Though they share many of the same policy positions and goals for Asheville, each of the six city council candidates still in the race must now highlight for voters the qualities and experiences that make him or her unique. At the latest candidate forum, candidates worked to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Tonight’s candidate forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County along with other nonprofit partners and supporters, was attended by over 80 members of the public. Candidates delivered brief opening statements and then responded to questions submitted by audience members.
In his opening statement, Brian Haynes stressed his belief that all Asheville voices need to be heard in the political process. “Throughout my campaign, you have heard the words ‘we,’ ‘us’ and ‘our.’ I will represent all people of Asheville. I don’t have all the answers, but together we can find the answers.” Haynes said he is running for positive change and for the preservation of the city and culture of Asheville.
Incumbent council member and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt spoke of his “love and passion for this job.” At a time of challenges and opportunities, Hunt remains committed to working for the city each and every day.
Financial adviser and former Peace Corps volunteer Rich Lee said he has lived in Western North Carolina for over 18 years. He thinks the city’s current growth is a “critical test of our strength and ingenuity.” Over the next few years, he warned, Asheville’s population will grow by 10,000 people and billions of dollars will be invested here. As a grassroots neighborhood activist, he pledged to work to keep Asheville fair for and welcoming to all.
Julie Mayfield, who moved to Asheville with her husband seven years ago to take a job as Executive Director of the environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, said she has “fallen in love with this city in a way that I could not have imagined.” Her goal is to maintain the appeal of Asheville while expanding opportunity for all residents. Mayfield pointed to the many similarities among the candidates: “There is not so much difference in what we want for Asheville.”
An under-the-weather Lindsey Simerly was present, if somewhat hampered by “the kind of germs everyone who has had a child in preschool knows they bring home with them.” Simerly pledged to “work smarter and harder together,” noting that her priorities include affordable housing, expanded transit options, parks and greenways and pre-K and after-school programs.
“Home-grown son of Asheville” Keith Young said he wants everyone — “rich, poor, black, white” — to grow together. Though he’s not opposed to development, he doesn’t want Asheville “to sell ourselves out.” Young will focus on transit, Asheville’s “affordability crisis” and living wage jobs. By listening to all Ashevillians, Young plans to “work in citizens’ best interest” and “make sure the Asheville we love is still around in 20 years.”
Moderator Kim Roney of Asheville Free Media explained that each candidate would have one minute to respond to questions submitted by members of the audience. Timers from the League of Women Voters held candidates to that requirement with a system of warning signals and bells to indicate when time was up.
On issues of trust and accountability at the Asheville Police Department, and the department’s relationship with communities of color, Hunt said significant problems exist within the police force. Examples, according to Hunt, include the state of the evidence room, the departure last year of former Chief William Anderson, low morale, problems in the authority structure and training deficiencies. These have been detailed in a plan to get the department “back on the right track,” said Hunt, and we need to let new Chief Tammy Hooper carry out the plan. The job of city council is to hold the department accountable over the long term and he is “very committed” to it.
Young said that it’s not true that police misconduct never happens in Asheville. Through his involvement in a community organization, Hood Talk, Young has followed community concerns on this issue. He agreed with Hunt that the plan recommendations must be implemented, and Chief Hooper needs the community’s support, but “we do have concerns and issues here and we need to address them seriously.”
On afterschool programming for city children, Simerly spoke as a mother of one who plans to begin fostering children within the next year. She referred to existing partnerships between the city and agencies like the YWCA and the IRL/In Real Life program as valuable initiatives the city must continue to support. In an environment of constantly-changing state funding, Simerly said, there will always be challenges. She pointed to the new pre-K program starting at Hall-Fletcher elementary school next year as one innovative program for supporting kids and families.
When his two kids were in preschool last year, Lee recalled, the monthly expense was greater than his mortgage. He believes that one piece of the puzzle is providing jobs that allow parents the flexibility to spend time with their children. Lee also called for supporting existing programs including LEAF in Schools and Streets (with a new permanent home in a location other than the East Asheville community center) and Headstart.
