Asheville City Council

In a radical move, Asheville City Council members pointed their collective finger at one of their own during their June 10 formal session. With Council member Brian Peterson excused from the chamber for this portion of the meeting, his Council colleagues voted unanimously to censure Peterson. (Contacted later, City Attorney Bob Oast said he could find no record of any other such official rebuke by Council in the last 20 years. Going back even further, researchers at Pack Library were unable to find any precedent for the move whatsoever.)

Although the vote itself amounts to nothing more than a public chastisement — state law empowers municipal governments to censure an elected official, but it provides no mechanism for taking punitive measures — the repercussions of the move could prove to be considerable.

According to public records, Peterson was stopped by an Asheville police officer on May 27 and cited for driving with an expired license. But that’s not the conduct in question. And the events leading up to Council’s action have caused some members of the public to question the conduct of another high-profile public official: Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino.

At issue is Annarino’s decision to contact the Asheville Citizen-Times (on May 29) and bring the situation to their attention (the paper’s first story on the incident ran the next day). The Police Department’s official policy manual prohibits any APD member from divulging unsolicited information to the media. The only exceptions are: “homicide; civil disorders requiring significant police action; traffic accident fatalities; officer involved shootings; officer seriously wounded; hostage situations; arrests for major felonies; arrest for in-progress felonies.” Annarino later told Xpress “that the information was [already] on the street” and that he “was attempting to … make sure the information … was communicated accurately, so that there wouldn’t be any rumors or information floating around.”

But whatever his reason, the policy manual also plainly states, “Under no circumstances is any reporter or any medium (newspaper, radio or television) to be given preferential treatment.”

Annarino told the Citizen-Times that when Peterson was pulled over, there was a woman in the car. According to another Citizen-Times report published June 4 (after the censure), the police chief characterized her as a “well-known prostitute” whom the officer had observed entering Peterson’s car in an area known for prostitution. The paper also noted that while the woman had been arrested on numerous occasions, she’d never been convicted of prostitution. Neither Peterson nor the woman was charged with any prostitution-related crime.

In introducing the resolution to censure, Mayor Charles Worley said: “I think that this is a most unpleasant situation for all of us. The circumstances, though, require this Council to take a stand and show the public that we are indeed concerned about the high standards that we know the public holds us to. I think all of us are very sympathetic and concerned about the circumstances that bring us to this.”

Worley then read the resolution of censure, which states in part: “Whereas, just after midnight on May 27, 2003, Council member Brian Peterson was observed by an Asheville Police Officer to admit a woman into his personal vehicle in an area under police surveillance for prostitution activity, and later denied the police observations about the circumstances of this incident; and whereas, Council member Peterson has engaged in conduct tending to bring the City and the Council into disrepute, and to otherwise interfere with the Council’s business and the ability of each member of Council to represent the City and Council; and whereas, Mr. Peterson’s conduct falls short of the standards that the citizens of Asheville have the right to expect of their elected officials, and tends to undermine and damage the Council’s credibility with the public in general, and with law enforcement in particular … be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Asheville that the actions of Council member Brian Peterson on May 27, 2003, are hereby condemned, and the Council does hereby censure Mr. Peterson for his conduct.”

It’s unclear who originally proposed censuring Peterson.

An internal matter?

After finishing, the mayor asked whether any of his Council colleagues wanted to make a motion on the resolution. Council member Joe Dunn made a motion to approve the censure, which was seconded by Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy. Worley then opened the matter for discussion by Council but was met with an awkward silence. The audience, too, sat mute, their eyes panning the dais for any sign of who would cast the first stone.

The six Council members sitting in judgment wore long faces. After what seemed an eternity, Dunn cleared his throat and began speaking:

“This is a very sad day for this Council. It’s a sad day for all of us. … First of all, there’s no one in this city hurting more than Brian Peterson and his family at this point. … To publicly judge anyone goes against my religious beliefs. There are none of us on Council that are willing to publicly discuss all of our imperfections. This being said, though, our Council does represent all of Asheville. We’re supposed to uphold the ethical and moral standards of an elected position. We are role models, whether we like it or not. …

“This country is experiencing a moral decline. Family values are being attacked by various special interests. When will honesty replace political correctness? Why do you think that less than 30 percent of the voters in our city vote? Distrust of the system and its representatives is one of the reasons. Just look at the Clinton White House. While we may not have the power to have Brian released from office — which is what the law states — we can censure him.

