Sticking to their guns

“We’re going to have to pay up, guys.”

— Council member Terry Bellamy on the need to raise the salary for the new city manager

Despite making progress on two high-profile issues, Asheville City Council members came away with mixed feelings about the overall effectiveness of their annual retreat.

Council did take action on the quest for a new city manager and on dissolving the Water Agreement with Buncombe County. But some questioned the value of the team-building exercises that took up much of the time on Friday.

“I would have liked to have spent more time talking about issues instead of interpersonal stuff,” Council member Brownie Newman told Xpress. The 24-hour retreat was held Dec. 10-11 at the Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock.

Council member Jan Davis, on the other hand, said having a chance to get away and sit down with other Council members — especially in a social environment — was invaluable. “There’s more to it than just the tangible parts,” Davis said later.

Typically, the annual retreat is used to hash out priorities for the coming year. But this time, Council members devoted the first day to considering the ways they work together — or fail to, including the communication problems that impede their ability to collaborate productively.

Facilitators Bob Matson and Tyler St. Clair of the University of Virginia reassured Council members that it’s normal to disagree, both about issues and about how to get things done. “If I see a council that moves hand in hand all the time, I’d worry about them,” said St. Clair.

At press time, the exact cost of the retreat had not been tallied, but city Budget Director Ben Durant said it was expected to cost about $10,000.

Agreeing to disagree

The first day’s discussion was intended to help Council members find common ground, both on communication strategies and on Council’s overall role. In fact, however, the exercise seemed chiefly to highlight the seven individuals’ philosophical and practical differences.

As Matson and St. Clair took notes at an easel — sometimes seeming to finesse what was said in an attempt to forge consensus — Council members were asked to give examples of the communication methods they use and what might be done to make them work better. City leaders were also encouraged to consider the roles they play, both as individuals and as a group.

When Council member Joe Dunn commented that Council should “move the city forward for the betterment of the majority versus just a few special-interest groups,” for example, St. Clair wrote, “Keep the whole in mind while not forgetting the parts.”

Despite the facilitators’ best efforts, however, Council members generally stood their ground — and their politics.

Council member Holly Jones challenged the idea that Council has been performing efficiently — and questioned whether that was even her primary job.

“Is it my role to be part of a high-performance Council?” wondered Jones. “Or is it my role to represent the people?”

And Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower stressed that on key issues, he feels a moral obligation to keep pushing for what he believes is right, even after Council has voted on the matter. Citing the example of his proposed hard-drug crackdown, which was defeated on a 4-3 vote in favor of a more holistic approach, Mumpower declared, “The drug vote — to let go of that vote would personally be wrong.”

The ensuing discussion of this Council’s tendency to produce narrowly split votes led city Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford to comment that a string of 4-3 decisions can be frustrating for city staff, because a single change in the makeup of Council can redirect an entire long-term initiative.

In the end, about the only thing Council members seemed to agree on was that they’ll probably keep on fighting over the fundamental issues that have divided them in the past.

Oh manager, who art thou?

City Council also attended to some more immediate business during the retreat, such as choosing a company to help them select a new city manager. Jim Westbrook has given notice and will leave in March, after 11 years on the job.

Out of five consulting firms recommended by the North Carolina League of Municipalities, Council settled on Slavin Management of Norcross, Ga. But while Council members talked about the things that make Asheville attractive to job applicants, Westbrook took a different tack, asserting that the city will have to significantly increase the manager’s salary in order to attract top-notch candidates. Westbrook makes $131,483 a year, according to the city’s Human Resources Office.

“This is going to be a huge sticking point with me,” protested Council member Holly Jones. “I am not going to go down this road easily.”

Westbrook also emphasized how fierce the competition is for the best candidates. And as the aging baby boomers begin leaving the workplace, he added, 30 percent of city managers nationwide are expected to retire within the next 10 years, leaving an enormous gap to fill.

Council member Terry Bellamy advised her colleagues to bite the bullet, observing, “We’re going to have to pay up, guys.”

But Jones steadfastly maintained that Asheville is its own biggest attraction, with amenities that outweigh the higher salaries paid by other cities. She also questioned the value and motives of a candidate who holds out for a bigger paycheck. “At the end of the day, if they come here because they get more, I don’t know if I want them,” Jones declared.

And though Council can take whatever approach it wants to in choosing a new city manager — including conducting the whole process in-house — Westbrook emphasized the advantages of having an outside firm do the dirty work. The process, including background checks, requires a great deal of time and effort, he said, which Council would be better off spending on other matters. The selection of Slavin came with Westbrook’s endorsement.

Mayor Charles Worley told Xpress later that Slavin has since been contacted, and that company representatives will meet with Council members soon to determine their priorities for a city manager. Although the consultants will narrow the field, City Council will make the final decision.

The deep end

An equally pressing topic — the city’s plans to withdraw from the Water Agreement, effective June 30 — resurfaced in the form of a letter from the Buncombe County commissioners asking that staff members sit down together to discuss options.

Earlier this year, the city and county had agreed to put the issue on hold so the commissioners could focus on the November elections.

At the retreat, however, Council members agreed on the importance of ironing out the details as quickly as possible.

And though the press had been alerted that City Council would discuss the ever-gnarly water issue at the retreat, Council members promptly prepared to go into closed session, which is permitted under state law when discussing legal matters.

Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Rebeccah Cantley-Falk protested the decision, pointing out that no litigation is pending and emphasizing the considerable public interest in the Water Agreement.

City Attorney Bob Oast said there doesn’t need to be an actual lawsuit to justify going into closed session. He went on to note that litigation has indeed been threatened and is probably inevitable as the situation evolves.

After some discussion — and assurances to the press that only legal matters would be addressed behind closed doors — Council members went into closed session for about an hour.

When they returned, the discussion centered on the county’s letter, which some Council members said seemed unclear.

“This is the vaguest question in the whole wide world,” said Jones. “I don’t know if they know what they want.”

The letter reads, in part, “There may be many other alternatives that staff identifies that would give us far greater options to help us meet our goal of providing the best services at the lowest, reasonable cost for our citizens.”

“I would prefer the city run the system with as few limitations as possible,” said Newman. “But it is desirable to see if we can reach an agreement that everyone can work with.”

Jan Davis said he thinks most of the facts are in and the city needs to move ahead on the water issue.

But Mayor Worley said the city “had agreed that negotiations would take place at the staff level.” Accordingly, he suggested sending a letter to the county to try to clarify whether what the commissioners have in mind meshes with what the city wants.

A draft letter was approved by Council members and sent to the commissioners the following week.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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