Asheville City Council

Veteran Asheville City Council watchers know all about the cushions.

Only three padded chairs are available to the public during Council meetings, and they’re quickly snatched up by those in the know. This may seem like a trivial matter, but formal Council sessions have a tendency to drag on into the night — testing both one’s attention span and one’s physical endurance. But the Dec. 19 formal session proved otherwise, clocking in at a posterior-pleasing 90 minutes.

Who says government can’t be efficient?

The brevity of the meeting was due, in part, to a brief agenda. Only two public hearings were scheduled; each proved to be noncontroversial (one addressed permitted fence heights; the other involved the regulation of public signs) and was over within 10 minutes.

But Council Member Ed Hay surprised those in attendance by announcing, as he put it, some “late-breaking news.” The news flash was a recommendation from the Task Force for the Future of the Civic Center, which Hay chairs. The group has worked with city staff to procure an architectural feasibility study for the existing structure, part of the ongoing process of addressing the needs and future of the outdated facility.

After reviewing proposals from six different architectural firms, the task force interviewed the top three. Shortly before Tuesday’s Council meeting, they selected Heery International to prepare the study. Now, it was up to Council to pass or reject a resolution formalizing an agreement between the city and Heery.

With $110,000 at stake — plus the threat of the controversy that usually surrounds any future-of-the-Civic-Center discussion — those cushioned seats were suddenly highly coveted by people sitting on wood.

Hay began the discussion of the resolution by giving a quick history of the Civic Center’s needs. Citing problems such as an outdated infrastructure, lack of luxury amenities, poor sight lines and an outdated sound system, Hay reasoned that any attempt to create a state-of-the-art facility would require an architectural feasibility study to “put us in a decision-making posture” with regard to the question of renovating the existing structure or building a new one. Council member Charles Worley added, “Without [such a study], we’d be shooting in the dark.”

Hay reminded Council and those in attendance that “this is a citizen-initiated effort. People want a modern facility that can compete in the region for sports, entertainment and cultural events.”

Council member Brian Peterson questioned the study’s $110,000 price tag, emphasizing the fact that the burden of paying for it (and for any future Civic Center work) would be disproportionately borne by city taxpayers — who make up only a portion of the center’s attendance base. Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger reminded Peterson, “We can’t ask other government entities for help with funding without a specific plan.” Cloninger indicated that the study would be a step toward creating this plan, and Peterson agreed.

Mayor Leni Sitnick contributed to the spirited discussion by declaring that the study shouldn’t be misinterpreted as merely another contracted study. “It’s taking an action step rather than another ‘quote-unquote’ consultant step,” she pointed out.

On the selection of Heery International, Council member Barbara Field, an architect, commented: “It seemed that they did their homework … and did a thorough study. They came prepared.” She added, “They have an understanding of the relationship between an urban environment and a civic center.”

On a motion by Hay, seconded by Worley, Council adopted the resolution and authorized City Manager Jim Westbrook to contract with Heery International for the study. A second resolution was also passed, allocating the $110,000 from the city’s contingency fund.

Debating death

Before the formal session ended, Vice Mayor Cloninger opened up his own can of worms by suggesting to his colleagues that they not take a formal vote on a proposed North Carolina death-penalty moratorium. The issue is slated for Council’s consideration in 2001.

The question of a death-penalty moratorium was raised during Council’s Dec. 12 work session by representatives of the local chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. The activists asked Council members to pass a resolution urging state legislators to call a moratorium on executions while questions of fairness, inconsistency and racial bias in North Carolina death-penalty cases are re-evaluated.

Cloninger maintained that it’s inappropriate for a municipal government to tackle such issues. Instead, he suggested that individual Council members write letters to state legislators expressing their own positions, rather than attempting to speak as a body.

Cloninger reasoned that taking a stand on the controversial issue would set a precedent that could lead to similar debates over other “hot” topics — such as abortion and euthanasia. “Where does it end? This is not our job,” he declared.

Council member Terry Bellamy emphatically disagreed, giving Cloninger a steely-eyed glare and using carefully chosen words. The gravity of the matter, she argued, requires the formality of a vote. Bellamy added that, if Cloninger’s suggestion were adopted, a vote should first be taken as to whether Council should vote on the moratorium at all.

In the end, Council unanimously decided that the matter should be revisited after the holidays. When the moratorium issue is addressed, those interested in attending may want to consider arriving early (or bringing their own seat cushions).

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