State your occupation

Occupying City Hall: Occupy Asheville demonstrators heading toward Asheville City Council chambers. Photo by Jonathan Welch
Occupying City Hall: Occupy Asheville demonstrators heading toward Asheville City Council chambers. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Asheville City Council Oct. 11, 2011 meeting

  • City scraps community-media initiative
  • Waneta Street rezoning narrowly approved

It wasn't on the agenda, but the Occupy Asheville demonstrators who packed the Asheville City Council chamber on the rainy night of Oct. 11 had a request they wanted met — and pronto.

They’d already been camping out at various sites for more than a week. Daily “moving pickets” wound their way through downtown, and general assemblies had been held in Pritchard Park and Pack Square. In solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, the local movement is "broadly criticizing corporate dominance and government corruption," according to a press announcement.

Police had found the protesters “approachable and amenable,” Lt. Wallace Welch told Xpress just before the meeting, adding that they’d been asked not to camp on Wall Street or on federal property.

But the lack of a dedicated camping area prompted group representatives to ask Council, during the meeting’s public-comment period, for an exemption from the 10 p.m. curfew so the protesters could camp in the Pack Square Park amphitheater indefinitely.

“This has been a model occupation,” said attorney Jennifer Foster. “We're just asking to waive the 10 p.m. curfew in a portion of the park so as not to interfere with any other permitted activities.”

Handing Council a petition containing 350 signatures, Foster contrasted Asheville's accommodating approach with the police clashes reported in other cities.

“We have been peaceful, but the mood of the country is volatile, and there's a lot of volatility regarding the Asheville Police Department,” she said. “I have been doing everything I can to make sure this stays completely peaceful and nonviolent, and that's why we are here and we need your help.”

Group representative Robert Zachary, meanwhile, asked that “Council see the uniqueness of this event here in Asheville, and what a unique position Asheville can be placed in by the recognition of the freedom to assemble. … I don't think the mayor and police have responded here the way they have in some cities, and we want to say thank you.” Zachary also emphasized the need for dialogue.

Sounding a similar note, Matthew Bird said: “You have the power to take a proactive step to prevent conflict between the peaceful people of this movement and those responsible for enforcing the ordinance approved by this Council. … Right now, the general assembly has no home base.”

Longtime local activist Clare Hanrahan voiced strong support for the move, declaring, “I've never witnessed such an assembly. … These are folks sitting down, one with another — it's what true democracy is about. Something is moving, and it's moving all over the world, and it's moving in Asheville.”

Asheville-area unions are also backing the demonstrations. “This is a nonviolent group,” Mark Case, president of the local AFL-CIO branch, told Council. “They just want their right to assemble, talk, listen and learn.” Local unions, he added, stood ready to help with logistical support.

But even those sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause had concerns about rewriting city policy “on the fly,” as Council member Gordon Smith put it.

Council member Esther Manheimer, noting that other groups had already reserved the park for upcoming dates, suggested assigning the protesters another spot, such as the Public Works Building’s parking lot. “Beggars can't be choosers,” she remarked.

“We're not beggars!” the crowd shouted back, as Mayor Terry Bellamy banged the gavel.

“I think we're all sympathetic to the cause; I think we sense a movement you're very committed to,” said Council member Jan Davis. “The park was never designed as an overnight camping spot,” he continued, adding, “We want to be helpful.”

Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said: “I have a lot of support, especially, for the concerns about inequality in our country. But these are First Amendment issues, and we wrestle with them a lot as a council.” Local government, said Newman, should be wary of changing rules too quickly, because “It will have to be for anyone, not just organizations that share your political views.”

“We've gone to a lot of effort to develop the rules for our public parks,” he continued. “I'd like to see people from city government talk with your people about this and see if we can reach a resolution. I'm not comfortable discarding all the public policies we've had.”

For her part, the mayor didn’t want Council voting on something that wasn’t on the agenda — meaning members of the public not affiliated with Occupy Asheville wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in, and staff and City Council would have little time to consider the ramifications. Council directed staff to find the protesters a temporary camping site until a vote on a permanent one could be held at the next meeting on Oct. 25.

“There has to be public comment,” said Bellamy.

“Indeterminate length is certainly an issue, but the reality is people are sleeping on the sidewalk,” Smith told the crowd. “But while we don't want to drag our feet, I also don't think we want to jump in with both feet until we've considered all the issues. I want to see this continue well, but we need time to go through our process.”

“This is what happens when we wing it,” he added later. “It can be ugly.”

“This is what democracy looks like,” someone replied.

After the meeting, Foster told the assembled media representatives, “Government needs to be responsive: We can't wait two weeks.”

Following the meeting, Occupy Asheville demonstrators held a general assembly on the steps of City Hall. Some camped, but but when police asked them to disperse by 10 p.m., they did. On Oct. 13, city staff and Occupy Asheville agreed to a camping spot under the Lexington Avenue overpass. In tweets, however, some demonstrators expressed dissatisfaction with the spot, calling the agreement "tentative."

Community-media contract scrapped

After local public-access channel URTV collapsed earlier this year amid funding disputes with Buncombe County, the city of Asheville put out a request for proposals in connection with a three-year, $120,000 community-media contract, with the county putting up half the money.

Various local entities applied, and last month, city staff scored all the projects, winnowing the list to two finalists: Mountain Xpress and Ponderwell, a local web-development company. A separate evaluation panel gave Ponderwell's proposal (for a local hub where citizens could submit and edit news content) the higher score, and city staff recommended awarding it the contract.

But City Council apparently didn't find either proposal sufficiently convincing. Council member Cecil Bothwell said the evaluation process “seemed pretty squishy” and the criteria “amorphous.”

“I'm still not comfortable we got what we set out for initially,” continued Bothwell, saying he'd hoped to see proposals involving more economic development and training.

“What I'm seeing in these two proposals is more of an aggregator function for community media, which is already happening on blogs all over,” he noted. “It seems very similar to the way Mountain Xpress does news now, with a constant flow of information and citizen journalism. It feels like we're funding something that's already happening.”

Smith noted similar concerns, adding that he worries about government funding a private media organization “and blurring those estates.”

Ponderwell representative Amie Tracey defended the proposal, explaining, “What we want to do isn't just a website that puts together things from other sites. What's really important to us is to create a system to get people involved in community journalism who have never been involved before.”

Former URTV producer Dr. Milton Byrd, meanwhile, argued that URTV had done everything the city now said it was looking for. “There was a strong voice for the people, and it was stopped,” asserted Byrd.

Council members unanimously voted not to award the contract; the allocated money will return to the city's general fund.

Divided

In other business, City Council narrowly approved rezoning a vacant lot on Waneta Street in Montford. The 4-3 vote supports subdividing the parcel; Bellamy joined Davis and Manheimer on the losing end. Proponents called it a reasonable compromise that would help provide affordable housing; critics (including the Montford Neighborhood Association) said it would open the door to excessive density. Because it was a conditional zoning request, the matter must return for a second reading and vote at Council's Oct. 25 meeting.

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

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