Asheville City Council

The Grinch may have swiped Christmas from the tenants of 135 Merrimon Ave., but Asheville City Council members came up with their own spirited remedy: In a unanimous vote, they allotted up to $30,000 in relocation assistance for the 30 tenants who lived in the condemned structure. Council committed an additional $200 per tenant for counseling services.

The funds come from the city’s share of federal Community Development Block Grant funds, said Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan. The monies will be administered by the Affordable Housing Coalition instead of being handed directly to the displaced residents.

“It’s Christmas. There’s no time to waste,” said Mayor Leni Sitnick.

Council members also wasted no time attacking the home’s former owner, Bob Janney, accusing him of having taken rent payments from tenants after he’d declared bankruptcy and the Hendersonville investment group TM Equity had assumed ownership of the house. Council member Barbara Field also accused him of intercepting tenants’ mail: “TM Equity sent eviction notices [in early November]; those were intercepted by [Janney]. The tenants never received them.”

Janney may also have continued to represent himself to tenants as the owner of the house, although TM Equity legally assumed ownership on Nov. 8.

Council members seemed unaware that Janney was sitting in the back of the first-floor conference room at City Hall, listening to every accusation. He never spoke or made his presence known, and the attacks continued.

Mayor Leni Sitnick repeated a point she’d made on Nov. 28, when Council voted to close the house because of numerous fire-safety and building-safety code violations: Under the terms of the city’s Minimum Housing Code, owners of rental property have had five years to bring their buildings up to code. She reiterated the most serious problems at 135 Merrimon — blocked fire exits and collapsing support beams — declaring, “Poor people deserve to live in safe houses, too.”

TM Equity attorney Marjorie Mann said that, if it were confirmed that Janney had collected rent and intercepted tenants’ mail, “We’ll have him arrested tomorrow.” She had a signed, certified-mail receipt for the November eviction notice, but the signature, she said, is illegible. “TM Equity could give the tenants just 10 days to be out, but [the company’s] not going to do that,” Mann assured Council. “We are trying, in a humane way, to let these people transition out of there.”

Legalities aside, Field reminded Council of the “human issue” — the boarding-house tenants need new homes.

Affordable Housing Coalition Director Karen Kiehna reported that she and her staff have met and are continuing to meet with tenants, helping them apply for suitable housing situations through organizations such as AHOPE and the city Housing Authority. With winter coming on, she urged, “There is no time to waste.”

Field added that a lot of the residents — some elderly, many with various levels of disability — can’t live on their own and can’t afford the average apartment in the area. “You can’t just [find them] an apartment in Fairview. It’s hard to find places [for them], but we can’t continue to let the residents stay in a house that could burn down.”

Council member Ed Hay added that many of the tenants also have other needs, such as food and clothing. He and other Council members urged the public to offer what help they can.

After Council voted to allocate the $36,000 to cover tenants’ relocation costs, Janney quietly left the room. Outside the chamber, he did not deny having collected rent after losing ownership of the property. Janney said the money he collected was used to help provide heat, electricity and food. (Mountain Xpress’ research earlier this month indicated that most of the home’s food is donated, as was some heating oil.)

Janney also said he has spent many years in the ministry (though he declined to mention a specific denomination), saying it’s ironic that he’s now being portrayed “as a slumlord.” According to Janney, “These people [in the house] are unique. I couldn’t charge enough rent to [make improvements]. I had just been trying to make it work, and I couldn’t do that.”

In addition, Janney argued that there’s nothing dangerous about the house, remarking that the fire exits “have been that way for 75 years.” He also denied having intercepted certified mail in November, saying, “I wasn’t there when that happened.”

At this writing, more than a dozen residents remain in the house.

For information about how you can help the tenants, contact the Affordable Housing Coalition at 259-9216.

News flash on public access

How do we get a public-access channel up and running for all of Buncombe County?

That’s the rhetorical question Ruth Lazer posed to Asheville City Council during a Dec. 12 work session. Lazer, who chairs the city’s relatively new Public Access Channel Commission, noted that the first step is understanding what a public-access channel is: “TV by and for the people,” she told Council members. “A public-access channel is the public soapbox of today. It is the forum for community dialogue.”

