We were robbed

See the evidence: APD officers preparing to destroy firearms in 2007. The APD has promised better procedures for evidence destruction following a scandal over missing guns, drugs and money. Photo by Jonathan Welch
See the evidence: APD officers preparing to destroy firearms in 2007. The APD has promised better procedures for evidence destruction following a scandal over missing guns, drugs and money. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Asheville City Council April 12, 2011, meeting

  • Commercial water customers face major rate hike
  • Council calls for URTV equipment audit

The item wasn't on the printed agenda, but toward the end of the Asheville City Council's April 12 meeting, Council members approved paying Blueline Systems and Services $175,000 to oversee a full audit of the Asheville Police Department's evidence room.

The State Bureau of Investigation shut down the evidence room April 6 after Assistant District Attorney Chris Hess and a defense attorney discovered that 397 tablets of oxycodone, a prescription pain reliever, were missing. Meanwhile, a partial audit completed April 8 revealed that at least 115 items — including guns, drugs and money — were missing. Conducted by former APD Maj. Ross Robinson, it also found a "not completely reliable" record-keeping system and that some evidence, such as bags of marijuana, that had been stored so long the packaging had begun to decay.

District Attorney Ron Moore spoke highly of Blueline owner Mike Wright, a former crime-scene analyst for the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office, but had harsh words for the APD’s leadership, saying they should have informed him of evidence problems in early March, when those conducting the partial audit had already realized things were missing.

“When there are items missing from the property room, we need to know,” he stressed. “I've had two grand juries since March 1 where APD officers came and indicted people based on items they assumed were in the evidence room, while some people within the department were aware there were problems.”

“I am absolutely dependent on what's in the property room,” the DA continued. “I've had to bite my tongue and unsecure some bonds in the last day or two. I have to disclose everything I know to the lawyers.”

As for the source of the disappearances, Moore said: “I'm not prepared to point the finger at any one person. More than one person had access to the property room, so we don't know where the SBI investigation will go."

APD Chief Bill Hogan didn’t name names, blaming the problems on “one individual that has betrayed the trust; they lost their moral compass, and it's something they shouldn't have done. We have officers who we trust to handle evidence every day.”

Longtime evidence-room manager Lee Smith left the APD suddenly in February after being placed on investigative suspension the previous month, personnel records show.

The city is hoping to use drug-seizure money to fund the audit, and Hogan noted that Wright is ready “to move very, very quickly.” Future audits, said the chief, will examine evidence more carefully and require unaffiliated witnesses to be present when evidence is destroyed.

Mayor Terry Bellamy emphasized that “our rank and file are trying to get the bad guys and do the best they can to address integrity within the community. Changes should be made and will be made.”

“This was not a problem created by the rank-and-file officers of the Asheville Police Department,” Moore replied. “This is not a problem they created.”

Fee not-so-simple

A sharply divided Council narrowly approved a suite of fee increases on a 4-3 vote. The move is intended to help the city recoup the costs of some of the services it provides.

Reconfigured water rates accounted for the lion's share of the changes. Multifamily and smaller commercial customers will see increases of from 1 to 4 percent. Large commercial users will now pay nearly 20 percent more .

The changes stemmed from a report by Raftelis Financial Consultants, which found that Asheville's rate structure places a disproportionate burden on residential customers. Rounding out the package were: some minor parking-garage fee increases, new fire-inspection fees for residents in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, a $45 domestic-partner registration fee and some Civic Center service fees. All told, the changes are expected to generate more than $400,000 in new revenue.

Republican City Council candidate Mark Cates — the only person who addressed the increases during public comment — criticized the move. “You're raising fees yet again this year,” he said, adding, “It seems the council is generous with other people's money.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell supported the changes, saying, “Higher commercial rates encourage conservation” by rewarding businesses for curbing water usage.

Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Brownie Newman maintained that lacking the money to maintain and upgrade the water system does more damage than a reasonable fee increase.

Council member Esther Manheimer agreed. “I don't see why I should subsidize someone who wants a downtown monthly parking pass,” she observed. “That user should be paying the full cost of that service. That's the kind of thing we're trying to achieve in this fee package.”

Council member Bill Russell praised some of the measures but wondered if the water-rate increases might require more study. “I'm just not comfortable with that,” he said. “I think we need more information.”

Manheimer countered that the Raftellis study, along with the city's own examination of its rate structure over the last few years, provided ample basis for proceeding. “Our residential ratepayers are subsidizing, to some extent, multifamily and commercial and industrial users,” she argued.

Bellamy, however, was skeptical, noting, “We've always done increases gradually in the past.” She also expressed concern about the impact on local businesses.

In the end, Russell joined Bellamy and Council member Jan Davis in voting against the increases. But Gordon Smith supported the fee hikes.

Other business

On other fronts, Council members:
• Approved (5-2) funding for four additional early-voting sites during the 2011 general election. Davis and Russell opposed, citing the $24,000 cost.

• Called for an audit of equipment at public-access channel URTV in light of a threatened April 30 shutdown unless more money is forthcoming. Davis, who is Council’s liaison to URTV, said the channel hasn’t followed recommendations the city made before approving its last round of funding.

• Approved a payment of $48,000 plus $4,100 in reimbursement for mediation fees to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit with former APD officer Cherie Byrd. The suit alleged that her then-superior, Sgt. Eric Lauffer, sent her sexually explicit and racially offensive text messages and that the APD and city officials failed to act when she brought it to their attention. The city admitted that Lauffer sent the text messages but denied failing to take appropriate action. Council approved the settlement in closed session. Lauffer has been demoted but is still employed by the APD.

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

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