To call Asheville City Council’s May 22 meeting a marathon session would be an understatement — the average runner in the New York City marathon, for example, finishes in just over 4 1/2 hours. In comparison, Council required a full six hours to complete its work for the evening. As in a marathon, however, the lengthy time allowed significant movement: By the end of the night, Council had approved multiple items showing an unprecedented level of urgency for policing reform.
The action began as Council was poised to pass the meeting’s consent agenda, a typical collection of noncontroverisal resolutions. When Mayor Esther Manheimer called for public comment, recent Council candidate and community activist Kim Roney marched to the podium, trailed by a retinue that filled the aisle. She asked that Council add a resolution — which she displayed written in bold letters on a large paper pad — directing staff to adopt the policy recommendations suggested by Code for Asheville at Council’s April 24 meeting (see “Asheville Council takes step toward police data transparency,” Xpress, May 2).
Roney proceeded to open a copy of the literary collection “27 Views of Asheville” and read a poem by local artist and Hood Huggers founder DeWayne Barton, saying that she and her group of 25 supporters would continue to occupy the podium for their maximum allowable time until Council added the motion to the agenda. The public filibuster continued as filmmaker and Asheville FM DJ Andrew Vasco read a passage from “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.
By the end of Vasco’s 10 minutes, Council member Sheneika Smith moved to place the resolution on the consent agenda. In a closely split decision, Smith, Manheimer, Keith Young and Brian Haynes voted to approve that addition, while Vijay Kapoor, Julie Mayfield and Gwen Wisler voted against the motion. However, Manheimer noted her confusion about the resolution’s wording: “I voted for it; I will just add that I don’t know what it means, exactly.”
In the discussion that followed, Council and city staff tried to hash out what new action the resolution would compel. Interim City Manager Cathy Ball said her team was moving forward with data releases but was still working out safeguards so that the data would not interfere with potential criminal cases or internal investigations. She added that the resolution, as written, was asking staff to adopt an open data policy that already exists.
“I think the expectation of the request is to make a formal motion so that we can guarantee that [the data releases] would move forward,” Smith said. “I don’t think it puts any illegal expectations or anything that we don’t feel comfortable with, but I think making the motion and allowing it to be in this public setting actually makes it a little more actionable, rather than having conversations between advocates and staff and leaving it there.”
After considerable debate about both wording and proper parliamentary procedure, during which the first amended consent agenda was temporarily approved and then withdrawn, a new version of the resolution passed unanimously. The final language supported the release of the Code for Asheville data sets “except for legal and personnel information not being disclosed.”
Speaking with Xpress after the decision, Roney said the resolution would give Code for Asheville additional power as it continues to meet with the city about its petition. “We were very concerned as a community that without instruction from Council to staff, we wouldn’t get the data we need to move forward,” she explained. “What we had before was a request to staff and now we have a very clear instruction.”
Forward on stops
Council member Young introduced his own clear instructions to staff later in the meeting. After dueling presentations on racial disparities in traffic stops by Ian A. Mance, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and Chief Tammy Hooper of the Asheville Police Department, he made three motions aimed at improving equity in policing practices.
“We can’t tell the chief what to do. We can’t tell the police department what to do. But we can tell the city attorney, city clerk and city manager what to do,” Young explained before introducing his proposals. Taken together, the resolutions directed the city manager to take action that would require written consent for voluntary searches of vehicles and personal property, eliminate criminal records and suspicious behavior as rationales for consent searches and deprioritize stops for regulatory issues such as expired vehicle registration.
During his presentation, Mance noted that other North Carolina cities, such as Fayetteville and Durham, had found implementation of written consent to mark a “turning point” in police-community relations. Hooper countered that her department’s use of body cameras already ensured accountability over voluntary searches, adding that recently implemented policy requires footage for every consent search to be reviewed by a police supervisor.
Hooper continued to resist adoption of a written consent policy by arguing that consent searches are a tool in the APD’s battle with the ongoing opioid crisis. “Why would we take away any of the tools that we have when we’re dealing with the highest opioid epidemic we’ve ever seen?” she asked. “We are finding drugs in these searches.”
But Smith argued that written consent could serve as a “peace treaty” between the APD and the broader community, improving cooperation to deal with opioid issues, gun violence and other concerns. “We can’t continue to come with our fists closed, because that means it’s a fight, and we continue to face off year after year,” she said.
Young cut debate and public comment on his proposals short by calling the question, a parliamentary motion that brings an issue up for immediate vote. While Robert’s Rules of Order, the procedural manual used by Council, requires such a move to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote or unanimous consent, no such vote took place. Each of the motions passed by a 5-2 vote, with Kapoor and Wisler voting no.
Kapoor explained that his vote was meant to show his extreme disapproval of Council’s process on the motions. By not placing these changes on the agenda in advance so members of the public could prepare to come to the meeting and comment, he said, his colleagues had shown that they were not committed to “transparency and the democratic process” in all situations.
“What many of us criticize Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly for doing, we just did tonight,” said Kapoor. “I am embarrassed and I would like to apologize to the citizens of Asheville. Regardless of how you feel about the substance of that issue, how this was done tonight will be a black eye on this Council for years to come.”
Police representatives in the audience also expressed their concern over being cut out of the conversation. “Police officers need to be heard too,” said APD Officer Rick Tullis. Addressing Manheimer, he added, “You acquiesced to Councilman Young [about public comment], and I’m just wondering who’s in charge? Is it you, Mayor?”
Council’s actions have continued to generate controversy beyond the meeting. On May 25, the N.C. Police Benevolent Association sent a letter to Manheimer and Council saying that the motions may have “violated policy, procedure and law” and suggested that legal action may follow if the measures were not rescinded (avl.mx/4zx).
Taking it to the state
Council’s last set of policing-related items was on the agenda, after being introduced by Manheimer in a surprise move last week. (See “Police Accountability, Transparency Focus of City Council Meeting,” Xpress, May 23.) Members debated whether to suggest three pieces of legislation for consideration at the state level that would together abolish the Civil Service Board and create a new citizen review board with subpoena, oathing and disciplinary powers; permit the APD to release body camera recordings to Council and the new review board; and let the city manager release the results of disciplinary hearings against police officers.
While the suggestions on laws for body camera recordings and disciplinary hearings passed unanimously, Council was strongly divided about the citizen review board. Mayfield worried about going “from zero to 60” in this change to accountability practices, adding that she hasn’t yet seen the impact of previous changes to city personnel policies. Wisler agreed, saying that while she has criticized the Civil Service Board during her time on Council, completely replacing the body was too radical a move.
Young, however, argued that he’d been advocating for personnel reforms since joining Council but hadn’t gotten traction until the city’s police beating scandal emerged earlier this year. “I’ve always been on the ground about my concerns about the Civil Service Board,” he said. “This isn’t something new to me.”
Kapoor pointed out that the new citizen review board would have broader powers than even City Council regarding personnel matters. “We do not have the power to impose discipline on city employees, and for good reason,” he said. “We are not professionals in these areas, nor are we qualified to make these decisions.” Both Rondell Lance, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Asheville, and Scott Mullins, head of the Asheville Fire Fighters Association, echoed those concerns during public comment.
When Council finally did take a vote on the citizen review board proposal, the resolution passed in a 4-3 split decision. Young, Smith, Haynes and Manheimer voted in support, while Wisler, Kapoor and Mayfield were opposed. The suggested legislation now goes to Raleigh, where the General Assembly will decide whether to make it into law.