- Reid Center loses state grant
- Mumpower drug presentation draws mayoral fire
In a 4-3 vote at its Aug. 25 meeting, Council approved adding four satellite locations for early voting in Buncombe County's upcoming municipal elections. In addition to the Buncombe County Board of Elections building on College Street, which will open for one-stop voting on Oct. 15, more than two weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, four other sites will also open a week before Election Day.
Early voting is widely believed to increase voter turnout by giving voters greater flexibility. A whopping 72 percent of Buncombe County's registered voters came out for the 2008 elections, and two-thirds of those who voted cast ballots at one of Buncombe County's 15 remote early-voting sites. Granted, the national races are credited for much of the turnout for that election, which also included state and local races, but Council members are hoping that adding new sites will bring turnout well above the meager 22 percent reached by the 2007 municipal elections. That year 1,061 early votes were cast at the Buncombe County Board of Elections. "I've had requests from several members of our community to add more early-voting stops," Mayor Terry Bellamy
told Council, heading up the discussion.
During public comment, several spoke in favor of bolstering early voting.
"This is the method where we reach more people," said former state senator and Asheville native Charles Carter. "The more we open up our process to the people, the better our government will be." Carter was one of the senators who sponsored legislation that allowed for early voting in North Carolina.
But the move doesn't come cheap. Unlike regular polling places, which are included in the city and county budgets, new early voting locations will have to be paid out of the city's general fund balance. According to a staff report, opening four sites a week before the general election will end up costing between $44,000 and $60,000. The price could exceed $60,000 if polling places were open for longer hours or if primary elections were included.
Citing the current economic crisis and the $5 million hole Asheville had to patch to pass the current budget, Council member Jan Davis
said he wouldn't go along with the plan.
"I personally have a very hard time supporting that," he said. "I think it's not the right time."
Other Council members brought up additional qualms.
Council member Bill Russell said the fact that the election is coming up quickly makes for a logistical problem. "How do you choose a location?" he asked. "It has to be fair."
The Board of Elections said it needed to know within the next few weeks, and the timetable was a concern for Council member Robin Cape. Remembering an attempt to install partisan elections in 2007, she remarked, "I still have scars from that one."
Despite mentioning that she had heard from 40 people on the issue, she said she would rather take time to discuss the details and perhaps include the plan in a future budget.
"As much as I am very supportive of voting, I would like to look into this," she said. "I am concerned about the speed in which this is going." But Cape, who recently announced a write-in re-election bid, would eventually vote in support of the change.
Council member Carl Mumpower
took a different tack, saying that anyone running in the upcoming election, himself included, should not vote on the issue as it constitutes a conflict of interest. (Cape and fellow Council member Kelly Miller, as well as Mayor Bellamy, are also running for re-election). City Attorney Bob Oast, however, said there was no legal conflict, and no other Council members gave the idea mileage.
Council member Brownie Newman acknowledged the financial concerns but pushed to add new sites, saying, "This is real money and I've struggled a lot with this issue. But this adds a lot to our elections."
Newman's motion to add four early-voting sites that would open one week before the general election passed 4-3, with Mumpower, Russell and Davis voting against it. Council will vote on the necessary budget amendment at their Sept. 8 meeting, and the Board of Elections will soon begin to pick the sites.
Meanwhile, Bellamy said that she wanted to reach out to the other Buncombe County municipalities with elections this November to see if any would be willing to help share the costs.
Another setback for Reid
Plans to expand and renovate the W.C. Reid recreation center — located in one of Asheville's lowest income areas — have returned to Council's plate several times over the past few years. An ambitious rebuild, initially estimated at $8 million in 2006, was quickly scaled back to $4 million and then again to $2 million in light of the economic downturn. Now it looks as if the city may have to go back to the drawing board with $500,000 less.
According to the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons, the development has run out of time to receive the $500,000 N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Grant that the city qualified for in 2006. The reason? Ground breaking on the project has not yet occurred, and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has determined that not enough progress has been made on the project to qualify for an extension on the grant, which expires on Sept. 30. Withdrawing the grant request now would hurt the city's chances for a future grant a lot less than just letting the time limit expire, Simmons said, explaining that he had reached that conclusion based on advice from NCDENR officials. Simmons' news was received with some surprise and disappointment by Council members, who had approved a construction plan only eight months previous.
But the news also exposed the underlying issue of whether the city should pursue its plan for a new building that will facilitate expanding programs at the center, or backtrack and consider only renovating the current structure.
Bellamy, who voted in January to begin the new construction, said her preference was to turn attention to the existing structure. The project could be completed with money in hand, and the city could move quickly on a project for which the surrounding community had helped to raise funds. "My concern is that the community is going to [think] we don't view this as a priority," Bellamy said.
She noted that the city had raised most of the money it has allocated to the project
a few years back. The delays have caused the community to doubt whether the city is earnestly pursuing the project, she said. "There's not a whole lot of confidence right now."
Newman was puzzled by that turn. "What are we doing?" he asked. "Didn't we just vote on this?" If Council wants to redesign the project, he said, it needs to have a bigger discussion than just deciding whether or not to back out of the grant. And he was not sure that renovating the existing building would save any money: "We need to have a Council commitment and stick to it."
"I do not support the motion to go back and start all over again," Cape said, adding that Council needs to keep its eye on the ball for the project to maintain momentum. "I would like to not turn the Reid Center into another Civic Center and never get it done."
City Manager Gary Jackson, observing that the city had already spent money on the design process, advised Council to talk with the architects before making any design changes. City staff is arranging for the architects to attend a future Council meeting.
Only Bellamy voted against the motion to terminate the grant request.
This is the second time in recent years that the city has had to back out of a PARTF grant. In 2007 Simmons recommended that council return a $248,000 grant for renovating Memorial Stadium after funding delays scaled that project back and put it behind schedule for the grant.
Drug talk dominated by racial comments
A proposal by Mumpower to allocate $1 million a year for three years to fund a pilot program and partnership to fight drug crime got no support on Council, but his statements regarding Asheville's black community drew criticism from Bellamy.
In his presentation, Mumpower graded various parts of the community on an "A" through "F" scale on their response to drug activity. (There were no "A's.") And he also made comments regarding black leaders who "publicly discourage 'snitching' and feed an 'us against them' mindset" and "ministers in black churches who routinely attack the police and 'snitching' while drug activity occurs in the proximity of their church."
Mumpower went on to criticize the black community at large, calling it "largely passive" to the effects of the drug trade in which "young black men and women [are] routinely recruited [or] funded as dealers for Mexican distributors and white users."
In her response, Bellamy denounced the presentation, calling it an "indictment of the black community as a whole."
"I do want to apologize to members of the community who may have heard this presentation and are offended, as I am," she said. "Because it [condemns] a race of people in one fell swoop. I think an apology is in order."
Bellamy also noted that Council has allocated more funding for law enforcement over the past few years and has reached out to community groups and neighborhoods to support partnerships for fighting drug activity, and she disagreed with Mumpower's assertion that Raleigh is not addressing the issue.
Mumpower countered that he had no intention to apologize.
"It appears I've offended some people, and perhaps I've not been thorough," he said. "Because it was my goal to offend everyone who listened tonight. Because I think we all have something to be ashamed of, and I make no apologies for that."
Despite the dead end on his drug-program proposal, Mumpower was able to get Council support for an "Adopt a Traffic Island" program, to be discussed at a future meeting.