Backed up by the city’s attorney at Asheville City Council’s Jan. 27 meeting, Council member and Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce VP Kelly Miller declined to recuse himself from a motion to include a hotel/motel tax request on Council’s legislative agenda.
Miller, who was appointed to his Council seat in December, serves as the executive vice president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, which receives money from the current 4 percent hotel/motel tax and opposes a redirection or increase of that tax.
The legislative request, introduced by Vice Mayor Jan Davis, asks the N.C. General Assembly for permission to allocate 1 percent of the city’s room-tax funds for use on improvements to the Asheville Civic Center. The request does not specify if the money would come from a reallocation of the current 4 percent tax, or if the tax should be increased.
In Council chambers, Miller told his fellow members that he had “done some thinking about this,” and, having discussed the matter with City Attorney Bob Oast, planned to vote on the issue.
“I represent the citizens of Asheville,” Miller said. “And if I see a different way to get there, I’m going to suggest it.”
Oast said Miller’s employment with the Chamber did not constitute a conflict of interest that rises to the legal threshold of being “direct, substantial and identifiable.”
Some on Council were obviously uncomfortable with that viewpoint.
“It is hard for me to imagine that if I’m paid to do a specific thing, then to come back here and vote contrary to that … it seems like some real tension,” said Council member Brownie Newman.
“I’m really surprised … that this is not a conflict of interest,” said Council member Carl Mumpower. “In my personal view, there clearly is.”
A discussion of the room-tax issue at Council’s January retreat in which Miller participated sparked some discussion in the community about a possible conflict of interest, but this was this first time the request had come to an official vote.
Mayor Terry Bellamy, who, during her employ at Mountain Housing Opportunities, recused herself from votes that affected funding for that organization, said that, in some cases, she was prohibited by Department. of Housing and Urban Development regulations from participating. In others, though, she recused herself in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“Sometimes the lines are blurred,” she said. “I chose to leave the room because I didn’t want to give the appearance that I am trying to influence Council members.”
Bellamy has since left that job, and no longer recuses herself from such votes.
Sticking to his guns, Miller suggested that a 7-0 vote would send a stronger message than a divided one, and proposed alternative language that appealed to the county’s tourism leaders to develop “positive taxation policies” that “improve the overall health and awareness of the Asheville-area brand experience.”
That change, however, did not catch on, and Davis’ room-tax request made the legislative list in a 4-3 vote, with Mumpower, Miller and Councilman Bill Russell voting against it.
— Brian Postelle, staff writer