With his first full-blown Asheville City Council meeting just a couple of weeks away, Bill Russell has a lot on his plate as he begins his four-year term—and his first foray into representative politics.
As someone who ran to bring more political balance to Council, rather than address any specific hot-button issues, Russell admits that he’s facing a huge learning curve as he scrambles to get up to speed on the various concerns on Council’s plate.
And though the candidate was attacked in some quarters as being a tool of the city’s real-estate/development interests, the soft-spoken insurance-agency owner says he aims to show that he’s a thoughtful, even-handed politician who’s beholden to no particular group.
It’s a tall order, Russell concedes, but he’s gearing up to tackle it mere weeks after nudging former Council member Bryan Freeborn from his seat.
“I don’t have any pet projects or agenda, except for all the confusing issues City Council is dealing with,” Russell told Xpress. They include determining how the city will grow, re-examining the Unified Development Ordinance, resolving the water dispute with Buncombe County, and reaching consensus on the much-debated Interstate 26 connector (which Russell believes must get done, but with the best design and smallest footprint possible).
Winning the election, he says, has turned his life “upside down. But it’s been great. This is kind of a quiet time of year at my office, but I find myself feeling like I’m back in school. In my first meeting with the mayor and [City Manager] Gary Jackson, I received three binders … for a total of about 9 inches thick. I’m about 1 inch through them.”
Calling the learning curve “enormous,” Russell says, “I would expect the first year, for me, to be a pretty quiet year on Council. … There will be issues that will be showing up on our agenda in the next month, and I’ll spend most of my time focusing on … what’s coming down the pike.
Besides what he’s learning on his own and from those hefty binders, Russell says other Council members—including the progressives who opposed his election—have also been a great help. He’s been busy trying to get to know them, picking their brains and establishing friendly working relationships. Among the most helpful so far, notes Russell, has been Council member Robin Cape—who said before the election that she would be forced to support candidate Elaine Lite over incumbent Jan Davis just to keep Russell from winning.
“Robin and I had a great two-hour conversation over some coffee, just talking about her first two years on Council and what she learned. She gave me some great advice. But I’ve met with everyone—Jan Davis, Carl Mumpower, the mayor—and I’m looking forward to spending more time with Brownie Newman and Holly Jones as well.”
For her part, Cape says, “I told him, ‘I don’t want you to feel lost,’” noting that there is no formal orientation process for new Council members. She says the input she gave him on various issues—including energy and the environment, which she feels particularly strongly about—was hers alone, and that Russell must reach his own conclusions.
“All the work we do in this field is crucial, and any lag time at all will affect the city in general. His ability to get on board and understand things … will allow him to make educated decisions,” notes Cape.
“I think we share very similar concerns,” she says. “[Russell’s industry] is one of the major industries affected by climate and energy issues. They are the No. 1 industry that gets [the fact] that climate is affecting American business.”
Although many in the progressive community—especially supporters of unsuccessful candidates Freeborn and Lite—tried to paint Russell as a tool of the local Republican party and real-estate developers, he says he’s felt no rancor from anyone on Council. “I ran a very clean campaign and didn’t talk bad of anybody … and tried to be positive and keep my mouth shut about things I didn’t know about. And that’s the way I want to be on Council. … I’d like to be friends with everyone up there and have respect for one another.”
As for his financial support from the real estate/development sector, which accounted for a large portion of his campaign funds, Russell says:“Some people out there were just making huge accusations that I was bought and paid for by big development and Realtors, and that I was the Republican Party’s chosen one, recruited by [former Council member] Joe Dunn, which is just ridiculous.”
“First of all, the Republican Party didn’t even know who I was,” he says. “The Monday after I signed up, I got a call from some folks asking, ‘Who are you?’ As for the Realtor/developer thing? I work in insurance. … I’ve been kind of an ancillary to that group [through business and through working with them on various charities, such as Habitat for Humanity]. But to think that for some reason that means I want to pave over Mount Pisgah or something [is false].”
Russell also notes that he’s involved with the Mountain Coalition for Accountable Development—a real-estate-industry lobbying group that advocates balancing property rights with growth that is sustainable. That vision, he says, seems compatible with the direction the current Council has taken, focusing on infill development and growing up instead of out in a bid to resist sprawl. “I think that’s responsible,” says Russell.