Follow the leader?

Last September, a rain-soaked Charles Worley stood somberly before a hastily gathered gaggle of reporters and city officials. Wearing a slicker and a grim face, the mayor of Asheville skipped the handshaking and pleasantries that normally mark the start of a press conference. His words were blunt, and the news was bad: The city was reeling from back-to-back hurricanes that had uprooted trees, downed power lines and flooded Biltmore Village and other areas.

Then things got worse: The city’s water system was collapsing due to a blown water line at the North Fork Reservoir. Inundated by the worst flood in nearly 100 years, Asheville would soon be without safe drinking water. It was a disaster in every sense of the word.

On the day of the press conference, the mayor maintained a sense of calm amid the storm — the requisite demeanor of a leader in time of crisis. Now, however, Worley is facing a different kind of flood — of criticism from the three people jockeying to take away his job. And despite their varying positions on the issues, Worley’s opponents all seem to agree on one thing: the mayor’s lack of leadership.

A dysfunctional family

At a Sept. 19 public forum for mayoral candidates sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe chapter of the League of Women Voters, Worley faced off against his three challengers in the race: Council members Terry Bellamy and Joe Dunn and local author Bill Branyon. Fielding questions from the public for more than an hour, the candidates offered varied opinions on assorted topics.

But one telling moment came when someone asked Worley point-blank, “Who should voters hold accountable for your not finding a solution to the Civic Center?” (This was a key plank in the mayor’s campaign platform during the last election.)

Worley replied, “I promised to work hard to find a solution to the Civic Center, and I have fulfilled that promise — I have worked hard.” But without a dedicated funding source (such as a food-and-beverage tax, which would have to be approved by the state Legislature), he added, the only solution would be to raise property taxes. And that’s a move the mayor refuses to make, he noted, because it would unfairly place the burden of financing a regional entertainment venue on city residents.

In a recent interview, Xpress asked Worley if he feels he’s been an effective leader during the last four years.

“I think I’ve done very well,” said Worley. “My style of leadership is one to build consensus, to work with people, to accomplish things without really caring a whole lot about who gets the credit for it.”

But talk to Joe Dunn and you get a different picture.

“The big reason I’m running is I think our City Council has been dysfunctional for the last four years,” says Dunn. “All the issues that have been brought up have been driven by individual Council members and not the mayor. … I think his record is very clear on his lack of leadership in a lot of ways. … You never see him step up to the plate; he just runs the meetings, and that’s about all.”

As an example, Dunn cites the fallout surrounding the dissolution of the Water Agreement. “Brownie Newman and myself stepped out on the limb to try to come up with a settlement. The Council basically said we want to take back the Water Agreement, rescind it — but after that sentence, everything became disjointed. You didn’t hear the mayor speak of anything but how bad the [legislative] delegation had treated us and how the county was playing dirty. But you never heard anything from him about how we’re going to work through this thing and come to a better place.”

Worley agrees with Dunn on one point — that City Council is dysfunctional. But voters, says the mayor, elected a “philosophically divided Council” and he’s worked to maintain the middle ground by “trying to facilitate both sides … and being a swing vote one way and then the other.” As for the charge of not running a tight ship, Worley responds: “The mayor does not have the ability to rein in a member of Council unless that member has violated a rule of procedure. … Until this Council makes rules that limit the ability of Council members to go on and on and on, then I have nothing to enforce.”

Terry Bellamy, too, has questioned Worley’s leadership. “I can bring some leadership in areas that need to be led. … The 2025 Plan has not been referred to since it was completed. The mayor has the ability to set the agenda; the biggest thing the mayor has, as far as moving the city forward, is the ability to negotiate between Council members to get things done. And that has not been occurring — and that is a problem. Right now, we don’t have that leadership.”

Beyond that, Bellamy maintains that Worley has failed to live up to his campaign promises. “Everything he ran on — it hasn’t moved forward. His issues were the Civic Center, the Water Agreement and economic development. Where are they?” Bellamy has made a point of providing detailed information about her plans for running the city if she’s elected, including a Web site where the candidate tackles specific issues.

Rounding out the attack is Branyon (the only mayoral candidate who’s not part of the current City Council). Asserting that multinational corporations are dictating the direction the city is taking, Branyon charges: “The mayor takes his lead from these multinationals; we are now ruled by giant corporations. … He gave carte blanche to the Super Wal-Mart, Campus Crest, the Grove Park [high-rise proposal]. He’s the vanguard of uncontrolled development that’s going to destroy the quality of life in Asheville.” Branyon’s solution: a moratorium on local development by multinational corporations, and greater efforts to support local businesses.

Branyon is reaching out to voters concerned about local environmental issues, calling for bike paths and perhaps even toll roads to discourage automobile use (as a way to address Asheville’s substantial air-quality problems). And speaking about the war on drugs, the candidate told the crowd at the League of Women Voters forum that he didn’t understand why we treat people in public housing like criminals for using “antidepressants” that aren’t approved by society.

The Tao of leadership

Campaign rhetoric aside, the mayor has just one vote on a seven-member City Council. So what does mayoral leadership mean in real-life terms?

Former Mayor Leni Sitnick (1996-2000) explains that the mayor (working with the city manager) gets to set the agenda for public meetings, conducts those meetings and enforces the rules of order. The mayor also appoints the members of the Housing Authority.

Beyond that, says Sitnick, the mayor’s role in Asheville is to act as “titular head.” In that capacity, she observes, “the mayor sets the tone for the city. It’s where the buck stops — or where it should stop.” But under a council-manager form of government, she notes, City Council members “have the same opportunity and responsibility — that is part of the equation.” In other words, all seven council members can play an active role in determining what direction the city takes.

So why is the mayor’s leadership so important? Leadership, said Sitnick, is “the ability to make hard choices and decisions; it’s about being able to inspire people and hope they will follow you down the path your decisions create. Do the people feel that they have access to government? Do they feel that the mayor is one of them? It’s really the Tao of leadership: Is the mayor leading in such a way that when the job is done, the people feel that they have done it themselves? It’s not about ego and turf and power — it’s about involving the citizenry.”

In the Oct. 11 primary, voters will have a chance to narrow the field, en route to deciding who will lead Asheville for the next four years.

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