An ordinance banning camping on city property — drafted in response to the Occupy Asheville encampment in front of City Hall — is back on Asheville City Council’s agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting. The ban is there despite a Council committee voting 2-1 to instead send forward a permitting process for the protesters. However, the Council members on that committee say that they don’t anticipate the issue coming up for a vote, but expect a staff report on permits for the Occupy campers.
On Jan. 3, the Public Safety Committee, composed of Council members Cecil Bothwell (chair), Jan Davis and Gordon Smith, voted to direct staff a permitting process for political campers instead of sending on the previously proposed ordinances, which would ban camping, enclosed structures and storage on city property. Davis said he felt the proposal for a permitting process had merit, but the bans deserved consideration by the full Council, and voted against the move. Last month, Council voted 5-2 to send the bans, drafted by staff in response to the Occupy camp, to the committee. Davis and Mayor Terry Bellamy opposed sending the issue to committee.
While staff still has to draft the exact language of the permitting proposal, the measures discussed on Jan. 3 would allow campers on city property for free-speech reasons if they purchased a permit for a nominal fee, kept the space clean and renewed the approval every week.
“I put them both on there, not really knowing what Council would do,” Burleson says.
“Oh my goodness, they absolutely are,” Bothwell says after Xpress asked about the ordinances’ presence on the agenda. “Well, we’re going to knock them down. That’s my opinion. We need to do the utmost we can to preserve free speech. We can find a way to allow this to move forward now and let the movement [Occupy] figure out where it’s going. I didn’t hear anything at the committee that indicated this is a particular threat to safety.”
Smith, who made the permitting proposal, says that he thinks the ban remained on the agenda because the committee hadn’t unanimously agreed on a course of action to take.
“I think since the committee was split, he [City Attorney Bob Oast] included both,” Smith says. “Staff still hasn’t completed the report on the permitting process, but I still think there’s going to be a lot of stuff to hammer out. I think he’s just including that to make it clear what all the options are.”
Smith adds that if the ban is brought up for a vote at the Council meeting, he will oppose it.
“I think we’re on the right track, coming up with a reasonable way to permit this emerging type of speech and protest as something we’re going to have to contend with,” he says.
Davis tells Xpress he views the bans’ presence on the agenda as a placeholder and doesn’t expect a vote.
“I think what will end up taking their place is the action we took Tuesday [at the committee meeting].They could come up, but I don’t think there’s the support for them,” he says.
Davis adds that he has issues with the way Bothwell ran the committee meeting, which spent 45 minutes on public comment. He feels that sort of debate was more appropriate for a Council meeting, and had hoped to focus more on the nuts and bolts of the proposals, including Smith’s.
“It turned into a public hearing on Occupy Asheville. I didn’t think that was our task,” Davis says. “I thought we were tasked with vetting the ordinances on the table or finding some alternatives to that … We get to listen to the virtues of Occupy again for 45 minutes, again, when we should have been looking at the proposal Gordon put out. All of a sudden we give staff a handful of ideas. They’re good ideas, but it leaves them in kind of a lurch, [because] Maggie [Burleson] has to have those items by Wednesday.”
Davis notes that while he’s sympathetic to Occupy Asheville, he believes there are real concerns about the camp that need to be addressed.
“I get cast as the bad guy on this deal, but the truth of the matters is, I think … a lot of citizens … are unhappy with the situation,” Davis asserts, saying he recently received emails from a cyclist and a city board member about public urination near the camp. “They’re not happy with that, I’m not happy with that.
“Every time I go in the building,” Davis continues, “I have city employees come up to me and ask, ‘Can’t you do something?’ I’m not against them trying to make a better world, heck, I’d like a better world for all of us. The American Dream’s a lot harder to reach than it used to be. I have a great deal of empathy for them, but there’s a time and place, and I’m not sure erecting structures on public land is free speech.”
Prior to the proposal of the ban, Occupy Asheville members continued an ongoing debate about whether or not to leave the site. Some cited problems with belligerent drunks and worries about the challenges posed by winter, but asserted that the movement’s goals would be better served by camping on private or foreclosed property. Others, however, contended that the situation at the camp was improving and that it continues to provide a necessary public presence for the protests.