How much of an impact did the partisan-elections backlash have on Asheville’s City Council? Enough that when Council member Brownie Newman brought the idea of a citizens’ commission on local elections to the table during Council’s Feb. 12 meeting, he got no support from even his staunchest allies. Not even a proposal merely to hold a public hearing to discuss the matter managed to muster enough votes to pass.
Newman envisions appointing seven to nine city residents to discuss possible changes to municipal elections, including campaign-finance reform, districting, runoff voting and specifying a method for determining who will fill Council seats vacated in between elections.
That last point, he said, is especially pertinent with two Council members now setting their sights on higher office. Carl Mumpower is seeking Heath Shuler‘s congressional seat, and Holly Jones is running for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. “We’ve sort of had to decide on a case-by-case basis how to deal with that,” noted Newman.
Two years ago, City Council appointed Bryan Freeborn—the fourth-highest vote-getter in the three-seat race—to complete Terry Bellamy‘s Council term after she was elected mayor. (Interestingly enough, if Jones wins a commission seat and City Council sticks with that approach, Freeborn—who lost his seat to Bill Russell in November by the slimmest of margins—could be back. Freeborn has said he would be willing to serve out Jones’ term but would not seek a further term.)
Apparently, however, last year’s 4-3 Council vote to switch to partisan elections—which sparked significant public outcry and was roundly reversed in a November referendum—is still fresh on some Council members’ minds.
“I’m hesitant to get into this conversation, because we just went through a referendum,” said Robin Cape. “The perception will be that we didn’t get what we want, and now we’re doing this.” Cape also wondered whether Newman had heard many requests from the public to retool the city’s electoral system.
For his part, Newman said he’d intentionally left the partisan/nonpartisan question out of this proposal, explaining that he wanted to try to deal with some recurring issues before they popped up again—which typically happens around Election Day. “When they come up, it’s very intense,” he observed.
Newman also argued that as Asheville grows, it may be time to consider moving to district representation rather than the current at-large elections. “To me, Asheville seems like we’re sort of that size of city where it’s a fair question,” he said. The commission, he noted, would make its recommendations to Council at the end of the year—allowing sufficient time for action before the 2009 City Council and mayoral races.
“I think we are getting ready to open a can of worms that doesn’t need to be opened,” said Vice Mayor Jan Davis. He also voiced disappointment over Council’s handling of the recommendations of another appointed group of city residents: the Downtown Social Issues Task Force. “We accepted their report, then didn’t act on it,” said Davis.
A few in the audience weighed in on the touchy issue as well.
“I’d like to commend Council member Newman for putting this on the agenda,” said Jake Quinn, adding that he hopes it comes back around. “Please understand that looking at partisan versus nonpartisan elections is as important as anything,” said Quinn.
Green Party activist Paul Van Heden encouraged Council to embrace the idea, saying that when it comes to election reform, “The conversation has to start somewhere.”
Others, however, warned City Council to stick to referendums if there’s to be any tinkering with elections.
“This might well be a freshly lit match that you might do well to hold carefully,” cautioned David Black. “There is always the option of putting it on a ballot—and that is the largest commission you can get.”
Cape proposed holding a public hearing to solicit community input on Newman’s idea, but only Jones joined the two of them in supporting the motion, leaving it one vote shy of passage.
Something in the water
Speaking of referendums, it was another such vote, back in 1965, that originally cleared the way for introducing fluoride into Asheville’s water supply. Two years later, city residents reaffirmed that decision. And though many health experts cite fluoridation as a major factor in preventing tooth decay, the issue has a long history of controversy locally.
A 1956 City Council decision to fluoridate the water was challenged by a Buncombe County referendum (which overwhelmingly rejected the idea) and a lawsuit that reached the state Supreme Court. Ruling that a countywide referendum cannot reverse a municipal decision, the court threw the issue back to the city of Asheville, which later held the two referendums.
Now, however, some people believe it’s time to stop fluoridating the water supply, and their plea to City Council resulted in an unexpected, hourlong public hearing in which many Asheville dentists and pediatricians weighed in on the idea, with the vast majority opposing such a change. (See sidebar, “It’s the Water.”)