On the “hidden interests” driving fines for short-term rental violations, Mayfield said she was not aware of any hidden interests, but that the issue was of great importance. “We can’t do all the things we would like to do. We can’t limit rentals to people who make their primary residence here. We can’t draw the lines where we want to draw them.” Despite the challenges, she concluded, “We can’t give up. We have to get this right. When we make a decision, not everyone will agree.”
Haynes believes this issue is one of the first the newly-elected city council should address. “The current policy is divisive and unfair,” he continued, saying that owners who are willing to pay the same fees as hotels and bed and breakfasts should have access to the opportunity to earn income that, for many, “makes a difference in their ability to live here.”
One creative questioner asked candidates to outline why voters should choose them, without referencing their resume or past accomplishments. Simerly declared herself to be a hard worker who owns up to her occasional mistakes. She is a “good listener” whose unconventional appearance allows her to connect with people from a wide variety of backgrounds since she “isn’t somebody in a suit.”
Mayfield values public input and fair decision-making, and said she will listen to all points of view and make non-ideological decisions to get “the best outcome for the city.”
As someone who “spent my whole life on the outside looking in,” Young sees himself as a person who has a unique understanding of people “who say their voices aren’t being heard.”
Haynes repeated his opening remark, pledging to “represent all people of Asheville.” He will listen and seek community involvement.
Hunt said he had learned that effectiveness on city council encompasses much more than casting the right vote. “It means shaping policy early in the process by engaging with the public, other members of council, city staff and others,” he explained.
Lee expressed empathy for the nerve-wracking process of speaking as a citizen before council. He believes council members need to have “a lot of patience and compassion and that’s what I bring.”
Asked for three policy priorities to address the challenges brought on by Asheville’s growth, Simerly listed increasing density in residential areas, fully funding the affordable housing trust fund and implementing inclusionary zoning. Young would focus on infrastructure, affordability and land banks.
Haynes said that while growth is inevitable, Asheville’s current pace is unsustainable. “We need to slow down from this pro-development pace and return to what go us here in the first place: locally-owned independent businesses.”
Hunt praised the city’s recent accomplishments in creating strategies for improving affordability and transit. In the city’s upcoming effort to update its comprehensive land use plan, and subsequent efforts to align zoning ordinances with the new plan, the city will have an opportunity to address outdated planning and zoning ideas such as the ones that led to the new Harris Teeter grocery store on Merrimon Avenue, Hunt said.
Lee wants to support the small landlords who supply nearly half of the city’s rental housing stock. Additionally, he looks forward to updating the comprehensive plan to require housing above grocery stores such as Harris Teeter on Merrimon and the new Whole Foods on Tunnel Road. Finally, wages need to go up to keep pace with the cost of living, said Lee.
Mayfield agrees the new comprehensive plan is critically important. The city needs to “massively increase housing density,” she said, especially downtown and within a half-mile radius of downtown. Also we need to encourage local businesses to grow and prosper and to find sources of “much, much, much more investment” for multimodal transit.
In response to a question about reducing childhood poverty, all candidates agreed it was necessary to support efforts to achieve this goal. “How could you not?” asked Haynes. “We must do everything conceivable to make that happen.”
Candidates also unanimously agreed that they would each represent all parts of the city regardless of which neighborhood they as individuals call home.
To a final yes-or-no question — “Will you give small businesses the same incentives as large businesses?” — Young, Simerly, Lee and Haynes offered an unqualified yes. Mayfield said, “I would consider it,” while Hunt replied, “Yes, if possible.”
In addition to the League of Women Voters, lead partners for the event were Children First / Communities in Schools, Democracy NC, Green Opportunities and the YWCA of Asheville. Supporters included the Asheville branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Christians for a United Community, Open Doors of Asheville and Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP). The event was held at the Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center on Livingston Street in Asheville, and it was broadcast on Asheville Free Media.