Short of tossing the six candidates into a mud-wrestling pit and letting them slug it out, how do you make that final cut and pick your favorite three? You do what they all assure us they’d be so good at, if elected: You listen to what they have to say (though what you hear, of course, may also be a function of your preconceived notions and perceptions about each candidate).
As candidate Jim Ellis says his wife told him, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
Nevertheless, as a follow-up to our coverage of the Oct. 5 primary — when 18 city residents vied to make the first cut — Mountain Xpress reinterviewed the top vote-getters: Jim Ellis, Brownie Newman, Brian Peterson, O.T. Tomes, Terry Whitmire and Charles Worley. On Tuesday, Nov. 2, three of them will be drafted to serve four-year terms on City Council. Each candidate was quizzed on the following topics:
• Pack Square — its pending repairs and future as a public space.
• Downtown parking — rates, decks and new alternatives.
• Asheville’s permitting process and fees — responding to developers’ complaints.
• City streets and sidewalks — meeting the need for improvements.
• The failed $18 million parks-and-greenways bond proposal — what’s next?
• The politicization of zoning issues — looking to Asheville’s future, not special-interest pressures.
• Accessibility — making Council members and meetings more accessible to average citizens.
• Diversity — encouraging and appointing women, minorities, young people and working-class residents to serve on city boards and commissions.
• Management style — what’s Council’s role in managing the city?
Here’s what the candidates had to say:
• “Back when I was growing up, Pack Square was that public park everyone came to. I would like to revive that,” says Jim Ellis about the repairs needed to shore up underground holes found recently underneath Pack Square — and a movement to redesign the space, which was donated to the city by George W. Pack at the turn of the century, expressly for public use. Not so many years ago, Pack Square had public restrooms — as many European cities still do, Ellis notes. Such facilities, he says, have attendants, and a small fee is charged. “We’re human beings,” remarks Ellis, suggesting that downtown merchants could help raise funds for such a service — or for bringing back another one the city once provided: an employee who keeps the sidewalks free of cigarette butts and other litter. “I support getting more people living and visiting downtown. [That means] we need to provide more public spaces and more public services.”
• On downtown parking: “I support [building] a new parking deck for the Grove Arcade,” Ellis declares, mentioning that the historic structure is due to reopen next spring. “I’d also consider looking at the parking needs in other parts of downtown; there’s not sufficient parking around Pack Square,” he adds. And downtown employees, too, need somewhere to park; perhaps the city could create partnerships with the businesses that employ them, and come up with a solution, Ellis observes. He also suggests upgrading the existing parking decks — improving lighting, for instance — to encourage people to use them. City Council should also make hourly parking-deck rates cheaper than parking-meter rates, to promote deck use (instead of the matching 60-cent fees current Council members instituted recently).
• “The city needs to consider not duplicating the [economic-development] efforts of Advantage West, the Chamber [of Commerce] and Buncombe County. I would like us to pool our resources, [and] I would look at redirecting some of the funds saved … for funding more street-and-sidewalks improvements,” Ellis comments.
• On parks: “We need to scale down the [parks-and-greenways] bond a bit and get support from other groups — maybe involve all of [Buncombe] County,” says Ellis about the bond proposal nixed by city voters this past May. “I do not feel City Council did as good a job as they could have to convince people how important parks and greenways are for Asheville. You’ve got to have them for economic development,” he says, suggesting that Council seek foundation grants, state monies and federal funds.
• As for complaints that the city’s permitting process can be time-consuming and inconsistent for residents and developers alike, “Some of that is training and commitment on the part of city staff. Their purpose is to serve the developer,” Ellis declares.
• “People need to be made totally aware of what’s going on,” he says about conflicts between developers and neighborhood advocates. And all sides need to have “faith in public officials,” when zoning and development issues are considered at public hearings. “Then, if you don’t like what they’ve done — you make a change at voting time.”
• On accessible government: “Council should do more work in work sessions, and reserve formal sessions for more public comment — and less city-staff presentations,” suggests Ellis, as a way to make meetings more accessible.
