Citizen policy wonks

A group of local progressive community activists has created the Vance Policy Institute, with an initial goal of promoting openness and transparency in local-government decisions and operations.

The newly formed think tank, named for 19th-century U.S. Sen. and N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance of Asheville, is the creation of local blogger Gordon Smith of Scrutiny Hooligans, former Xpress writer and editor Cecil Bothwell, and fellow activists Jim Barton, B.J. Snow and Michael McDonough.

“The Vance Policy Institute’s mission is to explore, propose and advocate sound public policies,” according to the group’s statement (more details are available at www.scrutinyhooligans.us). “We are committed to enlightened, systemic changes in both Asheville municipal and Buncombe County governments through a process that identifies significant problems, considers solutions from all stakeholders, then proposes only those policies that will result in the greatest good for the greatest number.”

As for the group’s namesake, Vance left a divided legacy, Smith admits. Although he owned slaves and was an avowed white supremacist, Vance championed the rights of Jews. And while he served as a Civil War regimental commander early in the fighting, Gov. Vance (unlike President Lincoln) refused to suspend habeas corpus during the war. Furthermore, says Smith, Vance distinguished himself early in life. “While we are certainly not going out and buying slaves, we would love to be able to have a great deal of influence at a young age, which is something he did,” he says.

The group was formed in large part out of a desire to fill a policy-making niche: Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners have a lot of issues on their plates, and relatively little time to devote to them. After working full-time jobs, raising families and tending to the basic tasks of their elected duties, says Smith, “There just isn’t enough time to be able to get proactive and build policy.

“We want to be able to give policy solutions to people at those bodies to either use as a jumping-off point or to use as-is, to save them that labor-intensive stuff they really don’t have time for,” he explains.

Smith believes the institute could become a model for similar groups, regardless of political ideology. The think tank is run entirely by volunteer efforts at this point. There is no office, staff or outside funding, though VPI envisions recruiting policy-research interns in the near future, Smith says.

Speaking of the future, an initial focus on openness and transparency in local government will soon expand to include topics like property taxes, the water system and energy, Smith says.

“Hopefully, we’re going to be able to produce some things that will at least be helpful,” he adds. “We don’t expect such things to get adopted letter for letter … but we really want to infuse the debate with solid policy offerings.”

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