Asheville City Council

How do you plow through a jam-packed work-session agenda while keeping one eye fixed firmly on the clock? On Sept. 21, the Asheville City Council did it by resorting to major surgery.

Faced with a full slate of widely varied topics, Council members missed their targeted 6:30 wrap-up time by a mere 15 minutes — but only after excising nearly half of the scheduled items. The fast-paced meeting shifted wildly in tone, sounding now like a spirited motivational presentation, now like a somber Senate hearing.

Fueling the rush was Council’s desire to attend the 7 p.m. funeral of Mayor Charles Worley‘s father, Charles Edwin Worley, who had died over the weekend.

Courting dollars

“Money is running out.”

That was the word from Superior Court Judge Ron Payne, who presides over the Buncombe County Drug Treatment Court (which he co-founded in 2000).

The court handles cases involving drug use but no violent crime or drug distribution. After pleading guilty to a criminal charge, defendants embark on a rigorous 18-month program of treatment, community service and frequent drug screening. Those who successfully complete the program are rewarded by having the charges against them dropped; those who don’t are returned to the criminal-justice system for sentencing.

So far, the program has produced 30 graduates with six re-arrests (a 20 percent rate). That compares favorably with the 60 percent re-arrest rate for people serving standard prison sentences, said Payne. At the moment, there are 44 people in the program.

But without additional funding, he said, no new participants can be accepted, even if there’s a vacancy. “I need to stretch [the remaining] money as far as it can go,” Payne told Council.

Most of the program’s $145,000 annual budget is covered by a grant from the state, with matching funds from Buncombe County. The local ABC board and the Eblen Foundation have also supported the project.

Currently, the court has about $41,000 left — enough to make it through to next March. But no additional state money will be available until the General Assembly approves a budget for fiscal year 2005-06.

“Courts are supposed to be funded by the state,” declared Payne, making it clear that he was reluctant to ask the city for money. But an additional $20,000 could keep the program up and running through June 2005, he added.

Keeping a program going, noted Council member Holly Jones, is often cheaper than “letting something run down and then have to start it back up.”

Conventional prosecution methods, Payne pointed out, have filled prisons across the state — at a cost of $25,000 per inmate per year.

The importance of Payne’s program wasn’t lost on a Council that has been bitterly divided over the best way to address the city’s drug problems, with some Council members favoring a beefed-up police presence while others preferred a more treatment-based approach.

“I think it’s fantastic that we are looking at something more comprehensive,” said Jones.

“This is a program that is part of the answer,” proclaimed Payne. “Interdiction is certainly another part.”

Council member Terry Bellamy stressed that time is of the essence. “I don’t want to wait until the money runs out,” she said. “Some folks who need this may be turned away.”

“Time knocks pretty heavily at our door,” agreed Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, though he noted that the urgency “seems to have been abated somewhat” thanks to emergency state funding, which staved off a possible late-October shutdown.

Mumpower suggested tabling the matter until January, a suggestion that Payne said makes sense except for the drawn out nature of budget deliberations, which could leave the drug program facing an uncertain future.

Striking a compromise, Council members agreed to revisit the funding issue before the end of 2004.

The ABCs of selling liquor

Consultant Joe Davidson of Deloitte Consulting, hired by the city to analyze the efficiency of the local Alcoholic Beverage Control operation, made several recommendations to Council that he said would improve the system’s business performance by increasing both efficiency and transparency. The suggestions included restructuring operations, hiring store-operations managers, and reorganizing the employee handbook.

But Council member Joe Dunn seemed disappointed by the lack of detail about the ABC board’s operations.

“We didn’t focus on that,” Davidson explained. “We didn’t think that’s what we were being asked to do.”

Although the board controls the entire local ABC system, he noted, it answers directly to City Council. “I think that [overseeing the board] is more in your realm than in our realm,” said Davidson.

But Dunn, a frequent critic of the ABC board, wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Citing an audit and a $119,000 embezzlement case in 2002 as evidence of mismanagement and lack of oversight, Dunn observed: “There must not have been any leadership for an organization to get this far down the slope. The board is in charge of a $15 million operation. How do you absolve a board from not asking questions?”

Then, calling board Chair Deborah Holmes-Young to the lectern, Dunn proceeded to grill her about both the board’s and her own use of ABC funds — including a $1,000 stay at the Grove Park Inn during an ABC event.

Holmes-Young admitted that the decision reflected “bad judgment.” But she seemed unhappy about being put on the hot seat, saying, “If Council has a question or a problem with a decision we have made, it should come to us directly to address that.”

Dunn, however, made it clear that he was ready to replace the entire board — all of whose terms have already expired.

Choosing a new city manager

In a prelude to Asheville’s search for a replacement for outgoing City Manager Jim Westbrook, Council members heard from representatives of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, who delivered a spirited briefing on the city’s options.

“This is the most important decision of your term,” declared Gene Dillman, director of member services for the Raleigh-based nonprofit, his tone conveying the weight of his message.

Council, he said, can choose among widely varying levels of involvement, from handling the whole task itself to farming out the bulk of the selection process to an executive-search firm.

But first, Dillman gave Council members what amounted to a short team-building exercise, encouraging them to explore the city government’s inner needs.

“Let’s try to figure out who you are first, then find out what the organization’s needs are and translate that into what your city manager will be,” Dillman urged.

Council, said Dillman, is free to include community input in the process, but this is usually done after the field has been narrowed down to just a few candidates. Initially, he said, applicants will want their names kept confidential so their current employers won’t know they’re job hunting. And if the city does decide to solicit public comment, Dillard said the candidates should be warned in advance.

The league advises cities to allow a six-month time frame for picking a new city manager. And at the moment, cautioned Dillman, the competition may be fierce. As of last month, there were 30 city-manager positions up for grabs statewide, he said.

“The environment is saturated with vacancies, and you need to be cognizant of that,” Dillman.

Last month, Westbrook announced his retirement from the position he has held since 1994. He will step down in March of 2005.

To be continued…

A half-dozen other agenda items didn’t even make the cut in this busy session. A couple of them were deferred to the next regular work session, slated for Oct. 19. (Hard-core city-government watchdogs will have noted that Council has held just one work session a month — instead of the customary two — since February of this year.)

But several other agenda items — a report on panhandling, public drunkenness and graffiti; a review of Unified Development Ordinance amendments; and the next step in developing a watershed-management plan — were instead lumped into a special condensed work session to be held immediately before the Sept. 28 formal session.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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