Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and members of City Council hosted the chairs of the city’s volunteer citizen boards and commissions at a lunch at the U.S. Cellular Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10. The annual event provides an overview of the laws and procedures all publicly appointed bodies must follow and offers a chance for board chairs to ask questions and interact with Council members and city staff.
Attended by about 50 chairs and city staff members, the event took place on a day the city’s public schools were closed due to icy roads. Some attributed the lower-than-last-year turnout to parents’ need to be at home with their children.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who chairs the Council Boards and Commission Committee, led the meeting. In addition to Manheimer and Wisler, Council members Cecil Bothwell, Julie Mayfield and Gordon Smith and City Manager Gary Jackson were in attendance.
Wisler also introduced Sarah Terwilliger, who took on the role of Deputy City Clerk in September. Terwilliger, Wisler said, is “your go-to person for Boards and Commissions.”
After the meeting, Terwilliger said she had previously served as the legal assistant in the City Attorney’s office for three years. In her new role, she continued, she is responsible for “trainings, announcing and filling vacancies, noticing special meetings and [I] am staff support to the Boards and Commissions Council Committee. I also oversee public records, and support the City Clerk as I learn the various roles and responsibilities of this office.”
Nuts and bolts
City Council appoints city residents to boards and commissions, Wisler said. While some boards include members who are residents of Buncombe County or other locations, the city only appoints city residents to those bodies. To be considered, a resident must have an active application on file with the office of the City Clerk. Applications are retained for one year, after which they must be updated.
A person may serve a maximum of two successive, three-year terms on a city board. Members serve through the expiration of their terms or until a successor is appointed. Wisler urged board chairs to give recommendations to Council about the group’s preferences for new appointments, and also about any issues with a specific member who is seeking reappointment. “In general, we tend to look favorably on a reappointment [to a second term],” she said, “but it’s not automatic.”
To meet, a quorum (or majority) of board members must be present. The number of members that constitute a quorum remains constant even in the case that some seats are vacant. For example, a nine-member board would have a quorum of five members. Even if two seats are vacant, the quorum remains five members. Thus, said Wisler, excessive absences can create a hardship for other board members. City Council can remove a member who does not attend 75 percent or more of the board’s meetings.
There are three types of boards Council appoints, explained Wisler. Advisory boards include the Civic Center Commission, the Recreation Board and the Tree Commission, among many others. These boards provide advice and input that assist Council in developing policy. While City Council considers the recommendations of advisory boards, Council is not obligated to adopt or act in accordance with those recommendations.
Quasi-judicial boards are charged with objectively determining facts to form the basis for official actions. Some examples include the Board of Adjustment, the Civil Service Board and the Historic Resources Commission.
Administrative boards generally have managerial or supervisory functions. One example, the Asheville-Buncombe Crime Stoppers, “reviews crimes and sets awards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of felony crime offenders and fugitives,” according to the city’s website. Another example, the Firemen’s Relief Fund, distributes funds to assist firefighters injured in voluntarily assisting the community, according to the website of the Office of the State Fire Marshall of North Carolina.
Some boards, Wisler said, combine multiple features, such as the Planning & Zoning Commission, which has both advisory and quasi-judicial functions.
Board chairs preside over meetings, maintain order, approve draft agendas, approve the board’s annual report and sign correspondence on behalf of the board.
Open meetings and public records
By state law, the public has a right to attend all official meetings of all public bodies, and advance notice of official meetings must be provided. Responding to a comment from Barry Bialik, chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, City Attorney Robin Currin advised all board chairs to take note of the state open meetings statute. “Read that definition,” she said. “It’s a lot broader than you think it will be.” Currin agreed to provide a link to the statute to all board chairs by email.
Boards are also subject to city ordinances and state laws on conflicts of interest. Thus, board members may not solicit a favor or gift that could impact their duties, transact business in an official capacity with an entity in which the board member has an interest or use city facilities or supplies for private purposes. Any questions about conflicts of interest or other ethics matters should be directed to the City Attorney’s office, Wisler advised.
Each board is supported by a city staff member, who compiles agendas with input from the chair. Agendas must be readily understandable to any “reasonable” person who wishes to know what the board plans to discuss, and they must include all issues the board plans to consider and any actions that will be taken, Wisler said.
The city staff liaison or the board’s secretary must also prepare minutes to provide an official record of the board’s actions. The minutes must include the members in attendance, the subject of each deliberation, each vote or decision taken and a summary of the meeting.
After the minutes are approved by the board at its next meeting, they must be sent to the City Clerk’s office and posted on the city website.
Boards also prepare an annual report to City Council, which must be submitted to the City Clerk by Jan. 31 each year. The report includes the board’s mission, a summary of its actions in support of that mission over the preceding year and its goals for the upcoming year.
According to Wisler’s presentation, on any day that the Asheville City Schools is canceled due to inclement weather, any board meeting scheduled for that day must also be canceled. She didn’t explain why the luncheon had not been canceled that day, or why City Council met later that evening despite the school cancellation.
Wisler said that Council is pleased to be receiving “a ton of applications” from qualified candidates for board positions. Given the luxury of plenty of choices, she said, Council is now favors getting more people involved by appointing as many residents as possible to the available volunteer advisory positions. Thus, if a city resident is already serving on one board, that will be taken into consideration if that person applies for another board position.
“We are trying to expand diversity,” Wisler went on. “However you define it: location, race, gender, renter, homeowner, whatever. We urge you to think about what your board looks like, and how it could be more diverse. Maybe you can reach out to those people for your board or commission.”
Chairs weigh in
Architect Carleton Collins, who is embarking on his second year as chair of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, said he finds serving on the Commission a “meaningful way to give back to the community.”
In 1984, Carleton continued, as a graduate student at Clemson University, he did the first-ever planning study for the River Arts District. Thus, he’s been watching the area develop over a long period of time. This year, he said, the Commission will be focusing on how the federally funded Transportation Improvement Projects underway in the RAD will create the framework for future development in the area, including new greenways. Also, he said, his board will continue its active engagement in the creation of a form-based zoning code for the area.
Sasha Mitchell has served as chair of the African-American Heritage Commission since the board’s inception about two and a half years ago. Mitchell said she’s excited about $20,000 in funding commitments from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County to undertake a planning and visioning initiative to determine how the community would like to honor its African-American heritage. One important piece of that effort, she said, will be working closely with existing neighborhood groups and other groups that are already moving forward on creating monuments and other installations on local African-American history.
Downtown Commission chair Adrian Vassallo said his group will be advocating for city investment in downtown infrastructure this year, with a particular focus on sidewalks. Lexington Avenue and Haywood Street are areas in great need of sidewalk improvements for safety, quality of life and business, he said. Walkability is a major concern among downtown businesses and residents, both within the core of downtown and in the rapidly growing South Slope, he said.
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