Thicker-skinned, but still looking ahead

How does Asheville’s first female mayor see things, after nearly a year in office?

“Call me anytime,” Mayor Leni Sitnick told Mountain Xpress when she first took the reins in 1997. And, 12 months and 3,000 phone calls later, she’s still pretty likely to return your call or take a few minutes to chat, if you come by her office. And she’s still the kind of woman who’ll step up and adjust your jacket collar before you interview her. After a recent radio talk-show appearance, she chastised her host for a leaky faucet at the station. “Look at that! Don’t you know we have a water shortage? You need a new washer,” she informed WCQS News Director David Hurand, in a motherly tone.

But there’s an edge to Sitnick that wasn’t there before — something in the way she measures her words and tries to joke about the strains of office. When City Council members discussed how the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s upcoming Political Institute might train people to run for office in 1999, Sitnick suggested a new title for the event: “How to grow thick skins.”

Asked what she meant by that, Sitnick replies, “When you become an elected official and stick your neck out, you become vulnerable.” She adds that her skin’s “not thick enough yet,” though she feels she’s become better at taking criticism. “You can’t please everybody; you have to do what’s best for the community. And afterwards, citizens or the media will have a … different spin on what you’ve done.”

She speaks from her City Hall office, which is adorned with personal mementos: an autographed photo of Sitnick and musician Charlie Daniels; a “Tao of Leadership” poster; watercolors by Asheville painter Ann Vasilik; the mayor’s signature Leni Sitnick coffee mug; a photo of a helmeted Sitnick riding on the back of a Honda; plants that she waters while we speak; and chocolates that she shares with visitors. Sitnick has made the place a haven of sorts, where she’s comfortable meeting with city staff, fellow politicians and constituents.

“The job can consume you,” she remarks, perhaps explaining why she’s needed a haven.

It hasn’t been an easy year. After taking heat for alleged “secret” negotiations in connection with RiverLink’s donation of the Asheville Motor Speedway property to the city, Sitnick and the entire Council still await the results of a petition drive to recall them and have City Attorney Bob Oast fired. Sitnick, city staff and Council members have also been criticized (and successfully sued) by the Asheville Citizen-Times for withholding cable-franchise records during negotiations with InterMedia; they’ve also been lambasted for attending a Chamber-sponsored retreat at Seabrook Isle, at public expense. The Council of Independent Business Owners blames the mayor and Council member Earl Cobb for delaying the extension of Interstate 26 through town (Sitnick questions aspects of the project, and Cobb opposes it). And the mayor was personally chastised by some fellow Council members for allowing a crowd of cannabis advocates to speak before Council, one by one, on Aug. 11

On that last point, however, Sitnick sticks to her guns. “I’m into dialogue,” she proclaims. Although the pro-cannabis speakers wanted the city to relax its enforcement of drug laws for marijuana possession and consumption — something Council members Chuck Cloninger and Tommy Sellers maintained they have no authority (and no business) supporting — Sitnick let the hemp advocates speak, insisting, “People have the right to address their government.”

Many city residents would find it difficult to travel to Raleigh or Washington, D.C., to meet with state or federal legislators, she explains: “This is the place they can go. [City Council] may not have the authority to vote on something, but we have the reponsibility to listen and seek solutions,” Sitnick declares.

And, remarking on the longer Council meetings that sometimes result from this approach, she simply observes, “Democracy was not created to be convenient.”

In the wake of the pro-cannabis presentation, Cloninger spearheaded a rule change that now limits both the number of speakers and the time they’re allotted on issues presented during the public-comment portion of a Council meeting: Sitnick registered the lone vote against the motion. Later, she urged Council to reconsider, persisting in her conviction that Council shouldn’t impose such restrictions. Only O.T. Tomes supported her effort, saying he was comfortable leaving the number of speakers “to the mayor’s discretion.” But with no second, his motion to relax the rule failed.

Is that evidence that this “liberal, activist” mayor — as some termed her during her election campaign — has been ineffective? “Clearly, I failed in that case …” Sitnick concedes. “But, like [Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods Vice President] David Whitley said, “The more participation you get, the better solutions you arrive at.” Making that conviction her foundation, Sitnick still brings to the floor issues that Council may lack the authority to control directly, such as the proposed widening of I-26 through west Asheville. At Cobb’s urging, Council recently queried state Department of Transportation officials and representatives of the local citizens’ committee that approved the project several years ago.

In both a press release and a Citizen-Times commentary, CIBO’s board criticized those Council sessions and accused Sitnick and Cobb of of being irresponsible, at best.

Sitnick responds, “We have to act and think globally.” Decisions made in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., directly affect Asheville, she observes: “It’s my responsibility to look at every policy that affects us on a local level. It’s all taxpayers’ money.” She also points out that DOT’s plans for I-26 have changed since the citizens’ committee met — from a six-lane to an eight-lane highway.

