final notes have sounded.
Get along to go along
Council's first post-retreat gathering proved a brief affair, clocking in at under an hour. The meeting's brevity was due, in part, to a scant agenda that included two noncontroversial public hearings: one on closing an alley off Hendersonville Road and the other to consider an economic-development incentive grant for a local company. Both were over and done with in a matter of minutes, and both received Council's strong approval. The second hearing concerned a $3,500 grant to the Dave Steel Company, a manufacturing firm now celebrating its 75th year of operation in Asheville. Mac Williams, the city's economic-development director, told Council that the grant would help the company diversify its manufacturing line and broaden its customer base. Dave Steel, Williams explained, expects to add 25 new jobs at an average wage of $15.25 per hour. "And that wage is exclusive of their benefits package," he noted.
The only bit of intrigue came at meeting's end, during the usually routine business of appointing new members to city boards and commissions. The Asheville Transit Commission had five vacancies, and each Council member named his or her five nominees to fill them. But when it was Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower's turn, he chose to cast only three votes, much to the confusion of his colleagues. Even the city attorney had to crack open the binder containing Council's bylaws to determine whether the vice mayor could legally limit his vote. Oast said he wasn't sure, adding that he couldn't recall a similar situation having arisen in the past. (Unlike simple yea or nay votes, appointments require each Council member to name his or her chosen candidate(s).)
After thumbing through the bylaws, Oast found the section on board appointments and concluded that Council members are allowed to either vote or not vote for the requisite number of open positions. With the matter clarified, Mumpower offered his colleagues this explanation: "I have concerns that the board is being stacked unfairly, and that it [will be] out of balance. I'm not going to support that."
In a later interview with Xpress, Mumpower said he felt the applicant pool "did not represent balance." Asked to clarify his statement, Mumpower responded: "We had a block of four candidates that had a dedicated agenda. They were very much in favor of putting dramatic energies into mass transportation; that's something I would call premature advocacy.
"In my opinion, this is an advisory board. [Asheville Transit System Director] Bruce Black doesn't need policy advocates -- he needs problem solvers."
When asked if he thought there'd been a concerted effort by one of his Council colleagues to "stack" the candidate pool, Mumpower noted that he's "never been a conspiracy buff, but who's the [Council] liaison to the Transit Commission? [Council member] Brownie [Newman] has a passion for transportation, and I think he has a vision. But again, this is an advisory board, and I believe in balance."
Mumpower also referred to an e-mail he'd sent Newman, which read in part: "In the spirit of our retreat efforts this weekend, I wanted to share a concern I have regarding our upcoming appointments to the Transit Commission. Specifically, it is my sense that there is an orchestrated effort by the 'Asheville Moving Forward' folks [a grassroots group supporting mass-transit options]to develop a strong presence on the commission that may or may not support the intended function of the commission as an advisory board.
"To this point our interviews have been limited to folks who appear to have a strong investment in 'Asheville Moving Forward' and, from my perspective, premature advocacy [emphasis Mumpower's] for alternative transit options. Although I appreciate folks with a passion to pursue possibilities, early commitment does not speak to a balanced perspective that I believe best supports a board's advisory role."
Mumpower also told Xpress that he'd asked his Council colleagues to consider extending the application period in hopes of attracting a broader candidate pool but they'd insisted on moving forward with the appointments.
Contacted later, Newman took issue with Mumpower's criticisms. "What bothers me is, citizens ... who have been actively involved in improving our community are being accused of doing something inappropriate. It's not appropriate for a member of City Council to make negative judgments about people in our community who are giving of their time and energy to make Asheville a better place. ... City Council members should encourage active involvement by citizens and listen to them ... not discourage them. We want people who are going to be actively supportive of a better transit system on our Transit Commission, just like we want appointees on our Economic Development Commission who are actively supportive of bringing jobs to our community."
In the end, Council made these appointments to the Transit Commission: Karen Austin, Bill Michie, Andrew Goldberg, Ryan Pickens and Bryan Freeborn. Both Freeborn and Pickens staged unsuccessful runs for Council seats in the last election.