Don’t let the tourists get wind of this, but Asheville is one scary place. At least that’s the impression this reporter came away with after sitting through the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 16 work session. The meeting kicked off with a discussion of crime in Aston Park, then segued into a presentation on how drugs are devastating the community and how best to address the threat. And to cap off the evening’s somber tone, Council members turned their attention to floods and local air pollution.
The Aston Park discussion grew out of a simple consent-agenda item — a request from the Parks and Recreation Department to accept a $250,000 grant to help fund a new clubhouse adjacent to the park’s tennis complex. But Council member Holly Jones seized the opportunity to broaden the discussion by mentioning that on her way to the Council meeting, she’d seen employees of the nearby YWCA (where she serves as executive director) being harassed by people hanging out in the park. “It seems that the problem has only gotten worse,” she observed. The Police Department has stepped up patrols in the area, noted Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson, adding that his department has hired off-duty officers to provide additional security, but doesn’t have the money to pay for round-the-clock patrols.
Then Council member Jan Davis chimed in, telling how his downtown tire store had recently been burglarized. Many of the city’s homeless, noted Davis, congregate in Aston and Pritchard parks downtown while waiting for the shelters to open, or in between meals provided by other social-service agencies. Referring to a report by the Downtown Social Issues Task Force adopted by Council in March, Davis said: “This problem has not abated since our study. … We’re not really dealing with this issue.”
But at that point, City Manager Gary Jackson urged Council to focus on the request before them — the grant proposal — and save the larger debate for a future work session. Council members concurred, agreeing to add the grant request to the agenda for the Sept. 6 formal session.
Full of officials, but not official
Much of the meeting was taken up with requests by different Council members — several of whom are seeking re-election this fall — to address assorted issues.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower set the tone when he asked his fellow Council members to endorse the Asheville Drug Commission. Acting on his own, Mumpower had recruited representatives from local law enforcement, the courts, churches, public housing, schools and various social-service agencies, including such notables as Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, Asheville Citizen-Times Publisher Virgil Smith and Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Rick Lutovsky. The group, which had held its first meeting earlier that day, will “focus, learn and act on the causes, sources and impacts of hard drugs on Asheville and our neighbors,” he explained. Drugs, Mumpower maintained, “are a factor in 80 percent of the crimes committed in our community and [serve as] the foundation for much of the child abuse and neglect that occurs.” The commission, said the vice mayor, will take a holistic approach including treatment, education, enforcement, social interventions and policy initiatives at the local, state and federal levels. Earlier this year, Council members who opposed including Mumpower’s anti-drug initiative in this year’s budget had emphasized the need for a holistic approach to the problem.
After a brief discussion, City Council waived its prohibition against voting during work sessions and unanimously endorsed the commission. Mumpower immediately left to make a similar presentation to the Buncombe County commissioners (see “But Is It Official?” elsewhere in this issue).
Asked about the vote later, Mayor Charles Worley said, “It’s a concept that Carl has set up, and we endorsed that concept.” Asked why Council hadn’t followed its normal procedure for establishing a commission (which includes involvement by the full City Council in appointing commission members), Worley responded: “Because we didn’t establish a commission, we endorsed a concept; we gave our approval. We said, ‘We endorse the idea of having a drug commission, but until further action is taken, it is not an official city commission.'”
Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, on the other hand, told Xpress, “We didn’t appoint any members — Carl Mumpower appointed them — but the City Council has adopted the commission.”
Worley, however, emphasizing that city staff will not provide assistance to the group, said it will “have whatever authority it can create — I mean, you know, the authority of persuasion. I’m sure we’ll listen to their recommendations.”
Floods and dirty air
With the drug question behind them, Council members turned their attention to the issue of clean air. Brownie Newman proposed a resolution calling on the city’s congressional delegation to oppose any legislation that would weaken the federal Clean Air Act. “Bills to weaken it have been proposed,” noted Newman, adding, “including one that would limit a state’s powers to pursue legal action against other states to push them to clean up.” North Carolina is currently pursuing such legal action, he noted.
Mumpower questioned whether City Council should continue to issue resolutions concerning “things we have no authority over,” referring to a recently passed declaration that Council won’t use its power of eminent domain to take land for economic development. Council member Jan Davis agreed, noting, “It seems like we’re doing one of these a week.”
But Council member Holly Jones reminded her colleagues that fighting air pollution is one of the priorities in the long-range strategic plan created during the 2004 City Council retreat. Newman’s proposal was then added to the agenda for the Sept. 6 formal session.
Jones, however, wasn’t done; she had a proposal of her own — establishing a Flood Reduction Task Force. Although Jones had not yet recruited members, she stressed the importance of forming such a group. It’s imperative, she said, that the community “understand what can be done to minimize the threat of future flooding. This is not a matter of if, but when.” The task force, noted Jones, should be composed of leaders from all local governments, because “floods know no political boundaries.” City Council concurred and again waived its rules, unanimously giving Jones the go-ahead to pursue the concept.