Asheville City Council

“To be questioning the integrity of two of our Council people … our two representatives came to us and begged us to vote on that, and this Council chose to sidestep that issue, for whatever reason.”

— Council member Jim Ellis

Sometimes, it’s not so much what you say as the way you say it that packs the most punch; sometimes, it’s both. That seemed to be the case at the Asheville City Council’s May 27 formal session, when Council member Carl Mumpower unexpectedly started a rumble.

It wasn’t even a fair fight — one versus six never is. But it was certainly attention-getting. First, there was the chance to see the usually suave Mumpower resort to shouting and interrupting. Then there was the sudden transformation of Jim Ellis — generally the quiet man on Council — into a verbal pugilist whose stinging jabs left Mumpower absolutely apoplectic. Perhaps most telling of all, however, was the fact that Council momentarily dropped its guard, clearly revealing to all in attendance the kind of simmering political passions that more typically stay out of sight.

Asheville City Council meetings are typically pretty staid affairs, but this one fell somewhere between a brouhaha and a donnybrook. Let’s face it, it’s not every day that you get to see Mayor Charles Worley smack down his gavel to rein in a fellow Council member. Then again, it’s not every day that you see a Council member call into question the motivations and behavior of several of his colleagues — and then get his proverbial nose bloodied by the quiet guy.

The brief-but-intense altercation dredged up a divisive issue from Council’s past — their decision last year not to take a formal stand on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand Interstate 240 to eight lanes in West Asheville (as part of the continuing extension of I-26 through Buncombe and Madison counties to the Tennessee border).

The matter came to light while Council was hearing a presentation from City Engineer Kathy Ball on a proposed restructuring of the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization and its executive body, the Transportation Advisory Committee (see box, “Our roads, whose votes?”). The MPO, which is responsible for long-range transportation planning for the region (including portions of Buncombe, Haywood and Henderson counties), makes recommendations to the DOT on road-improvement projects. The group’s decisions, though not binding, reflect the member governments’ preferences on transportation issues.

But when Council members began questioning Ball about the proposed changes, the discussion morphed into a debate over who should give City Council’s two appointees to the TAC — Council members Holly Jones and Brian Peterson — their marching orders.

Mumpower — surprising his colleagues — fired the first volley. “If I may,” he asked rhetorically, “First off, I attempted to address this issue outside the chambers and was not successful. … This is a unique participatory activity [the fact that Jones and Peterson have the power to vote on a regional commission as representatives of Asheville]. And my only concern — no personal criticism of Councilwoman Jones or Councilman Peterson — is the system of input. I do not feel comfortable with the selective call for a vote if we’re not seriously considered. Specifically because of the impact their vote has on the region.”

It later became clear that Mumpower was referring to Peterson and Jones’ loosely defined role as Asheville’s TAC representatives. Specifically, whether their votes should reflect their own sense of what’s best for Asheville or the consensus on Council. The “selective call for a vote,” it turned out, was a not-so-veiled reference to last year’s decision by Council not to take a stand on the I-26/I-240 expansion in Asheville. Before the TAC’s closely watched vote on the matter last June, Peterson and Jones had asked for a last-minute Council vote indicating the city’s preference for either a six- or an eight-lane configuration for I-240 through West Asheville. Council, however, rejected the request. They split 3-3 (Worley was absent) on a vote to suspend the usual rules governing work sessions, which would have allowed them to take a formal position. Mumpower, Dunn and Ellis voted against suspending the rules, effectively blocking a vote on I-240.

In the event, Peterson and Jones voted for six lanes but were outgunned by the other TAC members.

In a nutshell, Mumpower was airing a grievance he’s apparently been carrying for more than a year — and he was doing it in a very public way. Besides questioning how the TAC representatives should interact with City Council, his two-pronged inquiry also implied that Jones and Peterson were “selectively” picking and choosing (presumably for political reasons) the issues on which they sought Council’s guidance.

The TAC, Peterson explained, usually just rubber-stamps the DOT’s proposals, and he and Jones seek Council’s input only when a TAC vote involves a particularly important issue or one that will have considerable impact on Asheville — such as the I-240 widening. And Jones, though clearly troubled by Mumpower’s tone, took a diplomatic tack, prefacing her response by saying that she knew Mumpower’s remarks weren’t meant to imply that her and Peterson’s previous call for a Council vote on I-240 had been politically driven.

Then things began to turn nasty, as Mumpower interrupted her to say that was what he was getting at.

Jones’ jaw dropped. She reminded Mumpower that all seven Council members are, in fact, “politicians.”

Before she could say more, however, Ellis jumped in, declaring: “I think this discussion is inappropriate. I think it’s out of order completely. To be questioning the integrity of two of our Council people — but I do have to go back to one thing: [his voice booming now] The most important transportation issue to come before this city and this Council in a long, long time is I-240 through Asheville. And our two representatives came to us and begged us to vote on that, and this Council chose to sidestep that issue, for whatever reason.”

Fixing a steely gaze on Mumpower, Ellis continued, “And to come back now and criticize our two members for what they’ve done — I think it’s totally inappropriate.”

At this point, the audience was feeding off the palpable tension. “You tell him!” shouted one woman.

Mumpower raised his voice in response, his body tense. But no sooner had he blurted out a few more words than the mayor interrupted, trying to steer the discussion back to Ball’s presentation about the future of the MPO — rather than the past actions of its two Asheville appointees.

Mumpower, however, would have none of it. Seeking to respond to Ellis, he tried to get around the mayor — albeit with the seemingly polite (but progressively louder) repeated phrase, “Excuse me, mayor; excuse me, mayor.” Then Worley, too, raised his voice, barking, “No! No, Carl!” But just when it looked as though Robert’s Rules of Order were about to be deposed by the rule of decibels, Worley grabbed his gavel and silenced the din. The ringing crack of wood on wood pierced the air, echoing through the chamber.

