In a dramatic Feb. 17 appearance on WCQS-FM's "Conversations" program, Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy charged that Council member Gordon Smith was exploiting the issue of same-sex, domestic-partner benefits to boost his prospects in a future mayoral bid.
"This issue was put forward in a way that was very divisive," said Bellamy. "I think it was put out there as a political issue, not to help the employees." The purpose, she maintained, was to "create a political dynamic for four years later for a person to potentially run for mayor."
Defending her controversial vote against the proposal, the mayor specifically took issue with the way Smith had presented it, asking Council to formally endorse the concept now, with a vote on the details to follow later.
But when host David Hurand asked if she would have voted for the benefits if the process had been more to her liking, Bellamy replied, "I think when the city of Asheville starts going down this road without a clear understanding of the costs — how it would impact our finances, how it impacts heterosexual couples who live in the same situation — I don't think it's the right thing to do."
Asked by Hurand to clarify whether she believes Smith was using the issue to lay the groundwork for a later run for mayor, Bellamy said: "I think so. I think if it was meant pure and sincerely, he would have followed the process that was outlined."
Citing Smith's own recent appearance on another radio show, the mayor asserted, "For me to listen to [880-AM] the Revolution and hear the person who helped put this legislation together say, 'We've watched the mayor for 10 years; she's been silent on this issue, and so we knew if we painted her in a corner she'd have to come out on a position' — that's not good policy."
Asked about Bellamy's remarks, Smith said with a laugh, "I hadn't really thought about my mayoral prospects before — maybe I should. I had no such plans or intentions. I must admit, I'm flattered that Mayor Bellamy thinks that I'm such an excellent strategic thinker that I'd have this all planned four years out."
Smith also defended the way he'd presented the idea, noting that he'd gotten signatures from Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and fellow Council member Cecil Bothwell (the customary procedure for advancing an issue quickly) and that Bellamy herself had placed it on the agenda.
City Manager Gary Jackson, who was also on Hurand's show, said that in the wake of Council's Feb. 9 decision (they endorsed the idea on a 4-2 vote), staff is working on a more specific plan for implementing the benefits by Jan. 1, 2011.
"We'll share with Council what we believe the complexities are in putting the program together, and our recommendation on whether or not we can meet that timeline," Jackson explained. "Other cities have been down this path," some for more than a decade, he added, and staff will be researching what happened in those cases.