Every year, the Asheville City Council adopts a wish list of appropriations requests that’s submitted to the city’s elected representatives in Washington. And every year, Council does this in the hope that their requests will find favor with the folks who dole out the dough and shepherd bills into law.
This year, however, Council members broke with tradition, presenting their requests to the congressional delegation before Council had approved the list. And the list they eventually approved didn’t match the one they’d submitted. In other words, having already asked for various things, city leaders apparently decided they didn’t want some of them.
How that came to be sheds light on both the complexities of the legislative-appropriations process and the increasingly tense relationships among members of the current Council.
Matters came to a head at the March 15 work session. After discussing the list last month, Council members had tabled the issue when it became evident that, with Council member Terry Bellamy on maternity leave, voting on several of the items would result in a 3-3 split. But only five Council members were on hand when the March 15 meeting began. Bellamy was still out on maternity leave, and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower arrived two hours late, because he’d been in Washington, D.C., to attend the National League of Cities Conference and meet with staffers from the offices of Rep. Charles Taylor and Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr — to discuss the city’s appropriations requests.
When they opted to postpone a vote, Council members had understood that the request list would not be formally adopted in time for Mumpower’s trip. And the city’s Washington-based lobbying firm, Ball Janik, had already identified five items on the list as strong candidates for success: $200,000 for selected improvements for water infrastructure, $200,000 to sniff out methamphetamine labs, $300,000 for renovations to Memorial Stadium, $300,000 for renovations to the Thomas Wolfe cabin near Azalea Road (the famed writer’s last known Asheville residence), $200,000 for a new city bus and $4 million to reconfigure City/County Plaza.
Arriving directly from the airport midway through the work session, Mumpower reported that both the lobbyists and the congressional representatives appeared to be receptive to the city’s requests — particularly the methamphetamine-interdiction program and the Memorial Stadium funding.
At Mayor Charles Worley‘s suggestion, Council members agreed to suspend normal work session rules and vote on the list, albeit after the fact. But the depth of disagreement about certain items quickly became apparent. When Council member Brownie Newman wanted to vote on the requests individually, Mumpower objected, noting that he’d already presented the list in Washington. “In some respects, the die is cast,” said the vice mayor. At the urging of Council member Joe Dunn, however, his colleagues agreed to the individual votes.
Council member Holly Jones balked at the Wolfe cabin request, saying she feared “sending the wrong message” by asking for $300,000 “to repair a cabin at a time when the federal government is cutting funding for affordable housing.” Newman concurred. Council member Jan Davis argued for preserving the cabin because of its historical and literary significance, but he and Mayor Worley found themselves on the losing end of a 2-4 vote that eliminated the cabin request from the list.
The Memorial Stadium renovation produced a less decisive result: a 3-3 tie. Davis, Dunn and Worley supported the request. But even though Mumpower has spearheaded the project, he voted against it, saying he had “trouble voting for it philosophically during a time of deficit.” Before the vote, however, Mumpower noted that the board of directors of the nonprofit group working to renovate the stadium had asked for Council’s support. Newman challenged Mumpower to explain his odd vote, speculating that it might have something to do with the vice mayor’s prior pledge that the funds would be raised privately, without using tax dollars. Fixing Newman with a steely gaze, Mumpower explained that his “no” vote was “strictly philosophical” and that he had pledged to “not use city tax dollars.”
The two continued butting heads throughout the evening. At one point, Mumpower questioned the logic of pruning the list after he’d already presented it, wondering, “We’ve spent a lot of money on lobbyists and sending a representative to Washington — do we have the potential here of shooting ourselves in the foot?”
Undaunted, Newman shot back with a question of his own: “Should Council have an influence? Yes!”
Mumpower then repeated his concern: “It’s a crapshoot up there; there are no guarantees. I’m concerned about the money we’re wasting on lobbyists. … The die is cast, why should we take back the baton?”
And without missing a beat, Newman answered, “We should, if we feel it’s the responsible thing to do.”
Council members unanimously approved the remaining items on the list.
Get on board
At 5 p.m., Council members moved from the first floor conference room to the Council chamber on the second floor, where they spent two-and-a-half hours interviewing five candidates for two openings on the Asheville School Board: Elizabeth Hubbell, Gene Bell, Alfred Whitesides Jr., Keith Thomson and Jim Taylor. (The move was made so the interviews could be televised.) City Council will vote on the school board appointments at their March 22 formal session.