“If you sign up late, you run a greater risk of not being heard.”
— Mayor Charles Worley on limiting the length of public hearings
It took five hours for tempers to really emerge at the Asheville City Council’s March 16 work session, perhaps aided by a 12-point agenda that would have tried the patience of a monk.
Or maybe it was the arrival of the final topic — midyear budget allocations, which highlighted individual Council members’ different spending priorities — at the end of a long day.
Budget adjustments are a fact of life, but uncommitted funds are something of a rarity. In this case, the city had set aside $563,146 in the current budget to begin making contributions to Social Security for firefighters. In October, however, the Fire Department voted against adopting Social Security, unexpectedly freeing up the money.
At the work session, Mayor Charles Worley distributed a tidy graph displaying Council members’ various ideas on what to do with the money. City Attorney Bob Oast explained that $315,000 had been returned to the fund balance whence it came, leaving $248,146 to work with.
A City Council vote winnowed the list from nine suggestions to three, which will be addressed at the next formal session: Council member Joe Dunn‘s request for $80,000 to renovate the Hall Fletcher playground, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower‘s request for $50,000 for two new quick-response vehicles — trucks that are smaller and cheaper to run that conventional engines — for the Asheville Fire Department, and Council member Holly Jones‘ call for $25,000 to jump-start fund-raising efforts for a veterans’ memorial at Pack Square. Of the three measures, only the Fire Department vehicles drew unanimous support.
But things heated up when Council turned its attention to what happens next. Jones, noting that the schedules for the March 23 formal session was already jammed with nine public hearings plus new business, spent most of the evening trying to shepherd more measures onto the consent agenda, where they could be fast-tracked. And in this case, all that was needed was a formal-session vote directing staff to prepare a budget for each project. Mumpower, however, wanted to see the budget issues “out on the table.”
Tempers in the Council chamber rose as an obviously frustrated Jones challenged the vice mayor.
“We’ve just worked so hard to come together, and it feels like something that is not necessary,” said Jones. “Carl, I’ll just ask you directly: … Can we just put it on the consent agenda and try to start coming together?”
Mumpower, however, remained unmoved. “I think we’re making a major policy error here, and I think we should do it openly,” he declared.
Despite others’ support for moving the issue onto the consent agenda — and Council member Terry Bellamy‘s threat to change her vote if the issue became political — Mumpower held his ground, refusing to be swayed.
“Folks, we’re just stuck here,” he said simply. And lacking consensus, the issue joined the list of those remaining open for discussion at the March 23 formal session.
Curbing public comment
In the wake of its own struggle to keep its formal session agenda from becoming too lengthy, Council discussed adopting new rules aimed at tightening the leash on another perennial time-consumer: public comment. The proposed changes, explained City Attorney Oast, are meant to codify current practices such as directing speakers to “observe the decorum of the chamber, to be respectful of the Council and the public, to refrain from personal attacks and commentary on political candidates.”
“It’s basically a directive to be polite,” noted Oast.
Other changes would clarify the handling of speakers representing a group.
But Council’s discussion seemed to lead even further down a path that would, in Jones’ words, “narrow the amount of people speaking.”
The new language would let a group representative speak for 10 minutes, rather than the three minutes given to individuals, “provided that at least three other members of the group are present and relinquish their opportunity to speak.” Mayor Charles Worley expanded on that theme, suggesting that all group members present — not just three — yield their floor time to a single representative. But Council member Brownie Newman pointed to First Amendment issues that could prohibit such a rule.
What if, wondered Newman, an individual group member wanted to advance a different position than the one stated by that group’s representative?
Another proposed change would limit the length of public hearings (the specific time allotted per issue, said Oast, could be varied to reflect the amount of controversy surrounding it). But time limits, noted Worley, mean some people may not get to speak on a particular issue. Nonetheless, he suggested letting the order in which people sign up determine the order in which they get to speak.
“It would need to be first-come, first-served,” said the mayor. “If you sign up late, you run a greater risk of not being heard.”
Similarly, Mumpower argued that Asheville residents should be heard first.
But as Council members continued whittling away at the list of those who’d be permitted to speak at a public hearing, Council member Jan Davis balked at placing further limits on public expression at meetings designed to include citizens in their government.
“When you stifle the process, you make it difficult for people,” Davis observed. “We have an obligation to hear people who take time out of their day to come down here.”
Oast reminded Council that the new rules reflected desire to shorten formal sessions, which sometimes last for many hours (or, in the case of highly controversial topics, even days).
“For the vast majority of hearings, it’s not a problem,” noted Oast.
Jones, meanwhile, wondered aloud whether the occasional marathon session is simply something that comes with the territory of being a public servant.
“Is it part of getting elected that six times a year we listen for a long time?” she asked.
And Worley emphasized that public comment isn’t the only thing that drags out formal sessions.
“The length is also driven by what we [on Council] say. We can exercise more self-discipline in the comments we make,” Worley urged.
Based on Council’s input, the city attorney plans to rework the proposed rules and bring them back for a vote next month.
Off the hook?
