Asheville City Council Feb. 14, 2012 meeting
- Resolution opposing corporate personhood approved
- • Council Council firm on retaining water system
After months of wrangling, false starts, temporary arrangements and failed compromises, Asheville City Council took a decisive step Feb. 14 concerning Occupy Asheville’s downtown encampment.
Council members have repeatedly grappled with this and related issues since last October; as Occupy campers across the country were being evicted in recent months, Occupy Asheville hunkered down while City Council deliberated, eventually becoming one of the last public camps still standing. But on Valentine's Day, the long affair ended when Council voted to evict the protesters at noon on Feb. 17.
At Council's last regular session, on Jan. 24, they considered two contradictory plans. One proposed a permitting process for protest camps; the other would have banned the Occupy Asheville encampment outright. Both fell one vote shy of approval. Instead, Council opted for a compromise: approving a resolution opposing corporate personhood, hoping that, in return, the camp would voluntarily disband.
But Occupy Asheville couldn't reach consensus on the deal. On Jan. 31, the coordinating council — a decision-making body with representatives from various protest groups — sent the city a letter asserting the right to camp on public property. The group followed up with a Feb. 7 list of more concrete demands, including: adopting the corporate personhood resolution, moving the city’s money to local banks, creating a “safe haven” for the homeless, and mandating a citywide living wage.
Corporations vs. people
On Feb. 14, Council members unanimously approved a resolution calling for an end to corporate personhood, a step requested by the group Move to Amend and supported by Occupy Asheville and the Asheville Grown Business Alliance.
During public comment, Anne Craig of Move to Amend presented a petition urging Council to take this step, saying, “We want to move to amend the Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”
“Scores of cities have signed on to this,” he added. “We won't be unique in that way, but we will be another voice in the chorus.”
Rod Hudgins, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, said he wasn't there to oppose or support the resolution but to note corporations’ “positive impact on the community.” Corporations, he said, “have put $350 million into the community [since October 2010], a fact we find impressive.”
Occupy Asheville member Victor Ochoa said: “We're not anti corporations — we're anti manipulative corporations. You have companies like Wal-Mart, where the CEO makes over $9,000 an hour and the workers' pay is continually being cut.”
Before the vote, Smith noted, “As elected officials, it's our job to protect electoral integrity and make sure your vote counts. I'm proud to say that here in Asheville we retained early voting. Currently there's a move to amend the U.S. Constitution in response to the Citizens United ruling.
Council then unanimously approved the resolution, to scattered applause and cheers.
But the good will proved short-lived as Council turned to more controversial measures. One would incorporate Occupy Asheville's campsite into Pack Square Park while designating both the campsite and the area in front of the Vance Monument “public forums” where people could protest 24/7 but not camp. The other called for banning camping, with a few exemptions, on all city property.
The ordinance, noted City Attorney Bob Oast, uses the same definition of camping as the National Park Service did in the 1984 case Clark v. Community for Creative Non-violence, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the agency’s right to prevent protesters from camping in a symbolic tent city they'd erected.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer made the motions for both ordinances with little comment. But she’d previously urged her colleagues to evict the camp and move on to other issues.
Occupy Asheville spokesperson Naomi Archer disagreed, however, saying the camp falls under protesters’ “natural right to exercise free speech, freedom of assembly and the right to address the government for a redress of grievances.
“There's something wrong in our communities, and we all know it,” she asserted. “Without the Occupy movement, we wouldn't be having all these conversations. Most of you here were elected on a progressive platform. I'm pretty sure, irrespective of the challenges we've had in our occupation, they will be disappointed if you vote to remove us now.”
John Spitzberg, president of the local chapter of Veterans For Peace, took a different tack. By dispersing the camp, he argued, Council was contradicting its own affordable-housing goals.
“How can you make this decision to criminalize, again, the homeless by saying, in effect, 'You're on your own, buddy?'” queried Spitzberg, who’s also treasurer of the Asheville Homeless Network. “Give us a safe haven, where people can be safe. They're not getting this protection from private agencies.”
Bob Sanal, meanwhile, saw Council's decision in more extreme terms. “The flag of the United States should no longer be sitting behind you,” he declared. “Instead, what should be sitting behind you is the flag of the new world order and a one-world government, which will be taking over. There will be microchips and bar codes for all, and you'll have no choice about receiving that microchip.”
If Council approved the ordinances, Sanal continued, he would no longer consider himself an American.
George Ingle, however, said it was time for the camp to go.
“I'm sick and tired of it; I'm not for these people here: I've been an occupier of Asheville for 83 years,” he told Council. “It's time we moved these people out. I'm tired of these people coming in from New York, Oakland and telling this city what to do. What if I came in and said, 'Find me a condo somewhere’ — of course, free of charge?”
Ochoa, meanwhile, pointed out that evicting the protesters would not address the larger problem of homelessness. “After the occupation, they're looking at spending time in jail,” he said. “I don't think it's right someone should end up behind bars for being homeless.”
In the end, the ordinance expanding the borders of the park and creating public forum zones was approved 6-1, with Smith opposed. The ordinance banning camping passed 5-2, with Council member Cecil Bothwell joining Smith in opposition.
Before the vote, Smith said he didn't fault anyone for their position, given the difficulty of the issue.
“I'm not going to be supporting this; I've still got a lot of uncertainty over whether this is speech,” he noted. “I know this is messy; I know that we've reduced chronic homelessness in this city by 75 percent.”
But Smith also expressed some frustration with the Occupiers.
“As far as working with Occupy Asheville, I want you to know that the city's worked with hundreds of organizations. We've got a model for this: Discover it,” he urged. “We work with people who address deep-seated problems in our community. The way we do that is that they create a viable model, they build public support across the political spectrum and then they move it forward with that support, rather than just coming from point A to point B without crossing the space in between.”
Legislature all wet
Council members were united, however, on the need to retain control of the city's water system. A study committee made up of state legislators is considering giving the system to either an independent authority or the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Since bowing out of its water agreement with Buncombe County in 2005, noted Manheimer, the city has taken on debt to significantly improve the system. Water revenues, she added, are used only for system maintenance, expansion and infrastructure.
“We have professional management: It's well-run, it's nationally recognized, we've consistently maintained and grown the water system, we're in excellent financial condition and we've made consistent investment,” she continued.
Asheville, said Manheimer, faces challenges because city taxpayers must “shoulder the burden of a much higher daytime population.”
The state's study committee will hold an all-day hearing on the matter Thursday, Feb. 23, at the WNC Agricultural Center, beginning at 9 a.m.
Council member Chris Pelly said he plans to propose an independent public hearing on the matter at an upcoming Council meeting, sharply criticizing the Legislature's decision to hold only one hearing in Asheville — and in a place far removed from the city center.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.