Who says Asheville City Council isn’t more open than it’s ever been? On Dec. 8, Council members dealt with three issues that, in the past, would probably have been shuffled quietly to the side and resolved without any public debate. The first two made it onto Council’s agenda, specifically at the request of Mayor Leni Sitnick. That evening, Council:
• accommodated a group of young people, dressed in grunge fashion, who were seeking permission to serve free meals to the homeless on public property — but who’ve encountered resistance from downtown business owners and city officials [see also Marsha Barber’s coverage of the Food Not Bombs project];
• continued to search for a compromise that balances the right of citizens to address their local government with Council’s need to maintain some control over the length of Council meetings; and
• endorsed a Chamber of Commerce program that could help launch the political careers of individuals seeking to unseat the current members of City Council.
Let them serve food
Granted, some Council members showed signs of discomfort, even disdain for speakers who wore cut-off shorts, sported various body piercings, or admitted they live outdoors and occasionally dumpster-dive in search of food to eat.
Council member Tommy Sellers looked off in the distance when these residents explained the Food Not Bombs free-meal project, but gave his complete attention to a well-dressed businesswoman who spoke against the idea. Council member Barbara Field jumped to the conclusion that the plan involved serving dumpster-scavenged food to the homeless. Council member Chuck Cloninger was reluctant to support their cause — but admitted he’d appear to have a “bah-humbug” attitude if he didn’t.
In the end, however, Council voted 7-0 to temporarily waive the $25-per-event Parks and Rec permit fee, in order to accommodate Food Not Bombs, which has served food to the homeless for the past few years, and which wants to continue doing so downtown.
Woven through the cultural tension, though, was praise for the group’s work.
Mayor Leni Sitnick started things off easily enough, explaining that Food Not Bombs has recently fed as many as 60 people at Pritchard Park — but not without a clash with Parks and Recreation staff over the $25 permit fee. Sitnick said the group can’t afford to pay the fee each time it serves food, noting that other groups have approached the city with similar concerns about the cost of using city facilities. Having already discussed the issue with city staff, Sitnick reported, “We have a street-preacher permit with no fee. Perhaps we should include a street-feeding permit. … There is a precedent.”
Sitnick suggested allowing Food Not Bombs to continue serving food, while staff work up a written policy.
That opened the door to a spiritual debate involving, among other things, concerns about sanitation, legal liability and litter — as well as the need for a consistent city policy.
City Attorney Bob Oast responded that he didn’t think the city would be liable if someone contracted food poisoning, stressing that the Buncombe County Health Department is responsible for such matters.
And Food Not Bombs member Jared Taber pointed out that the group serves vegan meals, which do not contain meat or dairy products, and therefore pose fewer health risks. “Salmonella doesn’t grow on eggplant,” he said.
Field also worried that Council might be setting a precedent, noting that another group had requested a discount on a community-center rental. “But I was told that wasn’t possible,” she said.
“I never said that wasn’t possible,” replied Sitnick, explaining that she had suggested that the issue be sent to Council’s Fees-and-Charges subcommittee.
Taking a cue from that idea, Sellers suggested that the Food Not Bombs request be turned over to that committee, as well.
Council member Earl Cobb agreed, adding that city staff should be given a chance to consider the legal issues.
Battery Hills Association President Regina Tranthan urged Council to take a closer look at the issues before making a decision, citing merchants’ concerns about litter and public health, as well as the potential negative effects on business.
In response, Taber suggested that Food Not Bombs return to City/County Plaza, where it has served food in the past, and where there’s less direct impact on businesses.
Then Cobb made a motion to waive the fee for the time being, until the issue has been discussed by the fees-and-charges subcommittee; it was seconded by Tomes.
Council member Chuck Cloninger wanted to know if the motion meant the city would waive the event fee for everyone.
No, just groups feeding the homeless at City/County Plaza, Sitnick assured him.
Cloninger also urged Council to create a uniform policy about permits.
