An otherwise uneventful and relatively short Asheville City Council July 23 ended with a brief ruckus: former Asheville Mayor Ken Michalove accused Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Gary Jackson and Council member Marc Hunt of "multiple violations of the city council Code of Ethics" in granting $2 million to the Asheville Art Museum for renovations.
Presenting Council with a thick stack of documentation, Michalove claimed that Manheimer and Jackson are friends of Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers. This connection is one reason the city approved $2 million for renovations to the museum's city-owned building, he claimed. Michalove — mayor from 1989 to 1993, as well as city manager from 1977 to 1984 — also asserted that the vice mayor's law firm, Van Winkle, "has represented the … museum in the past and only in the past year turned that representation over to another attorney." Manheimer should have recused herself from Council's vote on the matter, he said.
And Hunt, Michalove added, had acted improperly in his role on the Pack Place Board, representing the Art Museum's interests rather than the city's as a whole.
The museum funding was part of a tax increase estimated to raise nearly $12 million for a variety of projects, such as parking decks and affordable housing. Council adopted the increase in late June, and the museum funding proved controversial: several residents, including mayoral candidate and former city Risk Management Director John Miall, said it was too much money to award a nonprofit at a time when the city faces more essential concerns. Asheville staff and museum supporters countered that the $2 million will cover essential improvements and help attract tourism to the area.
Council's code of ethics doesn't require members to recuse themselves due to friendships —only if a measure might directly benefit themselves, their immediate family, their employer, or their business interests. The same policies allow Council members to express their opinions or advocate for positions, and doesn't preclude from doing so when appointed to a board.
But Michalove asserted that an April 26 fundraiser for Manheimer's mayoral campaign, held at the art museum, did "not meet the fundamental nonprofit rental requirements of 'Education, Art, and Science' as required by the Pack Place legal documents."
Council members didn’t respond to Michalove during the meeting, though Mayor Terry Bellamy thanked him for sharing his thoughts and documentation, which included CDs of recorded Pack Place Board and committee meetings.
The next day, however, Heather Nelson, Pack Place managing director, told Xpress that political events don't violate the venue's policies, as long as the organizers rent the space under the same terms any other organization would.
And Van Winkle refused comment on how long they had represented the museum, with a representative only stating “we don't give out that kind of information.” (Manheimer told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the firm no longer represents the museum.)
Michalove later explained that he was against the $2 million renovation funding because the the museum's free rent and maintenance are already enough of a subsidy.
In other actions
• Council, in response to complaints from East End residents, agreed that this will be the last year the Brewgrass festival will take place in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. However, Council didn't agree on where the festival should go. Bellamy objected to moving it to the nearby Memorial Stadium. Council delayed a vote until Aug. 13.
• Council members voted 6-0 to extend downtown's zoning rules to a piece of property on Asheland Avenue currently occupied by Keller Williams real estate offices. Council member Chris Pelly, who works as a realtor there, was recused from the decision.