Personal politics

This is the second and final installment of our report on Asheville City Council’s annual retreat, held Jan. 29-31 at Highland Lake Inn, near Flat Rock.

What matters most to Asheville City Council members?

Sure, they all agreed to a set of five sweeping goals for 1999. Those priorities include “Preserve the environment” and “Expand all housing opportunities.” But what’s on each Council member’s mind, as they face the year ahead?

During breaks and other casual moments of the retreat, Mountain Xpress quizzed each Council member about their personal goals for 1999, their regrets concerning 1998, and what each foresees as the coming year’s toughest challenges.

“From my perspective, I’m proudest of the negotiations for Speedway ’99,” replied Council member Tommy Sellers. After the Asheville Motor Speedway was sold and donated to the city, he worked with city staff to secure one more season for racing fans, drivers, sponsors and race-car builders, many of whom felt shafted by the abrupt end to a 40-year tradition.

What’s Sellers least proud of?

“Oooh!” he said, quickly adding, “The way we handled the Speedway [donation] to begin with! The way we accepted the property — it was just too speedy.”

“Proud?” echoed Council member Chuck Cloninger, when asked the same questions. He propped his hands on his hips and reflected a moment. “I’ll have to think about that. What’s next — what we’re most ashamed of?” He laughed, then said, “I’m most proud of the city’s new telecommunication-tower ordinance.” (The law bans towers more than 100 feet tall, encourages different companies to co-locate their antennas on a single tower, and suggests guidelines for “stealth technology” that disguises the towers).

Later, after dinner, Cloninger and fellow Council members Barbara Field and O.T. Tomes, relaxing in the big common room at the inn, traded thoughts on the Mountain Xpress questions.

Tomes said he is proudest of seeing the Minority Affairs office — once part of city government, but now run jointly with Buncombe County — “put some teeth into the Minority Business Plan,” which seeks to ensure that minority-owned businesses have a fair chance to bid on local-government contracts. (The revised plan, adopted by Council members and county commissioners, toughens penalties for noncompliance with its guidelines.) Tomes added that he couldn’t think of anything he is least proud of or most disappointed in.

But Field chimed in, “I’m disappointed that we can never get the neighborhoods and business [interests] and other sides to come together. They seem to be more and more polarized.”

Tomes, who co-founded Building Bridges — a group that helps area residents explore and overcome racial and cultural differences — said such divisiveness “grieves me.”

“Is there more divisiveness, or has it just been painted that way?” reflected Cloninger. (The Wadley-Donovan report, commissioned by the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission and completed in 1995, named “group conflicts” as a major obstacle to local economic development.) He asked Mountain Xpress, “Do you want to know what I’m most disappointed about, from the past year? I don’t know if I should say what I really want to say. …” He walked away for a while, pondering how to phrase his response.

Meanwhile, Tomes responded to the next question: What’s the toughest issue facing Council in 1999?

“The definition of ‘church,'” he replied. Tomes, a Baptist minister by trade, added, “I come from a holistic vision of a church, and that’s been an integral part of my life for more than 40 years.” (Tomes supports redefining “church” in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, to reflect the varied activities and missions today’s churches undertake, in addition to Sunday worship services.)

“Annexation and how to regulate churches: It’s easy to see those will be tough,” said Field.

Cloninger came back and sat down. “My biggest disappointment has been the divisive and destructive atmosphere created by the Asheville Citizen-Times,” he said, measuring his words. He had agreed to voice that opinion only after Field had assured him that she shared the sentiment and had already made a similar comment.

Field had remarked that she regretted the way Council members had handled “the Seabrook issue” — a flap sparked by a Citizen-Times report criticizing Council members’ participation in the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, held at a beachside resort. “We didn’t do anything wrong, but we acted like we did,” continued Field. Later in the year, the Citizen-Times sued the city to force it to release cable-franchise records, won the suit, and then ran an editorial urging Council to fire the city attorney who had recommended withholding the information to begin with.

“We didn’t stand up for ourselves,” asserted Field. “We should have said, in public, ‘You guys can’t tell us what to do with our city attorney.” (Council members maintained that City Attorney Bob Oast had given them sound advice on the issue.)

