Asheville City Council

“One more thing: God bless America.”

— Council member Joe Dunn

Mountain Xpress has been known to poke fun at the fact that City Council’s often-tedious meetings are broadcast live on cable television. Not that we don’t appreciate the expense borne by the city to bring government to the people; it’s just that, at times, the pedestrian nature of some Council agenda items makes even C-SPAN seem downright riveting.

But that was hardly the case at Council’s March 12 formal session. If you missed the live action, you’ll want to catch it when the show is rebroadcast on Friday at 6 p.m. on channel 20. Better yet, if Council continues to produce such sizzling drama, you may soon be able to view it in syndication on UPN.

In the course of the five-hour meeting, which ranged from mundane discussions of property transfers to heated debate on the importance of citizenship in relation to the affairs of local government, Council members and members of the public alike engaged in an extended bout of muscle-flexing. With undertones of realpolitik, dabs of Dadaism, and touches of sublime rhetoric, the collective painted a complex portrait of the American anima, laid bare on a canvas of pure emotion. In a nation awash in a cascade of post-9/11 images, messages and agendas, each individual must draw his or her own conclusions about the resulting design. But the very act of creating that many-hued image of our collective inner self is a reminder of why the founding fathers chose to give the First Amendment top billing to begin with.

At center stage was the much-anticipated public hearing on Council’s bid to prohibit city residents who are not U.S. citizens from serving on boards and commissions. The proposal, initiated by Council member Joe Dunn, had begun revealing its Achilles’ heel during Council’s Feb. 19 work session, when Council members openly discussed City Attorney Bob Oast‘s confidential memo on the matter. At the March 12 formal session, Council member Holly Jones again brought up the memo for discussion.

After reminding Council that the information in the memo was privileged and confidential, Oast added, “If you want to, I’ll discuss it.”

“I don’t apologize about talking about this,” responded Jones, apparently referring to the legal implications Oast had raised. And Council member Carl Mumpower reasoned, “His memo is the only thing before us we can sink our teeth into.” Council then voted unanimously to allow Oast’s report to be publicly discussed.

The city attorney then distributed copies of the memo (which he conveniently had on hand) to the press and members of the public. In it, he noted that the Supreme Court “has held that legal aliens, though not citizens, enjoy most of the rights of citizens under the U.S. Constitution. Following from this, the Supreme Court has held that classifications based on alienage or place of national origin are inherently suspect and are subject to strict judicial scrutiny. … However, there is an exception to this strict scrutiny test that may apply to the particular situation under consideration by Council. The exception is known as the ‘political function’ exception. Essentially, the political function exemption permits [cities] to have some freedom in choosing their own form of government, and limiting the right to govern to individuals who are legally members of the political community. In my opinion, this means that the city can, within carefully considered limitations, establish citizenship as a qualification for service on certain boards. The limitations chiefly concern whether the function of a board or commission is ‘intimately related to the process of democratic self-determination.'”

Oast explained that those “carefully considered limitations” would include trimming the list of affected boards and commissions to include only those that perform a political function, in that they “had the power to consider and determine the rights of others in a way that could be final, without recourse to the City Council or some other city board.” Oast added that he had worked with the mayor and several Council members to determine which boards and commissions would fall into this category — eventually concluding that 11 of the 35 boards and commissions to which Council makes appointments fit this description. But the memo from the city’s chief solicitor also cautions that “this is the kind of issue that frequently attracts costly and time consuming lawsuits from outside public interest groups.” Underscoring that point, Oast noted, “I think that based on my reading, there is a political function exception that draws from self determination and that it is legally defensible, but I can’t guarantee that we’d win and I can’t guarantee that we won’t be sued.”

Then it was the public’s turn to air their opinions. Asheville resident Helen Morrison said she strongly objects to letting any noncitizen have power over citizens, adding, “If they don’t respect America and love America enough to become a citizen, then they shouldn’t even think about holding a seat.”

Bud Howell (also of Asheville) countered, “There is no need or good reason why any city residents should be debating this.” (The only noncitizen known to have served on an Asheville board or commission, at least in recent years, is longtime city resident Dennis Hodgson, an Australian citizen who formerly served on the Board of Adjustment; at the moment, no noncitizens have applied for any position.) “Ideological intent is fueling this,” continued Howell, adding: “I don’t see how this will improve our quality of life; it serves no real purpose with regard to city government. Not loving this country is probably the last reason why someone doesn’t become a citizen.”

Next up was a visibly shaken Pauline Kaltsunis. She introduced herself as a member of the city’s Greenway Commission and the daughter of Greek immigrants who had always taught her to give back to her community. She noted that Council already has the power to prohibit noncitizens from serving, because the application for serving on boards and commissions specifically asks whether the applicant is a citizen. Then, steadying herself, Kaltsunis firmly intoned: “I love America; that’s why I serve on the commission. It would dishearten me to see this [resolution passed].”

Buncombe County resident Walter Plaue earnestly pointed out, “I think it’s ironic that a citizen of Iraq could be placed on a commission, yet I don’t qualify because I live in the county — and I spend an awful lot of time following city affairs.”

Asheville building contractor Ed Mackie argued that the Historic Resources Commission should be added to the list of boards open only to citizens. “HRC has tremendous impact on citizens,” he noted, adding, “I’m talking dollars!”

Next up was Terry Elniff, who noted that other municipalities also make appointments to some of the boards and commissions in question (such as the Metropolitan Sewerage District). And because those bodies wouldn’t have the same citizenship standards that Asheville was considering, said Elniff, “These people will end up on the boards anyway — with winks and nods.”