• On encouraging diversity: “We have to make sure people are welcome at City Council [meetings]. City Council members need to reach out, go to churches, community centers, civic organizations and solicit boards-and-commissions applicants.”
• “There does seem to be too much time spent on details, and not enough on establishing policies and long-range plans for the city,” Ellis concludes about Council’s management of city business.
Jim Ellis stats
• Precincts won (top vote-getter at that precinct): Murphy
• Second-place finishes (#2 vote-getter at that precinct): T.C. Roberson, Skyland Methodist
• Primary: sixth place, 2,469 votes
• “For the short term, we probably need another parking deck downtown, and we need incentives to get people using the [existing] decks,” says Brownie Newman. He mentions making the first hour in the decks free, or offering discounts for city residents or downtown employees. But Newman, who favors mixed-use, high-density development in Asheville, stresses the bigger picture: “Our ever-increasing traffic and parking problems are a result of urban sprawl. … We need to encourage development patterns [that allow] a larger percentage of people [to] walk to work or school or shopping. … Sprawl and public-transit [systems] are incompatible. [To make public transit] work, you’ve got to make it easier and more convenient than driving.”
• On permitting procedures: “If we’re going to have rules, they need to be clear and consistently applied,” declares Newman, saying many builders have told him that different city inspectors give them different sets of requirements. “We’ve got to get together with business leaders and discuss what creates the most headaches [in permitting],” he urges. “We need the city to have more of the attitude, ‘How can we help?'”
• “We have a huge need for sidewalk-and-street improvements,” says Newman, arguing that “promoting revitalization in our existing neighborhoods will build the city’s tax base, so that we can afford to build sidewalks and pave streets.” He also recommends “getting the tourists to invest in taking care of our infrastructure. This means raising the hotel-room tax to levels equivalent to other cities. The hotel people won’t like it, but it’s in the long-term interest of the citizens.” Notes Newman: “There are only 20 or so hotel owners; then there are the rest of us. City Council needs to provide leadership on this.”
• On the parks bond proposal: “I would have put it on the regular election ballot, [instead of a special election],” says Newman, who favors putting another, scaled-down proposal before the voters, “because the needs aren’t going to go away.” He adds that he would support a “quality-of-life” bond package that would address affordable housing, street-and-sidewalk repairs and parks needs.
• “There are good reasons why people are afraid of higher-density [development] or affordable housing. Our history [in Asheville] is of horrible development in these areas. People look at the projects and think, ‘This is not what I want in my neighborhood.’ But we can create affordable housing that fits in with the scale and character of our neighborhoods. It’s the right thing to do for our lower-income residents,” Newman declares.
• “Each group’s concerns are important, and they should be heard. Everyone thinks the other group is a ‘special-interest’ group. … But, ultimately, every decision [Council] makes is going to have to take into account what’s best for Asheville. We need to think beyond the next four years, to the next 20 or 30. … The path we’re on now is really unhealthy. … Our working people can’t afford to live in the city.”
• “If retired people and those who are independently wealthy are the only ones who can serve on City Council, how are we going to have a Council that represents the city?” wonders Newman. As for city boards and commissions, he feels they “should represent the best of what the community has to offer, and we haven’t always done that in the past. … How many people, do you think, who’ve served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission have not been homeowners? My guess would be zero,” concludes Newman, urging better representation for renters and working-class residents.
• On accessible government: “Having four- and five-hour meetings is the worst thing you could do to encourage public input. People can’t sit through that. Government has to be more efficient. [Buncombe] County commissioners don’t go on for four hours, but people seem to have an opportunity to speak [at their meetings].”
• “Council should put more emphasis on setting goals, and less on controlling every little minutiae. The job doesn’t pay enough for that.”
