[This is part one of a two-part series on this year’s City Council retreat.]
You could call Asheville City Council’s annual weekend retreat a bonding ritual, of sorts: Council members and city staff sit through 15 hours of reports, charts (and more charts), oft-tangled discussions, and decision-making (or, sometimes, not). Between the meetings, they eat, study their notes and exchange jokes, like “How many department heads does it take to fix a VCR?” (That weekend, it took three or four). They’ll have a few beers, a little wine or hot tea (Council member Barbara Field), and nibble peanuts and chips. Inevitably, however, their chitchat keeps working its way back to city issues such as downtown parking (or who’s going to win the Super Bowl).
And someone always falls asleep on the couch while watching a video (Mayor Leni Sitnick, during The Negotiator), or amid a series of particularly riveting staff reports (Council member O.T. Tomes).
There’s also, predictably, a lot of fancy footwork involving, on the one hand, city staff who have master’s degrees in how to do things right and, on the other, Council members with the political savvy to do the right thing.
Council’s Jan. 29-31 retreat at Highland Lake Inn, near Flat Rock, proved no different. But this year, city staff corrected Council’s long-cherished terminology from retreats past, and the goal-setting session nearly snagged on that point.
“A ‘goal’ last year is considered a ‘strategy’ this year,” Vice Mayor Ed Hay complained, when staff initiated the Saturday-afternoon session. For example, last year’s “adopt a parks-and-recreation master plan” goal would, this year, have been listed as a strategy under the new, rather broader goal of improving the quality of life in Asheville.
City staff, continued Hay, seemed to want Council members merely to set a small number of broad goals, leaving it to staff to come back later with specific strategies for achieving them. But Hay preferred to see things go the way they always have, with Council members prioritizing at least 10 strategies — or whatever you choose to call them — that afternoon. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and declared, “Otherwise, we might as well go home.”
“When you set goals, you need to be focused on a few key things,” said Asheville Audit and Budget Director Ben Durant, reasoning with Hay. Creating too many goals “dilutes your mission,” Durant argued (last year, Council members set nearly a dozen top-tier goals, and an equal number of second-tier ones). And, he added, “goals need to be outcome-oriented.”
The wall behind Durant looked like a giant Jeopardy board: Column after column of standard-sized sheets of white paper had been posted, each emblazoned with one of the 40 quality-of-life criteria used in Time-Life‘s annual selection of the 100 best U.S. cities to live in: “Clean air,” “Near amusement parks,” “Recent job growth,” “Low house prices” and the like. Durant offered these as a starting point for drafting Council’s 1999 goals, asking members to think about which ones they considered most important.
As they examined the list, Council members immediately saw that they have no control over some of them, such as: “Sunny weather,” “Near lakes or oceans,” “Low risk of natural disasters” and “Close to relatives.”
“Whose relatives?” joked Sitnick.
Accordingly, Council members began directing staff to group together related criteria, and to toss the ones that city officials can’t control (“sunny weather” went in the trash can — especially since the Asheville area remains under threat of a drought, and Council members and city staff were hoping that the skies would cloud up and produce more rain).
Council member Chuck Cloninger agreed with Hay’s complaint about goals and strategies, but played peacemaker, suggesting that they go ahead and draft the goals as staff suggested, and then offer strategies for each one — an idea that passed muster with Council.
Even that task proved challenging, however. The housing goal, for instance, initially contained a reference to “affordable housing” — a term which the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to mean owned or rented units costing no more than 30 percent of the occupants’ household income, including utilities. But Field suggested striking “affordable” and replacing it with “all.”
Sitnick agreed, saying that “affordable” is “a red-hot button that turns people off.”
Another goal, “protect the environment,” became “preserve the environment” after Council member Earl Cobb observed, “‘Protect’ sounds too much like policing.”
The debate over such fine points went on for at least an hour, leaving Council members so tired, they eventually became speechless. “It’s time for a break,” declared Council member Tommy Sellers, at one dead-quiet impasse.
“We just had one,” Field pointed out.
But by 6 p.m., they had managed to draft five goals and outline a host of strategies for achieving them:
• Improve the quality of life through enhancing cultural, arts, entertainment and recreation opportunities.
