Asheville City Council

When wars are waged, the people most affected rarely get a say in how it’s fought. And up till now, that’s been equally true in the case of the Asheville City Council’s dueling anti-drug plans. But at Council’s June 8 formal session, the war planners clearly felt it was time to zip their lips, open their ears, and hear from the civilians who stand either to be liberated or to find themselves in the thick of the fray.

Last month, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower proposed a million-dollar law-enforcement barrage to combat the problem. Council members Joe Dunn and Jan Davis support the plan. But Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman balked at the crackdown, calling for a more holistic approach that would also include tutoring programs and affordable-housing options. How either proposal would be funded is itself a matter for debate. And a final decision on which approach to take won’t be made until June 22.

But what’s been missing from the debate up till now was a chance for the public to weigh in. And though the agenda for Council’s June 8 formal session included a public hearing on the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2004-05 (which begins July 1), the hearing quickly turned into a public forum on the two proposed drug-interdiction plans now on the table. The roughly 20 members of the public who spoke, however, proved to be just as divided as City Council. Nearly everybody seemed to agree that drugs are a problem and that the city needs to do something; that part was easy. But the debate on Asheville’s drug war, much like the larger national discourse, quickly became cloudy as speakers staked out positions on what should be done.

Bob Smith, the director of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, started things off by lashing out at all seven Council members for failing to secure enough “community buy-in.” Both proposals, argued Smith, are paternalistic in that city leaders have been hatching plans without first asking public-housing residents for their feedback.

“This wouldn’t have happened if this was a problem in north Asheville. If it were, you would have gone to north Asheville and held community meetings; you would have met with the people. … These plans don’t include them,” asserted Smith, looking back toward an audience that included public-housing residents.

In a later interview, Council member Holly Jones, a key proponent of the holistic approach, told Xpress that she and her colleagues Bellamy, Newman and Worley “have solicited a lot of community input. The community has asked for community policing and a job program, and that’s reflected in our proposal. The community has given us guidance.”

Jones went on to say that she feels frustrated because “I bought into the whole strategic plan, a comprehensive plan. Fighting drugs was one piece of that plan.” But the law-enforcement component, she continued, has been fast-tracked. “Our process has been a little bit hijacked by the Council folks that want Operation Hard Time.”

Smith, however, was not alone in his assessment. Althea Goode, a 32-year resident of Asheville public housing, echoed those concerns, saying: “We always have people coming into our community and telling us how to live. This [drug] problem is caused by the 20 percent that cause problems everywhere in the city; it’s no different.”

Asheville resident James Shealer, who introduced himself as the former director of a public-housing development in Florida, delivered a similar message. “It’s not about these people; it’s about us,” he intoned, adding, “All of this talk about getting tough — I’ve seen it fail so miserably so many times.” If the city is prepared to allocate funding to address the problem, argued Shealer, it should be dedicated to an employment program.

Iver Thomas, on the other hand, told Council members that he’s spent a lot of time in the city’s public-housing developments through his volunteer work in the Guardian ad Litem Program and as a Big Brother. Drug dealing, he confirmed, is indeed rampant there. Thomas voiced support for the Mumpower initiative, asserting, “The problem can only be solved with tough police actions.” But the police, added Thomas, should conduct a “reverse sting” and go after the people who buy and use drugs. He also noted that this should be done “neatly and with respect, while providing dignity to the residents of public housing.”

Buncombe County resident Alan Ditmore said he was “happy to see the old guns vs. butter debate” aired in the Council chamber. But Ditmore quickly added that a drug war “is not in the purview of the City Council,” maintaining that it’s really the responsibility of the state and federal governments. “They make these laws; they should be the ones to enforce them with their bloated security budgets.”

West Asheville developer Fisher Caudle criticized the holistic approach, noting that the drug traffic in and near the Pisgah View Apartments has caused problems both for him and for his tenants. “It’s not the government’s job to create jobs for people,” he argued. “We’ve had a holistic approach for years, and it’s not working. There are children riding bikes up there, selling rock cocaine and crystal meth.”

Pisgah View resident Minnie Jones, a longtime spokesperson for public-housing occupants, asked Council members why they weren’t “talking about all those Mercedes driving around [public housing] and lining up like it’s a drive-through at Wendy’s.”

Isaac Coleman, president of the Buncombe County Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus, urged Council to go after the buyers. “If you stop the demand,” he argued, “the supply will stop.” Coleman also encouraged the city to solicit more feedback from residents in the targeted areas, declaring, “Without buy-in, we’ll fail again.”

Shiloh resident Norma Baines decried the double standard that she said is evident in all the talk about fighting drugs: “It’s called ‘drug abuse’ in our neighborhoods and ‘substance abuse’ in your neighborhoods. It’s visible on our street corners, but others can do it in the comfort of their living rooms.” Summer job programs for youth would be a more effective way to combat the problem, she maintained.

The hearing was over in less than an hour — partly because Council members were content to simply listen to what the public had to say, without responding. City Council will deliberate and vote on the entire budget — which may or may not include a drug-interdiction program of some sort — at their June 22 formal meeting.

Other business

In another public hearing earlier in the evening, Council members considered granting a conditional-use permit to a Sand Hill Road apartment complex seeking to add 12 apartments to the 11 already there. No one spoke for or against the permit, which was unanimously approved.

Council members also entertained a proposal by Joe Dunn to rename Amboy Road to honor Bob Pressley, a local stock-car-racing legend who recently died after a two-year battle with cancer. But it soon became apparent that no one knew how Amboy Road got its name to begin with. Was Amboy a person? And if so, would his or her descendants be offended by the name change? Council tabled the proposal, instructing city staffers to research the issue.

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