Local business owners raised their voices and things got, by the moderator’s own admission, “a little out of hand” at this morning’s Council of Independent Business Owners meeting when it came to the issue of graffiti. With the district attorney, city leaders and a state representative on hand, opinions differed — sometimes sharply — on possible solutions and who should foot the bill.
“It’s a disgrace, it’s costing people business,” CIBO’s Max Swicegood, who owns property downtown, said of the level of graffiti in his introduction of the issue. “There are some businesses downtown, looking to do developments, that have pulled out because they’re scared of it.”
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer handed out draft copies of an overhauled city ordinance, which calls graffiti “a threat to public safety” and would require perpetrators or property owners to clean it up. If they don’t, the city will do so and charge the landowner. The ordinance also establishes fines for graffiti, with higher fines for repeat offenses. Despite some of the disagreements, CIBO attendees were all in favor of harsher penalties for those painting graffiti and more police presence to catch them.
District Attorney Ron Moore, who’s running for re-election, handed out papers about the state’s sentencing restrictions and the effectiveness of local nuisance courts, as well as calling for stricter penalties.
Moore said that current laws sharply limit the sentences graffiti offenders can receive, something he hopes the state Legislature will change.
“Graffiti, as brother Swicegood says, is a real problem in our town, and it seems to be getting worse over the past few years,” Moore said. “The laws that we have to deal with this are not tough enough.”
He estimated about a third of those convicted for graffiti worked downtown “washing dishes, cooking, whatever. They get off work at 2 in the morning; they’re out doing graffiti by 3 or 4 . . . .”
Moore hopes to see graffiti become a felony in some circumstances, such as with a habitual offender or if the damage is particularly severe. With felonies, he added, prosecutors have more leverage to demand that the perpetrator pay the damages.
“Deterrence, I think, is the way to fly,” Moore says. “A lot of kids want to go to college; they’re not going to want a felony conviction.”
Moore added that he’s also learned more about the issue over the years, like that the “MOMS” tag stands for “Marks on Most Surfaces.”
“I didn’t know that; a few years ago I thought it was some guy that was in a gang or something honoring his mom,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
After Moore’s presentation, Swicegood asked the assembled business owners to vent their frustrations about the issue.
“You’ve been complaining for it for over a decade, you’ve been paying for it for over a decade. Now the city’s going to charge you for it,” he said.
Asheville City Council member Jan Davis asked that Swicegood allow him to speak about the proposed ordinance before they did so, to clarify its content. His request was refused.
Business owner Bob Larsen said, “My building gets painted once a month, and they like to party on the roof. They poke holes in it. We’ve spent between $7-10,000 dollars, not including the roof.
“I called the switchboard at the police station, and I said, ‘If I catch him I’ll break his arm,’” Larsen continued. “They said, ‘That’s not legal, don’t say that.’ I said, ‘Let me say it again.’ “
Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo’s downtown, expressed frustration — calling those responsible for graffiti “pricks” — but said he felt the ordinance was pragmatic.
“The only effective way to combat graffiti is to get it off quickly,” Butner said. “I have great problems, in principle, with being punished as a victim, I really do. But at some point the pragmatist in me realizes that if things keep going the way they’re going, I’m no longer a victim, I’m a volunteer.”
Butner spoke longer than the other audience members who expressed their frustrations, highlighting that business owners who cleaned graffiti multiple times wouldn’t face a fine. When CIBO staff tried to get him to wrap up his comments, he shouted, “I’m talking about this, do not interrupt me!” He told CIBO members not to lambast Council until they knew more about the new rules.
“As you can see, it’s an emotional issue,” Davis said, following Butner’s remarks. A downtown business owner, he noted his tire shop has been tagged multiple times. But he said that until the state passes stronger penalties, he believes the city’s ordinance is an improvement and takes its direction from similar ordinances in other cities that have helped address the issue.
“There is a resentment about the victim being fined, and I share that,” Davis said. “But it’s really hard here; you’ve got a lot of absentee landlords and a lot of people that don’t care.”
“Asheville’s got an inordinate amount of graffiti,” he added. “We’ve got a community filled with people that have a little bit of anarchy in them, in fact a lot of anarchy.”
He pointed that the fine for property owners who don’t clean up graffiti is intended to get their attention, and, “if somebody breaks my window, do I want taxpayers paying to fix it? It’s the same with graffiti … “
He added that the city needs to back stronger penalties from the state and more police on the street at night to catch those causing the graffiti.
In response, Swicegood said he intentionally let the meeting get out of hand “because I want everyone to understand the frustration.”
“We clean it up but when we call the city looking for some kind of enforcement, some kind of resolution, there is none,” he said. “It’s getting worse, it’s not getting better, and in the frustration of the moment, someone’s going to get hurt. It’s really at a boiling point.”
“Look at the table in front of you. It’s covered with paper,” Swicegood added, pointing to the draft ordinances and other documents. “We don’t have time to read all that. We want to make a phone call and get the thing done.”
State Rep. Tim Moffitt, the final presenter of the morning, said he was working with other legislators to get tougher penalties, but he expects the support of local government in the face of a potential backlash.
He cited his attempt last year to ban female toplessness after city officials complained about the annual topless rally and requested legislative action.
“When it was met with resistance, the city was silent,” he said. “I hope when it gets hot in the kitchen [about changes to graffiti penalties] City Council will be there.”
Moffitt also had a problem with fining business owners to get them to clean it up.
“I think we need to look at every other possibility before we look at penalizing the property owner,” he said. “You’re penalizing someone who was not guilty of anything. When government does that, we’re putting ourselves on a very dangerous course. If we continue on that course, because there’s a lot of that in existing ordinances in municipalities throughout the state, then I have grave concerns about the overall direction of where we’re heading as a society.”
Moffitt advocated a “collaborative approach” between business owners and the city, and encouraged quick removal of graffiti as a priority, encouraging officials to take former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on graffiti — removing it in a matter of hours off subway cars — as an example.
“That’s gone a long way towards alleviating the problem they had in their community,” Moffitt said.