In December 2002, faced with the looming specter of draconian federal restrictions on development, City Council joined other local governments in forming an early-action compact designed to clean up Western North Carolina’s air. The threat of a “noncompliance” designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, triggered by high ozone levels, appears to have been a factor in persuading some Council members to support joining the pact.
The Mountain Area Compact originally included Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties. Following EPA guidelines, a stakeholders’ group was formed to draft recommendations for reducing local air pollution. Those recommendations were presented to Council back in June.
Recently, however, state and federal officials have notified the city that, due to last year’s wet summer and fall and new or pending pollution-curbing measures, local governments are now free to disband the compact or continue it voluntarily (see March 17 Xpress, “Threat or Promise?”).
Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center has threatened to sue the EPA. And at press time, various city and county officials were giving conflicting reports as to which counties were planning to remain in the Mountain Area Compact.
At the work session, City Engineer Cathy Ball encouraged Council to both continue with the program and earmark $15,000 for educational and public-relations efforts, as outlined by the stakeholders’ group. Ball’s report also suggests changing the name of the compact to the Air Quality Improvement Initiative 2004, in order to steer clear of any fallout from the Southern Environmental Law Center suit.
“We have come out of this with a good plan that needs to go forward,” urged Ball.
City Manager Jim Westbrook also strongly encouraged Council to adopt the plan, at least in principle, to help maintain unity among key players.
“Inaction could be looked at in a negative way,” warned Westbrook.
Terry Bellamy suggested having a Council subcommittee review the plan and make a recommendation. Both Davis and Newman served on the stakeholders’ group before being elected to Council, and Mumpower was Council’s liaison to the group. All three volunteered to examine the plan.
Haywood’s new look
As West Asheville continues its dramatic transformation, the increased activity along Haywood Road has sparked growing concern. But a report from city staff suggests that some of the traffic and pedestrian problems may be resolved this year.
City engineers asked Council to support a proposal (already submitted to the state Department of Transportation) that involves re-striping, providing designated on- and off-street parking, and installing pedestrian- and traffic-control methods along the busiest stretch of what the report calls “the commercial, social and cultural ‘heart’ of West Asheville.”
The NCDOT plans to repave the road later this year, but the report asks the city to support some additional changes, explained City Engineer Anthony Butzek.
Among the problems outlined by the city’s Haywood Traffic Study are lane drops, add-ons, and a lack of designated on-street parking (which leads to a proliferation of parked cars in traffic lanes).
“There is a hodgepodge of lane sizes, and parking is haphazard,” said Butzek.
In order to create a more user-friendly road, the report recommends re-striping, single-lane traffic, pedestrian islands, and better crosswalks.
Butzek also stressed the importance of reconfiguring the five-way intersection where State Street meets Haywood Road. By making Majestic Road a right-turn-in, right-turn-out-only street, he said, waiting time at the intersection can be cut, perhaps eliminating what has become a serious traffic bottleneck.
And though many neighborhood residents have called attention tohe problems, both Butzek and Westbrook emphasized that the DOT — not the city — maintains the street. What they want is a resolution from Council that could be sent to state officials to demonstrate local support for the project.
“A recommendation by the city can carry weight,” noted Westbrook.
Some Council members, however, expressed concern about the design.
Dunn pointed out that having only single-lane traffic and parking on both sides could limit access for emergency vehicles dispatched from Haywood Road.
“How’s an emergency vehicle going to get through that?” he asked.
Council members planned to continue discussing the issue at the next formal session. But even if they supported the proposal, the DOT may find reason to reject the study’s recommendations. Butzek told Council that the state agency doesn’t generally like lane reductions (although projections indicate that the new configuration could handle the same traffic capacity) and may simply be unwilling to spend the extra money.
An end to local homelessness?
The city’s current approach to homelessness and its related problems, such as drug abuse, has become an expensive revolving door, reports a task force that has spent the last year analyzing Asheville’s situation.
To that end, the Downtown Social Issues Task Force is making a bold recommendation: end homelessness in Asheville within 10 years.
Appointed after Council passed a stricter city panhandling ordinance, the group was charged with examining the problems associated with homelessness, such as drug use and graffiti.
Their research, explained task force member Pat Whalen, showed that most of the resources the city dedicates to addressing the problem are consumed by a small number of chronic cases that account for only 15 to 20 percent of the city’s homeless population. Repeatedly cycling through the police, court and hospital systems, this relative handful of homeless folks costs the city about $500,000 every two years.
Whalen asked Council to allocate $10,000 to develop a plan that would “close the front door on homelessness” by targeting people with the potential to become homeless: youth in foster-care programs, prisoners, and mental patients who could be left homeless as a result of statewide reform efforts.
The money — which would come from a federal Community Development Block Grant, not the city — would pay for an outside contractor to develop a plan based on national models.
Citing successes of other cities in trying similar programs, Whalen stressed that the $10,000 initial investment would be money well spent.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Whalen. “It is certainly an expensive program, but this plan ultimately saves money.”
The task force’s report also notes that the The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development may soon make such plans a prerequisite for receiving federal housing moneys.
Vice Mayor Mumpower asked that more hard numbers on the success ratios of other cities’ programs be brought to the March 23 formal session.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]