The blunt, belligerent rhetoric that often characterizes neoconservatism reared its tough-talking head at the Asheville City Council’s marathon July 27 formal session.
Council member Joe Dunn shocked many in the packed Council chamber when he publicly berated a Blue Ridge Parkway official — who’d been invited by the city to discuss a forest-management plan for the city’s drinking-water watersheds — over an entirely unrelated issue.
“You’ve got a lot of gall to walk in here and demand this when you’ve kept us from getting our [Azalea Road] permit for two years!” thundered Dunn, adding, “Where’s the bridge?”
Dunn also fumed that “the hand of subversive environmentalism” was at work in the chamber.
And later in the meeting, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower called graffiti a form of terrorism.
The verbal fireworks left some in attendance wondering whether Dunn and Mumpower’s inflammatory words might come back to haunt them. And in a room full of people eager to weigh in on this controversial topic, some began to question whether their opinions carry any weight at all with City Council.
Commenting on the hundreds of e-mails he’d received from constituents concerned about the watershed plan, Mumpower said, “I’m not impressed by people who try to bully or overwhelm us.” He added that he won’t “artificially pander to people.”
Those remarks prompted one Asheville resident to draw an analogy to another recent logging controversy. “This is reminiscent of what happened in Woodfin when that board refused to acknowledge public concerns — it had a major impact on voter turnout,” observed Robin Cape. “Mumpower said he’d received over 300 e-mails on this matter and said that he wasn’t going to be bullied by special interests? He’s our representative!”
As for Dunn, Cape commented, “He’s an embarrassment to our city. For Dunn to take time away from a public hearing to bully a presenter on a wholly unrelated topic is embarrassing.”
Cape, elected last November to the Woodfin Water and Sanitary District’s board of trustees, was swept into office as Buncombe County’s first successful write-in candidate in recent memory — riding a wave of voter frustration sparked by a proposal to log Woodfin’s drinking-water watershed.
And in an interview two days after the meeting, Council member Brownie Newman noted, “Council should listen to the public, and Council members who attack the motives of citizens who take the time to sit through a meeting and express their opinion do so at their own political peril.”
Much talk, few details
A public hearing on the plan, which calls for some logging in the city’s drinking-water watersheds, took up more than three hours of the six-hour meeting. City Council imposed a one-hour time limit on public comments — but Council members themselves spent more than two hours debating the logging proposal.
The vast majority of those attending the hearing came to criticize the plan. Many said it is too vague and lacks a comprehensive inventory of the plant and animal species that could be affected by the Asheville Water Resources Department’s efforts to widen access roads and reduce invasive species such as Chinese silver grass.
“This plan does not give a complete picture,” noted Hugh Irwin, a conservation planner for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.
Gracia O’Neill of Clean Water for North Carolina echoed Irwin’s concern, saying, “This plan is vague … and is an unnecessary risk to water [quality].”
Ben Prater of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, who noted that he holds a master’s degree in environmental science, said the proposed plan is nothing more than a “brief.” City Council, he added, should hold off on adopting it until the city could commission a “complete inventory of habitat” and Blue Ridge Parkway officials could conduct a “visual-quality analysis.” Most of the proposed logging would be done to improve access for rescue vehicles in the event of an emergency. A plane crash in 2002 prompted the Asheville and Black Mountain fire chiefs to request that the access roads be improved.
My way or the Parkway
Another concern was the plan’s visual impact on one of the region’s leading tourist attractions.
“The Asheville watershed is the focal point of 40 vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway,” testified Gary Johnson, chief of resource planning for the Blue Ridge Parkway. “We cannot support Council going forward with this plan.”
Logging, he explained, could jeopardize some of those vistas. Johnson added that “key partners were not included” in developing the plan; his own office, he said, had not been contacted about the proposal until the day before the Council meeting. Accordingly, Johnson asked City Council to create an advisory task force that would include Parkway officials.
As soon as Johnson was finished, Dunn went on the offensive, shifting attention from the watershed plan (the subject of the public hearing) to the stalled negotiations between the city and Parkway officials concerning a bridge owned by the Parkway. The city needs to be able to use the bridge to access land it bought two years ago to serve as a landfill for inert materials. The two parties have been wrangling over the bridge (off Azalea Road in east Asheville) ever since.
Johnson, obviously shocked by the attack, told Dunn the two issues are unrelated. Dunn fired back that they are related, adding that relations between the city and the federal government need to be a “two-way street.”
At that point, Mumpower jumped in. After thanking Dunn for bringing up the subject, the vice mayor noted, “The city has spent a lot of money over the years at the site,” and the bridge dispute is holding up the project.
