City Council meetings are normally sedate affairs: a rezoning here, a commission appointment there — pedestrian tasks that form the backbone of city governance. But the June 11 formal session of the Asheville City Council was anything but typical.
In fact, it seemed to be the handiwork of Federico Fellini, directed from the grave.
How else can one describe the sight of Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino dragging a flailing citizen pell-mell through the Council chamber? Or the sight of a mother and daughter arm-in-arm at the lectern, sobbing as they pleaded their case?
The scene was riveting.
Moreover, it served as a reminder to all who witnessed these events that government by the people, of the people and for the people will forever be complicated by the fact that “the people” have emotions. That’s an intangible part of the democratic equation. And the resulting high drama, in this case, was far more interesting than anything served up on the boob tube.
The question of annexation
The meeting started out with a lengthy public hearing to discuss the annexation of seven areas surrounding the current city limits. City Planner Paul Benson explained that under state law, the city could annex areas that are becoming “urbanized.” He noted that the areas under consideration — populated tracts of land on all sides of the city — meet the criteria established by the state for annexation.
The hearing was an opportunity for people living in the targeted areas to share their feelings regarding the plan. The citizens who spoke made it clear that they were adamantly opposed to becoming citizens of Asheville, and spared no words in getting that across to Council members. While Benson explained that annexation would bring city services such as garbage pick-up and police and fire protection, Dennis Seeney countered that the associated tax increase would not be offset by any amount of city services.
Seeney, who lives in the Forrest Lakes development, questioned whether the current budget crisis was behind the annexation of his property. “To say that there’s no money in the coffers because of people living on the fringes [of the city] is misleading,” he said. Seeney also took issue with the quality of life in the city, noting, “Forrest Lakes is a nice place to live, like Asheville was.
Seeney’s neighbor, Dolores Constantina, echoed his comments by noting that, as a resident of Buncombe County, she pays $1,089 in property taxes annually. If annexed into the city, she explained, that figure would climb to $2,065 per year. She, too, lashed out at what she perceives to be city problems. “We live in the Bible belt and drive on the Billy Graham Freeway, yet Asheville’s diversity has brought many undesirable people,” she opined. Constantina listed those “undesirable” people as “witches, warlocks and Satan worshipers.”
The next speaker was Steven Galatioto, who also tied annexation to the city’s budget woes. He explained that he was experiencing his own “budget crisis,” after suffering a 20-percent reduction in his salary due to a slumping economy. He empathized with city leaders in their efforts to make ends meet, but noted, “Maybe it’s time for the city to do with less and learn to live with it like I have.”
Council member Joe Dunn peppered city staffers with questions regarding the city’s ability to properly service the areas proposed for annexation, given the current budget constraints. His colleague, Carl Mumpower — who had previously been a vocal opponent of annexation — explained to the audience that, while annexation is an unpopular tool of growth, it is a necessity. “I’m sorry if that may not please you, but I’m not here to please you. I’m here to do the best thing,” he declared.
Council voted unanimously to continue the annexation process.
In the heedless melee …
Up next was a brief public hearing to consider granting a manufactured-housing overlay designation for a parcel of land. The owner of the land requested the change so that he could place a mobile home on the site. But during the public hearing, a member of the public decided it was time to address other, more weighty, issues.
John Howard Olesky had noisily entered the chamber a few minutes earlier. He approached the lectern, presumably to address the issue of granting the rezoning. Instead, Olesky launched into a tirade against “the police state,” President Bush, the oppression of poor people and the trampling of civil liberties — a daunting undertaking, given that speakers are limited to three minutes.
When Mayor Worley heard the first few words, he asked Olesky if he had a comment about the topic under discussion. Olesky shot back that he didn’t want the mayor to “micromanage” his presentation. Worley raised his voice to match Olesky’s, which was growing louder by the word. The mayor cautioned him that if he didn’t address the issue, he would be removed — his angry tone balanced by his insistence on referring to Olesky as “sir.” Undeterred, Olesky plowed on.
Worley’s voice was joined by that of Mumpower and Dunn, who took umbrage with the violation of decorum. But their frustration couldn’t match Worley’s: The Mayor slammed his fist on the dais repeatedly, yelling at the man to stop.
Then the Chief stepped in.
Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino, who was in the audience to make a presentation during the budget hearing, quickly made his way to the front of the chamber, accompanied by another Asheville police officer. They pried Olesky from the lectern and began escorting him from the room. Olesky screamed and thrashed, as stunned members of the audience looked on.
As the three struggled to exit the chamber, Olesky cried out. “Get your hands off me you Nazi son-of-a-bitch!” When the three reached the hallway outside of the chamber, the grappling continued. After subduing Olesky, Annarino and the officer called for the elevator.
Worley called for an intermission. His timing couldn’t have been better: Anticipating a long meeting, the mayor had ordered pizza for Council members to eat on their break. With comedic timing that elevated the scene to a new level of absurdity, the elevator arrived, its door slid open, and a pizza delivery guy stood eye-to-eye with a still-panting Olesky and company.
Without missing a beat, the nonplused pizza man surveyed the scene and quipped,” What’s up, dude?” Olesky, who was subdued in more ways than one, nonchalantly gave the salutation, “Hey, brother.”
Also in the hall was Dennis Seeney, who had complained earlier about not wanting to be annexed into the city. Seeney nodded knowingly at the debacle and delivered the best line of the night: “This is what I have to look forward to as a citizen of Asheville.”
After the unexpected break, Council tackled a public hearing on the proposed 2002-03 city budget. At issue was the still-uncertain economic future of the city.
City staffers have prepared two proposed budgets that reflect different scenarios. The first anticipates the release of $7 million in reimbursement payments from the state. (Governor Mike Easley has withheld the funds in response to the state’s $1 billion deficit.) If the funds are not released, the city will be forced to advance their second plan, which could include laying off some city employees and the closing of community centers.
Numerous West Asheville residents packed the chamber to plead with Council not to lose the Burton Street Community Center. Dwayne Barton explained to Council members that the community center is a place where young and old gather to participate in a wide range of activities. He described the center as the “heart of the community.”
Gloria Dawson, president of the Burton Street Neighborhood Association, pleaded with Council to keep the center’s doors open. She noted that the center provides after-school care for many of the neighborhood children. Dawson suggested that the city could cut back on the hours of operation or close the center for one or two days a week — anything that would allow the center to keep functioning.
But the most poignant testimony came from 12-year old Anna Marie Smith. The young girl began to explain that her mother, a single parent, had to work, and the community center provided her a place to go after school. Her words were soon muffled by her sobs. Council member Mumpower soothed the girl and told her, “Let the tears come.” She was then joined at the lectern by her mother, Allison Smith, who also began crying and implored Council members to keep the center open. “I need your help; it’s as simple as that,” she said, adding, “There is no way I can make it without that center.”
The proposed budget — which is slightly smaller than a phone book, replete with charts, graphs, and figures — suddenly took on another figure: that of a mother and daughter embracing in tears.
After closing the public hearing, Mayor Worley explained that the budget was a work in progress and that no final decisions would be made until the end of August.