The Asheville City Council’s new majority bared its teeth during the Feb. 21 work session, relieving former Council member Joe Dunn of his duties on a sharply divided 4-3 vote less than halfway through his four-year term on the Asheville Regional Airport Authority. Taking his place will be Council newcomer Bryan Freeborn — the very man appointed to fill Dunn’s City Council seat after the latter’s unsuccessful run for mayor last fall.
The move follows on the heels of a Jan. 17 decision — also during a work session, when formal votes generally aren’t taken — to remove Council member Carl Mumpower from his seat on the Transportation Advisory Committee, which will have a say on the controversial widening of Interstate 240 through West Asheville.
At the time, Vice Mayor Holly Jones (who declined to seek her own reappointment to the committee) simply noted that others had expressed an interest in serving on the TAC and that it would be good to have both appointees in place before the group’s initial meeting two days later, according to the Council minutes. Mumpower, who had already served four years, was evicted after a heated exchange and replaced with Council members Brownie Newman and Freeborn.
Dunn’s possible dismissal had been whispered about for weeks, but there’d been no indication that the ax would fall at the Feb. 21 meeting. Mumpower (the lone Republican on the City Council) and Jan Davis both charged that Dunn’s termination was part of a purge of conservatives. Dunn was appointed to a four-year term on the airport board in July 2004.
It all began innocently enough when Jones, who chairs the city’s Committee on Boards and Commissions, presented proposed revisions to the rules governing the city’s appointments to such bodies. Most changes were minor; the key change was a stipulation that at least one of the city’s appointees to any board or commission exercising independent governing authority must be a sitting Council member.
“Such an appointment allows council to be part of deliberation and decision-making on matters of regional importance that impact the city of Asheville,” stated the proposed change.
Newman’s motion to waive the Council’s procedural rules passed on a 6-1 vote. Mumpower, who cast the lone “no” vote, called the move an “unfortunate precedent,” since there had been no public comment on the matter and the item wasn’t listed on the meeting agenda. The information packet (which is available to the public and the media) did contain a resolution to adopt the rule changes, but it was slated for consideration at the Feb. 28 formal session.
After that procedural gambit paved the way, Council members quickly adopted the new language, voting 5-2 with Mumpower and Davis dissenting.
With temperatures rising, Mayor Terry Bellamy announced that she wanted to be the city’s appointee but would rather postpone the vote until June, when two seats on the board would come open. Bellamy was subsequently nominated but declined after some of her colleagues said they didn’t want to wait that long. So Freeborn was nominated instead and appointed on a 4-3 vote, with Bellamy, Davis and Mumpower opposed. Mumpower criticized these actions as “discourteous and disrespectful” to Dunn.
Jones, however, said the moves were not politically motivated but were simply meant to ensure that City Council has a voice on important boards. To press her point, she passed out copies of the minutes of a 2005 work session that said it was the “consensus of City Council to have a City Council member on the Airport Authority.”
Those minutes, noted Jones, also stated: “Councilwoman Jones felt that in the future council needs to be consistent in that if a member of council serves on a board and is no longer on council, that either the person automatically resigns or there be a resignation request by council. At council’s consensus, City Attorney [Bob] Oast said that City Council can remove the person for cause and that cause could be if the person is no longer a council member.”
But Mumpower was not impressed. “I disagree with this,” he said. “I did not interpret … the minutes as a policy change — merely interaction and discussion among Council. It says nothing about removing that person [retroactively]. The policies weren’t changed then; they are being changed today.”
He added: “This creates a climate and a suspect agenda about how the majority uses its powers, and I hope they are not using those powers to remove Dr. Dunn.”
“I don’t have anything against Dr. Dunn. … It’s about clarity,” Council member Robin Cape shot back. She said she resented the accusation that her and other Council members’ actions were politically or ideologically motivated.
“I resent this spin,” retorted Mumpower, adding that he could not remember previous Councils ever removing a member under similar circumstances.
Jones countered, “We’re not trying to remove someone so much as trying to have Council’s vote on that board.”
When Davis had a chance to chime in, he responded to Cape and Jones, saying: “I respectfully disagree. I think it’s totally about Dr. Dunn.” At press time, Dunn had not responded to requests for an interview.
In a later interview, Mumpower said it’s “pretty evident” that some on Council are intent on removing Republicans and conservatives from decision-making boards and commissions whenever possible. Pointing to Council’s rejection of Bellamy’s attempted compromise, he said, “That cemented the fact that this was a political decision.
“When you have a former Council member sitting on a board, you don’t remove them — you let them complete their term of service. That’s what we’ve always done.” As evidence, he cited the case of former Council member Brian Peterson, who was allowed to serve out his term on the Water Authority board even after he’d been censured by Council amid allegations of soliciting a prostitute. “We’re talking about people who have really served their community, and it’s just an insult to say, ‘Well, that was then, this is now — and you’re out of here,'” Mumpower declared.
Handouts and handbacks
Other topics raised during the work session proved less contentious, though some disagreements did pop up.
Each year, City Council assembles a wish list of projects for which it plans to seek federal funding and/or other help from Congress. On Feb. 21, Council members bandied about nearly $8 million worth of such requests.
Economic Development Director Sam Powers presented eight projects identified by city staff. He also urged the city to rehire Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Ball Janik to help grease the skids and bring home the bacon. The list will have to be approved in formal session, but in the meantime, Council members did give an inkling of how they might vote. The city, noted Powers, has until March 1 to get its funding requests to the staffs of Rep. Charles Taylor and Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole in order to be considered for funding in federal fiscal year 2006-07, which begins in October.