After further discussion, it was time to vote, and Cobb’s motion passed 7-0.
A lesson in political support
A motion with no second dies on the floor. That’s what happened to Mayor Sitnick’s suggestion that Council members do away with their recently imposed limit on the number of speakers allowed to address an unannounced issue during the public-comment period at the end of meetings. “I may get beat up on this, but I’d like to open it up again,” she said.
Sitnick’s was the lone opposing vote when Council adopted the rule, which had been pushed by Cloninger and adopted a few weeks after a large contingent of pro-cannabis advocates filled Council chambers with a long line of speakers who asked the city not to enforce anti-marijuana laws. Council’s new rule sets time limits on groups addressing any issue not already on the agenda — allowing either ten minutes for one spokesperson, or three speakers at three minutes each.
Did Council members want to reconsider? Sitnick, who had insisted on placing the item on the agenda for reconsideration, explained that she was generally satisfied with the time limits on each speaker, but thought it undemocratic to limit how many people can speak.
For several long moments, not a one of her fellow Council members said a word.
Then O.T. Tomes asked for clarification on what she was asking.
And Barbara Field summarized what she’d learned about Cincinnati’s public-speaker rules, which she’d downloaded from that city’s Web site: Speakers must fill out cards listing their names and addresses and the issue they wish to address; there’s a two-minute limit on speakers; and no one is allowed to use vulgar language or make personal attacks. She quoted the Cincinnati Web page: “Speaking before Council is a privilege, not a right.”
Field expressed concern that easing the rule might allow a large group to “control” the Council meeting and the discussion on a particular issue, stressing that there are “so many” ways to contact Council members — via telephone, the Internet, by fax or in writing — Field said she gets, on average, 15 e-mails, two to three letters, and nearly 20 phone calls every day on city issues.
Sitnick asked Field — in light of her eight years on Council — how often Council’s public-comment rules had been abused.
“Very rarely,” replied Field, adding that the new policy allows Council to waive the speaker restrictions, if members want to hear more about a topic.
But keeping an open-speaker policy, Sitnick insisted, “just further enhances people’s ability to participate in their government. … Public participation is crucial to the way I feel we should conduct city government.”
Vice Mayor Hay noted that, in all his years on Council, the only time there had been a problem was when the cannabis supporters wanted to speak about an issue over which most Council members felt they had no authority. Having a time-limit and speaker-limit policy “gives us some control,” said Hay. And it tells speakers to get their thoughts in order.
Tomes — ever the mediator — came to Sitnick’s aid, interjecting that he supported her open-door approach.
“But we do have an open-door policy,” Field declared.
Limiting the speakers does restrict public participation, insisted Sitnick. Council can waive that limit — “but who do you waive it for?” she asked.
The city charter requires that people be given a reasonable opportunity to speak, Earl Cobb pointed out, claiming that the new policy does that. He added that he would be amenable to lowering the time limit allowed for a group spokesperson, from 10 minutes down to five. (Sitnick had suggested lowering it to eight, along with dropping the limit on number of speakers).
Cobb then suggested holding a work-session discussion on the issue, but no fellow Council members picked up on that idea.
Chuck Cloninger — who had complained when cannabis advocates addressed Council and, subsequently, sponsored the new public-comment rule — said Council had come up with a reasonable compromise after discussing the issue several months ago.
But Tomes said he thought Council members’ fears of losing control of meetings were groundless. “I haven’t seen the kind of abuse you think is out there waiting for us,” he said, reiterating his desire to leave the limits up to Sitnick’s discretion.
Homeless advocate Mickey Mahaffey also spoke on the issue, saying he believes city government “is much more open than it ever has been.” But as more and more people wish to speak out and participate in governmental deliberations, time limits and speaker restrictions don’t always allow full discussion of an issue. “How do we have better access?” he asked. “How do we approach you?”