“I resent being taken to task over a totally different issue,” responded Johnson. But Dunn, conceding no ground, retorted, “The city of Asheville has been around a lot longer than the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
Many in the audience seemed aghast at Dunn’s outburst. And when some began to vocalize their displeasure, Mayor Charles Worley wielded his gavel. During public hearings, Worley generally wastes no time interrupting members of the public who stray from the topic at hand. Yet the mayor did nothing to stop Dunn from taking the discussion in a different direction. Asked about it later,Worley replied:
“In terms of Council … all of us are elected individually. We each have the right to say whatever we want, and I just don’t have any ability to stop a member of Council from saying something, even if it’s not totally on subject. And again, there probably was a little bit of a thread in terms of relationships back and forth.
“The most significant thing is, you just can’t stop members of Council from saying things because of the nature of our respective positions. None of us are answerable, in a larger context, to the whole.”
But the mayor is responsible for maintaining decorum in the Council chamber. And when asked whether Dunn’s confronting Johnson had been appropriate, Worley replied: “I think I’ll stay away from answering that and let folks make their own judgments.”
Following Johnson to the lectern was Eric Gorney, who voiced support for the watershed plan. Noting that he lives near the watershed, Gorney called for “more action to prevent fires,” reminding Council members that a forest fire three years ago had sent smoke drifting through downtown Asheville. Describing himself as an avid outdoorsman, Gorney also hailed the logging as a way to foster wildlife.
Ready, aim, fire
Asheville resident Bud Howell questioned the plan’s effectiveness, citing a report issued by the Government Accounting Office in the late ’90s that “called into question the use of logging for fire management.”
Later in the hearing, consultant Edward Hicks, who prepared the logging proposal, spoke about the risk of fire. Council member Brownie Newman peppered Hicks with questions about the likelihood of a “catastrophic forest fire,” asking him to estimate the odds of one occurring in the watersheds. Although Hicks was clearly uncomfortable doing so, he finally said the odds are about one in a hundred, though he noted that his estimate has “no real scientific basis.” Pressed still further by Newman, Hicks admitted, “Nothing we’re doing has the intent of reducing the risk of fire.”
It was a marked departure from the forester’s presentation to City Council the week before. At the July 20th work session, Hicks repeatedly warned about the threat of fire in the watershed because of an abundance of Chinese silver grass. “Right now, this constitutes a very minor problem. But down the road, if lightning strikes, you’re going to have a problem,” Hicks said at the work session.
After Mayor Worley closed the public hearing, City Council debated the plan, posing many questions to Hicks and Interim Director David Hanks of the Asheville Water Resources Department. At times, however, the discussion digressed into a critique of the plan’s opponents. “There’s a difference between listening to a special-interest group and indulging them,” Vice Mayor Mumpower told his colleagues, eliciting groans from the audience.
After Mumpower made a motion to approve the plan, Newman suggested adopting parts of it but omitting any language about logging until Council could appoint a commission of experts to study the issue and offer their perspective. His motion to that effect failed on a 3-4 vote, with Worley, Dunn, Mumpower and Jan Davis opposed.
The plan, said the mayor, is simply a first step. A more detailed plan, he noted, would be needed to spell out the nuts and bolts, which would be considered during next year’s budget process — giving both sides a chance to revisit the issue before any steps are implemented.
Worley then offered a compromise: Adopt the plan but specify that no logging will occur until the city has consulted with officials from both the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (which holds a conservation easement for the watershed).
The plan was approved — with Worley’s changes — on a 4-3 vote, with Council members Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Newman opposed.
The writing on the wall
City Council voted unanimously to accept a report from the Downtown Social Issues Task Force on strategies for combating graffiti — but not before a group member lashed out at Council for its response to the task force’s presentation the previous week. During the July 20th work session, Council members took issue with the task force’s recommendation that downtown property owners who failed to either remove the graffiti themselves or authorize a volunteer cleanup crew to do so within 48 hours would face a fine of $25 a day.
One week later, task force member Kitty Brown took Council members to task for their treatment of her group. “It felt odd to us. We came in here feeling we’d done a great favor. We assembled an educated group of stakeholders; we did a thorough investigative job. It was hard to stand here and make a presentation and receive a critique with no chance of a conversation. We don’t feel like there is anything else to be done. In the future, you’ll have to treat people with more respect, or the process needs to be altered.”
Most Council members apologized for their prior criticisms before once again turning their attention to the issue of graffiti. “Chastised doesn’t mean fairly chastised,” conceded Vice Mayor Mumpower. But he went on to remind task force members that he’d felt there was a “tremendous momentum building to penalize the victim” by fining noncompliant building owners. Graffiti, declared Mumpower, “is a form of community terrorism. If it’s your property, fine. But if it’s not, it’s terrorism.”
It remains to be seen what the city does with the task force’s recommendations. Meanwhile, Council members will hear from the group again later this month when it presents recommendations on public drunkenness and panhandling.