The furor sparked by the Asheville City Council’s June 12 vote to switch back to partisan municipal elections hasn’t died. Amid growing signs of community frustration, the issue claimed center stage at Council’s July 10 session.
After taking their lumps from members of the public, the four Council members who’d supported the move stood by their decisions while fending off another Council member’s attempt to force a public vote on the issue.
Last month, Council members Brownie Newman, Robin Cape and Bryan Freeborn and Vice Mayor Holly Jones all voted to reinstate partisan elections (which were the rule until 1994). They defended the move as a way to bring clarity to the electoral process, arguing that, in reality, these elections were partisan already.
But critics maintain that the decision favors the local Democratic Party. And the suddenness of the vote, its proximity to the upcoming City Council elections, and a misunderstanding about the rules governing public hearings have created a volatile climate that is rife with accusations and a rallying point for unlikely allies.
With a petition already being circulated to force a referendum on the issue, Council member Carl Mumpower nonetheless called on City Council itself to put the change to a public vote.
Despite constant reminders from Mayor Terry Bellamy not to repeat points in the month-old debate, Mumpower forged ahead, accusing his colleagues of taking a self-serving position that would enhance the re-election prospects of Freeborn and Newman while leaving unaffiliated candidates scrambling to collect signatures.
In a presentation subtitled “Reconsidering a Step Backwards,” Mumpower offered several ideas for reversing Council’s decision, including a referendum. Among other things, he called on voters to hold “the members of this Council who supported partisan politics directly accountable this November, so that a new majority may reverse their actions in December.”
But Mumpower’s presentation almost didn’t happen. Citing a July 2 memo from City Attorney Bob Oast, Cape asked that the item be removed from the agenda. Oast, she noted, had pointed out a state law which says that once a city votes to change its charter, it can’t start the process all over again. Given that legal obstacle, argued Cape, it was pointless to continue discussing the issue.
Bellamy, meanwhile, noted that Mumpower’s PowerPoint presentation had not been submitted to the city clerk by the usual deadline. Nonetheless, the mayor allowed Mumpower to continue, apparently because of the intense controversy surrounding the issue and the political fallout in recent weeks.
“I can’t make you sit down,” she told Mumpower, adding, “I could, but I would see that on YouTube again,” referring to a much-viewed video clip of local radio host Matt Mittan trying to speak out of order at the June 12 meeting and being escorted from the Council chamber by police.
About 10 members of the public also spoke, mostly in favor of a referendum. Cape protested that process as well, questioning whether the public should be allowed to speak on an issue that has no chance of moving forward. Some of the recent outcry, however, has concerned the refusal to allow public comment on the matter immediately before last month’s vote. (In this case, state law required that public comment be held at least two weeks before the vote—and accordingly, the public got a chance to weigh in at Council’s May 22 meeting.) When more people showed up to speak on June 12, they were turned—or, in Mittan’s case, escorted—away.
And on July 10, city resident Charlie Hume, an organizer for the grassroots group Let Asheville Vote, told Council that community response to the group’s petition has been strong. Already, he said, they’d collected an estimated 2,500 signatures—half the number needed by July 16 to force a referendum.
Another organizer for the group chided Council for not having more faith in a public vote. “You are more concerned with your own power than you are in empowering us,” charged Christy Fryar. “You want us to vote for you, but you refuse to vote for us.”
Asheville resident Mike Lewis said Council’s haste had left the public woefully undereducated about the issue. “I think it is a decision that it is your duty to educate the public about,” he said. “This room cannot hold the number of people you need to talk to about this.”
Among the throng of speakers was Mittan, who, after joking about his YouTube appearance, read passages from letters and commentaries that had appeared in various local publications opposing the switch to partisan elections.
Stand by your man
After members of the public had weighed in, the four Council members who’d supported the measure spoke at length on their reasons for favoring partisan elections.
Newman, who’d introduced the original motion, stuck to his guns, maintaining that local elections are already partisan and should be recognized as such on the ballot.
“Not all Republicans and not all Democrats view every issue the same way, but there is a set of ideas and political traditions and priorities that are clearly associated with each of the two major political parties in this country,” he said. “It is a starting point to [figuring out] where people are coming from.”
Newman also challenged the idea that partisan elections are unfair to third-party candidates. Any such candidate who collects the requisite number of signatures is guaranteed a place on the ballot in the general election, he said, noting that in 13 years of nonpartisan elections, no independent ever made it past the primaries.
