“Oh happy day,” proclaimed City Council member Sheneika Smith, after she and her colleagues voted unanimously to appoint Debra Campbell as Asheville’s next city manager. “As an organization, as a city, and even the county is rejoicing today.”
Other members of Council echoed this celebratory mood around the selection of Campbell, currently the assistant city manager of Charlotte, for Asheville’s most powerful unelected position. During the special called meeting on Oct. 17, they shook hands with and embraced the appointee over thunderous and sustained applause from the standing-room-only audience. “I’m so glad we’re breaking our rule on clapping today,” quipped Council member Julie Mayfield.
In remarks before the vote, Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that while Council, staff and a committee of community partners had interviewed six city manager finalists, Campbell had clearly emerged as the best fit for the role. “It was really a moment of consensus — unprecedented consensus, I will tell you,” Manheimer said to laughter from the crowd.
The mayor also addressed concerns from government transparency advocates that Council had skipped a planned meet-and-greet with finalists for the position. The city’s official press release about that decision had only mentioned that the candidate was “well-aligned with the input received from the community,” but Manheimer explained there were more practical reasons for moving quickly with the hire.
“We realized our candidate was in a competitive race for another spot in another city,” Manheimer said, referencing Campbell’s concurrent selection as a finalist for the city manager job in Greenville, S.C. “So we expedited our process in order to make sure we were able to finalize what was the right decision for Asheville.”
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Campbell said she had “always admired the city from afar” and had reached out to city officials about the job after the firing of former City Manager Gary Jackson. She emphasized that she hopes to help Asheville realize its unique vision, not merely follow the pattern of rapidly growing Charlotte. “If there are best practices I can bring from Charlotte, I’ll be more than happy to apply them, but this is about Asheville,” she said.
Campbell, the first African-American to hold the city manager job and the first female to do so on a permanent basis, cited social and economic disparity as her top priority when she takes office on Monday, Dec. 3. Within city government, she said, she plans to increase inclusiveness in hiring, while her outward-facing policy will focus on expanding affordable housing.
That approach, Campbell added, may include changing development regulations that do not align with the city’s larger goals. “If [regulations] do not reflect what we think is appropriate from a character perspective, I will try to get the planning director to work with elected officials to see if we can amend those things,” she said.
And, while Campbell said Council’s unanimous confidence and trust meant “all the world” to her, she recognizes that change doesn’t happen overnight. “It will be a process,” she said. “I am not a miracle worker, and I don’t expect to be.”