“This is not the best solution. Therefore, I sadly request — but I do request — that he resign his position for the good of the city. This is the honorable thing to do; it is the ethical and right thing to do. I also think it’s time we put ethics ahead of political aspirations.

“In closing, I want to say that I do not feel comfortable commenting on this resolution, and I don’t like adding to Brian’s pain. But our citizens do expect us to comport ourselves in an ethical and honorable higher ground. Excuses and blaming others is easy; honesty and common sense seem to be losing favor in this country. Honesty and integrity — they do have a place in our society. Our criminal-justice system has for centuries relied on a judgmental system. This system has been shown to be the best system in the world. Dictators, despots, fascists, communists — they’ve all failed. So we do have a procedure, a precedent to fall back on. If we ignore honesty, integrity and morals, our nation and our society will be thrown into chaos.”

No other Council member spoke. Worley informed the audience that he would not take public comment on the issue because it was “an internal Council matter” and that it would be “inappropriate” to do so. Council then voted 6-0 to censure Peterson.

The other shoe

But the public would have their say — even if they had to wait several hours to get it (until the regularly scheduled public-comment period at the meeting’s end).

Haw Creek resident Fred English, a frequent visitor to the Council chamber, took the microphone and dove right in, telling one and all that he’d voted for Peterson in the 2001 mayor’s race, but that in light of the Council member’s recent brush with law enforcement, English was calling for Peterson to resign his office.

Next up was Asheville resident David Lynch, a spokesperson for Asheville Justice Watch. The recently formed citizens’ group is pushing for the city to establish a citizens’ review board for the APD. “Regrettably,” he noted, “the Asheville City Council is now dealing with a situation that illustrates a great weakness in the current administration of justice in our city. In violation of the city Police Department’s own policies, the police chief has provided our local newspaper and television station with unsolicited insinuations regarding a member of City Council. Specifically, the chief’s actions violate Asheville Police Department’s policy number 1231- Media Relations, procedure 2-E [the policy number is actually 4-E].

“The policy reads as follows: No unsolicited information releases are to be made by a member of the department. The only exception to this rule [that is] noted would be an event that would require immediate public notification, such as an emergency evacuation of an area where electronic media would be of assistance.

“Properly implemented, procedure 2-E discourages the release of information which could be used as a powerful political tool. Its reach casts a shadow that could potentially reach any and all members of the Council. Its reach could compromise the resolve of Council members to question or criticize any city official possessing the ability to use such power against them. The threat of further breaches of this procedure can adversely affect the very checks and balances that our city government relies on to function in the interests of Asheville citizens. Judging by media accounts, the officers on patrol in this case appear to have performed their professional duty without political bias. It is unfortunate for all concerned that their chief chose not to follow his subordinates’ good example.

“It ultimately falls upon the police chief to enforce departmental policy. … We feel that the citizens and leaders of Asheville need to find a way to ensure that our Police Department — this professional body — be kept as separate as possible from actual or apparent political influence. … We respectfully submit that this breach of policy further illustrates that an independent oversight board is an appropriate and necessary step to provide the safeguards that our community needs and deserves.”

Lynch’s statement prompted Council member Carl Mumpower to question City Attorney Oast. “It is my understanding that we [the Council] are the independent oversight board in this case, and you and I had a discussion about this earlier, can you help me? … This gentleman has suggested that the chief is in violation of that [policy]. Can you give us any information?”

Oast replied, “I don’t have any firsthand knowledge to speak of, but my understanding is that information was already being circulated at the time.”

Mumpower: “And on that basis, he would not be in violation of that procedure?”

Oast: “I can’t say that he is.”

Local independent journalist Peter Dawes of the Mountain Guardian News and Opinion also spoke about the incident. Dawes, a frequent critic of both the Council and Chief Annarino, said that he’d been the first local media rep to investigate the story.

“I made inquiries on Tuesday at 1 o’clock with the City Attorney’s office — Mr. Curt Euler — and I asked him for specific information about the incident that occurred the night before. The following day, the chief of police, for some unknown reason, decided to leave me out of the loop. … He went over there personally [to the Citizen-Times]. He didn’t get back to me, he didn’t go to the Mountain Xpress, he didn’t go to any other media. … The chief played by the book — except he left every other media out. … I think that was wrong.”

In an interview with Xpress after the meeting, Peterson reflected on the situation — and on his political future. “I hope Council can put this behind us and move on to doing the city’s business. I don’t plan to resign. I’m going to do the job I was elected to do. Voters will pick my replacement in the fall.”

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