When it comes to knowing the ins and outs of the law, most people would rather leave the legal jargon to an expert. That’s why residents and city officials alike look to City Attorney Brad Branham to parse the fine points of the law as Asheville navigates various legal snares and long-standing tangles. Branham, who started his new job in April after serving as an assistant city attorney in Charlotte since 2012, has already been called upon to publicly lay out Asheville’s legal options for challenging state-imposed district elections and will no doubt confront other legal disputes as he settles into his new role.
Xpress sat down with Branham recently to consider what it’s like to work for the city and what legal obstacles may lie ahead for Asheville. His remarks have been edited for length and, in some instances, rearranged to group similar themes.
Describe your job for folks who might not be familiar with what a city attorney does.
You’re familiar with companies, corporations; they have attorneys. Municipalities are corporate entities — they just happen to be government corporations. We deal with contracts, we sue and get sued, we defend the city when we’re sued. We deal with local laws and ordinances and help the city interpret and enforce those, but we also handle a lot of laws and help the city stay compliant with those that are handed down either from the federal or the state government.
What are some misconceptions that you’ve heard about your job?
My client is the city of Asheville, the city government of Asheville. It is not the City Council, it is not the city manager, it is not any particular person. It’s the city as a whole. We get calls sometimes from people saying, “I need an attorney and you’re the city attorney. Does that not mean that you’re here to help me?” No, it doesn’t. I’m actually prohibited from doing that.
What are the top legal challenges that Asheville is currently facing?
From a purely legal perspective, I think one of the absolute biggest challenges that we are facing today in Asheville is the power line drawn between the state and local municipalities. One of the biggest examples of this is the new law regarding our City Council election districts. A lot of people are frustrated in North Carolina. when they find out that the state government really has almost total authority to do whatever they want to us. We, as a municipality, are given some powers too, but there’s always this tug of war between how much we can do and how much they can do.
There’s [also] a big legal aspect to affordable housing. People are saying, “We know we need more affordable housing, but how?” What are our legal limitations? How far is too far in terms of how much we can get involved in the private market? An example would be that we’re limited in this state: We’re not allowed to put rent control in place like they have in New York.
And that bleeds right into gentrification. Land use planning is constantly changing, so how do you help grow your city with these land use zoning principles? That’s tough to tell someone that you can do this with your property but not this.
If I were to tack on one more to Asheville, [it would be] our transit system. The state gives us certain funding mechanisms where we’re allowed to raise funds for transit. We can’t simply go out and institute a transit tax in the city of Asheville. We’re not allowed to do that by the state, and people tell us to do that all the time. We are allowed to levy a county tax, but it would have to come countywide.
What are the biggest differences between working for Asheville and Charlotte?
The size difference, you would think, is the big difference — and it’s noticeable, but in reality, you’re shocked almost to find out that small cities and big cities have a lot of the same problems at a certain point. In Charlotte, I was dealing on a daily basis with affordable housing issues, gentrification, racial tensions and achievement gaps. It’s the same thing you’re dealing with here. It’s on a different scale, but they’re no less intense and they’re no less important.
What are you looking forward to the most during your first year in Asheville?
I would say I’ve got to get this office built back. We had a mass exodus [last year], and unfortunately it came at a time where we had a lot of other city staff go as well, so this place was really getting by for a while on a shoestring staff. Secondarily, I think within the first year it’s really important for me to be able to build a good relationship with the Council. Personally, I’m just having a blast. I’ve been enjoying restaurants and breweries and all the stuff that I missed, since I haven’t been here for the last few years.
I’m married, no kids. It’s just me, the wife and pets.
I’m from the country. I grew up in a tiny little town, but my wife grew up in Washington, D.C. And because she grew up in a big city with a very small area, no yard, the only pet she could have was a rabbit. So she’s been telling me, “At some point, I want a rabbit again.” And I thought that was pie-in-the-sky talk until I showed up one day, and we had a rabbit. We are now up to three rabbits, because my wife likes to rescue rabbits; three adorable rabbits.
Anything else that you’d like the community to know?
I cannot truly say how happy I am to be here. I told someone recently that Asheville is a challenge. It is politically just a hotbed of a lot of intense thought, but that’s what you want. The alternative is that nobody cares, and when nobody cares, what kind of city are you building? So long as it’s civil, and we realize that everybody’s got ideas.