The projects are: $3 million to renovate the Reid Center on Livingston Street; $980,000 for two 30-foot hybrid buses for Asheville Transit; $1 million to build a “green” fire station in West Asheville; $463,000 to upgrade the Police Department’s firing range and buy a driving and firearms simulator; nearly $2.3 million to upgrade the city’s public-safety radio system; upward of $500,000 to repair and renovate a cabin in Azalea Park once used by Asheville author Thomas Wolfe; $495,000 for an emergency traffic-light-interruption system; and a legislative request to reclassify Asheville Transit’s service area.
Apart from Davis, who called himself “a Wolfe enthusiast,” most Council members weren’t keen on including the cabin on the list. Davis argued that “it would be a terrible error” not to seek the money to renovate the cabin because of its cultural and historic value to the city. But other Council members felt the price was too high. Past City Councils have said it seemed irresponsible to submit the request until Asheville’s affordable-housing issues have been addressed.
Newman also questioned the rationale for including the Reid Center renovation. City staff said they envision turning the former school building into a state-of-the-art regional performing- and visual-arts center, noting that state and federal officials have said the project might qualify for federal funds.
But City Council was of one mind when it came to reclassifying Asheville Transit’s service area, which they flagged as their No. 1 priority. It’s also the only item on the list that doesn’t involve asking for money. The reclassification would ease certain requirements now placed on the system, enabling more federal funds to be used to cover operating costs. Currently, the system is classified as serving an urbanized area with a population of more than 200,000. But that’s based on the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area, most of which isn’t served by the system.
As for the other items, Mumpower said that while many of them merit funding, he balked at supporting most of them right now because of the federal government’s record budget deficit.
“Washington is out of control. It doesn’t mean we have to be,” declared Mumpower. An energy-efficient firehouse and other “green” buildings would be nice, he observed, “but I don’t believe in borrowing our children’s future to build them.”
Cape, on the other hand, said she sees the funding requests as simply a return of tax moneys to local communities, adding that green buildings will prove to be money savers.
“Asking that some of our federal tax money come back to the community is not unreasonable,” she said. “It’s not a handout — it’s a handback.”
“If we had a balanced [federal] budget, it would be a handback — but we don’t have a balanced budget,” Mumpower responded later.
He also rejected the suggestion that the city rehire Ball Janik, preferring to work directly through Taylor’s, Burr’s and Dole’s offices. And though Powers said the firm had helped secure $5 million in federal funding for various projects over a three-year period, Mumpower scoffed at that, contending that Taylor and others were mostly responsible for any financial largesse the city had received from the federal government. The $4 million secured to help bankroll the renovation of City/County Plaza accounted for most of the money in question, noted Mumpower, calling it “extremely deceptive” to say Ball Janik deserved any credit for those funds. “They had very little substantial impact,” he said, adding that the $350,000 received for the Memorial Stadium renovation also had very little to do with the lobbying firm.
“If we have meaningful requests, we need to be knocking on [Taylor’s] door — pounding on it. It’s only a block away,” proclaimed Mumpower.
Nonetheless, a majority of Council members indicated they will probably seek to renew a relationship with Ball Janik, whose contract with the city was allowed to expire last year. At the very least, argued Jones and Newman, the city should consider a limited contract with the firm, focused on getting the transit system reclassified.
That project, noted Newman, “is highly technical in nature” and perhaps beyond the grasp of Taylor’s, Burr’s or Dole’s staffs. He added that calling Ball Janik lobbyists is a misnomer: They are primarily a law firm. “The Ball Janik folks have spent a few years really getting up to speed on that issue” and would be better prepared to tackle it, insisted Newman.
The Dealer Down program, aimed at ridding Asheville of upper-level hard-drug dealers, is being tweaked, reported Mumpower.
The Council member, who led the push to launch the program last December and chairs the Asheville-Buncombe Drug Commission, told his colleagues that the monetary rewards being offered for people who provide information leading to an arrest are being doubled. The new limit is $2,000 for cases involving a pound or more of crack, methamphetamine or other hard drugs. People who drop a dime on someone dealing 2 ounces or more can receive $500.
Mumpower said the increase was necessary because the program has had a hard time gaining traction. And though the Asheville Drug Suppression Unit has received numerous calls, so far there have been no arrests that have resulted in rewards, he said. Initially, said Mumpower, he will personally bankroll any reward payouts from his Council salary (currently $11,927 a year). And if the program catches fire, the commission will seek donations and do fund raising.
“We’re going to be tenacious about fighting hard drugs,” declared Mumpower, who has made drug interdiction one of his pet causes. To that end, the commission — a nongovernmental entity — will be unveiling a new poster campaign and holding seminars to spread the word.
It should be only a matter of time before the commission’s public-relations efforts begin to pay off, noted Jones. Mayor Bellamy, meanwhile, thanked Mumpower for his efforts and asked if she could get card-sized versions of the commission’s posters to hand out to kids during her frequent visits to local schools. She also wanted to know how local government could work with the group.
Mumpower responded that the commission prefers to remain independent “so we can rock and roll and press on” with its mission. But he emphasized the urgent need for an intervention facility of some type, especially for homeless drug addicts. Otherwise, he said, the only options for users are typically either jail or the hospital.
“I’ll be blunt: if you’re a homeless person and behave, fine; if not, we’ll put you in jail. Or, you can just simply leave,” said Mumpower. “But we need a fourth option, so that if you need or want help, we will help you.”
He also reminded his colleagues that callers to the drug-suppression-unit hot line may remain anonymous if they fear retaliation. Callers whose information leads to an arrest can receive their cash rewards in less than 48 hours, compared to as much as 30 days for programs such as Crimestoppers, noted Mumpower. The hot line number is 259-5692.