Council member Keith Young was succinct in his response when Xpress asked what he predicted would happen at Asheville City Council’s upcoming regular meeting on Tuesday, June 19, at 5 p.m. in council Chambers. In fact, he offered just one word: “Fireworks.”
Two weeks before the Fourth of July, the meeting’s agenda promises a grand finale of rhetorical explosions over two matters of unfinished business. The first is the Asheville city budget, which Council member Brian Haynes has said he will not support as long as it contains funding for additional officers to staff the Asheville Police Department’s downtown district. The second is a series of resolutions to rescind and replace the three motions on police policy previously proposed by Young and passed by Council on May 22.
The latest changes to the budget, released late in the afternoon on June 15, do not address policing but do allocate additional funds for Asheville’s firefighters. An extra $155,480 will be drawn from the city’s unassigned fund balance to increase the matching contribution for the fire personnel 457 retirement program from 4 percent to 6 percent. Scott Mullins, president of the Asheville Fire Fighters Association, had criticized the city for not reaching that target during the May 22 public hearing. The new budget also takes an additional $13,485 from the fund balance to create a full-time benefited position for fulfilling public records requests.
While no public comment will be taken on the budget during the meeting itself, the Rev. Amy Cantrell, founder of the intentional community and homeless support nonprofit BeLoved Asheville, is planning a rally on the steps outside City Hall beginning at 3:45 p.m. Cantrell and other activists are calling on Council to vote no on the current spending plan and make a series of “move the money” amendments.
Instead of funding new APD officers, the advocates’ altered budget would support proposals such as fare-fee transit, an eviction relief and home repair fund, opioid epidemic prevention and a pilot participatory budgeting program. “To expand our police force when the root causes of community problems are not being addressed just doesn’t seem to be very visionary,” says Cantrell. “We hear a lot about affordability, access, equity and inclusion, but if you look at the budget, you’ll see really clearly that we value that the least.”
The battle over changes to APD policy will also come to a head at the upcoming meeting. On May 22, Council approved three motions from Young that together directed Interim City Manager Cathy Ball to implement a written consent policy for vehicular and personal searches, remove criminal record and suspicious behavior as rationales for consent searches and deprioritize low-level regulatory stops for issues such as expired vehicle registration.
Since Council approved each motion by a 5-2 vote — Vijay Kapoor and Gwen Wisler voted no on each — both the substance and process of the changes have fallen under intense scrutiny. In a May 25 letter to Council, the N.C. Police Benevolent Association hinted at legal action should the motions not be rescinded, while Kapoor issued his own statement on May 29 criticizing a lack of committee consideration and public comment.
In a staff report issued before Tuesday’s meeting, Ball and City Attorney Robin Currin noted that “[t]he manner in which these motions were presented, debated and ultimately passed appeared to potentially violate several of the City Council’s Rules of Procedure, including the requirement that the public be afforded an opportunity to comment prior to any final vote.” This language is markedly more legalistic than Mayor Esther Manheimer’s own comments to Xpress about the process, made before the NCPBA letter, admitting that she erred by not calling a vote on the parliamentary procedure Young used to cut off public comment. (See “Letters of the Law,” Xpress, June 6.)
The staff report also contains three new resolutions to be considered on Tuesday. Each repeals one of the previously approved motions and replaces it with new language supporting the same policy positions. However, the resolutions no longer direct Ball to implement changes herself; instead, they authorize her “to work with the Asheville Police Department” toward those goals.
The city may face legal challenges if the existing resolutions stay in place, but experts from the UNC School of Government believe the outcome of those challenges would be uncertain. Assistant Professor of Public Law and Government Trey Allen notes that the lack of a vote on Young’s procedural motion does not invalidate Council’s subsequent vote on the policing changes. “If a member objected to the way the mayor proceeded, there should have been a point of order raised at the time,” he says.
Bob Joyce, the Charles Edwin Hinsdale Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC, adds that Ball likely does have the authority to make policing changes directly. “As far as I know, if the manager gives the department head an instruction, the department head has to follow it,” he says. “[If] the manager tells the department head, and the department head doesn’t do it, then I would think that the manager is in the position to dismiss the department head.”