“I believe in the decision I made, [and] the state sets forth a process where, if enough people disagree with that, it can be sent to referendum—and I support that too,” said Newman.
Cape was equally unapologetic about her vote.
“I think it’s the right thing to do, unequivocally,” she declared. “I look around the world right now at the climate we are in and the situation we are in, and we don’t have a lot of time to mess around. And what we tend to do politically is mess around.”
Serving on Council for 18 months, said Cape, had shown her the true nature of Asheville politics. “What I have learned is that this is a very partisan organization and situation,” she said.
As for the timing of the switch, Freeborn accepted the blame, though he denied that it was a power grab.
When he was appointed to Council in December of 2005, said Freeborn, he was approached about the issue but initially opposed the change. Over a year-and-a-half of talking to constituents, however, the Council member said he’d changed his mind. “That is why it came forward—I was the holdout vote.”
Partisan voting, said Freeborn, adds clarity to the decision-making process, a point also made by Jones.
And indeed, in the end, the discussion itself had more to do with clarity than with any Council action. A motion by Mumpower to hold a referendum as part of this fall’s primary election failed on a 3-4 vote, defeated by the same four who’d engineered the switch.
(For the latest on the group Let Asheville Vote’s petition drive seeking to force a referendum, see article in Buzzworm on page 20.)
Mumpower’s concern about illegal immigration is nothing new, but he’s had a hard time finding allies on Council.
As the issue has claimed the national spotlight in recent years, local governments have begun wading into the fray, some earning reputations as tough towns while others are dubbed “sanctuary cities.”
In the past, Mumpower’s rallying cry—that illegal immigration amounts to “cultural terrorism”—has found no support on City Council. He tried again on July 10, however, telling his colleagues, “We’ve done essentially nothing.” To remedy the situation, Mumpower proposed an 11-point list of strategies for restraining and shipping out illegal aliens, including increased police capability and justice-system reform.
Even Mumpower admits that the scope of the problem is hard to nail down. “There are all kinds of conflicting numbers,” he conceded. But whatever the actual head count, he insisted, “We cannot support that.” And as he emphasized later, “I would speak to action, not further analysis.”
Firm numbers, however, are precisely what’s needed to determine a policy for the city, replied Bellamy. “How many of our contractors [hire] illegal immigrants?” she wondered, noting, “We don’t have that information.”
Newman, meanwhile, argued that Asheville is not in a position to tackle what is essentially a federal issue. And besides, he continued, it’s “a distraction from real problems in our community.”
Seeing the matter once again about to slide by without any action being taken, Mumpower pressed for whatever support he could get. But while Davis had initially supported adding immigration-enforcement officers to the Asheville Police Department, he backed off until Council could get more information from the APD.
Mumpower’s persistence did eventually bear at least some fruit, however: Council unanimously endorsed placing information on the city’s Web site telling employers about a federal employment-verification program.
A steep step
After extensive discussion, Council approved an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance placing new restrictions on steep-slope development. While the existing rules will remain in effect at elevations of 2,220 to 2,350 feet, stricter limits will kick in at higher elevations. Faced with conflicting recommendations by city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission, Countil members adopted that threshold as an apparent compromise between conservationists (who wanted the lower figure) and developers, realtors and landowners (who wanted the threshold raised to at least 2,500 feet).
Neither side seemed entirely pleased with the compromise, however.
“This ordinance will create cost,” said Mike Butrum of the Mountain Council for Accountable Development, an offshoot of the Asheville Board of Realtors and the Asheville Homebuilders Association. “How much cost is the question.”
Those in the real-estate business have long argued that reducing the amount of land available for development inevitably drives up housing costs. Opponents maintain that houses perched on those heights would not be moderately priced anyway.
Meanwhile, Asheville resident Jake Quinn, an advocate of stricter regulation, told Council: “I was very, very disappointed. Some may call it a compromise—I call it a cave-in.”
Bellamy, on the other hand, argued that the effort put into developing the new rules would have been better spent on coordinating and enforcing existing regulations.
“This is a waste of time that has divided the community,” she declared. Nonetheless, the amendment passed 5-2, with Mumpower and Bellamy opposed. The deal is not yet sealed, however, as staff must still fill in some gaps and come back to Council with specifics on road grading at higher elevations.