Stumbling toward a deal

Move to end: Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer makes a motion to ban the Occupy Asheville encampment. It failed by one vote. photo by Bill Rhodes
Move to end: Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer makes a motion to ban the Occupy Asheville encampment. It failed by one vote. photo by Bill Rhodes

Asheville City Council Jan. 24, 2012 meeting

  • White Oak Grove rezoning request withdrawn
  • Pushcart rules retooled
  • Council retreat set for Feb. 3

“Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above,” Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer intoned, quoting Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”

Speakers repeatedly referenced her invocation during Asheville City Council's Jan. 24 meeting, one of the longest such sessions in years, as Council members and Occupy Asheville protesters grappled with two profoundly different visions of democracy.

At issue was Occupy Asheville's encampment outside City Hall. After trying various downtown sites, the protesters eventually figured out that a small swath of city property wasn't technically part of the adjacent Pack Square Park and thus was exempt from its 10 p.m. curfew. Because the property fell into what City Attorney Bob Oast called a “legal gray area,” the city couldn't evict the campers.

Nonetheless, the camp was controversial from the start. Neighboring business owners, city employees and passers-by complained about matters ranging from sanitation (city rules allow porta-johns only for permitted events) to aggressive homeless people congregating in the area. On Dec. 13, staff proposed new ordinances that would have banned camping, storage and enclosed structures on all city property.

Council balked at the move, however, saying the measures hadn't gone through the proper review process before referring them to its Public Safety Committee.

Council member Gordon Smith had drafted what he believed was a compromise at the committee's Jan. 3 meeting: limited-time camping permits for protesters. Permits would cost about $18 per camper for up to 14 days, with camping allowed only at the current site. The site would be added to the park, but both it and the area in front of the Vance Monument would be “public forums” where protests could be exempt from the usual curfew.

Even within the Occupy movement, there’d been disagreement over the camp. Some felt the problems with belligerent drunks and exposure to the elements were a distraction from larger goals and a waste of resources. Others said conditions were steadily improving, and the tents were an important public presence.

Yet while many cities have seen their Occupy encampments fold in the face of police crackdowns, infighting or logistical difficulties, Asheville's camp has endured.

Since early December, Occupy Asheville's internal debate had paralleled the city's own grappling with the issue, but the activists had found no consensus. Still, they remained united against any attempt to ban the camp or require permits.

“This is ridiculous, and the more it gets talked about, the more ridiculous it sounds,” spokesperson Naomi Archer told Council. “Occupy Asheville is facing an opportunistic, backdoor attempt by the city to remove our First Amendment expression through bureaucracy, ordinance and fines,” she declared. And so it went for three-and-a-half hours.

No consensus

“This will only serve to further disenfranchise the homeless,” argued John Spitzberg of the Asheville Homeless Network, asserting that unlike many private agencies, “The Occupy tent city has progressed to organize itself more efficiently and offer the homeless tents, food and support.”

Many speakers contrasted the city’s proposed permits for protesters with its agreement to provide signs and services for U.S. Cellular as part of the Civic Center naming-rights deal.

Victor Ochoa called for cooperation on issues such as protecting Asheville's water system from state interference, noting, “We support some of the same things you do.”

Ochoa also asked Mayor Terry Bellamy if she supports anything the Occupy movement has done. Bellamy later said she opposes the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and sees a need for greater opportunity in this country.

Ochoa has urged Occupy Asheville to “move past” camping and tackle bigger issues.

Another speaker, Timothy Vermont, linked the permitting process to the CIA and conservative think thanks. Other speakers condemned the permits as tyrannical and oppressive. Bob Sanal said he wouldn't consider himself an American citizen anymore if Council took this step.

For the measure's supporters, however, permits were a way to balance the protesters’ concerns against the city’s needs.

“We've been responding to this emerging situation,” noted Smith. “This process was intended to respond to the needs of the campers as they were stated to me and others. Folks with Occupy Asheville were complaining about interlopers — folks there for purposes other than occupation. … This permitting process is intended to address that and … concerns [about] health and safety.”

Smith also bristled at Occupy members’ harsh rhetoric. “The idea that any of us here are against speech is absurd,” he declared. “I've heard tonight that we're destroying Asheville, that we want to squash Occupy, that we're tyrants, that it's an international conspiracy. This is seven people trying to figure out how to respond to an emerging situation.”

Manheimer, meanwhile, feared a permanent campsite might interfere with other uses of the park, such as festivals and recreation.

And Council member Cecil Bothwell objected to charging for the permits. “I don't like the cost associated with free speech,” he said, adding that the time both staff and protesters have spent dealing with the camp could have been better spent on bigger issues.

In the end, the proposal failed on a 3-4 vote, with Council members Chris Pelly and Marc Hunt joining Smith in support. After that, an exasperated Smith asked, “So what's plan B?”

Manheimer made a motion to incorporate the campsite into the park, effectively banning camping there as of Feb. 1, but it also failed 3-4, finding favor with only Bellamy and Council member Jan Davis.

Frustration was rampant. Manheimer, noting that this was the fifth time Occupy was claiming Council’s attention, said, “We have the water system issues to deal with; our staff need to sleep.”

That merely triggered more public comment, however. “If there's violence at Occupy Asheville, I will spend every waking moment making sure people know what happened in this city,” Archer vowed.

Now what?

“Nothing's passed, so nothing's changed,” said Bellamy, noting that staff needed direction, and Council needed to reach some sort of compromise.

“I appreciate folks talking about compromise once the compromise is off the table,” Smith said bitterly, adding, “This proposal has been out there for three weeks. I would have been happy to work on it if there was indication from anyone on this Council that it wouldn't be acceptable tonight.”

Bothwell suggested a resolution condemning corporate personhood, which many Occupy Asheville and the allied Move to Amend protesters support. Would they, he wondered, accept that “as a victory in achieving one of the key things they're trying to bring to the attention of the city, and then decamp?”

Smith said he’d already drafted such a resolution, which Pelly had agreed to co-sponsor as well.

Occupy representatives were open to the move but said they needed to consult their consensus-based coordinating council and general assembly before they could agree to a deal. Archer held up a sign saying “3 weeks.”

Bothwell then made a corporate-personhood motion but quickly withdrew it, because not all the interested parties were present. Council agreed to consider both a corporate-personhood resolution and setting a deadline for the camp to disband at their Feb. 14 meeting. Several Council members talked about setting a Feb. 14 deadline, but Bothwell, Smith and others felt it would poison attempts to reach a compromise.

Bothwell’s motion to give the campers a three-week permit for porta-johns was approved 6-1 with Smith opposed, fearing it was a prelude to banning the camp outright.

Meanwhile, Bothwell urged the occupy representatives to take the corporate-personhood proposal “back to your coordinating committee. How do you want to go forward? Or do you want to talk about camping over and over again? To my mind, it's not accomplishing anything. We haven't really moved the ball tonight.”

Other business

Council also:
• Indicated a lack of majority support for the proposed 92-unit White Oak Grove Apartments in West Asheville, citing concerns about traffic and scale, along with neighborhood opposition. The developer withdrew the rezoning request.
• Unanimously approved new rules expanding operating hours for pushcarts on city streets but requiring them to be active more frequently to maintain their permits.
• Decided to hold its annual retreat Friday, Feb. 3, at UNCA's Sherrill Center, starting at 9 a.m.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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