Asheville City Council

Sayonara, Rule of Three

Twenty-seven years ago, leaders of Asheville’s minority community urged City Council to do away with the Rule of Three. They argued that it impeded the recruitment, hiring and promotion of minorities in city government. As part of the city’s 1953 civil-service law, the Rule of Three mandates that city administrators hire and promote only candidates who score in the top three on tests and other evaluations used to cull long lists of candidates.

It was a good law then, City Council member O.T. Tomes told fellow Council members during their April 27 formal session: The Rule of Three was created to eliminate rampant cronyism in city government. But the “good medicine” became poison over the years: Of the city’s 878 full-time employees, only 114 are minorities. Declared Tomes, repeating his April 20 speech on the issue, “I’ve come to ask that you knock all opposition out of the way … so as to keep the track clear.”

City staff joined Tomes in urging that the rule be abolished. Assistant Human Resources Director Kevin Wilson quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote The Soul of Black Folks in 1903: “[The African-American] wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American … without having the doors of opportunity closed in his face.”

But the Asheville Firefighters Association objects to “tossing the baby out with the bath water,” explained Association President Mike Kniseley. While the Rule of Three does appear to be an obstacle to the hiring and promotion of minorities within the city, tossing out the greater portion of the civil-service law, in order to abolish that rule, is like applying a sledgehammer, he argued. Kniseley noted that the rule is closely tied into the grievance policy and other measures that protect city employees.

He added, “The civil-service law is always given the blame for hiring practices. [But] is it the law that does the hiring?” Citing the diverse members on the current Civil Service Board — created as an oversight body for recruiting, hiring, promotion and disciplinary issues — Kniseley urged Council to ask state legislators to modify the Rule of Three, not abolish it.

But Tomes countered that approximately 98 percent of Asheville’s full-time firefighters are white males. “If the law has served us well … since 1953 … to me, it looks like those numbers would be different.”

Kniseley said he agrees with Tomes’ goal of increasing minority representation in the city’s work force, and he promised Association support, even if Council went ahead and asked legislators to abolish the Rule of Three. But he continued to press his point: “It’s not the law: It’s the individuals.” He said previous Civil Service boards and administrators had “sidestepped” the rule, and added that better enforcement would improve the numbers.

An unconvinced Tomes yielded the floor to Council member Earl Cobb, who noted city staff’s observation that Asheville is the only city in North Carolina retaining such a civil-service policy. “What’s the benefit to employees?” he asked Kniseley.

Knisely responded that having the Civil Service Board review applicants and allowing it to pick only the top three scorers ensures a neutral oversight body for recruitment and hiring.

Cobb countered, “The Civil Service Board has got to take some credit for these numbers.”

But Kniseley said it’s the accountability of city administrators that concerns him. Without the Rule of Three, he argued, administrators would effectively be given the Civil Service Board’s authority over recruitment and hiring.

“Now is the time,” interjected Asheville NAACP Chapter President John Hayes, who urged Council to ask state legislators to abolish the Rule of Three.

So did NAACP member Samuel Camp: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck [and] looks like a duck, it is a duck. [The Rule of Three] is a lame duck.” He reminded Council members that they were elected to represent all the people of Asheville. “Why can’t the minorities move up?” he asked, before offering his answer: “The Rule of Three.”

But Asheville Firefighter Association member Glen Holbert — a 22-year city employee — countered that the problem may lie in the method of recruitment and testing used by the city, rather than the Rule of Three. “The Rule of Three is not the bad guy. [Abolishing it] will only tilt the playing field one way or the other,” he argued.

“You say the Rule of Three [can be] effective. But what I look at are the numbers,” said Tomes. “If the Rule of Three is effective … then I’m a liar,” he added.

“It’s not the law: It’s the administrators of the law,” Holder insisted.

“It’s something wrong with this system … and part of the poison is the Rule of Three,” retorted Tomes.

City Manager Jim Westbrook remarked, “When you manage something, you get both responsibility and accountability.” With the Civil Service Board overseeing recruitment and hiring, city administrators don’t have those things, he asserted. “We need to change this law. … I accept responsibility. Give us both the responsibility and the accountability,” he urged Council members. Westbrook and other top city staff have often argued that the rule hinders and delays recruiting and hiring.

The rule “is an extra hoop that we don’t need,” said Cobb. And the other Council members appeared to agree.

“Our mandate is … that we want equal opportunity,” said Mayor Leni Sitnick. She also asked staff to include in the proposed new policy the antidiscrimination policy, that City Council approved several years ago. “The [old] law does not seem to be producing the kinds of results we all say we want to see. I say, ‘Out!'”

On a motion by Tomes, seconded by Cobb, Council members agreed, 6-0, to ask state legislators to remove the Rule of Three.

Council says no soap

Judging by how few City Council members admitted to having tested their free bars of hemp soap, given to them by the Community of Compassion eight months ago — a new petition being circulated by marijuana advocates isn’t yet likely to stir Council to change local drug-enforcement policies.

On April 26, the Community of Compassion — a Weaverville-based group advocating hemp use for medicinal, spiritual, industrial and commercial uses — filed a referendum petition. According to group representative Dave Miller, eight months ago, the group attempted to convince Council members to direct city staff, including the police, to give their lowest priority to the enforcement of marijuana laws; but at least one Council member walked out on their presentation, Miller said, and others declared that they were bound to uphold all laws; through it all, Miller recalled, the police videotaped group members; and in reaction to that meeting, Council went on to enact a restrictive public-comment policy.

By now, Miller noted, Council members should have had a chance to research the usefulness of hemp for making paper, clothes, jewelry and medicine. Referring to the hemp-based soap given to each Council member, he asked, “Did any of you try [it]?”

Only Mayor Sitnick replied that she had. Council member Cobb said he didn’t recall getting any. No other Council member said a word.

Another representative of the Compassion group, Steve Rasmussen, appeared undaunted, vowing, “We’re going directly to the people with this.”

Council member Field asked whether the petition had to be signed only by registered Asheville voters, if it is to be binding.

Rasmussen answered in the affirmative. Of the 49,500 registered voters in the city, 7,500 must sign in order to bring the issue to a referendum vote.

Miller predicted that his group would have little trouble acquiring the needed number.

Sitnick added that there’s no doubt the hemp-legalization issue is being brought up in many other cities around America.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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