Any vacancy in the office of mayor or council shall be filled by the council for the remainder of the unexpired term from the qualified electors of the City of Asheville.
— Sec. 7 of the Asheville City Charter, Ord. No. 1501-3
Reading the above ordinance during the Asheville City Council’s Dec. 9 meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy said the law is clear on Council’s obligation to choose a new member to fill the vacancy created by Holly Jones’ election to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
“What it does not provide,” she added, “Is a way for Council to do that.”
That lack of detail in the 1985 amendment to the city’s charter opened the door to Council’s experiment over the past few weeks, which culminated in the selection of Kelly Miller as Asheville’s newest Council member. Miller is executive director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau and executive vice president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The final vote came after about two hours of interviews, during which Council members queried Miller and three other candidates—Charlie Hume, Chuck Archerd and Esther Manheimer—picked from an initial list of 47 applicants. A fifth nominee, Sylvia Farrington, withdrew her name from consideration that very day, citing family concerns. Bellamy noted, however, that Farrington had communicated her intention to run for City Council next November.
The spirited response to the city’s open call for aspiring Council members wasn’t lost on Hume, who thanked the other 46 applicants during his interview. “It is a testament to the engaged character of this city, and it is a great thing,” he said.
Miller, who’s been with the Chamber for nine years, was sworn in during a special ceremony Dec. 12. He will serve out the 11 months remaining on Jones’ term before possibly seeking election next year.
During his interview earlier that afternoon, Miller said he’s prepared to come on board amid what he called “the most challenging times Council, staff and the citizens of Asheville have faced in decades.”
He also touted his connections in the community and his work with legislative bodies and leaders in Henderson and Buncombe counties as well as City Council.
“Your newest member must have the experience to hit the ground running,” he said, adding, “I have the experience, passion, desire and I certainly have the time.”
Having sufficient time to serve was one of the concerns put to each of the four candidates. Council member Bill Russell, who’s just completed his first year on Council, asked if they were aware of how much time the post demands. Each said they’d contacted Council members to get an idea of how much of their lives they would have to devote to serving the city.
“I didn’t jump into this blindly,” said Manheimer, a partner with the Van Winkle Law Firm who wound up one vote shy of the appointment. “I understand that you are always on duty.”
Other Council members, too, had a specific question that they repeated in each interview, from the festering water dispute with Buncombe County to planning and land-use issues. Other questions were based on a particular candidate’s background.
In Manheimer’s case, Vice Mayor Jan Davis took a special interest in the water question, noting that some members of her firm had been critical of the city’s decision to let the water agreement expire.
“That will in no way influence me,” Manheimer assured Davis. But while Hume and Archerd spoke to the need to continue communications with all concerned parties on the water issue, Miller voiced strong opposition to North Carolina’s Sullivan Acts, which forbid the city to charge customers outside the city limits higher rates and prohibit making annexation a condition of access to the water system.
“I am unequivocally in favor of differential water rates,” he said, defending the practice as a way to strengthen the city’s finances and prevent unnecessary sprawl. “My experience is that it is prudent policy to incentivize people to live near the city center.”
Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, noted that the Chamber of Commerce also plays a political and advocacy role in the community, wondering whether that would constitute a conflict of interest for Miller.
If such an issue came up, “I would definitely recuse myself,” Miller replied.
Newman also pointed out that Miller serves on board of the Pack Square Conservancy, and asked about his involvement in overseeing the cost of the new Pack Square Park, which Newman said has spiraled from an estimated $6 million to more than $20 million.
“As a board member for that project, do you feel like [this] is an example of accountability to the taxpayers?” queried Newman.
Miller said the increased costs were due to a combination of additions to the original plans and unforeseen infrastructure problems. In hindsight, he added, the board should have had more realistic expectations concerning the project’s scope. But he emphasized that much of the money has come from private donors, grants and other fundraising efforts.
Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, chose to ask each candidate if they had any skeletons in their closet that would have probably have come out during the course of a normal political campaign. Then, in a move that caused a stir around the Council table, he asked each candidate if they would submit to a criminal-background check and a drug screening.
The first time it was asked, Bellamy pointed out that Council members themselves are not subjected to such tests.
“I can ask whatever question I deem necessary,” countered Mumpower.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all the candidates said they would be willing to be tested. But the questioning also raised the prospect of requiring all Council members to submit to such tests. During a brief conversation around the table, Council members said they might hold such a policy discussion at a later date, perhaps during their annual retreat in January.
Speaking about the testing, Bellamy noted, ” The option is available to us right now.”
After the meeting, Mumpower told Xpress that while he has no power to compel Miller to submit to a drug test, he wanted to see how each candidate would answer. “I was more interested in whether they were open to such,” he explained. But Mumpower added that he will push for a discussion of requiring drug tests for all Council members once his new colleague is settled in.
“Oh, yes, I think we should be a model,” said Mumpower, declaring, “If our employees have to do it, we should have to do it.”
Making the pick
After several hours of interviews and a one-hour break, Council members reconvened for their regular 5 p.m. meeting. Despite Mumpower’s customary gripe about government spending, they quickly dispensed with the consent agenda, approving a new 140-unit condominium development on State Street in West Asheville and new signage for the River Arts District. Then it was time to move on to the lone agenda item listed under “new business”: appointing a new Council member.
Bellamy called for public comment, and most of the handful who spoke voiced support for either Miller or Hume.
“I don’t envy your hard choice,” said Pamela Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum. “But Kelly is passionate about Asheville and our community.”
Periodic Council gadfly Fred English protested the whole appointment process, arguing that former Council member Bryan Freeborn, who narrowly lost his seat to Russell in last year’s election, should get the nod. According to “my Constitution,” said English, Freeborn should be reappointed, since he has at least received public support in an election—though English emphasized that he doesn’t share Freeborn’s political views.
On their first attempt to find consensus, Council members simply went around the table naming their preferences. Manheimer got the nod from Davis, Newman and Council member Robin Cape. Russell and Bellamy supported Miller, and Mumpower favored Hume.
With no candidate receiving the requisite four votes, however, Council tried another tack. Newman made a motion to appoint Manheimer, but with an even number of Council members left in the wake of Jones’ departure, that bid fell victim to a 3-3 split.
“So,” concluded Bellamy, “We have to work it out.”
Mumpower then made a motion to appoint Miller. Seconded by Russell, it also won the support of Bellamy and Cape.
Miller said he was “humbled” by the appointment, promising that his philosophy as a Council member would reflect the “suit-and-tie to tie-dye” inclusivity endorsed by the Chamber. “I will be there to present a balanced approach to all the citizens of Asheville,” he told Xpress.