Although the APD has not released a public statement about Young’s motions, Chief Tammy Hooper has advocated against their implementation behind the scenes. Chief Bill Hollingsed of the Waynesville Police Department confirmed that Hooper called him after the May 22 meeting to request support from the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, of which he is Region I director. The NCACP subsequently released a letter on May 30 calling Council’s actions “contrary to the interests of all citizens as potential crime victims and the public interest in general.”
Using her personal email account, Hooper also requested a change to the letter. A draft version had read that “Police policies dictated by racial concerns are as objectionable as racial profiling, are wasteful of resources, and are counterproductive to public safety.” Hooper responded that this language “may be misconstrued as saying we don’t think it is appropriate to act on racial concerns, which is not true.” Instead, she suggested replacing racial concerns with “political concerns or agendas,” the language included in the final version.
Besides these two hot-button items, the agenda contains multiple items that will play out over a longer time scale. A variety of plans will be considered to chart Asheville’s course on community development, equity, water and the city as a whole.
First on the docket is approval of a spending plan for federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnership Act money. Over $3.2 million in total funding is set to be allocated for affordable housing and employment programs, including $600,000 to Workforce Homestead, Inc., $500,000 to Mountain Housing Opportunities, and nearly $200,000 for the Asheville Housing Authority’s Edington Auditorium. Roughly $350,000 will go to projects outside of Asheville city limits, while slightly more will go to program administration costs.
The city will also consider adoption of the Equity Action Plan proposed by Equity and Inclusion Manager Kimberlee Archie. The plan focuses around three major goals: reducing racial disparities within city government, strengthening equity in the city’s work with its residents and eliminating racial disparities in the community. The timelines for these goals reflect the phasing in of new positions with Archie’s office over the next year, with government-specific changes expected by early 2019 and broader community changes by next June.
With an eye toward attracting large industrial users, Asheville may enter into a new water system agreement with Henderson County. As explained by David Melton, the city’s water resources director, the new resolution would give Council the power to offer economic incentive grants for companies locating in the Cane Creek service area. The agreement would also give Henderson County the right of first refusal to purchase Asheville’s water assets in its jurisdiction should the Sullivan Acts be repealed.
The water initiative comes after an appearance by Henderson County Rep. Chuck McGrady before City Council in February. McGrady’s visit to Council followed a December 2017 vote by the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District in which the MSD rejected a proposal to include Henderson County’s Cane Creek Water and Sewer District in in the MSD.
Finally, Council will hold a public hearing on the adoption of “Living Asheville: A Comprehensive Plan for Our Future,” which would replace “Asheville City Development 2025” as the primary policy reference for the city’s next 20 years. The most recent draft of the plan weighs in at nearly 400 pages, organized around six main themes of livable built environment, resilient economy, harmony with the natural environment, healthy community, interwoven equity and responsible regionalism.
City Council will also consider items on its consent agenda. Unless specifically singled out for separate discussion, these items are typically approved as a package. At 20 items, this meeting’s consent agenda is particularly large, but highlights include the following:
- Expanding the permitted hours of operation for Here to There Adventures, a pedal bicycle taxi service. Up to three vehicles would now be clear to run seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.
- Setting a public hearing on Tuesday, July 24 for an economic incentive grant to an existing Asheville manufacturing facility operated by General Electric Corporation and Unison Engine Components, Inc. The roughly $900,000 grant is meant to induce the factory to make over $100 million in investments, creating 131 new median-wage jobs. Buncombe County approved a similar incentive grant for the company on June 5.
- Extending the option for White Labs to purchase the city-owned land next to its current facility on Charlotte Street through May 1, 2019. White Labs could buy the property at 80 percent of its fair market value if it commits to substantial economic improvements and job creation.
- Amending grant-funding agreements from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to consolidate and accept additional money. City staff say these changes are needed to “bring the scope of the grants into compliance with the Council-approved Riverfront Destination Development-funded construction projects.”
Asheville City Council meets at 5 p.m. in council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. The full meeting agenda and supporting documents can be found here.