Community meetings are a wild card. Public comment at City Council meetings is limited to agenda items, but community meetings are wide open. These public forums, held in a different part of Asheville whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday in the month, give residents a chance to speak directly to Council about whatever’s on their mind. City staffers from all departments are also on hand to provide expert answers and address specific complaints.
Because there’s no set agenda, reporters rarely have advance warning on what topics will come up. There are some perennial favorites, however (notably traffic, traffic and traffic). And since the June 29 meeting was held at the North Asheville Community Center, just a block off Merrimon Avenue, the safe money was once again riding on concerns about congestion, speeding and road expansion. After some brief talk about the future of Merrimon, however, Mayor Charles Worley reminded the questioner that the state, not the city, maintains the busy road, and while Asheville can request certain things, the state Department of Transportation has the final say.
The bulk of the discussion, though, centered not on traffic but on trafficking. Just one week after a sharply divided City Council passed a budget that includes funding for hiring five new police officers and for social programs directed at vulnerable youth in drug-infested areas, a spokesman for the Claxton Area Neighborhood Association appeared before Council to ask that something be done about chronic drug dealing and violence in their community.
Lawrence Bradshaw read a letter, dated May 17, which he said the neighborhood association had e-mailed to the mayor and to Council member Terry Bellamy. The letter highlighted chronic drug activity and violence in the neighborhood (which sits between Merrimon Avenue and Charlotte Street, in the vicinity of Claxton Elementary). Previous law-enforcement efforts, said the letter, have merely resulted in a “shell game” in which drug dealers simply move around in order to stay in business and avoid the police. The letter also called on Council to “permanently close drug houses in our neighborhood.”
In addition, Bradshaw read the addresses of a number of houses in the area that, according to police records, have had many repeat visits by police during the past five years.
Coming on the heels of Council’s bitter fight over how best to tackle Asheville’s drug problem, the issue seemed primed to elicit comment from Council members.
Perhaps anticipating a rehash of familiar positions, Bradshaw observed: “I’m not sure if this is a law-enforcement issue anymore. I’m wondering if maybe there’s a political issue, too.”
Mayor Worley, saying he is familiar with the area and its problems, cited the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative included in Council’s newly approved budget. The plan, championed by Worley, Bellamy and Council members Brownie Newman and Holly Jones, calls for spending $250,000 to hire five new police officers and an additional $350,000 for community, social and housing programs.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower also weighed in on the topic, referring to his million-dollar plan (defeated by a 4-3 budget vote at the June 22 formal session) that would have hired 12 new police officers.
“There is a great deal of misinformation about our discussion about a drug problem,” said Mumpower. His proposed initiative, noted the vice mayor, called for battling drug trafficking not just in the city’s housing projects but wherever drugs are being sold — including neighborhoods such as Claxton. “All of us are concerned,” continued Mumpower, adding, “some of us maybe more.”
Then it was new Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan‘s turn at the microphone. Assuring City Council and the audience that fighting drugs is a top priority, Hogan said, “We’re working on it,” adding, “It’s important that citizens keep us apprised of information.”
Council member Joe Dunn, a staunch supporter of Mumpower’s plan, asked the neighborhood association if increased police manpower would solve the problem.
Claxton resident (and association member) Tif McDonald said patrolling police cruisers seem to have little or no effect. “People on the street have a lookout; they disappear when the police arrive, but come back out as soon as the cruiser rounds a corner,” she said, suggesting that a different type of police presence, such as undercover work, might help.
That prompted Brownie Newman to add that, at the request of both residents and Mountain Housing Opportunities, a police officer will soon be moving into the neighborhood. Bradshaw had noted earlier that the nonprofit, which helps low-income families find decent housing, owns a number of homes in the area.
Worley later told Xpress that the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative addresses Claxton residents’ concerns, pointing out that alongside a beefed-up police presence, the neighbors had also stressed the need for programs to keep children from dealing drugs.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]