As for other criticisms, she concedes that Council “could have done a better job of informing the media” about the Seabrook trip. Council now regularly releases information on which events members have been invited to each week; Sitnick also releases her weekly itinerary.

“We’ve opened the doors a little more,” she says about Council’s ongoing trend over the past few years. To be more accessible to the public, Council meets later in the day, Sitnick notes. And issues that may first have been addressed behind closed doors — such as the cable-franchise deal that former Council members were on the verge of accepting in November of ’97 — were brought out for public discussion after Sitnick and the new Council took office at the end of that year, she continues. Sitnick has also asked Oast to determine whether Council could limit the number of closed sessions it holds.

But such changes did nothing to prevent the hostile reaction by some local residents to the Speedway donation — which Sitnick admits took her by surprise. “Here we had the idea we were doing a good thing,” she says. The 31-acre property is the largest donation the city has ever received for park land. “I wish I had been more sensitive; I wasn’t aware of the promises made [by former speedway owner Roger Gregg] to keep the track open,” Sitnick notes, speaking about NASCAR fans’ outrage at the deal, which — despite the fact that the track had been up for sale for nearly four years — was kept secret, at Gregg’s request.

Council members have also been accused of holding secret meetings before accepting the property on Oct. 13. Sitnick says the issue did come up in closed sessions once, when staff brought up some technical questions — concerning a state environmental assessment, and the city’s turning over property easements to the state (as part of the deed restrictions mandated by North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Fund, which provided grant funds for RiverLink’s purchase of the tract). “It came up another time, but [our] city attorney said we couldn’t discuss it in closed session.”

Sitnick stresses that Council quickly opened up the process, giving Oast the task of working with racing fans to arrange for one more NASCAR season at the 40-year-old track. That effort seems to be paying off: Oast just asked for (and received) Council’s approval to negotiate a lease with local racing afficionado Danny Jones.

And that hint of success seems enough to bring back a little of the old, inspired Sitnick. She chats about the positive side of being mayor: meeting with and inspiring school kids; riding with racing star Kyle Petty; dropping the first puck for the Asheville Smoke hockey team’s opening game; and creating a city Film Commission.

Sitnick also applauds former mayors and Councils, who initiated many of the plans now being implemented — a parks-and-greenways master plan, parking projects, Civic Center improvements, and renovations to Council chambers– “If we can find the money,” she adds, referring to the last item on that list.

The park renovations may be funded by a bond issue — if a majority of residents approves it. And a new parking deck near the Grove Arcade may be partly funded by raising parking-meter fees and parking fines. Other projects — such as renovating the Civic Center, and creating a trust fund for affordable-housing loans — may prove harder to fund. “Our greatest need is to find some alternative revenue sources to meet our infrastructure needs,” Sitnick proclaims.

To that end, Council is considering possible annexations, with a tour of urban areas scheduled for Jan. 12. In addition, city staff now pursue grants and private partnerships more actively, seeking project funding, and there’s been talk of asking state legislators to increase the hotel-room tax, to pay for Civic Center work.

Another way to raise revenues, of course, is to bring new businesses to town and help existing ones grow. “The whole area of economic development and job creation is one that we have yet to roll up our sleeves on,” admits Sitnick. A family tragedy for former city Economic Development Director John Scaralia has forced the city to search for a new director, delaying the adoption of a comprehensive economic-development strategy.

But that doesn’t mean Sitnick doesn’t have a lot of ideas for economic development. Her core vision is to make Asheville a mecca for environmentally friendly businesses — high-tech industries, enviro-service companies, eco-conferencing and education, and alternative health care. “Asheville used to be a health mecca,” she notes, referring to the city’s national reputation as a health resort earlier in this century. The Grove Park Inn’s recent announcement of a major health-spa renovation, she contends, “is a testament that this is big business in this country again.”

And that brings Sitnick back to her avowedly global outlook. Asheville, she observes, is subject to national trends that cost local residents their jobs — such as downsizing, relocating to Third World countries, and major mergers. “We have to be mindful of the trends: If we’re moving away from manufacturing jobs, we have to retrain our work force,” she reflects.

But isn’t that yet another giant task that the city, alone, can’t hope to deal with, or even influence?

“I would dispute that,” Sitnick replies. Asheville belongs to several organizations that lobby at the state and national levels, such as the League of Municipalities. Council members can also directly petition state legislators — witness their recent request that 60 percent of Asheville be designated a State Development Zone, which would enable certain businesses to earn tax credits for creating jobs, buying new equipment or training employees.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers,” confesses Sitnick. She applauds Council members’ work during the past year and says she looks forward to setting the agenda for 1999 at Council’s end-of-January retreat. Sitnick also maintains that she’ll continue seeking input from fellow Council members — and the public. “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we aren’t all working for the betterment of the city,” she concludes.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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