From steamrolling to bridge building

“‘Road-roller’ methods were employed by the city council in the Rigsby election,” the Asheville Citizen observed back in 1931. The city’s influential unions complained that R.W. Rigsby, Asheville’s very first full-time city manager, had acquired a reputation for being unfair to organized labor while serving as Charlotte’s chief executive. Council, however, ignored labor leaders’ pleas to delay his confirmation vote until more could be learned about him.

Three-quarters of a century later, disputes between developers and neighborhoods have replaced labor/management strife as the leading source of conflict in City Council’s chambers. And earlier this year, neighborhood activists unhappy with the list of criteria Council drew up for screening candidates to replace retiring City Manager Jim Westbrook griped as bitterly as the labor unionists once had about the lack of opportunity for public input. But on May 25, in a precedent-setting break with the old ways, City Council introduced the three finalists to Asheville residents at a public forum in the Civic Center. For more than two hours, those in attendance probed the candidates with questions, and Council members solicited feedback from the public to guide them in making the final selection.

Gary Jackson — the former city manager of Fort Worth, Texas — declared right off the bat that one of his strongest suits is his ability “to bridge business interests with neighborhood interests.” That statement clearly struck a chord with at least one city official. Immediately after the unanimous June 9 vote to hire Jackson, Council member Terry Bellamy told Xpress that she’d made the motion to hire Jackson because she was impressed by his comprehensive background and his “ability to bridge the needs of both the business community and neighborhoods.”

At the forum, Jackson also gave an unambiguous answer to a question about whether he supports the concept of “smart growth”: “Yes, wholeheartedly. I not only talk the talk, but walk the walk — I have a lot of experience with it.”

That experience may have influenced conflicting views about Jackson turned up by Xpress in the course of researching his tenure in Fort Worth. A Web site for a Texas-based real-estate-development firm opined that Jackson had been forced out of his position there because “he slowed growth” in the city. Yet a Web site for a taxpayers’ watchdog group criticized Jackson for cutting a deal with a hotel developer that involved public bonds.

The latter point seems of particular interest because the developer, John Q. Hammons, is the same man who — introduced with considerable fanfare at a city press conference last month — expressed a desire to build a hotel/conference center behind the Asheville Civic Center. That announcement has generated concerns among some Lexington Avenue merchants and property owners about gentrification and fears that the city might resort to eminent domain to secure needed parcels.

If the project proceeds, Jackson’s bridge-building skills may be put to the test — perhaps illustrating what the Asheville Citizen had in mind when, in a 1931 editorial condemning Council’s flattening of dissent, the paper reminded its readers, “Under the managerial system of city government the selection of a city manager is … the most important duty which the council is called upon to perform.”

— Brian Sarzynski and Steve Rasmussen

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