Forum or agin ‘em?

There were few surprises as six Asheville City Council candidates lined up in UNCA’s Reuter Center Oct. 17 for the latest in a continuing string of public forums. As moderator Cleve Mathews proclaimed up front, “We’re not trying to trap anyone; we’re not trying to embarrass anyone or give anyone a chance to show off.”

Coming to the table: Asheville City Council candidates at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. From left to right: Dwight Butner, Jan Davis, Bryan Freeborn, Elaine Lite, Brownie Newman and Bill Russell. Photo By Jonathan Welch

After all six candidates had fielded the first few questions, Mathews changed the format, directing each question to a specific panelist and letting the others choose whether or not to weigh in. He said he was making the change in order to save time and allow more topics to be heard.

The three incumbents focused on the current Council’s accomplishments. Bryan Freeborn and Brownie Newman touted such successes as repairing the water system, hiring new police officers and taking steps toward refurbishing the Civic Center. Jan Davis stressed the importance of giving Council a chance to finish the projects it’s started (such as the Civic Center).

Newcomer Dwight Butner played up his experience as a downtown business owner and talked about the need for city government to help residents buy starter homes. Insurance agent Bill Russell said he just wants to serve Asheville.

It was also no surprise that development seemed to be audience members’ foremost concern—particularly since City Council had approved The Ellington, a controversial downtown high-rise, the day before.

“The thought of Asheville becoming Anywhere, USA, saddens me,” said Elaine Lite, whose campaign is founded on reining in development. Her call for a moratorium won applause from many of the several dozen people in attendance.

But some unexpected twists did emerge from the candidates’ table. Russell, the lone Republican contender, sided with Lite (perhaps the most liberal of the candidates) in resisting conditional-use permits, which are used to increase the allowable scale and density of development projects. Butner, an independent, sounded a similar note, saying, “There would be very few times I would entertain a zoning change.” (For her part, Lite maintained that neighboring residents should have a strong voice in such changes.)

Freeborn, on the other hand, argued that zoning designations aren’t meant to be set in stone. “Zoning categories in the city of Asheville is not a guarantee—it is a guide,” he said, noting that community preferences and priorities change over time, and the city needs to change with them.

Development didn’t totally dominate the forum, however. Responding to a question about a domestic registry for gay couples and benefits for same-sex partners, Freeborn declared: “It’s unfair for us to continue a system that unfairly treats a group of individuals that want to be married, that want to be committed and share their life together and share their resources. We are a progressive city, and we need to step up to the plate.” Newman and Lite agreed.

Davis, meanwhile, touched on the deadlocked city/county relations, predicting an eventual merger. “I think consolidation will occur,” he said, adding, “We will come kicking and screaming to that table.”

Butner, however, took a decidedly pro-city stance, saying that respect for the county’s position on things like the fractured water agreement “needs to be given—and it needs to be earned.” In any struggles with the county, Butner said he would “stand by holding the city line.”

Another complex question—what to do about the recent rise in gang violence—was also discussed. Lite said the question is “too complicated to answer in a minute-and-a-half.” Others mentioned such fixes as education, jobs and vocational training, community centers and enhanced cooperation with the Police Department.

And despite the candidates’ obvious differences, things were mostly calm and cordial as the six contenders continued their run up to the Nov. 6 election. During their closing comments, everyone had the same message for an electorate that mostly stayed home during the primary: “Please go vote.”

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