Asheville City Council

“If we’re just here to rubber-stamp [the city manager’s budget], then why do we have elected officials?”

— Council member Brian Peterson

On land, it’s called a coup. At sea, it’s called a mutiny. In the Asheville City Council chambers, it’s called passing a budget.

In most cities, watching a municipal government discuss an operating budget has all the appeal of watching paint dry. But in Asheville these days, even adopting a budget can make for high drama.

At their June 24 formal meeting, the seven members of the Asheville City Council gathered to consider the $100 million budget proposed by City Manager Jim Westbrook and his staff. By evening’s end, however, Council was torn asunder: Mayor Charles Worley was calling the actions of four of his colleagues “irresponsible,” Council member Joe Dunn was publicly challenging the mayor’s leadership, and Westbrook’s job appeared to be on the line.

In the end, they did manage to pass a budget. But only after Council members Brian Peterson and Holly Jones — in what was clearly a prearranged agreement — joined Dunn and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy to forge a voting majority that could recast the budget to their liking.

From the outset, it was clear that something was afoot. Vice Mayor Bellamy informed Council that she had something to add to the agenda related to the “budget process.” The mayor shot her a puzzled look and pressed her for more information, but Bellamy simply said that it concerned the budget and would be a “general discussion.”

Council member Jim Ellis then launched the money talk by making a motion to adopt the city manager’s proposed budget, albeit with one change. Ellis suggested that the city begin providing Social Security benefits for firefighters, to settle a long-running dispute about their retirement plan. Approximately half the money — roughly $565,000, all told — would come from the city’s fund balance (a reserve fund maintained to deal with unforeseen emergencies), said Ellis. After some discussion, Ellis’ motion failed on a 3-4 vote, with support coming from Worley and Council member Carl Mumpower. Peterson, Jones, Bellamy and Dunn were opposed — the first time these four had voted in unison (other than unanimous Council votes).

Bellamy then produced a document detailing several changes to Westbrook’s budget. The single page listed $888,500 in cuts and $888,500 in increases in increased expenditures. Among the major increases were:

• An additional $100,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

• An additional $150,000 to the Asheville Police Department to hire three new police officers (with the caveat that they be assigned to the city’s public-housing projects).

• Allocating $315,000 to fund the Asheville Fire Department’s Social Security benefits.

• Allocating $22,500 to pay for bus passes for all city employees.The major cuts included:

• $50,000 from the Civic Center fund.

• $50,000 from Police and Fire Department overtime pay.

• $100,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department’s capital budget.

• $145,500 from a plan to equalize city contributions to employee 401(k) retirement plans.

Both Bellamy and Jones noted that the proposed changes stemmed from their frustration over the fact that Westbrook’s proposed budget didn’t reflect the priorities established by Council during their retreat back in January. Bellamy also expressed dismay that despite her repeated requests to Westbrook to adjust the budget to reflect those priorities, the changes never came. Jones, meanwhile, emphasized that the proposed changes weren’t “actual cuts” but reductions of proposed funding increases.

Mumpower, however, chastised the four for making “last-minute changes that haven’t been researched,” adding, “I’m very uncomfortable with this; we risk systemic damage.” Ellis chimed in, noting, “You’re attempting to micromanage the process.” Worley’s words were stronger: “Our citizens deserve a responsible budget process. This is irresponsible; we’re going about it the wrong way. This is a major mistake — to put in things some of us want. I’m very disappointed.”

But the four rebels stood their ground. Dunn even violated decorum by making a closing comment after the mayor, who usually waits until everyone else has spoken before weighing in. Dunn had made his comments earlier, but he couldn’t let Worley’s critiques go unchallenged. “Mayor, I’ve got something to say, and if you want to gavel me down, go ahead — but I’m gonna say it,” he declared, adding, “The greatest risk is not doing anything. This is where leadership takes over.”

Then came the vote. And Worley, Ellis and Mumpower were outgunned 4-3.

The power and the passion

During the budget discussion, the tension was palpable. From the moment Bellamy introduced the revised budget, Worley, Ellis and Mumpower showed signs of exasperation and dismay. The body language of the four in majority spoke volumes as well: defiant glares shot at their colleagues and pursed lips hiding clenched teeth were the order of the day.

