At the end of the Asheville City Council’s April 19 work session, city leaders announced their intention to conduct closed-door negotiations with the Buncombe County Commissioners on the Water Agreement, which is due to expire June 30. Although the item wasn’t listed on the evening’s agenda, Council members voted 6-1 to schedule what they called a “special meeting” at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel on April 26; Mayor Charles Worley described it as “a mediation meeting.”
City Attorney Bob Oast cited “attorney/client privilege” as the reason for the closed session, noting, “The county will essentially be doing the same thing.” The city was making the announcement in order to comply with North Carolina’s open-meetings law, said Oast. The law requires “that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of [public] bodies be conducted openly” whenever a majority of the members is present and the intent is to conduct public business. Attorney/client privilege is one of several allowable reasons spelled out in the law for going into closed session.
The format for the meeting, Oast explained, would be “myself and the county attorney, along with the mediator, going back and forth to the closed sessions. … There might be an opportunity to open [the meeting to the public], but there’s no way to tell.” Oast later clarified that the mediator would not be present when either attorney was conferring with their respective governmental body. If the mediator ever addressed either entity, said Oast, the law would require that the meeting be opened to the public.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower cast the lone opposing vote. In an e-mail circulated to the media after the meeting, Mumpower wrote: “I disagree with our failure to hold open, public deliberations on our water issues, and do not believe that we have established, at this point, the requirements that any mediator would identify as important for a reasonable chance for success.”
During the meeting, Council member Brownie Newman said he would prefer an open meeting, though he voted for the closed-door session. In a later interview, he said: “It would make sense to have the framework open; if we need to huddle, we can huddle. But the majority of Council members and commissioners want it this way. I voted for it because we need to start mediation.”
Xpress will attempt to cover the meeting and report on its outcome.
The high price of calm
City Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek reported that his office has received requests for traffic calming on 300 street segments — about 100 miles of streets, all told. The most recent request was estimated to cost about $77,000 per mile, he said. Traffic calming involves installing such features as speed humps, medians and curb bulb-outs to slow down drivers.
But this information didn’t sit well with some city leaders. One of the most vocal critics was Council member Joe Dunn, who’d questioned the practice in previous Council meetings, asking staff to explore the feasibility of having the Police Department step up enforcement of traffic laws instead. Butzek’s report included APD statistics showing that between 1989 and 2004, traffic-related arrests increased each year by an average of 98 arrests. “There is a perception that enforcement isn’t as good as it could be, but enforcement can’t be everywhere,” said Butzek. “Traffic calming is a way of having self-enforcing streets. And the data shows that traffic calming does reduce speeds.”
But Dunn was not convinced. Shaking his head, he questioned whether the people requesting traffic-calming measures for their neighborhoods were aware of the cost. “I’m wondering if some of citizens’ expectations need to be tempered with reality,” said Dunn.
Brownie Newman suggested that the city might want to consider a “paradigm shift — maybe a limited goal of focusing on pedestrian safety versus traffic calming.” That might mean narrowing the focus to things like playgrounds and crosswalks, he added.
Dunn also wondered whether technology might provide a more cost-effective way to achieve the same result. “I’m not a fan of Big Brother,” he noted, “but aren’t there portable radars or cameras that can be used?” The APD does have portable radar systems, said Butzek, but they merely display drivers’ speed as a way of getting their attention.
Council member Terry Bellamy said she’d seen a pedestrian struck by a car on Clingman Avenue. “The tolerance for this should be zero!” Bellamy declared, adding, “Enough is enough!”
After more discussion, Council agreed to ask Butzek to look into less expensive ways to slow down drivers. Before that, however, Council member Holly Jones reminded her colleagues that they’d previously debated the pros and cons of placing cameras at intersections to record people running red lights and using the information to issue tickets. “Let’s see if the people want this first,” said Jones. “I’m getting a little tired of regurgitating this when we know it’s political dynamite.”
Streamlining the permit process
The city attorney also introduced an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance that would eliminate one of the most controversial kinds of public hearings. Many epic battles waged in the Council chamber in recent years (such as the Wal-Mart hearings in 2003 and 2004) have involved conditional-use permits. The process requires two separate votes — one to rezone and one to grant the permit — and Council members are prohibited from discussing the project in question with developers or members of the public during the quasi-judicial hearings that precede the first vote.
The proposed “conditional zoning process,” already in use in Charlotte and Greensboro, is a way to “collapse [the conditional-use permitting] into one legislative action,” said Oast. It would also enable Council members to discuss controversial proposals with the public before a hearing.
The current process requires Council to base its decisions on the seven standards spelled out in the UDO. But Oast took pains to emphasize that although the new approach won’t use those standards, “A project must still be consistent with our adopted plans and not endanger the public health, safety and welfare.”
Council member Brownie Newman voiced support for the change, noting that the current standards are really a matter of interpretation anyway. “This is a more honest way to look at it — as opposed to pretending it’s a scientific process,” said Newman.
But the new process isn’t a miracle cure for marathon Council sessions, cautioned Oast: “It will not make hard decisions easier, or long meetings shorter. But it could make a difficult process easier to understand.”
City Council will consider the UDO amendment at the May 17 formal session.