Drafting a plan for improving the Civic Center (and finding ways to pay for the improvements) loomed large as a strategy for achieving this goal — particularly for Hay. But the top priority for every Council member seemed to be persuading taxpayers to approve the $18 million parks, recreation and greenways bond referendum this May.
• Improve all transportation systems through innovative and cost-effective planning and operations.
After hearing a report from city Planning staff on how the bus system is operated (through the Asheville Transit Authority, which contracts with a private management firm), Council members indicated that a key strategy here will be developing a plan to give the city a more direct role — perhaps by disbanding the ATA, hiring a transit-system planner, and making the transit system a city division that reports to the city manager. Other transporation strategies include: promoting passenger-rail service to Asheville, building new sidewalks, and implementing recommendations from the Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan.
• Promote economic vitality through planned and sustainable growth.
In the coming year, Council members plan to adopt a new strategic plan for economic development. Among other things, the plan would: identify suitable industrial sites, and create a Council/staff “business recruitment support team.”
• Expand all housing opportunities in the city of Asheville.
Council’s key strategy on this one turned out to be, “Fund and implement the Housing Action Plan.” Last year, Council members adopted a housing plan that recommends increasing the city’s affordable-housing stock by at least 300 units each year. This could be done by either creating a housing trust fund or dedicating a set percentage of property-tax revenues to housing construction and renovation projects.
• Preserve the environment.
Strategies mentioned here included everything from Cloninger’s “improve sign-ordinance enforcement” to expanding the city’s curbside-recycling program to include apartment complexes and businesses.
Quick hits …
• Question: Which city-department head rode a bicycle from west Asheville to Flat Rock to attend the retreat?
Answer: City Attorney Bob Oast. When it came time for the return trip on Sunday, however, it was sleeting, and he hitched a ride with Vice Mayor Ed Hay.
• Most Rousing Staff Report: City Finance Director Bill Schaeffer declared the city’s computer systems to be ready for the year 2000. Schaeffer raised the roof during what could have been a dry technical presentation, by raising his voice like a preacher to emphasize each step toward Y2K compliance (such as replacing older PCs with up-to-date equipment) and by keeping each point succinct. He ended with the hearty, chant-like declaration: “We will be there! There ain’t gonna be no problem of any significance for the city of Asheville on Jan. 1, 2000. The only fireworks will be on the square!” After he was done, City Engineer Cathy Ball joked, “I was going to talk about stormwater, but now I feel like I should sing the final hymn.”
• Shortest Staff Presentation: Hungry Council members, itching to go to lunch, applauded Fire Chief John Rukavina, who gave a six-minute report about his department’s ongoing attempt to gain national accreditation. “That was as fast as I could do it without getting trampled,” he said afterward.
Upcoming hot potatoes
• Annexation: Council members directed consultant Richard Flowe to complete the city’s long-range annexation study, which will identify any urbanized neighborhoods and industrial areas adjacent to the city that could be annexed within the next 15 to 20 years — and the cost of providing services to those areas, compared to the additional sales-tax and property-tax revenues annexation would generate. Flowe cautioned that, once specific areas are identified, Council members “will receive lots of pressure …. and [their] current constituency will watch to see how they handle it.” Council members emphasized that the Riceville community — already up in arms about the prospect of annexation — is not on their list, because it probably doesn’t meet the urban-density requirements municipalities must follow when annexing.
• Stormwater regulations: As early as 1999, new federal stormwater-drainage regulations will take effect, City Engineer Ball told Council members. By April of 2002, Asheville must comply. She proposed earmarking $125,000 in the upcoming 1999/2000 budget for hiring a consultant to prepare a program for complying with those regulations and educating the public.
• Unaccounted-for water: Both city staff and Council members insisted that it’s not what you think. Yes, “unaccounted-for” water — to the tune of roughly 25 percent of the 20 million gallons per day that passes through the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson’s system — does include water lost through leaky old pipes. But it also includes a host of other things: unmetered water used for fire emergencies, water flushed from lines during maintenance or repairs, routine “flow checks” of fire hydrants, and inaccurate meters. Still, a typical figure for unaccounted-for water would be something like 15 percent, and Water Resources Director Tom Frederick conceded, “We do have more more leaks in our system than others do.” Responding to Council members’ questions, however, he reported that no one knows what percentage of the lost water in the Water Authority’s system comes from leaks alone.