“Democracy may not be pretty, but it’s the best thing going,” commented Mayor Leni Sitnick during Asheville City Council’s March 13 formal session. That seemed appropriate for the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, which covered such diverse topics as passenger rail service, indemnification agreements between the Regional Water Authority and the city, a couple of board appointments, talk of annexation, professional basketball, cannabis and an impassioned debate about freedom of speech, respect, decorum, the redress of grievances and the future of public comment at Council meetings.
Who needs reality TV shows like Survivor when you have that lineup broadcast live on Channel 20?
The long-vanished echoes of “All aboard!” may soon be heard in Biltmore Village once again, according to a report presented by Asheville Economic Development Director Mac Williams, who serves on the city’s Passenger Rail Site Selection Committee. The committee, he said, has recommended a site across the tracks from the old Asheville depot in Biltmore Village. After considering four other potential sites, the committee unanimously selected this one for its accessibility and cost-effectiveness. The committee is proposing that the city build a 2,500-square-foot facility that could accommodate 75-100 people. The rail service, expected to begin within the next five years, will link Asheville and Salisbury, with stops along the way. The project will cost an estimated $2.7 million, with the funding to come from a variety of public, nonprofit and private sources (including a 10-percent local match).
Most of those in attendance, including Council members, praised both the committee’s specific work and the idea of using mass transit to reduce local reliance on automobiles — a major contributor to the area’s significant air-quality problems. “We’re in trouble here in these mountains; our air is in bad shape,” said Sitnick, adding, “The cost of dirty air is almost immeasurable: Disease is not cost-effective.”
Asheville resident William Meredith, one of a group of Libertarian Party members who regularly attend Council meetings, spoke during the public-comment portion of the presentation. He suggested that a diesel/electric train might not significantly decrease local air pollution. Instead, Meredith advocated using an alternative fuel derived from a plant such as hemp, adding that the technology exists and is efficient and practical. A smirking Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger replied, “I’m sure DOT will examine alternative fuels, but I’ll bet hemp won’t be one of them.” Council voted unanimously to adopt the committee’s site recommendations.
Here we grow again
City Planner Paul Benson introduced resolutions of intent to annex five areas adjacent to the Asheville city limits: a 72.2 acre parcel in West Asheville (which includes the Lowe’s on Smokey Park Highway); 17 acres in upper Sondley in east Asheville; nearly 125 acres in Arden; and properties occupied by the Best Inn (on Hwy. 70 near Swannanoa) and the Old Dominion Freight Line facility (on Sweeten Creek Road). A memo from Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford briefed Council members on the state requirements governing annexation. The first step is adopting resolutions that identify the areas under consideration and fix dates for both an informational meeting and a public hearing. The informational meeting for all five areas will be held on Thursday, May 3; the public hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, May 22. Both will take place in the Public Works Building.
Mayoral candidate Dave Goree, a libertarian, asked Council members whether residents of those areas had requested or even wanted the annexation. “It’s a violation of the American system to have this [annexation] happen,” he said.
Sitnick explained that the residents would have a chance to express their views during the two scheduled meetings. She then explained why the city annexes outlying areas: “Annexation is about equity for people who live in an urban environment. All of the folks who live on the outskirts are using the city’s infrastructure to get to these places. That infrastructure is paid for solely by Asheville taxpayers. It’s a tax-equity issue.” Council unanimously adopted all five resolutions.
Asheville’s unique relationship with the Regional Water Authority and the state Department of Transportation cropped up to vex Council members once again. The RWA is the only such agency in North Carolina that must pay what are called “nonbetterment costs” for water lines relocated by the DOT during road construction.
Water Resources Director Tom Frederick presented a resolution authorizing the mayor to execute utility agreements with the DOT in connection with road-improvement projects for Pisgah Highway (phase 2), Hendersonville Highway, Sweeten Creek Road (phase 2) and bridge 512 on Old Hwy. 70. Council unanimously adopted the resolution with little fanfare.
Next up was City Attorney Bob Oast, with a resolution asking the mayor to execute an indemnification agreement with the Regional Water Authority that would limit the Authority’s financial liability in case the relocated water lines proved faulty. “As your attorney, I can’t recommend this,” cautioned Oast. After some discussion of the issues surrounding the agreement and the complex relationship among the city, the Water Authority and the DOT, Council members decided that they needed more information. During the public-comment period, Hazel Fobes (the chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air) captured the feelings of frustration that permeated the chamber, saying, “This is all rooted in a water agreement that is antiquated, and it must be redone.” Council voted to table the issue until a later date.
The great debate
Toward the end of the Feb. 27 formal session, Mayor Sitnick had asked Oast to draft amendments to Council’s policy governing public comment. (That meeting ended on an abrupt note when local cannabis activists Dan Waterman and Dave Mittler, dressed as “cannabis clowns,” butted heads with Sitnick over the legitimacy of Mittler’s group; the mayor adjourned the meeting in the middle of Mittler’s time at the lectern.)
But before the amendment could be considered on March 13, Council backed away from the policy change. Sitnick started the discussion by commenting, “Let’s not create an administration boondoggle for the 99.9 percent of the people that don’t abuse the process.” Council member Brian Peterson then grabbed the baton, adding, “I’d rather not see Council get into saying this is a legitimate group and this isn’t.” Those sentiments were echoed by their colleagues. The consensus was that the rules don’t necessarily need to be changed — just followed closely and administered fairly. “We respect the speakers, and the rules reflect that, but we expect respect in return,” observed Council member Ed Hay.
An example of how the rules can be bent had come earlier that same evening. During the public-comment portion of the passenger-rail discussion, Fred English rose to express his disbelief over the project’s stated cost. He then segued into a diatribe against Waterman and Mittler’s clown stunt two weeks earlier. (This time, Mittler and Waterman had abandoned the clown outfits in favor of colonial garb — crushed-velvet jackets and knee breeches — but their ponytails were real.) English was interrupted by Vice Mayor Cloninger, who asked whether English’s comments had to do with passenger rail service.
English deftly dodged the question and continued berating Waterman and Mittler, calling them “Paul Revere and the Raider” and suggesting that they “move to Ann Arbor, Mich., where a fine for marijuana possession is $5, or San Francisco, where it’s cheaper.” He added, “I was born and raised in these mountains.” Though well into retirement age, English then puffed up his chest and, glaring at the two men, declared: “You don’t need to look in the dictionary to find the definition of mountain man. You just need to look at me.” Then, after a long, tense moment, English took his seat.
So when Waterman later rose to speak out against the proposed changes to the public-comment rules, he cited English’s comments from earlier in the evening. English’s digression, said Waterman, was an example of the unfair way that Council applies its own rules. It shouldn’t matter, he said, whether Council members agree or disagree with the subject matter. “Don’t cut down the channels. If you do so, you are no longer leaders — you are autocrats,” proclaimed Waterman.
When it was Mittler’s turn, he opted for a more Socratic strategy, posing frequent questions to City Council and pausing for answers. Finally, referring to Mittler’s organization, Asheville People for Cannabis Education, Council member Terry Bellamy commented, “I was educated two weeks ago; I’ve had enough education.”
Mayoral candidate Mickey Mahaffey, one of several members of the public to speak out against the behavior of the cannabis clowns as well as against changes in the public-comment policy, said, “I can’t sit here tonight and listen to [the clown’s] disparaging remarks.”
In the end, Council voted to table the proposed amendments.