“The time limit applicable to public hearings or public comment periods on any agenda item shall be one hour … exclusive of staff presentations and any structured Council debate.”
— from a newly adopted amendment to City Council rules
Attendance was sparse at the April 13 formal session of the Asheville City Council — surprising considering that The Block was, once again, on the agenda. In previous hearings concerning a redevelopment plan for the city’s traditionally African-American business district, the chamber had been standing room only.
But not this time. And that fact didn’t sit well with Block property owner Eugene Ellison, a principal opponent of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment proposal that Council narrowly rejected on Feb. 24 (see “Nightmare on Eagle Street,” March 24 Xpress). Much to Ellison’s surprise and dismay, however, a modified Block proposal was once again before Council for consideration.
Charlotte-based developer David Rogers explained that the plan had been tweaked to allow more affordable rents for some of the proposed apartments and retail spaces. That was possible, said Rogers, because of a change in the ratio of residential to commercial space that made the project eligible for certain federal tax credits.
The developer added that he’d recently been approached by representatives of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a major Block property owner whose own development plans had been interwoven with Rogers’ own in the proposal the city voted down. The church, said Rogers, had informed him that they’d decided to add more commercial space to their plan, which would bump up the project’s projected commercial income to 51 percent — enough to make the entire proposal eligible for federal New Market Tax Credits. Those credits, in turn, would enable Rogers to lower some of the rents. The question of affordability had been a sticking point for at least two of the Council members who voted against the measure back in February.
In introducing the latest version of the plan, Scott Shuford, the city’s Planning and Development director, noted that the proposal “seems to address some of the concerns raised by Council.” Another significant change, said Shuford, is the substantially reduced role of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (a nonprofit created by the city and charged with overseeing redevelopment of the South Pack Square area, aka The Block). During the Feb. 24 hearing, several Council members had indicated that they had concerns about the EMSDC’s organizational structure.
At the April 13 meeting, however, Ellison balked at the idea of considering any new plan for The Block whatsoever. During the public hearing, Ellison leveled a stinging criticism at the Council: “I’m shocked we’re here tonight … having received notice about this on Thursday prior to Good Friday. The process is being highly abused tonight. … There’s been no opportunity for scrutiny.” Ellison also pointed out that City Council had said after its Feb. 24 vote that the issue would come back before them at the April 20 work session. “Is it all about the developer?” queried Ellison before going on to answer his own question: “We’re here tonight because the developer got another great deal.”
Siding with Ellison was fellow Block property owner Jesse Plaster, who also railed against the city’s failure to inform affected property owners. “Public notice was given that the next time the issue would be discussed was April 20. … There was no public notice about tonight’s meeting — which is why the crowd is so small.”
Echoing her partner’s concerns, Amy Plaster charged that adding the issue to the agenda at the last minute “shows a contempt for the community … [which] we have continually seen throughout this process.” Rogers’ newfound tax credits, she added, are “a financial option that should have been considered a year ago.”
Mayor Charles Worley defended the late addition of the matter to the agenda, explaining that Council had been dealing with the proposal for “six months” and that the version now before Council was “a revamping of the proposal with critical time elements.” Earlier, Rogers had stressed the need for a quick decision; otherwise, he said, the financial institutions marketing the tax credits would simply sell them to a developer in San Francisco or Denver. Worley also noted that the city had sent out a press release announcing the item on the agenda. That press release went out on Thursday, April 8; the Asheville Citizen-Times ran a story about the agenda change on Friday, April 9.
Walter Plaue, a local real-estate investor who attends most Council meetings, also sounded skeptical about the timing: “I’m suspicious that after all these years, all of a sudden the developer comes up with a tax credit. All of a sudden he has a way of lowering rents. Isn’t that convenient?”
Rogers, however, defended himself, saying, “The church changed its mind on what they wanted to do — and that was two weeks ago. It’s nothing I’ve done.”
When it was time for Council to discuss the matter, the issue of process once again reared its head. Council member Joe Dunn commented: “Like in the [Grove Park Inn proposal], we hear it again: ‘The process, the process … we’ve got to follow the process.’ And we aren’t.” Dunn added, however, that the benefits to be gained from the changes made to the plan outweigh any procedural shortcomings.
Council member Holly Jones, meanwhile, said, “I take issue with the public process.” But she, too, voiced her support, noting that the new plan moves The Block in the right direction. “This gets us there,” she said.
Council member Terry Bellamy, who’d been heavily involved in attempts to salvage the embattled project in recent months, asked several questions regarding parking and other technical aspects. She also raised the possibility of restructuring the EMSDC board.
The biggest surprise of the evening came when Council member Jan Davis came out against the new plan — which he’d voted to support back in February. “This is a show of bad faith. I’m voting against it, because we said in good faith that they’d have a certain amount of time to come back with ideas. We told them we would.”
The final vote was 6-1, with Davis casting the lone OPPOSING***YES*** vote.
Beat the clock
In a separate action, Council also voted to amend the rules governing public hearings in an effort to reduce the length of its meetings. The problem of marathon meetings had been discussed at length at both a recent goal-setting retreat and a subsequent work session, after which Council members asked City Attorney Bob Oast to tweak the rules. Oast came back with a list of suggested amendments and explanations of them. In an accompanying memo, Oast wrote, “One of Council’s continuing concerns has been the length of Council meetings and the conduct of public-comment sessions, including public hearings.” The proposed amendments, he added, mainly address rules of decorum and “recognize the Mayor’s power, as the presiding officer, to control proceedings.” One proposed change suggested substituting “rude and inappropriate” for “vexatious” in a section detailing which comments may be ruled out of order.
But Oast’s memo also highlighted an entirely new section establishing “rules and procedures applicable to particular matters: These include recognition of spokespersons, order of presentation, and rulings on relevance and repetition of information. Due process will be taken into consideration in establishing any special rules.”
The section in question begins as follows: “The time limit applicable to public hearings or public comment periods on any agenda item shall be one hour. This time limit shall be exclusive of staff presentations and any structured Council debate. The time limit may be shortened or extended by the mayor with the concurrence of the Council.”
In other words, although the new rule places a one-hour time limit on public comment during a hearing, Council members and city staff are still free to discuss and probe issues at length.
The report cites no evidence indicating that excessive public comment is the primary cause of lengthy Council meetings. Nor was there any discussion of the relationship between work sessions and the length of formal meetings. In fact, three of the last six Council work sessions have been cancelled.
Ironically, not a single member of the public rose to speak during the public hearing on curtailing opportunities for public comment. During Council’s discussion of the matter, however, Mayor Worley emphasized that exceptions to the time limit could be made in the case of particularly controversial hearings, such as the bitterly contentious, two-day-long, 14-hour Wal-Mart hearing in August 2002. Time limits, reasoned Worley, are essential because people repeat themselves.
“Our job is to receive facts — whether it’s one fact or the same fact 100 times over, it should have no impact on the outcome,” Worley declared. Joe Dunn echoed that sentiment, commenting, “How can we do a good job when we hear the same thing over and over again?”
“It shows there’s a beginning and an end,” noted Holly Jones. “But we need to do our part — we’re probably as much of the problem as the public.”
Council unanimously approved the new rules.
After the meeting, Xpress asked both Jones and Worley why Council members hadn’t also placed time limits on themselves. The newly adopted changes are a first step, said Jones, adding that Council is also taking informal steps to reduce meeting times. Council members, she said, “will continue to hold each other accountable.” Worley added, “You’ll see us making efforts to police ourselves, but no formal Council rules.”