Preoccupied

The huddle: City Attorney Bob Oast, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson, City Manager Gary Jackson and Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons discuss the logistics of Occupy Asheville’s encampment near City Hall. photo by Bill Rhodes
The huddle: City Attorney Bob Oast, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson, City Manager Gary Jackson and Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons discuss the logistics of Occupy Asheville’s encampment near City Hall. photo by Bill Rhodes

Asheville City Council meeting Dec. 13, 2011

  • The Aventine apartments pass second reading
  • First Transit contract renewed

If new Asheville City Council members Marc Hunt and Chris Pelly expected their first regular meeting to be short and sweet, they were in for a surprise. Occupy Asheville protesters packed the Council chamber Dec. 13, opposing ordinances drafted in response to the group’s small encampment outside City Hall.

The proposed rules would ban camping, storing things and erecting enclosed structures on all city property. Camping is already prohibited in city parks, which have a 10 p.m. curfew. But as more than one city staffer and Council member noted during the discussion, it is something of a legal gray area.

Normally, such proposals work their way through a committee before being taken up by Council. But this hadn’t happened, and in fact, Council hadn't yet appointed new members to the Public Safety Committee.

As a result, Council member Gordon Smith proposed delaying the matter until the committee could consider the ramifications, citing legal, civil-liberties and process concerns. “Yes, it's gray; yes, it's ambiguous; and right now, that's where we're going to have to be,” Smith added later.

Many Occupy Asheville members called on Council to vote down the ordinances outright rather than postponing consideration.

“I ask you not to send this to the Public Safety Committee today, because I think it needs to be rejected today,” said Matthew Burd, emphasizing that he was speaking on his own behalf. “We respectfully and firmly petition Council to reject the proposed ordinances and pass pro-democracy, pro-civic-engagement ordinances encouraging nonviolent participation in the political process.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy cut Burd off, reminding him that the topic for public comment was the postponement, not the ordinances themselves.

“Did I go into the body of the ordinance?” asked Burd.

“You were going to,” Bellamy shot back, to derisive laughter from the audience.

Others asked Council to appoint Occupy Asheville representatives to the committee as part of the process.

But Council members aren't the only ones debating the fate of the camp. After the new Council members were sworn in Dec. 6, Occupy Asheville members gathered in a general assembly. Some maintained that the group’s aims would be better served by occupying foreclosed or private property, saying that problems with belligerent drunks, safety concerns and the challenges posed by winter weather are an unnecessary drain on time and resources.

Others argued that organization and security at the camp are improving, and it’s an ideal location for drawing attention to their cause. At this writing, Occupy Asheville hadn't reached consensus on which course of action to take.

But whatever their differences concerning the fate of the City Hall camp, Occupy Asheville members were united in opposition to the city's proposed rules, which they say are aimed at quashing dissent and will also be used to target the homeless.

“This should not be sent to the Public Safety Committee — it should be a simple ‘no,’” spokesperson Naomi Archer told Council, saying that a similar ordinance in Charlotte already faces looming legal challenges. “It's clearly intended to suppress a certain form of political dissent,” asserted Archer.

Council member Jan Davis pointed out that city staff has dispersed encampments on city property before. Worrying about the rules being applied consistently, he asked why Council couldn't consider the matter that evening.

Later in the meeting, City Attorney Bob Oast noted that since the area in front of City Hall has traditionally been considered a public forum, it has more protections than, say, city property on Beaucatcher Mountain.

Council member Cecil Bothwell, who's often voiced support for Occupy Asheville, warned, “If you press for a vote tonight, you may not like the outcome.” A number of the issues with the ordinance, he said, would be better dealt with at the committee level before coming to Council.

In the end, Council postponed consideration of the rules on a 5-2 vote with Bellamy and Davis opposed. Council members subsequently appointed Bothwell, Smith and Davis to the Public Safety Committee. They also scheduled a special meeting to take up the matter Tuesday, Jan. 3 at 3:30 p.m. on the third floor of the municipal building.

Some also questioned how the ordinances got onto the meeting agenda without first going before a Council committee. City Manager Gary Jackson took responsibility for bringing the proposal forward.

“That's legal?” asked someone from the audience.

“Yes, it is,” Bellamy replied.

No sure thing

But the debate wasn’t finished. Pelly asked if the city could provide the protesters with a porta-jon or at least allow them to procure one, while assuring them that the status of their camp wouldn't change until Council had voted on the new rules. Without restroom facilities, he said, staff were “essentially criminalizing” the camp.

Bothwell then asked Oast if, since camping was currently being allowed on the property, porta-jons might be considered part of camping, and thus legal? After a few silent moments, Oast said, “I'd like to think about that.”

At that point, Bellamy asked for a 20-minute recess, saying the matter was “precedent-setting” and she wanted Oast to “be 100 percent sure.”

“I'm not sure I can get sure,” responded Oast.

After a roughly half-hour recess, the city attorney clarified that porta-jons are currently allowed only for permitted events. Council members agreed to ask the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office to reopen a restroom in the vestibule of the jail. Protesters said the restroom had been closed recently after Occupy Asheville campers began using it.

Other business

In other action, Council members: • Unanimously approved The Aventine, a 312-unit apartment complex to be built just outside the city limits in south Asheville, on a second reading. The project was narrowly approved Nov. 22 on a 4-3 vote. The developer had subsequently agreed to lower rents for some units, assuaging Council members' concerns about affordability. • Unanimously approved renewing First Transit’s contract to manage the city’s bus system. The new contract contains provisions intended to address concerns about safety and training in the wake of a series of accidents involving Asheville Transit drivers. Due to a conflict between federal and state law, the city must pay an outside company to manage the transit system’s unionized employees.

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

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