Asheville City Council Sept. 27, 2011 meeting
- Bothwell, Davis spar over corruption comments
- Community Relations Council gets contract
- Council approves new financial policy
The biggest news about the Asheville City Council’s Sept. 27 meeting was what played out in the days and hours leading up to it. And it concerned not the weighty matters typically debated but a portion of the agenda not generally noted for controversy: proclamations.
Any local group can request an official proclamation, and the mayor usually approves and reads one or more of them aloud before Council proceeds to its regular business in the high-ceilinged, art deco meeting room on the second floor of City Hall. On Sept. 27, there were three: recognizing Fire Prevention Month, Food Day (devoted to discussing food-security issues) and a celebration by the National Save the Family Now Movement, a Christian organization.
But a fourth event, the Oct. 1 Blue Ridge Pride festival celebrating Asheville's LGBT culture, did not receive the same treatment. When the agenda for the upcoming meeting was made public Sept. 23, the festival’s proclamation was listed under new business, meaning Council would vote on it.
Mayor Terry Bellamy has had a contentious history with initiatives supported by the LGBT community. She voted against domestic-partner benefits in 2010 and against the equality resolution this February. In both cases, Bellamy denounced the proposals, claiming she was being attacked for her personal beliefs.
Those votes also left the mayor somewhat isolated on Council. Council member Jan Davis initially voted against domestic-partner benefits but then changed his stance, supporting both those measures. Council member Bill Russell was absent from both votes, but he’s publicly supported Blue Ridge Pride, helping fund the group’s application to join the Ashevile Area Chamber of Commerce. All other current Council members supported both proposals.
And though Bellamy did read a proclamation recognizing LGBT History Month on June 14, she did it in midmonth rather than in advance, which also sparked some controversy, given her voting history (see commentary, “How Do You Spell Respect?” June 29 Xpress).
On Sept. 14, Russell emailed Phil Kleisler, the city's business-services manager, expressing support for the proclamation Blue Ridge Pride had submitted and asking that his endorsement be passed on to the mayor. Bellamy replied the same day, saying she would place the item on the agenda under new business.
“Mayor, I am not requesting it be put on the agenda for a Council vote,” Russell replied in a Sept. 15 email. “I was simply expressing my support and sharing that many Council members (if not 5) would like to see what I see as a harmless proclamation being read at the next meeting. Doesn't need to be politicized. Just some good folks who many feel could use some recognition.”
The day before the meeting, Russell told Xpress that Bellamy had “twisted my words. I didn't say 'Put this under new business'; it was just my support for a proclamation. So I corrected her, saying that was her call."
"We need to keep the wedges out of politics, in my opinion," he continued. "This is what I did not want to happen: for it to become some media thing."
Down to the wire
Nonetheless, a “media thing” is exactly what happened. Members of the public weighed in via online comments and Twitter, most supporting the proclamation and criticizing Bellamy. Council member Gordon Smith said he supported Russell's stance.
Then, mere hours before the meeting, Blue Ridge Pride sent out an announcement stating that Bellamy had met with the group's representatives and then signed the proclamation.
In the announcement, Ashley Arrington, the nonprofit’s community-outreach coordinator, said Bellamy had initially refused to sign the document because she mistakenly believed it had been requested by the same group that had asked for the June proclamation, citing a general city practice of limiting groups to one such official recognition per year.
“Shortly after that decision was made, Mayor Bellamy reached out to Blue Ridge Pride to discuss the circumstances and decision, and we accepted that invitation to meet today,” the announcement said. “After clarifying that Blue Ridge Pride was not the requester of the proclamation in June and much discussion about LGBTQ issues in our community, Mayor Bellamy was glad to sign the proclamation and did so immediately.”
But Bellamy, noted Arrington, also said she couldn’t add the proclamation to the printed agenda at the last minute — and thus couldn’t read it at the meeting.
Asked whether such late additions are legal, City Attorney Bob Oast said: “The mayor, in our charter, is recognized as the head of the government for ceremonial purposes, which has been interpreted to mean issuing proclamations. With respect to anything on the agenda, we've got a process where we like to get these things as far in advance as we can, whether it's a proclamation or a regular agenda item.”
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Arrington remarked on the controversy, saying, “While we understand the policy of not more than one proclamation a year for an organization, we were still saddened by the misinterpretation that we had previously submitted a proclamation. We were thrilled when the mayor signed the proclamation for LGBTQ History Month; we were also pleased that the mayor requested a meeting with us to have open discussion and dialogue about this particular proclamation. The circumstances that led to this meeting are unfortunate, but what came from this is a win for our community and our city.”
Arrington also noted that she’d found some common ground with Bellamy on issues such as preventing bullying and discrimination against LGBT city employees.
“There are some people who believe the proclamation signed by the mayor isn't enough,” added Arrington, “and while we aren't in the position to say what is and isn't enough, Blue Ridge Pride does believe this is a great step in the right direction.”
At the end of her remarks, Arrington herself read the proclamation aloud.
Leicester resident Alan Ditmore noted that Asheville profits from its LGBT population. “Every little town in the South is going to bend over backwards for the family-tourist dollar,” he said. “But Asheville is the only ‘cesspool of sin’ between Harrah's and Daytona Beach.”
Charlotte Anderson thanked Council members for the proclamation, saying, “As someone who recently moved to Asheville, the gay community has been part of the reason I stay. And I like to think that the dollars I spend in this town and the purposes I stay here will be endorsed by the City Council.”
Smith subsequently summed up the process that led to the proclamation as “overcoming misunderstanding.”
The ABCs of corruption
But Council members Davis and Cecil Bothwell were apparently less successful in overcoming misunderstanding.
Bothwell had recently called on the Asheville Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to resign after allegations of corruption came to light. In his public statement (which was posted on the Xpress website Sept. 24), Bothwell also singled out Davis, whose tire business had done maintenance on ABC Commission-owned vehicles while he was serving as Council’s liaison to the board. “The appearance of impropriety is unfortunate but clear,” said Bothwell.
Responding on the website, Davis asserted that the contracts were fair and at market rate, saying he’d checked with the city attorney first to ensure that there was no legal conflict of interest.
At the Council meeting, Bothwell told Davis: “I regret that Councilman Davis interpreted what I had to say about the ABC Board this weekend as a suggestion of corruption on his part. I didn't mean to imply that, and I didn't say that. I regretted the appearance in the report I read.
“I was sorry for the appearance,” Bothwell continued. “I wasn't accusing you, and I'm not accusing you now. I do not think you are corrupt.”
Davis, however, wasn’t satisfied. “I will accept that as maybe a form of apology; I'm not so sure,” he said. “Regrettably, when one casts aspersions on someone's character, integrity, business, their way of earning a livelihood — including the manner that you did, just putting it into print in the Xpress — I had no choice but to respond.
“But you got your picture on the front page of today's paper,” Davis continued. “I think that's probably what you were after. I don't think that was an apology, but I'll accept it, and we'll continue to work together.”
On Sept. 27, Council members also: • Approved, on a 5-2 vote, a $45,000 contract with the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council to investigate and mediate discrimination complaints. The embattled organization has recently had tax troubles and lost its status with the federal government to investigate local fair-housing cases, but Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said the group has been cleaning house and is capable of carrying out the duties in question. Russell and Council member Esther Manheimer voted against the measure, citing ongoing concerns about the group's financial woes. • Approved a new financial policy on a 6-1 vote with Bellamy opposed. Council refused the mayor’s request for a separate vote on a clause allowing the use of excess reserve funds to cover one-time expenses under certain circumstances, which she did not support.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.