Asheville City Council

Watch out, Washington: Asheville’s hiring a gunslinger.

At their Jan. 28 formal meeting, a divided Asheville City Council voted to hire a lobbyist to help secure federal funds for the city. It was a split decision, however, and the preceding debate raised some prickly questions about the realities of government and the D.C. money hunt.

Throughout the discussion, which included a presentation by city Economic Development Director Mac Williams on the merits of hiring a professional lobbyist, Council member Joe Dunn could be seen shaking his head and biting his lip. The idea that someone from inside the Beltway is better suited to advocate for Asheville’s financial needs — when Rep. Charles Taylor‘s district headquarters sits just a stone’s throw from City Hall — clearly rankled him.

Williams explained that municipalities nationwide are increasingly hiring lobbyists to improve their chances of obtaining government funding. This, in turn, reflects a change in the way Congress allocates funds. Instead of the more traditional government grants, said Williams, Congress is now tending more toward “earmarking” moneys (i.e., letting individual members of Congress build the funding for a pet project into an appropriations bill).

Citing the example of Napa, Calif — a city similar in size to Asheville, he noted — Williams said a hired lobbyist had secured millions of dollars for riverfront revitalization, spurring $140 million worth of private development in the new river district. And even here in North Carolina, noted Williams, small coastal towns are banding together to hire lobbyists who are producing similar results.

Though he didn’t actually say so, Williams implied that it was a matter of keeping up with the Joneses — or risking losing funds to cities that have a lobbyist to fight for them.

Williams’ “lobbying” for hiring a lobbyist sparked resistance on the part of some members of the public who rose to speak on the issue. Longtime Council gadfly Fred English made it clear that he thinks the whole plan is a waste of taxpayers’ money (Williams had earlier estimated that hiring a firm that specializes in lobbying on behalf of municipalities would cost the city somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000 annually).

“I don’t live in Napa Valley, Calif., I live in Haw Creek Valley,” English pointed out, putting a certain amount of disdainful emphasis on “California.” “We don’t need to spend this kind of money. We just passed a law to keep panhandlers off the streets of Asheville; now we want to send a panhandler to Washington?” he inquired sarcastically.

West Asheville resident Edwin Crisp took issue with the way Council member Jim Ellis had, earlier in the evening, referred to the lobbyist as a “research analyst.” “A skunk by any other name is a skunk,” intoned Crisp, adding: “It’s still a lobbyist. They spread money around to legislators. They’ve ruined government.”

But Asheville resident Lynda Rerych offered another take, explaining that securing federal funds has become so complicated that having an advocate in D.C. is, realistically, the only way to go. “I’ve been a lobbyist, albeit an unpaid lobbyist, and you can do this without selling your soul,” she proclaimed.

After waiting until almost the end of the discussion, Dunn finally waded into the fray. “I recognize the need, but I think the timing is bad,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to expect to receive millions and millions of dollars from the federal government, especially when our economy is struggling and we’re facing a war in Iraq. To think that we’re gonna get millions is pie in the sky. The county had a lobbyist, and they fired him. [Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman] Nathan Ramsey walked across the plaza here and asked Charles Taylor for several million dollars and got it just by asking. What we need to do first is take it [the plan to hire a lobbyist] to the congressman, before we spend one dime, and ask him what he thinks.”

Council member Carl Mumpower joined Dunn in opposing the plan. While conceding that a lobbyist could increase the city’s chances of securing a bigger slice of the federal pie, Mumpower took issue with the very concept of lobbying. “It circumvents our existing system,” he argued. “Sure, we can jump on the bandwagon and do what everyone else is doing, but it doesn’t mean that this is a good system and that we should participate. It’s pork-barrel politics, and that’s exactly what this is.”

Council member Brian Peterson, however, saw the glass as half full, suggesting that “we could see an increase in transportation funds for public transit. Even the idea of bringing back the trolley lines could be feasible.” Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, cautioned Williams to choose a veteran of the D.C. trench wars, “someone who’s an expert.” She concluded, however, that though it’s hard to spend the money when the fiscal belt is so tight, “Hiring this lobbyist is a necessary step.”

Dunn and Mumpower proved to be on the losing end of the 4-2 decision, with Mayor Charles Worley, Bellamy, Peterson and Ellis voting to move forward with the plan to hire an insider (Council member Holly Jones was out of town). A second vote (appropriating $30,000 to fund a lobbyist for the remainder of this fiscal year) yielded the same 4-2 split. Williams’ office will now solicit proposals from firms interested in lobbying for Asheville.

In an interview after the meeting, Worley told Xpress that hiring a lobbyist is necessary to improve the city’s odds in the federal funding game. He noted that the move is in no way an indictment of the city’s relationship with Taylor. “In fact, our relationship has never been better,” said Worley, adding, “Taylor understands our need to do this.” The chief problem, he continued, is that Taylor’s office lacks the necessary staffing to do the extensive research needed to secure funding or even to learn what funds are out there. “The firm we hire will be able to do that legwork so that we can better communicate exactly what our needs are to Congressman Taylor,” concluded Worley.

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