Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson will retire this year after shepherding the city through the past 12 years, the city announced on Feb. 13.
At a meeting of City Council, Mayor Esther Manheimer thanked Jackson for his service. “You have served this city selflessly, wisely, and with grace and integrity. Our community is forever indebted to you,” she read from her letter to Jackson.
Manheimer pointed to several accomplishments under Jackson’s tenure: navigating the Great Recession, handling growth, helping the city achieve a AAA bond rating, increasing environmental sustainability, improving transit, building affordable housing and ensuring equity. “These are extraordinary accomplishments for any municipality to achieve, and they would not all have been possible for Asheville without your commitment and leadership,” she said.
Jackson, 63, is set to retire on Dec. 31 of this year, and Manheimer said he has agreed to stay on until a replacement is found. Manheimer’s letter states that he will be compensated through the end of the year even if a new city manager is put in place prior to that time. Jackson currently pulls down an annual salary of $195,214 plus estimated fringe benefits of $65,153.
The city hired Jackson in June 2005 to replace Jim Westbrook, who held the reins for more than 10 years. Jackson came to Asheville from Fort Worth, Texas, where he served as city manager before working as a private consultant.
At the Feb. 13 meeting, Jackson credited teamwork and the aggressive goals of City Council for achieving the successes Manheimer mentioned. “That’s what makes this such a fun job,” he said. “It’s not the work — it’s just got to be meaningful work, and that’s what we’re here for.”
Jackson received a standing ovation from those in attendance in Council chambers. “I am at a loss for words. It’s been an honor and a privilege,” he said.
Manheimer said the city will discuss finalization of Jackson’s tenure and the city’s search for a new city manager in closed session at the Council retreat, which takes place this Thursday and Friday at The Collider in downtown Asheville. Portions of the retreat that don’t involve personnel or other legally protected matters are open to the public.
City opposes Merrimon proposal
City Council unanimously approved a resolution to reject the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to widen Merrimon Avenue from four lanes to five with a center turn lane and to ask staff to work with DOT to come up with alternatives. (See “Residents to DOT: Let us participate in Merrimon planning.”) The city believes the current proposal doesn’t do enough to ensure safety and to provide pedestrian and bicycle access.
DOT unveiled plans in January to widen Merrimon Avenue from its intersection with W.T. Weaver Boulevard to an area close to Fenner Avenue. In late January, City Council complained that DOT had not consulted with the city on the plan.
At the Feb. 13 Council meeting, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said, “We will continue to insist that DOT keep us at the table.” She asked Transportation Director Ken Putnam if DOT had yet created a strategy for involving the city in not just the Merrimon plan but also in all planned DOT projects within city limits. He replied that it’s an ongoing conversation, and the city is being proactive in providing input.
Asheville on Bikes Executive Director Mike Sule delivered a thank-you card to Council for its stance against the DOT proposal. “It’s a bold position to oppose this project and it’s appreciated by the community,” he said. AoB has publicly stated its opposition to the project, and it organized a bike ride to the Council meeting, swinging by DOT’s Division 13 office on Orange Street to take “Selfies for Safety.”
Dave Nutter with the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County noted the effect the DOT plan would have on properties in the Merrimon corridor such as the Norwood and Grove Park national historic districts, clusters of historic Arts-and-Crafts-style homes on Clearview Terrace and the Glens Creek Greenway area. “In its present form, the project will do substantial and irrevocable damage to the character of the study area,” he said.
North Asheville resident Tony Hauser took issue with the DOT’s plan to widen Merrimon by adding a center turn lane. “Adding lanes doesn’t solve traffic problems,” he said. “Adding lanes creates induced demand, where someone who might otherwise ride the bus, walk or ride a bicycle realizes that there’s now more lanes out there, so they decide to drive instead.”
Human Relations Commission inches closer to reality
Last year, the city created a Blue Ribbon Committee to explore the creation of a Human Relations Commission to nourish racial diversity, equity and inclusion. The committee has met 11 times since August and has collected public feedback. On Feb. 13, members of the committee presented a report to City Council with recommended focus areas, membership criteria and duties for the commission.
BRC member Patrick Conant and Chair Dewana Little highlighted what the committee agreed should be the top functions for a Human Relations Commission: making policy recommendations to City Council; supporting the city’s equity and inclusion manager; providing a public forum for the community to voice complaints; and engaging the community around funded programs and policies. They said the commission should focus on promoting equity in public safety, education and economic development, as well as ensuring adequate health-related services and housing.
The BRC envisions a 15-member Human Relations Commission made up of at least six African-Americans, at least two Latinx and two LGBTQ individuals, at least three “professionals with influence,” at least two youths ages 16-25, at least two people living in public housing, at least two individuals with a disability, and representatives from all six geographical areas of the city.
Conant and Little made the case for having sufficient staff support for the commission due to the significance of its mission. The BRC recommends the city allocate three staff members to assist with the work of the Human Relations Commission, including the equity and inclusion manager, a human relations specialist and an inclusive engagement manager. They further suggested that the Office for Equity and Inclusion become a fully independent department, with the manager reporting directly to the city manager and/or City Council.
Keith Young, one of two African-American members of City Council, told the BRC that its report assuaged his initial concerns about the process of developing a Human Relations Commission. “This was a maturation that I couldn’t possibly see when you all first went in, and I kind of went in with my hands over my eyes and my heart in my hand, hoping that you all would get it right, and I think you did,” he said. “I think you nailed it. I think these are really smart beginnings.”
In public comment, Ashley Cooper said she found it fitting the Human Relations Commission report was delivered on the same night Council declared February to be Black History Month. “Because yet again here locally, we have black and brown folks that are being really significant in helping to show us the way forward to help us address some of the discrimination and injustice that’s happening in our community here,” she said. Cooper added that she hoped Council would give the commission the power and resources it needs to make sure it succeeds.
Downtown business owner Elizabeth Schell said city institutions have been built up on top of past and ongoing racial injustice. “And because of this, our community has lost so much in leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship and so many other rich gifts that our black residents could offer,” she said. “Other minorities and recent immigrants to our country also have so much to offer, if only more resources were allocated equitably. We could expand the base of our tourism and development so it’s not just white folks who visit here and white folks who move here and white people and companies who profit.”
Wisler, chair of the city’s Boards and Commissions Committee, said the next step will be to share the recommendations for the Human Relations Commission with the city’s Legal Department to begin the formal process of proposing the commission, while getting further Council and staff input.
In other business
- The city declared Feb. 10-17 as “Love Asheville Go Local Week,” encouraging residents and visitors to shop local for Valentine’s Day.
- The Asheville Tree Commission presented an Urban Forest Sustainability and Management Review.
- David Melton, director of water resources, gave a report on non-revenue water usage and operations.
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 5 p.m. at City Hall.