Asheville City Council

Rumor has it that a member of the Asheville City Council has a tattoo branded on his or her butt.

Remember, you read it here first.

Asheville resident Gabriel Ferrari raised the specter of decorated government derrieres during the public-comment portion of Council’s July 9 formal meeting. He used most of his allotted three minutes at the microphone to complain about the city’s tattoo businesses.

Recent Council meetings have been marathon affairs, tackling such thorny issues as the Wal-Mart proposed for the Sayles Bleachery — and leaving neither elected officials nor members of the public with the energy to indulge in the government equivalent of open-mic night.

But the July 9 agenda was light — the only items discussed were the uncontested rezoning of a parcel of land and the allocation of funds to renovate two fire stations– and the meeting was over in less than 90 minutes. It was a far cry from the donnybrook the week before. So, with the cameras rolling and the sun still shining outside, citizens seized the opportunity to voice opinions on a wide range of topics.

First up was Sharon Martin, speaking on behalf of community-supported development. Chastising city leaders for what she called “a discriminatory policy,” Martin explained that during the Wal-Mart hearing, members of the public who were wearing backpacks had been prohibited from bringing them into the chamber, although purses and briefcases of any size were allowed. Excluding backpacks, argued Martin, discriminated against a large segment of the community, particularly those who favor pedal power. “I commute on my bicycle; [backpacks] are our purses,” she pointed out.

Martin also took issue with the way Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino handled her original complaint about the policy. When she confronted him with her concerns, said Martin, he abruptly replied, “I don’t care what you think.” Contacted later by Xpress, Annarino acknowledged having spoken with Martin for “30-40 seconds” but said the quote she attributed to him had been taken out of context. Annarino explained that he had been “as civil as I could be,” noting that Martin had been “quite irate and felt that she had been singled out.” The police chief further indicated that the policy had been adopted in response to an incident during the June 11 Council meeting in which a disruptive member of the public had had to be forcibly removed from the chamber. The man, said Annarino, “was carrying several bags. In retrospect, had he wanted to inflict harm, he would have had every opportunity.” For her part, Martin explained that she is amenable to an equitable security policy, such as banning all bags or searching all bags, but allowing only certain bags, she said, is unacceptable. To underscore Martin’s point, fellow CSD member Rebecca Campbell held up a purse she had carried in (with police consent) that was the size of a small suitcase.

City Manager Jim Westbrook told Council that he would look into the matter.

Next up to bat was local activist Mickey Mahaffey, who questioned the efficacy of the campaign-finance-reform committee recently appointed by Council. “You chose a group of people who basically know nothing about it,” he complained. Mahaffey also pointedly criticized Mayor Worley’s appointee, former Mayor Lou Bissette, who Mahaffey said “hasn’t bothered to show up since the first meeting.”

Mahaffey, who garnered 1,000 votes in his unsuccessful campaign for mayor last November, also reminded Council why citizens had called for creating the committee to begin with. “There is a perception in the community that the election process is tainted,” he said, adding, “Whether that perception is right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but nonetheless, it exists.” As a candidate, Mahaffey said he’d experienced firsthand the influence of the political action committee Citizens for New Leadership (which gave $8,000 apiece to the war chests of Worley and Council members Joe Dunn, Carl Mumpower and Jim Ellis. Mahaffey said that when he was interviewed by the PAC, one of the first questions they asked him was how he would vote on the Wal-Mart proposal. When he said he wouldn’t support it, “It was the end of the interview for me.”

After Mahaffey had finished, Council member Mumpower responded, calling Mahaffey’s comments “disrespectful.” The committee, said Mumpower, is “a diverse group, not necessarily experienced people, but people willing to take on a tough issue. … This committee has full access to people like yourself; there are no closed doors. We’ve set up a system that can move forward in a positive way.” Mumpower also said he’d been surprised by the “harshness of [Mahaffey’s] comments.”

Contacted later, Mahaffey took issue with the way Mumpower had characterized his presentation, saying, “I thought the way the election was handled last year was what was disrespectful and harsh.”

No room for nonprofits at Bele Chere?

Batting third during the public-comment session was Stewart David, representing the animal-rights group Carolina Animal Action. David prefaced his remarks by noting, “It’s no secret that nonprofits are struggling. … The events of Sept. 11 have taken their toll, and governmental bodies are under financial pressure and are reducing the levels at which they fund nonprofits. … But you’ll be happy to know that I didn’t come here to ask for money.”

Instead, David wanted to know why his organization wouldn’t be allowed to set up a booth at Bele Chere this year. Last year, he noted, the city allowed 15 local nonprofit agencies to set up booths at the annual street festival; this year, only 10 will be allowed to purchase booth space. The spaces, he explained, were awarded by lottery, and his organization was among those that didn’t get one. “Not being allowed to participate in Bele Chere will be a severe blow to our organization. We have been at Bele Chere for almost 10 years; it is our number-one source of community outreach.”

This year’s decision to limit the number of nonprofits, noted David, comes on the heels of last year’s decision to prohibit nonprofits from selling items such as T-shirts at their booths: “Apparently they were concerned that nonprofit T-shirt sales interfere with the sale of Bele Chere T-shirts. I can’t imagine that buying a T-shirt about spaying and neutering competes with Bele Chere T-shirts. … Bele Chere is losing its sense of community. The festival is becoming more and more commercial. … Restricting the number of nonprofits would be easier to understand if Bele Chere took place in a finite space. But there is no shortage of street space, and I simply cannot comprehend why nonprofits are being excluded.”

In response, the mayor said he would look into the matter. (A few days later, David contacted Xpress to report that the Bele Chere Vendor Committee had reversed its decision and is now allowing the four excluded groups to have booths.)

Bele Chere lasts a mere three days (though that is sometimes hard to believe), but Gabriel Ferrarri used his three minutes at the lectern to shift the discussion to a more permanent concern: tattoos. Airing his complaints about tattoo parlors, he kept everyone in attendance on pins and needles. Ferrari explained that he lives near one such establishment, whose customers sometimes come and go well past midnight; many of them, he said, “seem like a bunch of high people.” On occasion, Ferrari noted, people jump over his fence, and he’s had two American flags stolen from his yard. “It’s like some kind of party out there,” he complained.

Ferrari also came armed with what he called “research,” reporting that tattooing is “actually a form of paganism — the language of the heathen.” He added, “It’s a shame that the city harbors such a freedom of tattooing.” And in an apparent effort to hold elected officials accountable, Ferrari proceeded to ask, “Is there somebody from City Council with a tattoo on his butt?”

Laughter filled the chamber, Council members exchanged inquisitive glances, and Ferrari, his body presumably unsullied by any ink, took his seat.

First to refute the rumor was Council member Dunn, who — despite having served in the Navy — reminded one and all, “I don’t have a tattoo, by the way.”

Dunn, however, chose not to display the naked truth in support of his assertion, so we’ll have to take his word for it.

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