Water Resources Director David Hanks explained that the city adds fluoride in the form of hydrofluorosilic acid, at a rate of 0.9 to 1.1 parts per million—well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 4 parts per million. A byproduct of mining, said Hanks, hydrofluorosilic acid is monitored at the city’s two water-treatment facilities.
But Dr. John Wilson, a physician specializing in environmental medicine, challenged the safety of the city’s fluoride source, saying the material contains trace elements of dangerous chemicals, including arsenic. He also said that fluoridation has a dubious record of effectiveness.
“As keepers of the well,” he told Council members, “You are charged to ensure that the water supply [is safe].” Wilson called on City Council to look further into the contents of the hydrofluorosilic acid it uses, and to consider putting the matter up for yet another referendum.
But a bevy of pediatricians and dentists argued against Wilson’s claims. Fluoridation, asserted dentist Bill Chambers, has been studied more than any other public-health measure, and it has a record of decreasing childhood tooth decay—particularly in lower-income families.
“Fortifying water is no different than when we add vitamin D to milk or iodine to table salt,” he said. “If there ever were changes needed, dentists would be the first before you to recommend it.”
Cape, however, saw the issue as one of personal choice. Noting that it’s been 41 years since city residents have been consulted, she called for a referendum. “This is something that we are putting in people’s bodies,” she noted, adding, “I am uncomfortable making that choice.” But her motion found no second.
Nonetheless, Council went ahead with the public hearing. Dr. James Biddle of Asheville Integrative Medicine compared fluoride in water to mercury in fillings. And dentist Matthew Young said it’s akin to drinking sunblock to prevent a sunburn.
But they were drastically outnumbered. One after another, others came to the lectern to dispute those claims, pleading with Council members to trust the numerous studies that have been done over the years.
“For people to claim that this has not been studied and analyzed is a little bit less than factual,” said pediatric dentist Dennis Campbell. Quoting Euripides, Campbell observed, “Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”
That sentiment was backed up by other local experts, including the head of Mission Children’s Hospital, the executive director of the nonprofit Children First and the president of the Buncombe County Dental Society.
Eventually, a motion by Newman to move on to the next agenda item was approved 6-1, with Cape opposed.
Thinking inside the box
On a 5-2 vote with Mumpower and Russell opposed, City Council changed the rules governing the maximum size of big-box stores. Previously, single-tenant retail stores zoned Highway Business could be no more than 75,000 square feet. But by adding a small second tenant, such as a fast-food restaurant, they could expand to as much as 200,000 square feet. The current amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, however, stipulates that the building’s principal tenant cannot occupy more than 75 percent of the space. That means that retailers aiming for the maximum size would need a much more substantial second tenant, acting Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch explained.
Council also raised the single-tenant building cap from 75,000 to 100,000 square feet to make it consistent with other zoning designations for business districts, she said.
Laying down the law
Mumpower put his colleagues on notice that he will oppose accepting any kind of state or federal funding for Asheville until he sees improvement in the state’s criminal-justice system. “From this point forward, I’m going to take a pretty strong position on this,” he told his fellow Council members. “Until they get the court system fixed, I am not interested in them funding our greenways; I’m not interested in them funding our butterfly exhibits.”
The declaration came during consideration of the consent agenda, which included two grants from the state Department of Transportation for greenway projects. Mumpower had those items removed for separate discussion, but both passed anyway on 6-1 votes.
Mumpower also declined to support a UDO amendment requiring some new buildings to include wiring enabling police, fire and other emergency-service radios to function in architectural dead spots.
The initiative, Tuch explained, is largely a response to problems experienced during the 9/11 attacks, when emergency responders lacked adequate “in-building coverage.”
A review of some of Asheville’s buildings, she said, has revealed the same situation, and the amendment would require taller buildings to install wiring that could be used to boost interior radio transmissions. Tuch said the developer would have to pay for the wiring, which should amount to less than 1 percent of construction costs.
But Mumpower objected, saying the move transfers the responsibility for public safety from the city to the builder. This measure was also approved 6-1.