On March 26, the Asheville City Council held a public hearing to discuss the future of the Civic Center — in less than an hour. City leaders listened to the public, displayed a remarkable grasp of the complicated issues surrounding the multimillion-dollar proposal, and staked out positions that reflected a genuine concern for the community, the environment and the future of the city.
Moreover, the august body managed to tackle this thorny issue without getting mired in petty politics or personal agendas. It was governance in its purest form. It was also entirely academic.
The meeting was actually an exercise in civic education; the seven “Council members” were eighth-graders from Asheville Middle School who were taking part in a learning project sponsored by Leadership Asheville (a nonprofit program affiliated with UNCA, that encourages local citizens to learn more about their community — and get involved).
Asheville attorney Roger James said he and several other members of his Leadership Asheville “class” had come up with the idea as a way to foster interest in local government among students. A press release explains that “Kids on Council” is an effort to make government “accessible and inviting to young minds.”
Mark Lewis, another member of Leadership Asheville’s Government Service Group, noted: “We opted for a project that would bring government to students, to demonstrate that they could aspire to public office. Many adults view those in public office with a certain mystique or — worse — cynical detachment, and it begins in the preteen years. We want to break down those barriers.”
Barriers were definitely shattered, beginning with the students’ election of Leeda Jones to serve as Asheville’s first African-American, female mayor. And Jones wielded the gavel with an efficiency that left even Charles Worley green with envy. The other members of the mock Council included Crezdon Butler, Casey Blake, Roy Kramka, Leah Hyde, Russell Buchanan and Josh Pozner.
The students had spent several weeks preparing for the meeting by researching primary sources and conducting opinion polls at Civic Center functions. What they couldn’t prepare for, however, were the comments from the public. In a role reversal clearly relished by one and all, the real Council members got to act as members of the public, each playing a character reflecting one of the diverse (and sometimes combative) viewpoints that Council members often must confront. Worley, for example, ambled up to the podium, looking disheveled and disgruntled, and introduced himself as a member of Dads Against Everything. Holly Jones said she represented SWEAT (Swannanoa Wants Entertainment Arts Today), threatening that if Council members didn’t vote to support the Civic Center, they’d be voted out of office.
The biggest surprise of the evening was unscripted. During a lull in the meeting, a young man with a shaved head approached the lectern. With a humble and gracious demeanor, he softly introduced himself as Ukiah Sativa Morrison. The now-legendary Morrison — a former male stripper whose 1999 run for a seat on City Council was the subject of a feature article in Rolling Stone — is apparently back in town after a lengthy absence. But his fame (or infamy, depending on your perspective) was lost on the students, who patiently listened to him discuss the Civic Center. Morrison (who ran on a cannabis ticket) praised Asheville’s professional-hockey team for having the courage to call themselves the Smoke, and chastised Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy for having suggested that the city look to Augusta, Ga., for an example of a well-planned civic center. Augusta, he noted, is home to a factory that produces an artificial sweetener; workers at the plant, he claimed, are dying from exposure to toxic substances. After a few minutes, “Mayor” Jones bluntly told him he was getting off the subject and instructed him to take his seat, which Morrison did with a smile.
Welcome to Asheville, kids.
After discussing the Civic Center among themselves, the newly minted Council members staked out their positions. They ended the meeting, however, without calling for a vote, leaving the issue up in the air. Some things, it seems, never change.
WAY less interesting
The mock meeting over, the real City Council went to work. Their agenda was less sexy than the earlier show — three uncontested rezonings, all of which passed unanimously. “Uncontested,” however, does not necessarily mean “unimportant.”
In the audience were a dozen members of the Tried Stone Missionary Baptist Church, there to seek Council’s support for rezoning their Carroll Avenue property so they could rebuild their church (which burned down in 1993). In the interim, the city had changed the site’s zoning (as part of a citywide rezoning when the Unified Development Ordinance was adopted in 1997), and they needed the city’s permission even to rebuild on the original site.
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Council once again got an earful about campaign-finance reform. Andy Reed, representing Citizens for Campaign Finance Reform, called on City Council to “proceed without delay” to appoint a citizen’s advisory board to study improvements to the current system for funding local elections. He also presented 58 more names for the group’s petition to that end, bringing the total to 320 names. In addition, Reed announced that community support for the measure is increasing, with the West Asheville Business Association (of which Mayor Worley is a member) joining such organizations as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Taxpayers for Accountable Government and other civic groups in calling for the study.
Brian Peterson, one of three Council members charged with studying the feasibility of such a citizens’ group, said he would try to meet with the other members of Council’s Subcommittee on Campaign Finance Reform (Council members Terry Bellamy and Carl Mumpower) before Council’s April 2 work session in order to expedite the process. Mumpower, however, said, “This is going to take some time.”