Presenting locally produced programs featuring local people and highlighting local issues, such channels are independent of corporate influence. That’s precisely the point, but it does present a funding challenge: Where do the city and county find the $200,000 a year that Lazer and other commission members estimate it will take to run a public-access channel?

Combine resources, she urged. In cable-franchise negotiations two years ago, Asheville officials snagged $340,000 for equipment and facilities for the city’s three planned channels, called PEG (public/education/government). And in 2001, county officials will be negotiating a franchise agreement with Charter Communications, she noted. Those talks offer a chance for the county to get some — if not all — of the needed operating funds, she argued.

Lazer also mentioned grants as a potential funding source, adding that if the city donated studio space, it could save up to $20,000 in rent.

With county negotiations expected to stretch into next spring and city staff considering what space may be available, Council should go ahead and create a nonprofit organization that will run the public-access channels, Lazer recommended. She also asked Council to set aside up to $10,000 to hire an expert to assist with the initial planning. Current commission members would serve as the nonprofit’s initial board of directors, and the board could later be expanded to include county appointees, she said.

After a brief discussion, Asheville Council members agreed to support the commission’s recommendations. The $10,000 will be allocated from the city’s contingency fund, city staff indicated.

Council moratorium

Wait until January, Asheville City Council members told supporters of a proposed statewide moratorium on executions.

On Dec. 12, representatives of the local chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty — Noel Nickle, Frank Goldsmith and Scott Barber — asked Council members to pass a resolution asking state legislators to call a moratorium on executions while re-evaluating questions of fairness, inconsistency and racial bias in North Carolina death-penalty cases.

But Council member Hay said he wanted “time to see how other [city residents] feel” about the moratorium.

And Mayor Sitnick asked the three men for more information.

“The system that administers the death penalty is seriously flawed,” argued Barber. Two out of three death-penalty convictions in the U.S. are overturned on appeal, typically because of errors by defense lawyers or misconduct by prosecutors. And in North Carolina, an African-American who commits murder is four times more likely to get the death penalty than a non-African American who commits a similar crime, Barber pointed out.

“I’ll say it: African-Americans usually get the short end of this deal,” proclaimed Council member Terry Bellamy. She said she didn’t need more information, declaring, “My mind’s made up.” Bellamy urged Council to support the resolution, as have several other municipal governments in North Carolina this year.

State legislators won’t formally hear the results of an ongoing death-penalty study until late January at the earliest, Hay argued. He asked that Council consider the resolution after the holidays.

Most Council members appeared to agree.

Nickle noted that 2,000 local signatures had been obtained in support of a Council resolution, with 21,000 collected statewide.

Appointment politics

No one asked for a recount, but it was clear that City Council members were deeply split about a pending appointment to the Metropolitan Sewerage District board.

The resignation of former Assistant City Manager Doug Spell (he took another job) created a vacancy on the board, which includes three city appointees. Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook recommended that City Engineering Director Cathy Ball fill Spell’s term, which runs until 2003.

But Council member Field — while saying she has nothing against Ball — countered that she’d like to delay the appointment until the city hires a new assistant manager and then name that person to the post. The board needs someone with good management skills, which Spell brought to MSD, Field argued.

“Cathy would be able to do the same thing,” responded Westbrook.

Mayor Sitnick said she “deferred to Jim’s judgment” on the appointment, agreeing with Hay’s assessment that a new assistant city manager wouldn’t be up to speed on “the history, the politics, the players.”

Bellamy concurred with Field, who has served as a city appointee to the board for several years.

Council member Brian Peterson and Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger both made pitches for Ball, and when Cloninger called for a show of hands, four Council members — Cloninger, Sitnick, Peterson and Charles Worley — favored naming Ball to the vacant seat.

“If the split is that deep, I’d rather wait [on the appointment],” Worley said about the 4-3 vote.

As the brief debate went on, however, Cloninger turned testy: Failing to make an appointment soon, he noted, leaves “one less [city] vote on MSD.” He also challenged Council members to let Ball be present for further discussion — “so y’all can explain why you don’t have enough confidence in her to appoint her to this board.”

With few other comments, the discussion ended soon after, with no clear indication of what Council will do.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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