A rattled-looking Jones stared incredulously at Mumpower. Ellis, meanwhile, continued to glare at him from across the dais. And Mumpower, sizing up the situation, backed off. But not before taking one last stab at explaining himself.

“Mr. Ellis, no one is attacking our representatives; nobody is attacking them personally. What I’m questioning is the procedure. I made every attempt to communicate with both of them before tonight, and I have a right to bring it up now. These folks have a lot of power on our future, and I’m not the least bit hesitant to raise the issue of how they approach their role.”

Almost as soon as it started, it was over. And some time later, Council authorized city staff to continue exploring mechanisms for ensuring that Asheville’s interests are properly represented on the MPO (see “Our roads, whose votes?”).

Ironically, the vote was unanimous.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear…

The day after the meeting, Worley told Xpress that in his eight years on Council, he couldn’t recall a mayor ever having to use the gavel to silence a fellow Council member.

Mumpower, Jones and Peterson, meanwhile, all tried to shed some light on what had precipitated Mumpower’s public airing of dirty laundry the previous evening. On May 15, Mumpower had sent an e-mail (which both he and Jones shared with Xpress) to Jones and Peterson, asking: “On votes that involve the city, would your votes be a reflection of Council’s position on a given matter of substance or a reflection of your own personal views on that respective issue? I think we need to make a determination of the most appropriate course — especially if Council is going to be called to vote on particular issues in the future.”

In a later interview, Peterson said he’d never received the e-mail. Jones did receive it and responded on May 20 — in no uncertain terms. “In terms of who I represent,” wrote Jones, “make no mistake about where I come from. I represent my constituents [emphasis hers] … by voting my sense and my conscience. Do what you must do about bringing your concerns up in Council. I was not elected to be a mouthpiece for something I do not believe in.”

To which Mumpower responded: “Holly, my email was not a threat — it was an informal attempt to open a dialogue about a concern. Nor was I suggesting you be a mouth piece — I do believe that some consideration for your colleagues — at least to knowing what those perspectives are — is appropriate considering the importance of your role. I note your persistency in supporting your ‘constituents’ — I come from a different place in that I have an interest in taking my best shot at the collective good. If you are not interested in our perspective, then so be it.”

The day after the Council meeting, Jones told Xpress that she still felt the sting of Mumpower’s words. “I have worked very hard to be an informed, engaged member of the TAC and to have the quality of my service questioned by a colleague was very disheartening. People may disagree with my position on any issue, but no one should question my love or loyalty for this city and the people that live in it. … Regarding the TAC, I have used my best judgment to bring matters of consequence back to the council. It is amazing to me that when Brian and I came to council and pleaded with them to weigh in on the I-26 issue, clearly the project that will have the most impact to our city in the next several decades, council determined not to act. To be chided for not engaging council in matters of transportation is hypocrisy. … In my experience, when a politician uses words like ‘balance’ or ‘consensus’ or ‘collective good’ it is usually a politically correct way of saying ‘I think you’re wrong and we should do it my way.'”

Mumpower, meanwhile, told Xpress: “I have no personal issues with them [Jones and Peterson]. This was an attempt to get the issue on the table. I made every attempt to resolve my concerns behind the scenes but was not successful.”

Asked how he feels about working “behind the scenes,” Mumpower said he doesn’t think it would be appropriate for Council as a whole to do, but “when there are differences between individuals, to try and work those out out of the sunlight is totally appropriate.

“The process,” continued Mumpower, “shouldn’t be political; we can have political positions, but the process shouldn’t be political. What I’m asserting is that they aren’t concerned with keeping the process healthy, and not keeping the process above board. That was evident last night. … It’s never pleasant to go up against six colleagues you serve with and care about. But there are times when, on the basis of principle, you’ve got to step forward.”

Our roads, whose votes?

In the alphabet soup of government agencies, the TAC (a nine-member board whose members are appointed by assorted local governments) has the final say in what the Metropolitan Planning Organization ultimately recommends to the state Department of Transportation. Because of population growth in the region, federal guidelines require a restructuring of the MPO to include seven additional local entities. Representatives of Hendersonville, Flat Rock, Laurel Park, Waynesville, Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley and portions of Haywood and Henderson counties will soon join existing TAC members Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Buncombe County, Fletcher, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin.

To facilitate that transition, each participating municipality must approve a memorandum of understanding that outlines the details of the restructuring. One of the most significant aspects of the document is a proposed reconfiguration of the TAC’s voting procedures. A number of options are on the table. It could be as simple as a one municipality/one vote model. Or it could involve what Ball described as a “weighted voting” system, in which a municipality that’s directly affected by a particular project would have more votes in that instance than its fellow members.

As an example, Ball cited the redesign of the Interstate 240/Merrimon Avenue exit ramp. That project, should it ever come to pass, would have a substantial effect on downtown Asheville. On the other hand, Maggie Valley residents (who will soon have their own TAC representative) wouldn’t experience anywhere near the same impact and inconvenience that Asheville residents would. Thus, noted Ball, one proposed voting arrangement would give Asheville’s representatives more votes on that particular project.

Council tweaks UDO on big-box development

From now on, it’ll be a little more difficult to site a big-box development near downtown. At their May 27 formal meeting, Asheville City Council members voted 5-2 to amend the Unified Develoment Ordinance rules governing larger commercial or mixed-use developments proposed within one-half mile of the city’s central business district.

The change will require such projects to undergo a Level III review. Previously, only buildings with a footprint of more than 100,000 square feet had to meet this requirement (the city’s highest level of review). The new rule will apply to all such buildings larger than 45,000 square feet.

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