Asheville City Council retreat: perception and reality

While Friday’s part of Asheville City Council’s annual retreat focused on broad policy matters, Saturday morning’s session focused on perceptions (including “very bad” ones) and relationships (sometimes not very happy ones) with the legislature in Raleigh and the local public.

Paul Meyer, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, started the weekend session, asserting that the General Assembly is willing to intervene in local matters (even, in one example he used, rezoning a single parcel that was zoned 20 years ago). That makes it more important than ever before for local governments to band together and fight for “keeping local decisions local.” He noted that the GOP-dominated Legislature’s way of dealing with local governments sets “a really bad precedent.”

While Meyer compared the position of the state Legislature in this state to that of “a dictatorship,” so he emphasized that local governments need to learn to talk to their legislators and not hold grudges because of that power imbalance.

“You must sit down and talk to legislators,” Meyer said. “There’s no way around it. … It can be very painful, but keep trying.”

The level of tension between the Legislature and the city has resulted in public and legal battles, Meyer acknowledged. This was brought home during a particularly tense moment at the retreat, when Council members asked Jack Cozort, the city’s lobbyist, how their local government is perceived by the legislators.

After a long pause, Cozort said, “There’s a lot of difference between the way you’re perceived and the way you really are.” The impression of the city in Raleigh is “bad, very bad,” he said.

“The perception is that you’re a bunch of liberal crazies who don’t know what you’re doing and that you’re not doing a very good job running your city,” Cozort said, sighing.

“Despite the fact we have the lowest unemployment in N.C.?” Council member Chris Pelly asked.

“They don’t know that,” Cozort answered. The city has to do a better job of telling its side of the story and making legislators aware of its accomplishments, he said, adding that he wished the local delegation had been at Friday’s retreat meeting.

Mayor Esther Manheimer, who worked in the Legislature as a counsel and researcher for various committees from 1998-2002 said that more legislation is crafted “under cover of darkness” than before, giving local governments less time to respond or craft a compromise.

Cozort acknowledged that in the case of legislation seeking to seize Asheville’s water system, the city “was up against the wall.” But that in the future, he hoped more cooperation was possible.

Both Manheimer and Council member Cecil Bothwell likewise hoped that the city could shift from a defensive approach to a more proactive one.

On the local front, City Manager Gary Jackson said that, as part of an effort for the city to better communicate locally, Public Information Officer Dawa Hitch will shift more her work toward directing community engagement.

Hitch presented Council with several ways to better engage with the public. She said that “times are changing,” and while it may sound silly, she said, even linking city activities to events like the Sochi Olympics or lolcats might help to get the word out, and that other cities have done so effectively.

“What people are interested in is what sells papers,” she said. “This may sound far out, but it’s working in other cities.”

“It could be cats — people get clicks with a lot of cats, people like cats,” Hitch said, drawing laughter from the group of elected officials, city staff and presenters. “We want officials to embrace this idea that it’s important to work with the community, we want them to be ambassadors.” With the public thus engaged, the city could win more advocates, she and Jackson emphasized.

Council and staff also viewed Lego Cuusoo and Audi ads as examples of ways to engage the public (the word “crowdsourcing” came up a few times) with technology ranging from new uses of the city’s social media accounts (the city’s had a Twitter account since May 2009) to more use of video. Council member Jan Davis, however, emphasized that plenty of people in Asheville who are in an older or lower-income demographic and may not follow digital media in the way that this strategy would require.

Hitch emphasized that the city will try to use a variety of ways to reach people, including more traditional ones. “Some people prefer neighborhood meetings, some people prefer e-newsletters, and there’s this new, emerging technology. There’s a lot to explore.”

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