Arlis Queen put the people back in democracy

Once upon a time, local government felt a lot less need to pay attention to the concerns of its citizens.

These days, however, it’s much harder for local leaders to insulate themselves from public scrutiny. At candidate forums and public meetings, people are asking tough questions, demanding accountability — in short, forcing democracy to live up to its promises.

And the hard work and dedication of one honest man, who stubbornly insisted on throwing open the doors of the chambers of government to the public, played a key role in helping make this happen. Arlis Queen died in Asheville on Dec. 27 at age 71, but the movement for accountability that this one-time Democratic precinct chairman helped launch out of frustration with local machine politics is flourishing.

Taxpayers for Accountable Government, the watchdog group Arlis co-founded with his wife, Rachel Queen, helped make candidate forums a much-anticipated election-season institution here. And Arlis’ uncompromising insistence on exposing a lax and sometimes hostile local regulatory agency to public scrutiny — first as an activist, then as a board member — helped the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency become a model of public involvement and even-handed regulatory enforcement.

Asheville Mayor Charles Worley was a City Council member in the mid-1990s when Arlis, as TAG’s vice chairman, began publicly questioning a shady real-estate deal the county had cut involving a piece of school-district land, handing a $350,000 contract to a school-board member to build a lavish headquarters for a do-nothing air-pollution agency. Arlis began attending every one of the agency’s board meetings and insisting that it agree to an independent financial audit. In 1996, City Council appointed Arlis to the agency’s board.

“When we appointed him, he went in and he took a good, hard look at what was going on with the board — the practices — and I think he brought a lot of positive things to that board in terms of changing the way it operated — being outspoken at times to do that,” said Worley. “I think the net effect of everything he did on that board was extremely positive and very beneficial, both to the board and to the community. Arlis has been a longtime friend of mine; I’ve worked closely with him on a number of situations. He always had the best interest of the community at heart. He was not afraid to express his concerns to bring about change.”

Arlis’s legendary bluntness made him an excellent watchdog but a lousy diplomat — which was part of the reason local activists and journalists loved him. Two years into his first term on the air-agency board, he was quoted in the press as calling the agency “an absolutely corrupt, crooked outfit.” This typical bit of candor so angered his fellow board members — most of whom were industry insiders or at least unprepared to take the agency’s mandate seriously — that they reneged on their agreement with the city to rotate the board chairmanship to him. That move, however, cost the board the support of city leaders, who from then on worked in tandem with Arlis, the other city appointee (League of Women Voters President Nelda Holder) and environmental activists to clean up the agency.

Even after its reform, Arlis and his allies kept the air agency on a straight ethical track, protecting it from the county’s attempt to take it over and reduce its influence — and from powerful polluters’ efforts to manipulate it. One evening in 2000, for example, I got a call from Arlis, who often sent tips about official corruption my way. The agency had levied a potentially embarrassing $2,500 fine on the county’s largest polluter, a major local utility. The utility, which disputed the fine, wanted the board to settle it quietly, without a public hearing — in exchange for a $5,000 contribution to an air-quality-education fund the new board wanted to start.

“I would not go along with anybody making a settlement before we hold a hearing,” Arlis asked me to quote him at the time. That, he said, “would be corrupting the process.”

Arlis’ very public outrage quickly put a stop to the utility’s scheme.

“Even if he had to stand alone, he stood for what he believed in,” Rachel says about her husband.

And unlike some self-appointed local watchdogs, Arlis was no bigot in populist clothing. Although he was a devout Baptist and an ordained deacon, he never judged people by what religion they professed — only by whether they practiced what they preached.

I know this from personal experience. I first met Arlis in 1998, when he and Rachel shared that year’s Marketta Laurila Free Speech Award with two other activist couples. One of those couples consisted of my wife, Dixie Deerman, and me. As Witches who were very visible in the community, we were being recognized for our activism against religious prejudice. From then on, Arlis always complimented me when he’d seen Dixie’s name and mine in an article or commentary on religious equality in the local press.

Of course, Arlis liked to see his own name in the news, too, though he always remained humble enough to turn his notorious wit on himself. When his deteriorating lungs finally forced him to retire from the air-agency board last year, Mike Morgan — an independent conservative politician who’d often sharply criticized both Arlis and the new air agency — stood up after Arlis’ announcement and praised him sincerely for all he’d done to reform the agency.

“Thanks, Mike,” Arlis replied. “I’ll pay you later.”

Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, sums up Arlis Queen’s legacy this way: “He voiced his beliefs with a determination and force of immediacy, [urging citizens] … to take the steps necessary for healthier air.

“His work with the inspection of facilities, construction permits and appeal hearings was outstanding: It exemplified his administrative abilities and fair-play principles. … I sincerely hope that the air-quality board, our government (state and local), and we, the citizens, carry forth the principles of healthier air — as [was] his great goal in life.”

And Arlis’ longtime friend Bruce Gibbs remembers, “He used to say, ‘If you pour yourself into a situation, the results will take care of themselves.'”

The last time I interviewed Arlis was last July, after the air agency had honored him with an award. We both knew it was probably the final time we would ever speak, in this life at least. I asked him if he had any advice for fellow citizens who wanted to follow in his footsteps.

The key factor in changing the air agency, he told me, was bringing the attention of the press and the people to bear on it.

“Public scrutiny?” I asked.

“Oh yes, that’s what it took,” he assured me. That and “somebody crazy enough to hang in there. You know, when it first started, everybody said, ‘Well, it’ll be over in a week or two.’ Well, it took about five years to really get that mess straightened out.”

“So you’re saying don’t get discouraged and quit if you don’t get results right away?”

“Oh no. If you’re sincere and want to make change, you’re gonna have to take the time to do it.” He paused thoughtfully, and his eyes twinkled. “I’ve kind of enjoyed it,” he confessed.

“Now you go write something in the paper about me. … Just don’t make me look crazy or something!”

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