“We all have phone numbers,” replied Sitnick, suggesting that he call and make an appointment. Although Council members are busy with their regular jobs, she said, they’ll make time to meet with constituents.
Tomes said he had quickly learned, after getting elected, to manage his time. “I’m not embarrassed to say, ‘I just have five or 10 minutes to see you,” he said, promising to hear out anyone who needs to meet with him about an issue.
Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods Vice President David Whitley emphasized, “A lot of people are scared to death to come up here and speak.” He also took issue with the idea that speaking before Council is a privilege, rather than a right.
Field stressed that the privilege idea was Cincinnati’s — their city charter doesn’t guarantee public comment, as Asheville’s does.
City resident Ukiah Morrison reported that he has always found Sitnick willing to meet with him in her office. But it is “daunting” to speak at Council meetings, he said.
Field insisted that all Council members are accessible and said she gets the most out of one-on-one meetings with constituents. “I can’t tell you the number of people who stop me on the street. They’ll tell me about some pothole or other, and I’ll write it down and give it to the city manager,” Field said.
“Do you fill all those potholes, Jim?” Sitnick teased City Manager Westbrook. Seeing his momentarily speechlessness, Sitnick went on to say that she appreciated Field’s and other Council members’ points — but she still hoped for a return to Council’s original policy, which didn’t limit the number of speakers on an issue. She asked if anyone wished to present a motion to that effect.
Tomes so moved.
Sitnick then looked left and right at her fellow Council members and saw no response. “We have a motion and no second,” she said. And so the issue died.
The nonpolitical Political Institute
The first rule of politics? It’s OK to change your mind.
One week after declaring that he couldn’t vote either for or against allowing City Manager Jim Westbrook to speak at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s 1999 Political Institute, Asheville City Council member Earl Cobb declared on Dec. 8 that he would support it. “I’ve been assured this is a non-political Political Institute,” explained Cobb, who, the previous week, had voiced concern that the Chamber-sponsored event would ultimately train candidates to run against him, Tommy Sellers and O.T. Tomes, whose terms on Council are up next year.
Sellers couldn’t suppress a little laugh at Cobb’s “nonpolitical” remark. According to Chamber representatives, the institute is designed to inform Chamber members, as well as any others who might enroll, about the workings of city, county and state governments, and local boards and commissions — and how to run for office or volunteer for a position on a board or commission.
Despite Sellers’ laugh, Cobb continued, “I’m going to take that [assurance] at face value.”
Politics aside, Cobb added that he does have a problem with the high cost of the Institute ($295 for Chamber members, $395 for nonmembers) and its class-size limit of 25 participants. “That’s a little too exclusive,” said Cobb. He challenged the Chamber to reduce the cost and allow more participants. He also challenged the media to attend the Institute and report on it.
While he was at it, Cobb also mentioned, “I don’t appreciate anyone trying to put me in a special box — pro-neighborhood, anti-business.” Cobb pointed out that he worked in the business community for 30 years and supports business. As for the institute, “I support anything that would enlighten our citizens on the political process.”
Sellers said that he shared some of Cobb’s concerns, but had been satisfied by the Chamber’s defense of the institute.
Tomes said he would be a little more supportive if he “knew [the Chamber] was going to try to include the grassroots people.” He also took note of the program’s high cost and low enrollment limit.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay suggested that the institute be broadcast on the city’s new government-access channel (Channel 20 on InterMedia’s cable service).
And for his part, Westbrook stressed that his participation was limited to “nonpolitical” issues: local-government operations and the city council/city manager form of government.
In the Chamber’s defense, Clay Dover said a task force has been working on the Institute concept for two years. “This is our first step in trying to get people more informed and to see who’s interested in serving on boards and commissions,” said Dover. The cost, he added, covers speaker fees, meals and forum materials. The limit on participants is due to limited seating at the facility hosting the institute.
As for the cost, Dover said, anyone interested in running for office wouldn’t see it as significant.