Asheville City Council: Disorder in the house

After a fairly uneventful meeting July 23, Asheville City Council had a brief ruckus at the end, as former Asheville Mayor Ken Michalove accused Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Gary Jackson and Council member Marc Hunt of “multiple violations of the city council Code of Ethics” in granting $2 million to the Asheville Art Museum for renovations. (Photo by Max Cooper)

Michalove claimed that Manheimer and Jackson are friends of Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers. This connection is one reason the city approved $2 million for renovations to the museum’s city-owned building, he claimed. He also asserted that Manheimer’s law firm, Van Winkle, “has represented the … museum in the past and only in the past year turned that representation over to another attorney.” Manheimer should have recused herself from Council’s vote on the matter, he said.

The $2 million were part of a tax increase, passed by Council in late June, for a variety of projects.

The museum funding was controversial at the time of the vote — several residents, including mayoral candidate and former city Risk Management Director John Miall, criticized it as too much for a nonprofit at a time when the city faces more essential concerns. Asheville staff and museum supporters said the $2 million will cover essential improvements and help attract tourism due to an improved facility.

Michalove also accused Hunt of acting improperly in his role on the Pack Place Board, saying that the Council member had represented the Art Museum’s interests rather than the city’s as a whole.

Council’s code of ethics doesn’t require members to recuse themselves due to friendships, only if a measure might benefit themselves, their immediate family, their employer, or their business interests. The same policies allow Council members to express their opinions or advocate for positions, and doesn’t preclude from doing so when appointed to a board.

Michalove also said that an April 26 fundraiser for Manheimer’s mayoral campaign at the art museum did “not meet the fundamental non-profit rental requirements of ‘Education, Art, and Science’ as required by the Pack Place legal documents.” However, Pack Place managing director Heather Nelson tells Xpress that political events don’t violate the venue’s policies, as long as the organizers rent the space under the same terms any other organization would.

Mayor Terry Bellamy thanked Michalove for sharing his thoughts and what he described as nearly “14.8 pounds of evidence,” such as CDs of recorded Pack Place Board and committee meetings. But Council did not respond to the accusations.

Questioned by reporters after the meeting, Michalove said that he was against the $2 million renovation funding because he feels the museum’s free rent and maintenance are already enough of a subsidy.

His comments came at the end of the public-comment portion of the meeting. Earlier, supporters of the Colburn Earth Science Museum said they wanted Council to keep the welfare of their institution in mind while renovations and changes occur at Pack Place.

In other actions:

• Council, in response to complaints from East End residents, agreed that this will be the last year the Brewgrass festival will take place in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. However, Council didn’t agree on where the festival should go; Bellamy objected to moving it to the nearby Memorial Stadium. Council delayed a vote until Aug. 13.

• Voted 6-0 to extend downtown’s zoning rules to a piece of property on Asheland Avenue currently occupied by Keller Williams real estate offices. Council member Chris Pelly, who works as a Realtor there, was recused from the decision.


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19 thoughts on “Asheville City Council: Disorder in the house

  1. Jonathan Wainscott

    The $2M funding of the museum was controversial at the time? That was only a couple weeks ago. The funding is still controversial. We went from hand-wringing over closing swimming pools and fire stations to , “Wheeeeee! Let’s go shopping! “. What is with the short attention span? How can a vision of a future Asheville years down the road be realized, when the concerns of a few weeks ago are already forgotten?

    • luther blissett

      “Meanwhile, let’s spend more money on transit. Yay!”

      Just because you don’t want to sit on the bus with Those People, Tim, doesn’t mean that the bus service (now just mediocre instead of pathetic) doesn’t need or deserve funding.

  2. D. Dial

    I think the Art Museum Director has some “splainin” to do. There are allegations that she’s not very transparant on the progress of the Museum’s own fundraising progress.

    Additionally my husband, Dr. Herb Johnson donated several art pieces to their permanent collection in the mid 1990s, that do not show up on the Museums website as being part of their permanent collection. A Will Henry Stevens painting and art prints by Grant Woods and Thomas Hart Benson….just curious as to what might have happened to those pieces he donated to the art museum and the community at large.

    • D. Dial

      Yes, I found the Grant Wood….but others are not showing up. IS the listing of the permanent collection incomplete?

    • Angela Phillips

      I agree and I am betting that Esther’s mother and sister, Kora Manheimer, will have their art on exhibit.

  3. Keith Thomson

    There are inquiries that neighborly people would make by a visit, or a call or letter, to a staff person of an organization who might cheerfully answer their concerns.

    Then there are folks who throw “allegations” around all over the blogosphere like wet toilet paper hoping that something might stick.

  4. bsummers

    The previously announced demonstration of “no confidence” in the APD Chief, by the Fraternal Order of Police didn’t happen in Council last night. I wonder why not?

    And this rumored recording that exists of the alleged “coecion” by the APD Chief, wouldn’t Lt. Wilke be in some trouble with the DA and the SBI if he had it & didn’t turn in over when he was questioned? I don’t know the gentleman, but he doesn’t strike me as stupid.

    I have serious doubts that such a recording exists.

  5. Dionysis

    Is there any evidence from anywhere that would support the notion that raising taxes in order (in part) fund a non-profit art museum will result in any increase in traffic, and consequently, benefit those citizens paying the tab? So far, all that has been offered (at least in news pieces) is that there is a “feeling” it would, or declarative statements such as “the $2 million will…help attract tourism due to an improved facility.”

    What supports this supposition? Or was it determined by reading tea leaves?

    • Angela Phillips

      I think Manheimer said they talked to hundreds of people. I am thinking this sounds a lot like her mom and half of Asheville was at the Art Museum holiday party. She throws a lot of stuff out there but never backs anything up. I am really waiting to here her say they will refund this property tax to the taxpayers when the Art Museum fails to raise donations.

  6. bsummers

    On the whole, I’m not a fan of this $2 million expense, but someone check me on this – it’s not direct funding of the museum, per se, it’s paying for the renovation of the City-owned building that the museum resides in, right?

    That may seem like a petty distinction, but this is just as much a capital improvement of a public asset (which is forever), versus an additional subsidy of the museum (which is a bottomless hole).

    All that being said, this was poorly timed given the budget pressures.

    • Dionysis

      You may be correct, Barry, as I have not been clear from my reading just what the money would be used for, but assumming it does go to renovations, the question remains: what evidence is there that this expenditure would result in increased attendance and revenue for the city?

      Yes, an argument can be made that regardless of what occupies the property, capital improvements are necessary, but that has not been advanced as an argument that I can see.

      Are there studies done that can demonstrate that people who did visit the museum would not do so again based upon the current condition of the building in which he museum is housed, or that at minimum it was viewed negatively by patrons or prospective patrons? It would be interesting to know. If this happens to be the situation, one would think it would be cited as justification for the proposed expenditure, but if it has been, I missed it.

  7. Arts Lover

    The Art Museum asks visitors (and members) for their zip code when they pay admission or show their membership card. Has anyone asked the Museum for a listing of the numbers of visitors (excluding school groups) and their home locations? That could be helpful in evaluating the tourism argument for the museum.

  8. luther blissett

    Anyone who’s spent any time in Asheville knows the political clout of the non-profiteers, and the number of people whose entire life appears to be spent on this board and that board and the other advisory committee.

    This is a problem. It is not, for once, a partisan problem. It is a problem because the non-profits and their private-sector connections wield more power in Asheville than the elected members of the city council.

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