As riffed on in last week’s Xpress by cartoonist Brent Brown, Asheville’s city government is well known for hiring consultants, outside experts who offer their opinions on everything from homelessness strategies to police recruitment. But much of the advice rendered to the city still comes free of charge, courtesy of the more than 200 citizen volunteers who serve on its advisory boards and commissions. Most meet monthly for three-year terms, providing information and recommendations to Asheville City Council in specific focus areas like public transit and the environment.
That system could be set for a major change. In February, Asheville unveiled a plan to reduce the number of advisory groups from 20 to four, each aligned with a focus area of the 2018 Living Asheville Comprehensive Plan. Each of those boards would be capped at 11 members, meaning the number of residents who serve in a regular advisory role would be cut by roughly 80%.
Some Asheville City Council members and board volunteers say the new approach would more effectively harness community input while reducing stress on city staff. But others, including Council candidate and Downtown Commission member Andrew Fletcher, believe the proposal goes too far.
“I completely agree that boards and commissions need renovation. I disagree with Council’s approach that boards and commissions need demolition,” Fletcher explains. “Their proposal to somehow listen better by taking 200 people out of City Hall is contradictory to their aims or stated goals.”
Too much of a good thing?
Council member Gwen Wisler, who is spearheading the restructuring effort, says that she started noticing issues with the city’s citizen advisory boards during her time as vice mayor from 2015-19. In that role, she chaired Council’s Boards and Commissions Committee, which is responsible for reviewing citizen applications, recommending appointments to Council and providing guidance on establishing new boards.
Wisler, first elected in 2013 and not seeking reelection this year, says the number of citizen advisory boards has steadily grown over the recent past, with six created in the last three years alone. That increase has led to a “duplication of priorities,” she says, and placed a heavy burden on city staff, who often must present the same information multiple times to different groups.
“Our number of boards and commissions is very high relative to other municipalities. And while we really value all the great input, we just feel we can better harness that effort,” Wisler says.
(Including quasi-judicial and state-mandated boards, Asheville has 40 total boards and commissions, within the range of other large North Carolina cities. Wilmington and Raleigh both have 28 boards and commissions, Charlotte has 35, and Winston-Salem has 44.)
And Council member Sage Turner, who herself has served on numerous advisory boards over the years, says she’s also been hearing concerns from boards and commission members. “Some feel they’re asked to do too much, others not enough,” Turner tells Xpress. “Some feel the process is inefficient and not inclusive, and many have expressed they don’t feel their input is heard by Council.”
“Boards are currently so specialized and focused on limited topics that we can miss the bigger picture, and as a result, our community may not get the best options and decisions,” adds Anne Keller, who has served on the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment for five years.
Fletcher, appointed to the Public Art and Cultural Commission in 2016 and the Downtown Commission in 2018, generally agrees that not all boards are created equal. He recalls that the Haywood Street Advisory Team, tasked with developing ideas for the so-called “Pit of Despair” in Asheville’s downtown, was well resourced and productive.
“We had discussions, a lot of experts at the table, and we had a ton of staff resources. If we wanted something at one meeting, we got it at the next meeting. It was a really good process,” he says.
By contrast, Fletcher says the nine-person Public Art and Cultural Commission has been less successful, claiming that the board hasn’t received a lot of funding or attention. “I’ve seen our Council liaison at one meeting in the entire time I’ve been there,” he adds. “And that seems to make a big difference.”
The four newly established advisory boards would deal with the broad topics of equitable community, health environment and livable community, well-planned community and housing. Each would be supported by a cross-departmental staff team and hold monthly formal meetings with live public comment.
Board members would then be able to establish working groups to tackle specific issues, such as greenway expansion or improvements to Pack Square, that fall under their general purview. The working groups would be responsible for gathering community input and providing feedback to the advisory boards, who would then relay those recommendations to Council.
Working groups would be much more informal than advisory boards, says Deputy City Clerk Sarah Gross, and would convene on an as-needed basis. New groups could be created or dissolved as issues are addressed, and group members could flow in and out depending on their interests or level of commitment. Because Asheville government resources would not directly support the working groups, she continues, there would be no limit to the number of people who could participate.
“We see this as an opportunity for more inclusive participation, so that more people, rather than those that are appointed to a board and commission, are making recommendations based on their networks,” says city spokesperson Dawa Hitch. “This is an opportunity to have a broader, more intentional effort towards including everybody.”
Fletcher says he’s skeptical of that idea, noting that without staff support, putting together effective working groups may prove challenging and time consuming. “I’ve seen working groups that come together for specialized stuff underneath other boards and commissions. But they take a long time to build,” he says.