Asheville resident Sharon Martin, looking puzzled, simply asked: “Why are we visiting this topic at this time? This is a very divisive topic, yet you talk about working together. This is antithetical to that.

Robert Rank, who introduced himself as a veteran and sported an Amvets cap to prove it, went on the offensive, noting: “We’re in America; if you want to make a decision for Americans, you should be an American.” He then opined that if every government entity adopted such a resolution, “There wouldn’t be secrets leaked here and there. That’s what we need right now. We’re at war!” (Rank could not be reached for comment regarding the recent espionage conviction of CIA agent Aldrich Ames, or the case of FBI agent (and accused master spy) Robert Hanssen, both of whom are American citizens.)

Meanwhile, just to prove that political theater isn’t dead in Asheville, local activist Rebecca Campbell strolled up to the lectern bedecked from head to toe in red, white and blue and clutching a U.S. flag. Gesticulating wildly, Campbell declared that she had recently undergone a “conservative conversion” adding, “I still pray.” Asserting that it’s time to get back to fundamentals, the Yankee Doodle dandy said it’s time to forget about air-quality and budget problems and discuss the citizenship initiative. Claiming that Council member Dunn hadn’t gone far enough, Campbell suggested an amendment that would extend the limitations being considered even further, maintaining that only property-owning white males should even be allowed to address City Council. “Anyone who is unusual must be excluded! Dissent must be crushed! God bless America!” she shouted, frantically slashing with her flag.

The debate raged for some two hours, with some speakers branding it “jingoistic” or “xenophobic” and others calling for the city to (as one speaker deftly noted) “say no to all aliens.” Then it was Council’s turn.

First to grab the reins was Dunn. The citizenship initiative, he said, has “nothing to do with 9/11.” Dunn then told the audience, “Let me give you a little history lesson.” He began back in 1776, noting that our founding fathers, fed up with being told what to do, had fought the Revolutionary War in defense of the principle of self-determination — the very same principle, he explained, on which his noncitizen initiative is solely based.

“We’ve gotten so fuzzy and feel-good in this country that we’ve forgotten what this country is all about,” Dunn declared. He lashed out at the media, specifically naming the Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress for wanting to “share their opinions.” Dunn also warned, “We’ve become a politically correct country and, sooner or later, we’re gonna have to remember what this country was founded on.”

Dunn then turned his attention to the pledge of allegiance, which is now recited at the start of every Council function. “When we said that pledge, we weren’t talking about the United Nations, it was the United States of America, ‘one nation under god’ — our nation,” thundered Dunn, lamenting: “We’ve taken god out of it. He doesn’t have any place here anymore.”

Referring to the soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy, Dunn maintained, “They didn’t have their heads shot off” so that others could make decisions for them. “When are we going to take a stand?” he asked, adding, “Before you know it, we won’t have anything left to give away.” In closing, Dunn noted that he strongly believes he has the support of veterans and of the city’s silent majority. “Where is Asheville? It’s in the United States of America,” Dunn declared, saying he was “drawing a line in the sand.” To conclude his remarks, Dunn proclaimed, “One more thing: God bless America!”

Dunn’s colleagues on Council were more succinct in stating their positions. Mumpower explained that he supports the citizenship initiative because it represents a compromise (11 boards instead of 35) and because citizens shouldn’t be governed by noncitizens. Brian Peterson said he couldn’t support a measure that could end up costing the city a lot of money in litigation. Holly Jones also declined to support the initiative for the same reason, saying, “Anything we can do to cut this off at the pass and protect city resources is good.”

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy was more elusive in voicing her opinion, saying Council’s job is to “represent everyone and not just the people who came here tonight.” Jim Ellis, however, was not; reading from a prepared statement, he noted, “Asheville is facing many serious challenges tonight, and to spend time debating whether a taxpaying resident … must be a citizen to voluntarily contribute their time, talents and efforts to improve our lives is at best questionable.” Pointing to the international companies, such as Volvo, that have facilities here, Ellis added, “And if the president of Volvo wanted to serve on the Economic Development Board and try to encourage other European companies to locate here, that individual has my vote to serve.”

Last to speak was Mayor Charles Worley, who announced, “This issue has no significance.” Noting that many Americans have been caught up in a wave of post-9/11 patriotism, he added, “It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of patriotism and wave the flag.” Worley then asked — and answered — a few questions of his own: “Is citizenship a consideration? Yes. Should we make it a policy? I don’t think so.”

Council member Mumpower made a motion to adopt the citizenship requirement. The motion failed 3-4, with Worley, Peterson, Jones and Ellis opposed and Bellamy, Dunn and Mumpower voting in support.

In other news…

Council also voted unanimously to tighten the city’s solicitation ordinance, banning solicitation and collection of money along city streets and roads. Assistant Police Chief Ross Robinson said the new ordinance would be a proactive step in ensuring public safety. Although much of the recent discussion has centered on panhandling and on homeless people who stake out a place at busy intersections to ask for spare change, the resolution reflected a compromise, in that it does not ban panhandling on adjacent sidewalks.

Former mayoral candidate Mickey Mahaffey, a longtime advocate for local homeless people, urged Council to instruct the Police Department to exercise restraint in enforcing the ordinance, noting that many panhandlers are “vulnerable.” Mahaffey also reminded Council that if this tweaking of the law was indeed about pedestrian safety, as some Council members had maintained earlier that evening, then he’d like the city to continue to work to address the issue.

One result of the measure is that charitable groups will no longer be able to collect money from passing motorists. Among the affected groups will be the Asheville Fire Department, whose “Fill the Boot” campaign has raised tens of thousands of dollars annually for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

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