“Before you start, we would just like you to know some unfinished business!”
A protester’s shout rang from the audience at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville banquet room as Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer opened the first day of City Council’s March 17-18 retreat. Roughly 20 people, including members of Sunrise Movement Asheville, Reject Raytheon AVL and Asheville Survival Program, had gathered to make their voices heard at a meeting where no public comment would be accepted.
“We are asking that you take care of your city, that you take care of your people,” the protester continued. “Stop criminalizing homelessness! Stop pandering to developers who are going to pollute our air and our water! And instead, take care of this city. Stop the sweeps [of homeless camps]!”
“All right, we’ll just take a quick break and we’ll be back,” Manheimer said, before leaving the room with a majority of Council members and city staff.
Council member Sandra Kilgore was the only elected leader to approach the crowd, while fellow member Kim Roney observed the exchange.
“Tell us what you really want, then give us some suggestions, OK? And where do we get the finances to do certain things?” Kilgore challenged the demonstrators. “If you defund [the Asheville Police Department], that’s going to hurt the Black community. We’re the first ones that they will not show up [for]. We’re the first ones that are going to be affected.”
After nearly 10 minutes of debate, the exchange appeared to cool as Kilgore agreed to meet with the group later to discuss issues. She and Roney then joined their colleagues for the retreat itself.
While no more disturbances interrupted the following two days of discussions, there was still plenty of excitement as Council plotted its approach to the coming year. Xpress rounded up five main takeaways from the event.
With assistance from event moderator Rebekah Lowe, Council members narrowed their list of priorities for the upcoming year to four broad categories: equitable, affordable housing and stability; homelessness strategies; improving/expanding core services; and neighborhood resilience. Council also agreed to keep two of last year’s priorities, reimaging public safety and reparations, on deck for this year.
While few specific goals or metrics for those priorities were shared, City Manager Debra Campbell told Council that her staff would work to identify projects within each area for review at the start of the fiscal year in July. Those projects would therefore not be included in the upcoming city budget.
Fee increases, facilities study
City staff outlined several recommendations and highlighted upcoming studies that the city is planning to conduct over the next few years. Taylor Floyd, Asheville’s budget manager, said the city is likely to see sanitation and stormwater fee increases to maintain current levels of service. Floyd also recommended a fee increase for city water services. Together, those increases could raise the average Asheville household’s annual bill by $62.70.
David Melton, Asheville’s water resources director, said his department was preparing to switch all of the city’s roughly 63,000 water meters to a new automatic reading system. The new technology, he said, would allow the city to switch to monthly billing, more quickly identify leaks and other issues and reduce staff effort. The project is estimated to cost $20 million; pending authorization from Council, work would begin in late summer or early fall.
And Walter Ear, the city’s capital projects building construction manager, said his department is preparing to conduct a study that will examine the condition of Asheville’s more than 60 buildings. Ear explained that over 70% of the city’s buildings are past their “expected useful life,” with the majority of them built before World War II. The study’s results, expected to be ready by December 2023, will determine a long-range plan for capital maintenance and the replacement of city facilities.
City staff “overwhelmed”
Lowe then presented a job satisfaction survey of the city’s 17 department heads. The staff members were asked to name five words that described how they felt about their work, with “overwhelming” ranking at the top. “Exhausting,” “challenging,” “exciting,” “rewarding,” “fulfilling” and “unvalued” or “undermined” also made the list.
“‘Overwhelming’ was about staffing shortages,” Lowe explained. “It also was about unrealistic expectations — thinking that we’re driving on all of these things to try to make things happen while we’re shorthanded, and then something new comes in that we have to take on. That is just overwhelming.”
“It’s a perfect storm of not feeling supported and not feeling a part of a team, which means that if we get those types of challenges, then you’re looking at a … mass exodus of people,” said Kilgore. “I think those are very concerning, and it’s something that we as a city need to work on.”
Lowe also asked the department heads how City Council could support the city’s departments. “Trust us and show it more often,” topped the list.
“The theme here was about giving us the benefit of the doubt, and saying it publicly,” Lowe added. “Your public support for us really matters internally.”
The department heads also asked that Council set clear, concise, realistic strategic goals, make core city services a priority and provide financial backing for capital investments. Lowe noted that those staff leaders wanted Council to “remember the silent majority,” rather than allow small, vocal groups to shape the city’s agenda.
Tension within Council
Council members were asked to rate how well they had worked together during the last year. At last year’s retreat, members had been charged with creating a list of agreements that would “ensure an environment of respect, trust and productive dialogue.”
This year, members anonymously evaluated how well they stuck to those agreements. Among the lowest scoring was the commitment to “avoid surprises, provide feedback or a heads-up individually before making comments publicly.”
Council’s “no triangulation agreement,” which asked members to talk to one another rather than about each other, also scored poorly, as did an agreement to “use a pros-and-cons list as a tool to make logical policy decisions.”
“Staff always provides a pros-and-cons list, so this is a signal of ignoring that,” Manheimer said. Roney, however, suggested that those lists were often incomplete and should include equity and sustainability impacts.
Council debates ‘check-ins’
Manheimer questioned the practice of Council “check-ins,” in which members meet in private groups of three or fewer to discuss policy and ask questions of city staff.
“There’s definitely some concern in the community around transparency,” Manheimer acknowledged. “But in terms of internal [communication] and the triangulation concept and the perspective seeking, I’m wondering if it’s time for us to do something that we’ve been talking about for a while, which is to transition to a work session format instead where the full Council meets.”
“We’re spending upwards of six to eight hours every other week of staff time,” added Roney. “We don’t have minutes [from the check-ins]. … So I wonder, if we were to switch to a process like the county does, if we could maybe address some of the issues that staff has already brought up.”
But not everyone agreed with changing the practice. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith suggested full Council work sessions might not reduce demands on city staff, while Council member Gwen Wisler said that check-ins provide a safe place for members to voice concerns and questions they may feel uncomfortable expressing otherwise.
“A lot of times, [the check-ins are] the first time I’ve heard about a particular issue. And although I’m an extrovert, and I do tend to process fairly quickly, I want to be able to ask questions to make the right decision,” Wisler explained.
Smith agreed, saying that she felt that the check-ins allowed her to be “a little raw and more candid.”
“We can kind of show we don’t know a lot about an issue. But when we are in public — lights, camera, action — sometimes you want to appear refined and knowledgeable, and that holds people back from asking questions,” she said. “So the check-in process and hearing information and taking time to gather information so that you can have follow up questions is sacred to a lot of us who don’t have time, and a lot of us who have been heavily criticized.”