Brownie Newman stats
• Precincts won: North Asheville Community Center
• Second-place finish: Unitarian Church
• Primary finish: fifth place, 2,496 votes
• “A park-and-ride facility would be something to look into [for downtown and other business centers], particularly as Interstate 240 and I-26 gets widened and reworked. … But it’s an odd thing to complain about, having too many people downtown. That’s great,” says Brian Peterson, reflecting on downtown parking problems. As for downtown parking rates, Peterson argues that Council shouldn’t have waited 10 years or more to raise them, and should have considered incremental increases many years ago. As for encouraging the use of parking decks: “If the goal was to get more people parking in the decks, we’re not getting any closer to that goal, with Council [recently] setting equal rates.” Peterson suggests creating a district tax for downtown, such as a half-cent sales-tax increase — applicable to downtown only — that would be dedicated to such downtown needs as parking, infrastructure or green spaces.
• On the permitting process: Peterson recommends having the city manager and department heads scrutinize the current process and fees to try to streamline things. “We seem to have department conflicts and overlaps,” he notes, recalling the case where a neighborhood group wanted to sponsor a block party, only to learn that they had to consult with both the city’s Traffic Engineering Division and the Parks and Recreation Department — and pay separate fees to both. “They had to go to two separate departments for a simple event,” Peterson complains.
• On affordable housing: Developers, says Peterson, “complain [that fees and permitting procedures] are making it difficult to build affordable housing. But the county doesn’t have those regulations — why aren’t they building nice, affordable housing in the county? They’re not. They’re putting in mobile homes or building hundreds of $200,000 homes.” He argues that the city can make “modest improvements” in the permitting process — “But that’s not the sole reason for the lack of affordable housing in Asheville.”
• How to do more street-and-sidewalk improvements? “I’m not sure,” Peterson replies. Then he suggests “better management of those projects — not repaving a street, then two weeks later, having the work torn up because the Water Authority or MSD digs it up.” Council, he believes, should find out whether residents and property owners are willing to pay more for streets and sidewalks and other infrastructure needs.
• On the parks proposal: “The parks bond failed because there wasn’t enough public education. Next time, we need to launch a year-long education effort,” says Peterson.
• “All the neighborhood groups feel the businesses have too much influence, and all the business groups feel the neighborhood groups have too much influence,” he observes about what some have called the politicization of zoning and development issues. “That means we’re actually somewhere in between, in Council’s decisions. I have just one word for the [complainers]: democracy. Public debate is healthy. … It’s not fair for developers or affordable-housing advocates to say Council gives in to a vocal minority [neighborhoods]. Whatever the issue, I would support more public input, more public debate,” proclaims Peterson.
• On accessible government: Peterson advocates changing board-and-commission meetings and Council sessions “from daytime, working hours to later in the evening, such as moving the formal-session starting time from 5 p.m. to 5:30 or 6.” He also notes that Council has gotten to the point where work-session tasks should be parceled out to subcommittees. “We could get more done and open up the process to the public.”
• On managing city business: “The key is holding [City Manager] Jim Westbrook and city staff more accountable,” asserts Peterson. “I see City Council members as ombudsmen: Someone calls me up about a problem, I call the appropriate staff who deal with the issue, and I follow up on it. I see City Council as the conduit for the average citizen being able to reach city government.”
• “City voters should compare what candidates promise they’ll do with what they’ve actually been doing for the past few years,” Peterson recommends.
Brian Peterson stats
• Precincts won: Hall Fletcher School, Accelerated Learning Center, Vance School, West Asheville Community Center, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Haw Creek Elementary School.
• Second-place finish: Sand Hill-Venable School, Charles C. Bell School.
• Primary finish: second place, 3,171 votes.
• On Pack Square: “One thing we have to be intentional about is making Asheville a more user-friendly city, by developing parks and green spaces and trails. … When it comes to looking at repairs to [Pack Square], I look at it holistically: If Asheville’s to be a vibrant city, we’ll either deal with the whole quality-of-life issue, or continue to deal with things in piecemeal fashion,” says Council candidate (and current member) O.T. Tomes.
• “We must address the parking needs [downtown] and all over the city, but we’ve also got to look at traffic. With our projected growth in the next 20 years, we’ve got to be proactive,” he states. As for Council’s having set identical hourly rates for city parking meters and decks: “I was committed to making [the rates] different. But there was a recommendation to make [meters] $1 an hour. I was never for that. I would rather raise [rates] incrementally than make a big jump. The 60-cent rate was a compromise. But a [cheaper] rate for decks would have been better,” Tomes says. “We’re going to have to revisit the concept. I’ve seen other cities successfully create a park-and-ride or shuttle system.”