He points to the Downtown Commission’s Public Space Management Committee, which hasn’t yet filled all its positions despite city staff support and three months of effort. “A lot of talent has left town, and the people that are experienced with this stuff are increasingly jaded about giving their time to a city that doesn’t listen,” Fletcher adds.
Input on input
Beyond the scope of the city’s proposal, Fletcher and others have criticized the way it came about. Although the city has been researching potential changes to boards and commissions since fall 2019, with updates provided to Council members during their private check-in meetings as early as fall 2021, it didn’t issue a press release about the effort until Feb. 22.
The proposal was brought up in a public forum for the first time by Patrick Conant, director of government transparency project Sunshine Request, during public comment at Council’s Jan. 25 meeting — a week before current board chairs and vice chairs were briefed.
“Boards and commissions are … the best example of participatory democracy that we currently possess,” Conant said during the meeting. “The proposal would eliminate all 20 advisory boards that operate in our city. This includes boards with a focus on human relations, police accountability, urban forestry in more than a dozen other areas.”
“How can a proposal of this magnitude appear without any mention in a public meeting?” Conant continued.
City officials say they plan to conduct a robust community engagement campaign on the issue and that the restructuring will address longstanding issues within the committees. But Conant tells Xpress that he feels that “proposal that has all the most critical details predetermined.”
“Despite the city’s lack of public communication and transparency about this process, it is obvious their proposal has been under development for an extended period of time,” he continues.
While all of the boards and commissions members who spoke with Xpress agreed there were issues with the current framework, they varied on whether they supported the city’s proposal.
Sharon Sumrall, who serves on the Urban Forestry Commission and the Neighborhood Advisory Commission, says that she is “very concerned about the wholesale disintegration” of the city’s boards and commissions.
“I can understand that there may be redundancy in some of the [boards and commissions] … but as an example, the UFC has accomplished a huge amount of work. To just name a few [accomplishments], the Tree Canopy Protection Amendment, Chapter 20 Revisions, Gap Analysis, NASA study on heat island effect in Asheville and many more positive and constructive changes and our continuing ask for an urban forester,” she explains.
But Sara Coplai, who has been on the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee since October 2020, sees the proposal another way, calling it vital as Asheville grapples with how to spend $26.2 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, occupancy taxes and other sources of funding.
“It is bold, with a vision,” she says. “How these funds will be invested over time could either improve historically entrenched problems or increase their disparities. Aligning the proposed restructured boards and commissions with the Living Asheville recommendations will provide avenues to invest these dollars and future ones in an integrated and impactful way.”
And Barry Bialik, who has been on the Asheville Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and currently serves as chair, believes that the city should resume all meetings in person before making major changes. “I feel like this proposal is part of a knee-jerk reaction by city officials and management reacting to not enough staff capacity to be able to effectively manage the boards and commissions rather than from any specific ineffectiveness of the boards and commissions themselves,” he says.
Asheville suspended all board and commission meetings in March 2020, with many not returning until that summer as the city implemented a virtual meetings platform. Over 100 board seats became vacant due to resignations from January 2020 through February, with over 40% of total vacancies at any given time generated by someone quitting. Several board members who spoke with Xpress pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a contributor to this high turnover.
Eileen McMinn, who became chair of the Homeless Initiative Advisory Commission in spring 2020 after a year and a half on the board, says her group was told by a city staff liaison that its meetings would be temporarily reduced to bimonthly virtual meetings because the city lacked resources. “As a result, our work on the Five Year Plan [on Homelessness in Buncombe County] ceased abruptly,” she says. “Despite many inquiries and protests, I never got a satisfactory response to who decided we only could meet every other month or why.”
Feeling frustrated by the experience, McMinn says that she decided not to apply for the board again after her term expired.
“There was a transition period in which a small team of production staff was conducting all virtual meetings while training additional staff to be able to assist,” said Gross, the deputy city clerk, when asked about McMinn’s experience. “All boards had the option to resume regular scheduling in 2021.”
Several current board members declined to comment on the plan, saying that they had little or no understanding of the proposed changes. But opportunities for public engagement are coming, city officials say. In a Feb. 16 press release, the city announced four workshops that will be held virtually throughout March aimed at gathering input on the proposal.
City officials say that it is too early in the process to finalize a transition plan but that they will implement a pilot program once the core restructuring is figured out. If that pilot proves successful, the city would phase out its other boards and commissions and begin building its newly structured ones.
Should the proposal move forward, current projects managed by advisory committees would be reevaluated to determine priorities with guidance from Council committees. The city does not yet have a plan for transition of the current boards and commissions members.