Asheville City Council

The hopes of many in the crowded Council chamber seemed to be summed up in these words: “This city will never be the same again. We move progressively forward.”

That was part of the invocation given by the Rev. Ann Hardman of the River of Life International church, earning a collective nod of approval from many of those who came to City Hall Dec. 6 to see the swearing in of a new mayor and Council members. Hardman’s word choice was telling. With the election of Robin Cape, the re-election of Holly Jones and the appointment of Bryan Freeborn to serve out the remainder of incoming Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s Council term, the city government seems poised for a leftward shift.

Apart from the occasional resolution recognizing the community service of some local figure or group, City Council meetings are typically short on ritual and pageantry. Perhaps that had something to do with the public’s coming out en masse for the swearing-in ceremony. But whether it was to help usher in Asheville’s first African-American mayor, to greet the new faces on Council, or as a show of support for the also re-elected Carl Mumpower, the crowd had filled the available seats a half-hour before the ceremony started and spilled out into the hallway, where observers craned their necks for a better view through the doorway.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that those who don’t vote for you, who don’t support you — they have a voice too,” said Bellamy after taking her oath, encouraging the new Council to recognize that it represents a city of often widely differing opinions.

Bellamy also heralded a shift in City Council’s priorities, ending the meeting by assuring those in attendance that social issues such as unsafe neighborhoods and economic justice would claim center stage.

“These issues must come to the forefront now. We must dramatically expand the vision and work of this Council; no longer will the agenda look like a Planning and Zoning [Commission] agenda,” she proclaimed.

But first there were farewells to be made. “Charlie is one of those people who — it’s not about Charlie,” Council member Jan Davis told outgoing Mayor Charles Worley, adding, “We’re glad to have walked this way with you.”

Both Bellamy and Mumpower also had parting words for Council member Joe Dunn. “I think about his ability to get to the heart of the question,” said Bellamy. “He has the ability to see beyond partisan politics when it counts.”

Mumpower, on the other hand, praised Dunn’s conservatism, which he said had brought “balance to the table” during Council discussions. Both Dunn and Worley mounted unsuccessful campaigns for mayor.

Through all the kind words, however, an unspoken question hovered over the proceedings: Who would occupy the glaringly empty seat between Jones and Newman?

Ending weeks of suspense, Council member Brownie Newman immediately nominated Bryan Freeborn — the fourth-highest vote-getter in the City Council races — and Cape seconded the motion. Freeborn won the seat on a 4-2 vote, with Mumpower and Davis opposed.

Newman’s nomination of Freeborn came in marked contrast to his recent criticism of the candidate for having failed to pay a bill from the city to cover the cost of cleaning up a mural Freeborn and his neighbors had painted on their street in an attempt to slow down speeding drivers (a sort of grassroots traffic-calming measure). Newman had also gone on record endorsing unsuccessful City Council candidate Chris Pelly for the vacant seat, questioning the wisdom of automatically handing it to the next-highest vote-earner. But Newman later told Xpress that, since Freeborn had since paid the city bill, Newman was prepared to lend his support. “I felt like it was time to turn the page and extend the signal that it was time to move on,” he said.

Davis, on the other hand, served up a surprise of a different sort. Some in Freeborn’s camp had been looking to Davis for a “yes” vote. But an op-ed piece written by Pelly in the Asheville Citizen-Times led to pressure from some of Davis’ conservative supporters, he later told Xpress. And when it came time to make a decision, recognizing that Freeborn’s appointment seemed assured, Davis voted “no” as a gesture to his conservative constituency. “I just wanted to make a statement,” he said, adding that Freeborn’s was the first hand he shook at meeting’s end.

As the newest Council member took his seat, he said thanks to “all the people on the campaign who worked hard to put me here.” And to complete the day’s official business, Cape nominated Jones (the highest vote-getter in the Council races) to replace Mumpower as vice mayor. Seconded by Newman, her motion passed 5-1, with Jones abstaining and Mumpower opposed.

The new City Council will hold its first formal session Tuesday, Dec. 13, and then break for the holidays until Jan. 11, 2006.

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