• On the permitting process: “Get rid of the bureaucracy.”
• Both parks and infrastructure needs could be funded through a “special option” sales tax, similar to what the city of Savannah has done, proposes Tomes: Council could persuade state legislators to institute a 1-cent sales tax (authorized, by referendum vote, by Asheville residents) directed toward specific projects, such as parks, the Civic Center, streets and sidewalks or parking decks. “With Asheville the tourist mecca it is, we are poised to tap into some resources that way. It’s an alternative to a property-tax [increase],” he says. Tomes also suggests seeking funding from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the federal ISTEA program and grants.
• “We need to revisit the parks-and-greenways bond, but we need to do a better job of educating the citizenry — by Council members and city staff going to neighborhoods, civic groups, the media. … But here again, we err if we focus on just parks and greenways, and ignore infrastructure. We have to present a whole package,” Tomes observes.
• Are zoning decisions politicized? “I’ve always tried to listen to both sides of the issue, whether it was neighborhood groups or businesspeople. … We’re going to have to work on some attitude and turf issues. I’d hate for us to become an elitist city, where we have ‘desirables’ and ‘undesirables.’ We’re all human beings. We know we need to deal with affordable housing. We need a process that’s convenient for those willing to build affordable housing,” says Tomes. He emphasizes the need for developers, housing advocates, businesses and neighborhoods to meet, early in the process. “In Asheville, it’s too divisive. No one brings humility to the table.”
• “When the opportunity presents itself, I’ve always made a point to create diversity on city boards and commissions. And when I say ‘diversity,’ I don’t just mean African-Americans. I mean everyone — other minorities and more women,” Tomes comments.
• When asked about his often-observed tendency to close his eyes and appear to nod off at meetings, Tomes replies that it’s “part of my demeanor.” He explains that, often, he’s just returned from some “difficult pastoral situation, such as a funeral or illness in the family. I have to close my eyes and reset myself, and put on a new hat. Sometimes I pray for guidance. You want to make sure you have a clear mind.”
O.T. Tomes stats
• Precincts won: Shiloh Community Center.
• Second place finish: William Wolcott Building, William Randolph School, Claxton School, Kenilworth Presbyterian Church, Livingston Community Center, Asheville Junior High, Accelerated Learning Center.
• Primary results: Fourth place, 3,052 votes.
• “Before we decide [what to do with Pack Square], we need to talk to people and find out what the merchants want and what the overall community wants,” says Terry Whitmire, who favors getting people together and brainstorming possible solutions.
• On parking: “The city did promise Grove Arcade parking,” notes Whitmire, adding, “Parking problems are a sign of a vibrant downtown.” Then she suggests: “We should seek a collaborative effort with Bell South and the Asheville Citizen-Times for a parking deck. And a park-and-ride service … helps with the environment, because you don’t have so many people in cars.”
• On the permitting process: “Council members can work with department heads to improve the situation, and we can see what other cities are doing. There have been improvements, but there are still problems,” says Whitmire.
• “The [$18 million] parks-and-greenways bond may have been too much,” she reflects. “At the forums I’ve attended, people say, ‘We need park improvements, but — we also need affordable housing and infrastructure.’ They see those things as more important.” Whitmire says she’d support a quality-of-life bond issue that would provide funding for all three needs. “We also need to look at collaborating more with Buncombe County,” she adds.
• How can Council balance the needs of vocal groups in the community with the need to promote Asheville’s long-term vitality? “We need to walk the middle path,” says Whitmire, “to make sure we’re meeting the needs for the future. … Builders need to reach out and get the buy-in of the community before they break ground. … People want to be part of the process.” And she insists that getting neighborhood advocates to accept multifamily development and affordable housing is “a matter of design. It should be mixed in [to our neighborhoods], not segregated. … It should blend in with the neighborhood.”