Asheville City Council

Faced with a host of infrastructure wants and needs, Asheville City Council members were nonetheless reluctant to charge ahead with a proposed bond issue during their inaugural work session on March 18. An uncertain economic future seemed to dampen the prospects for issuing some $10 million worth of general-obligation bonds.

Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant suggested the move as a way to fund things like sidewalks and greenways, as well as improvements to city recreation centers. But there is a hitch, he noted: Such bonds, often accompanied by an increase in property taxes, must be approved by both voters and the state’s Local Government Commission. Mayor Terry Bellamy encouraged Durant to explore comparable cases in other cities that have avoided raising taxes.

Those considerations, stressed Durant, make it essential to get voters on board. “You want projects that are highly visible and can get community support,” he said. “If we’re going to take on any significant amount of debt, you want the public behind you on that.”

The city has held similar referendums several times since 1981, with mixed results. And the specter of a nationwide economic slump raised another red flag.

“Is now the right time, given the economic atmosphere?” asked Durant. “We need to answer that question.”

Works in progress

Once upon a time, the Asheville City Council conducted what were known as “work sessions.” These meetings were meant to give Council members a chance to question city staff and get up to speed on heavyweight topics before taking official action during a subsequent formal session.

After years of conducting work sessions on the first floor of City Hall, away from television cameras, Council moved the meetings upstairs to the formal meeting chamber. Then, on Nov. 21, 2006, Council members decided to dispense with work sessions altogether and hold only formal meetings. But sometimes, those meetings go long—very long. And City Council would periodically find itself having to vote on some issues after only minimal interaction with staff.

Now, however, work sessions are back. The decision was made during Council’s Feb. 4-5 retreat, though after a shaky start on March 18, it remains to be seen whether they’ll provide the kind of enhanced governmental efficiency for which the change was made.

Before tackling the agenda for the March 18 meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page concerning work sessions. In the past, these meetings were held with no public comment or formal votes. And though a certain amount of deliberation and stating positions may be unavoidable, it was supposed to be kept to a minimum.

After a bit of discussion, City Council agreed to keep public comment out of these meetings, though Council member Robin Cape said she thinks such comment is part of elected officials’ education process on certain topics. And City Attorney Bob Oast reminded Council that, when time is of the essence, they can suspend the rules, hear public comment and take a vote during work sessions.

Cape—one of two Council members who hadn’t participated in a work session prior to March 18—told Xpress before the meeting that she’s approaching the idea tentatively and that she favors televising the meetings.

Council member Bill Russell is also new to the work-session game, but he said he supports the idea. “Work sessions make perfect sense,” he told Xpress. “We can kind of share ideas.”

The idea of improving efficiency during formal sessions, where “We spend more time playing to the cameras,” is one worth pursuing, added Russell.

Council members Holly Jones and Brownie Newman were both ambivalent, however, and both encountered snags during that first meeting.

Jones, who said she’d agreed to work sessions with the understanding that they would be held at 5 p.m., objected to changing the time to 3 p.m. (Nonethelss, that change was made, effective April 15.) Council members, noted Jones, already have to take enough time from work and other commitments without having to give up another couple of hours.

Newman, meanwhile, noted during the meeting that the format didn’t seem to be eliminating deliberation and, in fact, created confusion as to what Council’s wishes were of staff.

“One of the things I don’t like about work sessions is that they end in such an ambiguous way,” he said after a discussion on traffic in Asheville. And later, as Council member Carl Mumpower aired opinions on increased enforcement speed limits, Newman observed, “I objected to the reinstitution of work sessions for this specific reason.”

Nonetheless, Bellamy hopes Council will find its groove with work sessions. When done properly, she maintains, they allow for a more educated City Council and public, while reducing the likelihood that large-scale initiatives will get rushed through.

City Manager Gary Jackson agrees, saying that the format also means greater clarity for staff, who can request more direction and have more time to answer questions.

To see the city document establishing rules for work sessions, visit www.mountainx.com/xpress files.

 

For some on Council, the answer was no.

“We are in a clear state of economic turmoil,” declared Council member Carl Mumpower. “Our timing couldn’t be worse.”

Council member Robin Cape agreed. “We are not in a stable economic climate,” she said. “We are facing a budget year with a constrained staff.”

And though Council member Brownie Newman said he’d like to see more on the idea, he didn’t want to rush into it. Waiting until 2009, he argued, would allow more time to rally community support.

Durant is slated to return to Council in midsummer with a list of projects that could be funded by the bonds.

Ahead of the curve

Since adopting a traffic-calming policy in 2000, the city has implemented some form of calming along 10 of Asheville’s 400 miles of residential streets, Assistant Director of Transportation and Engineering Ken Putnam reported.

