Head to head

Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer Photos by Max Cooper
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer Photos by Max Cooper

The first faceoff for the trio of candidates vying to be Asheville's next mayor revealed different positions on issues ranging from downtown development to funding for the Asheville Art Museum. But they generally agreed about the city’s difficult relationship with the N.C. General Assembly.

More than 100 people attended an Aug. 28 forum at the Country Club of Asheville, hosted by Leadership Asheville. Moderator Ed Hay, a former vice mayor who is vice president of the sponsoring group, fielded questions submitted by audience members on 3-by-5 cards. Asked how they would handle the city’s relationship with a hostile state Legislature, all three candidates — Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, former city Risk Management Director John Miall, and community activist Martin Ramsey, who works at a downtown restaurant — said the General Assembly is targeting Asheville.

“A hostile Legislature is what we have on our hands,” Manheimer declared. “I don't think any one person can be effective in leading this community unless you're able to work collaboratively with others. You have got to create partnerships if you are going to be effective, and especially in dealing with our Legislature.” She mentioned a N.C. League of Municipalities resolution, written by City Council, supporting Asheville's efforts to retain its water system. All told, 50 cities signed the resolution, noted Manheimer.

Miall applauded the resolution but said Council members should have tried to mobilize their constituents to vote certain legislators out of office. “We need to galvanize the support that puts our local people in office, and grow that out into the community around us,” he observed.

Ramsey, echoing his opening statements about the importance of reaching out to voters, said the makeup of the General Assembly could change within the next two years. “For the time being, let's try to keep them from burning the place down as fast as they can,” he urged.

When asked about the $2 million City Council allocated June 11 for renovations and repairs at the Asheville Art Museum, Ramsey said it’s an example of why he wants the city to adopt participatory budgeting, which would enable Asheville residents to directly decide how to spend a portion of the city’s money.

This approach, he said, would “require us to have discussions about what we actually want to do with limited money and abilities to implement those things.” When five or six people have the power to make such decisions, added Ramsey, “That's fundamentally undemocratic, and I don't support it.”

Miall, meanwhile, said he’s “1,000 percent opposed” to the art museum allocation. “Where are the metrics?” he asked. “Where are the objective, measurable outcomes that the 9,000 paying visitors who passed through the art museum last year — even if that number doubled, where's the numbers that tell us that was economic development? I'm really turned off by the sacred cows in the city budget.”

Manheimer, however, defended that decision, pointing out that cities like Asheville depend on property taxes as their main source of revenue. “When you have a robust art museum in your downtown, it raises the property values in the entire surrounding area,” she asserted. “We will get a return on this investment very soon. It is a wise investment, and it is in keeping with this growing stability of our revenue base going forward.” The $2 million, she continued, represents about 10 percent of the cost of those repairs, and until the museum raises the rest of the money from private sources, it won’t receive the city’s contribution.

After the audience’s questions had been addressed, Hay asked each candidate to pen a question for the other two. Referencing the nearly 10,000 people who attended the Aug. 5 Mountain Moral Monday demonstration, Ramsey asked Manheimer and Miall whether they would support some of the ideas represented there, such as workers’ rights and a living wage.

Manheimer cited Asheville’s living wage ordinance, which requires city contractors to pay their workers a rate that keeps up with the cost of living here. On Aug. 23, however, the Legislature passed a bill that essentially voids such ordinances across the state.

Miall, meanwhile, said, “I've read studies where those types of things typically can drive inflation. If landlords and merchants realize that people in the community have more disposable income, the cost of rent and everything else goes up accordingly. I'm not sure what end we achieve with living wages if that's true. I would think we need to study that.”

And in response to one last question from the crowd, Miall said more dialogue is needed concerning the property across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence that the city sold to the McKibbon Hotel Group as the site for a hotel and plaza.

Ramsey called the decision “a poor use of public space,” though he was ambivalent about it, since at least some of the proceeds from the sale may be used to fund affordable housing. “Is tourism working for Asheville, or is Asheville working for tourism?" asked Ramsey.

Manheimer talked about the Downtown Master Plan, noting, “There were several committees, hundreds of people that volunteered time to determine how our community sees the vision for downtown. … That foundation is very important to help guide the City Council in making decisions about land in the downtown area.”

Although applause levels for each candidate varied throughout the roughly 45-minute forum, there was no clear crowd favorite. And in conclusion, Hay told the audience, “I know you'll agree with me that we've got a very interesting mayor's race on our hands.”

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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