Vice Mayor Ed Hay also chided the Citizen-Times, remarking, “I wish we had been better prepared [for] the difficulty we’ve had with the change in attitude.” (Media giant Gannett bought out Multimedia, the paper’s former owner, in 1995.). Hay argued that the Citizen-Times‘ coverage of Council has been sensationalistic and has spurred divisiveness in the community.

Media relations aside, Hay believes that annexation will be “the hardest decision” facing Council members this year. Annexing urbanized areas adjacent to the city could increase property-tax revenues, but the consultant hired to complete a long-range annexation plan has warned Council members that identifying likely annexation targets is sure to draw a heated response from the affected residents.

Sellers agreed that adopting an annexation plan will entail making tough decisions; another one, he added, will be how to finance Civic Center improvements.

Funding issues, in general, loomed large in the discussion. “The toughest issue we’ve got is getting the funds to do the projects we’ve identified,” declared Earl Cobb.

He and Hay both pointed out that Council has adopted several long-range plans — including one to address housing needs, and another to create, improve and renovate the city’s park facilities over the next 20 years. But no revenue source has yet been designated for either plan.

Mayor Leni Sitnick said she’s proud of having adopted those plans, which (like the UDO) were years in the making. But, she concedes, “Finding the funding to implement the good ideas that have come from the people and from Council — that won’t be easy.” (In May, Asheville voters will determine the fate of a proposed $18 million parks-and-recreation bond issue. How to pay for Civic Center improvements and housing projects remains unresolved.)

Asked about personal goals, Cobb replied, “I’m going to zero in on high-paying jobs for this area. People have to have a good job to go to each day.” He added that he’s most proud of having saved Memorial Stadium (Council turned down a proposal to sell it), and of getting the parks-and-recreation bond proposal before the people. What’s he least proud of?

“Going to Seabrook,” answered Cobb.

Sitnick said she’s proudest of having opened some doors and created dialogue — negotiating another Speedway season and holding a roundtable on litter, for example. “I’d like to continue a schedule of roundtables, so that — no matter what — everyone feels a sense of ownership with the solution,” she noted. Another personal goal Sitnick mentioned is to “find ways to improve our economic vitality.” (One of the top projects on Council’s strategy list for 1999 is completing and adopting an economic-development plan.)

“I know what I want to accomplish: getting all my paperwork filed!” joked Field. Seriously, however, she reports having a lengthy list of items on her mind (Sitnick isn’t the only list maker on Council, it seems). Among Field’s pet projects are: spearheading a new public-art policy for the city; pushing (as she has for years) to complete a long-range strategic plan for downtown; creating a housing trust fund; and re-establishing the City Development office as “an active part of the downtown process.”

What is Field proudest of having helped accomplish last year? “Proud is not what I think about,” she said first, before citing the Pritchard Park renovation proposal (and the process that created it), and the Housing Action Plan.

“I’m proud we’ve survived some of the media spins that have been placed on our deeds,” added Sitnick, seeking a diplomatic way to address the media-relations complaint. “It’s easy for people who don’t work in our shoes to be critics,” she remarked.

Sellers laughed when asked about his personal goals, confiding, “I started to say, ‘Getting re-elected!'” He paused and said, “I’d like to see us maintain the continuity this Council has established, and continue our policy of delegating special issues to individual Council members.” (Hay, for instance, heads up the Future of the Civic Center Task Force, while Sellers worked with the Speedway ’99 group, and Field chaired a committee charged with creating a city policy on public art.)

Sellers also noted that he’d like to look into the city’s water problems — specifically, the question of whether Asheville has enough reservoirs. “We’ve been shown by Mother Nature that we may not have enough,” he said, referring to the ongoing drought.

Tomes said he hopes to apply some of the lessons he learned from several conferences he attended last year. He was impressed with the way Kansas City runs its summer-jobs program for youth, and will be pushing for Asheville to expand its own program.

Hay sees 1999 as a pivotal year. He points out that several of Council’s 1998 goals were achieved and are on the verge of being implemented. The Parks and Recreation Master Plan was adopted, and its project proposals will be funded, if an $18 million bond referendum passes in May; Council also adopted a Housing Action Plan and will be investigating funding sources this year; and Hay’s Future of the Civic Center Task Force has given Council several recommendations for improving the facility. “This year, more than others in the past, we could acknowedge some of the progress,” says Hay, encouraged by the prospect of seeing some plans start to move forward. 1999, he continues, “is the year when we’ll actually get rolling on some of these things.”

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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