The budget changes proposed by Bellamy and supported by Dunn, Jones and Peterson involved reallocating funds that totaled less than 1 percent of the roughly $100 million budget. But the issues at stake were apparently significant enough to induce the four to put aside their political differences in favor of some serious horse trading. During the debate, Dunn hinted at the level of compromise involved (at least for him), commenting that he “hates to have to go to these extremes. But I didn’t get elected to sit back and just listen to staff. I’m not crazy about all of these items [presented by Bellamy]. There are some things that Joe Dunn’s not famous for supporting.” Nonetheless, his support was unwavering.

Echoing Dunn, Jones noted: “And there are some things Holly Jones is not famous for supporting. But I think it’s important that the public understand that we feel it’s important to do this.” She then went on to confront Mumpower’s earlier assertion that the budget changes constituted “more of a shift toward personal preferences.”

“Affordable housing is my passion, and I make no apology for that,” Jones intoned, adding (in a booming voice): “Call it a personal agenda — fine! I embrace it! And I’ve got people in Asheville and members of this Council behind me.”

Bellamy, too, spoke with passion throughout the evening, her comments reflecting a genuine sense of urgency. She spoke about the need to address the problems of crime and drugs in public housing, mentioning a letter she’d received from the principal of Johnston Elementary School (a Buncombe County school attended by some city residents). According to Bellamy, students from the school are being used as “drug mules” in the vicinity of the Deaverview Apartments. Deaverview is one of the public-housing developments Bellamy had cited in previous meetings as being in need of dedicated police officers — a need addressed by the four’s budget changes. Besides allocating $150,000 to the APD for three new officers, the budget also mandates that 25 percent of the 1-cent property tax dedicated to the Parks and Recreation Department be redirected to “police and narcotics enforcement.”

The key issue, however, seemed to be the disparity between the January goals and the funding priorities in the June budget. Apparently, that gripe was enough to persuade the fundamentally conservative Dunn to support a budget that would redirect money toward some decidedly liberal causes. It was also enough to persuade Bellamy, Jones and Peterson to agree to reduce proposed increases in the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget. All three have been staunch Parks & Rec supporters in the past, but the department has been in Dunn’s cross hairs ever since he was elected.

Mayor Worley struck back on several occasions, complaining at one point that the four’s end run marked a shift “from policy-making to management.”

Peterson, however, stated bluntly that, in his opinion, the proposed changes weren’t “last minute,” noting that the four had been asking for a budget that better reflected the January goals all along. “If we’re just here to rubber-stamp [the city manager’s budget], then why do we have elected officials?” Peterson wondered aloud.

But it was Bellamy who proved to be Westbrook’s most outspoken critic, saying: “I felt that the [January retreat] priorities weren’t being met. … The city manager told me that they would be reflected in the budget … but it didn’t happen.” The vice mayor revisited the topic after Mumpower and Ellis reiterated that they felt Council was micromanaging the budget process. “I don’t fault the entire [city] staff,” noted Bellamy. We only direct three people, and two weren’t involved. I only fault one employee.” (City Council directly oversees three city employees: the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.)

Presumably, the employee in question was the guy at the top — City Manager Jim Westbrook. But if there was any doubt, it was eliminated at the end of the meeting, when Council finally got around to addressing Bellamy’s vague request for a “general discussion” about the budget process. When the mayor turned over the microphone to her, Bellamy promptly requested a vote to go into closed session, citing (by number) the North Carolina general statute that permits a governing body to close an open meeting in order to discuss a “personnel issue” in private.

Westbrook is always present during closed sessions. This time, however, he wasn’t. Instead, he retreated to his office (adjacent to the Council chamber) while the seven went behind closed doors in a room behind the main chamber. For almost an hour, there was no indication whether the meeting would be reconvened. All the while, six of the city government’s department heads waited anxiously outside Westbrook’s office. At times, their discussions shifted from Bele Chere to the newest Harry Potter book, but underlying the banter was a note of nervous anticipation. Public Works Director Mark Combs commented to the press: “That’s our man in there [nodding toward Westbrook’s office]. He’s been good to us, and we’re gonna be here for him.”

In the end, Council members emerged from behind closed doors looking exhausted and emotionally drained. Immediately, they made for the elevator — clearly, the meeting was adjourned. Mayor Worley, however, promptly strode into Westbrook’s office for a private discussion, after telling Xpress that he had “no comment at this time.”

So Jim Westbrook is still Asheville’s city manager. And how close he came to losing his job remains a well-guarded secret; Council members contacted after the meeting refused to discuss what happened in the closed session. For now, it seems, it will remain a “personnel issue.”

But Westbrook’s trip to the woodshed is a telling reminder that while seven members serve on Council, when four act as one, anything can happen. Ultimately, the art of politics is grounded in simple arithmetic.

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