This is the first in a series of interviews with this year’s Asheville City Council candidates. Xpress will run the interviews here and use them for our upcoming voter guide, and all candidates were asked the same five questions. The first interview is with Council member Gordon Smith, who’s running for a second term.
1) Do you have confidence in City Manager Gary Jackson and the overall city administration? Why or why not? What would you change?
Yes, I have confidence in Gary Jackson. He has shepherded this organization through a great recession and a hostile legislature and difficult times. He’s been very steady at the helm.
He’s also been very good about providing all the information to Council members and being real transparent in his dealings, being someone that everyone in the community feels like they can approach. For those reasons, I maintain confidence in Gary.
Going forward, as far as management structure, right now there’s a lot of management shifts going on within the city organization, with the development of the new multimodal transportation department, with the hiring of a new deputy city manager. Along with other shifts in the department, I think the idea is to try to realign based on Council’s priorities and also improving customer service.
I think what we’re seeing is Gary’s work to improve that. Establishing the multimodal transportation department was a very solid move and really reflective of the institutional shifts that have happened on Council. Multimodal transportation wasn’t even a strategic goal of City Council prior to the crop that was elected in 2009. Here we are four years later and it’s a whole department.
In regards to the police department, there’s currently a top-to-bottom review being undertaken. There are long-standing issues that go back well over a decade within the management of the department and I think we’ve seen some of the symptoms of that over the last while. What we’re hoping with this review is to learn more about what some of the core issues are and create structural changes so we can actually get to the core of those issues rather than seeing the same problems crop up again and again.
2) What’s the city’s most underserved population? What would you do to help them?
The city’s most underserved population are low-income people, some of those are service workers and some of those are unemployed and impoverished people.
In regards to both subsets of that broader group, I think we have to continue to try to have more jobs with higher wages, we need to create more affordable housing, we need to have a broader, more comprehensive multimodal transportation network, and we have to pursue a food secure Asheville where everyone has access to healthy, affordable food.
Within that transportation piece, Sunday service is a very important part.
3) Are the city’s development policies too loose, too restrictive, or just right? What would you change?
I think that the UDO [the Unified Development Ordinance] as it currently is was written for an early ‘90s Asheville. Part of what we’re doing now is trying to figure out how to restructure our development rules to match what is now the city’s smart growth future.
So we need to be able to identify those areas that can accommodate greater density, and have the zoning reflect that. Also, recognizing that there are simpler ways to describe these rules, which is why we’re pursuing a form-based code on Haywood Road in West Asheville. This code is more around how things look and how people interact with the buildings rather than the use of the buildings. The old UDO was about what was going to be in it. The way forward is more around how the buildings are going to interact with the surrounding environment.
Those are two important pieces with development going forward. What we have to stop are building-by-building fights in this city. They tend to unnecessarily create division among us, they make it harder for builders to want to do business with the city and they make it harder for neighbors to trust the process.
4) Do you favor increasing funding for mass transit? If so, what other expenditures would you cut, or what taxes and fees would you increase, to raise the money?
Over the last four years, while we were cutting lots of different things, transit was the one we didn’t cut. In fact, we expanded service: we added holiday service; we changed routes to allow for more frequency on the major routes, we added a lot of bus shelters as well as some technological improvements and nine new fuel-efficient buses on the road.
Going forward, I would like to add Sunday service. I’m going to have to work with all members of Council to determine the best way forward on implementation of that. My guess is it would be a phased-in service. In year one we might look at a Sunday service that looks a lot like our holiday service, with hours that are not as broad as the regular weekday service and then gauging the demand we can adjust that going forward. The price tag for that is a little north of $300,000 a year going forward.
That’s the amount we would be looking at initially. As far as what could be cut or shifted around in order to make that happen, I believe what we’re doing now with our reinvestment strategy is going to allow us to make system improvements over the long term, the reinvestment strategy being infrastructure improvements in the River District, in the South Slope, Eagle Market, etc.
In the short term, I think when we all get together at the retreat in January and City Council lays out its priorities, we’re going to be able to see what’s at the top of the prioirity list and what’s at the bottom. Rather than take a swipe at something right now, I really want to work with members of Council to see the Sunday service happen.
5) Do you favor a bond referendum to address Asheville’s infrastructure needs? If so, what specific projects should the money be used for?
I’m open to the idea. I think that what we just did this last year, with a tax increase for these economic development incentives that are intended to be able to grow the city’s revenue from within in order to supplement the funding for the infrastructure needs we have.
One thing we did do in this last budget was double the budget for road resurfacing, and we’re continuing the march towards the rest of our multimodal infrastructure needs. Next year, we’re going to see sidewalks go in on both sides of Hendersonville Road, from I-40 all the way down to Long Shoals. We’re engaging in some large-scale projects as it is, while increasing our maintenance on our existing sidewalks.
Bond referendums have been succesful in other cities. I think there are a lot of people in Asheville who want to see us get further faster. So a bond referendum is something I’m open to, but at the same time I’d like to see what kind of fruit is borne by the investment strategy we’re undertaking now.