Those measures, which range from four-way stops to concrete islands, vary in both cost and effectiveness, he said. Putnam’s presentation, requested by Newman earlier this year, revisited the policy implemented under former Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek. According to the staff report, Newman wanted to examine alternatives to some of the approaches the city has been using, such as speed humps.

“We don’t have any magic answers to traffic calming,” said Putnam. “I don’t think any one of these strategies will do what we want to do.”

Traffic calming is intended to serve two purposes he said: slowing traffic and encouraging motorists using neighborhood roads as shortcuts to choose other routes.

That said, Putnam’s presentation did cover islands, speed humps and four-way stops. But he also mentioned nongovernmental programs, established by residents in other cities, that seek to raise driver awareness and increase cooperation.

Such programs, he said, may help reduce negative public reactions to traffic calming.

“Traffic calming is very controversial,” warned Putnam. “We don’t get 100 percent consensus when we go down this road.”

Neither drivers nor residents are always happy about obstructions in the road, and as Newman pointed out, many of those strategies require extra signage—an eyesore in residential areas.

Putnam, however, championed one method—on-street parking—as a quick, cost-free solution. “It’s one of the most effective things we can do at no cost,” he said. But the appropriateness of on-street parking varies, because at least a 10-foot open lane must be maintained. Additional problems arise when garbage trucks cannot access curbside trash cans, but Putnam said neighbors usually respond to requests to move their cars on collection days.

Among the structural devices, speed humps are the most cost-effective, said Putnam, but they create problems for emergency vehicles. A speed hump, he noted, can delay a fire truck by five seconds and an ambulance carrying a patient by 10 seconds.

Council took no formal action on Putnam’s information but said it may revisit the issue later.

Pet project

Countdown to zero: The city of Asheville may join Buncombe County in an alliance to stop euthanizing healthy animals in four years. Here, a dog being held at the Asheville Humane Society. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Council member Holly Jones proposed that the city get involved with the Countdown to Zero Coalition, formed after the Buncombe County commissioners set a target date of 2012 to stop euthanizing healthy animals (see Buncombe County Commission, Dec. 13, 2006 Xpress.)

The initiative comprises animal-advocacy groups such as the Asheville Humane Society and the Animal Compassion Network, as well as county government.

“It has really helped [address] that tragedy in the last couple of years,” said Jones. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

At this point, she noted, the city’s participation does not entail committing money or staff time—which cleared the way for other Council members to support the idea.

“I’ve asked a lot of different ways, ‘What’s the catch?’” Jones told her colleagues.

The item will appear on the consent agenda for the March 25 formal session.

Planting a seed

Ever heard of salvia? Mumpower has, and he’s concerned about it. Said to have hallucinogenic properties, Salvia divinorum is sold in local head shops, he noted.

The unlikely topic came up at the end of a discussion of Council’s upcoming legislative agenda, as Mumpower tried to gin up support from his colleagues to call on the General Assembly for a change in the herb’s legal status. No one was biting, however, and the conversation quickly moved on. But drug use and interdiction is not a topic that Mumpower typically lets go of easily, and this may not be the last Council hears about salvia.

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2 thoughts on “Asheville City Council

  1. Everyones economic future is always “uncertain” therefore all borrowing is always insane. Borrowing is especially moronic on the part of any government which can fund any needed capital project by raising taxes in advance and/or cutting spending. There is NEVER any excuse for borrowing because no entity of any kind can ever be sure of paying it back.
    I,m okay with the long speed humps that I can drive accross at 25mph without jarring my car, though I hate the short ones that jar at any speed, but I hate 4 way stops that wear out my brakes and clutch and waste fuel and the dangerous and expensive curbs and islands. Though some islands help pedestrians to cross one lane at a time, and I like rotaries better than traffic lights for the same reason as above, they are easier on my brakes and clutch and save fuel.

  2. John Beres

    The Mountain Xpress should note the error made by Robin Cape and their own reporting about work sessions. As correctly reported, city work sessions ended after November 21, 2006. Contrary to claims however, Robin Cape had attended a great many work sessions before they were cancelled. She began serving in January 2006 almost a full year before they quit having them. As a supposed public servant, how these eleven months completely escaped her memory is troubling to say the least.

    Of course, ridiculous statements by her and Holly Jones about not being paid enough and the undue burdens they are subjected to as council members by having to actually attend meetings does call into question their capacity and sincerity as public servants. Seems they are more about face time on TV than acknowledging the priveledge of doing the work of the community which they voluntarily opted to campaign for. If 3pm meetings are too much for them, I respectfully recommend they relinquish their seats. There are plenty of more capable and willing people prepared to serve. How does Holly run for County Commission with a straight face while she complains about the demands of being a council member?

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