‘Leaking’ Council faces ire over proposed food-sharing limits

INSIDER INFO: Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith asserts that leaked information about a proposed food distribution ordinance led to confusion and misinformation. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville

Leaks from government officials to the press and public often attract attention in national politics. But during a Jan. 25 meeting of Asheville City Council, Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith accused one of her own colleagues of releasing disruptive information. 

Smith alleged that a fellow Council member had shared early discussions about a proposed city ordinance that would require permits for people to distribute food in public parks. Over the previous week, local faith leaders and homelessness advocates had launched strident campaigns to stop the ordinance, with several making claims about the proposal that were later found to be inaccurate.

“A person on this Council [is] leaking information to the public and allowing the discrepancies within the information that they shared to fester,” Smith said, without naming a specific member. “There are a lot of conversations that could have been had around this conversation that were limited — they were hindered, they were gaslit, they were triggered and electrified — just because bad information was released to the public.”

Smith, who called the work of those who distribute food “honorable” and said she didn’t agree with the proposed ordinance, said she’d personally experienced backlash after the proposal was made public. “There were some relationships that I really honored, that from this conversation I think are irreparable,” she said.

On Jan. 19, the Rev. Milly Morrow of Grace Episcopal Church had shared an email with congregants saying Council was “bringing forth to vote in private session a proposed ban against feeding the hungry in public spaces.” Interfaith group Faith 4 Justice Asheville subsequently issued a Jan. 20 call to action stating that Council would “discuss a ban or process to limit sharing food on City-owned properties and right of ways” Jan. 25. And homelessness nonprofit BeLoved Asheville created an online petition against the potential ordinance Jan. 22 that had garnered more than 3,100 signatures as of press time. 

The city did not offer any official information about the proposal until Jan. 24, when spokesperson Kim Miller issued a press release stating that the idea was “in the exploratory stage and has not been presented to Council for policy consideration.” Later that day, however, the online news outlet Asheville Free Press published documents obtained through a public records request that showed a draft food distribution ordinance had been presented to Council members Jan. 20 as part of their regular “check-ins” with city staff.

Contrary to the faith leaders’ initial assertions, the “Potential Asheville Ordinance” would not be voted on or heard by the full Council during a closed session or at the Jan. 25 meeting, and would not ban food distribution in public spaces outright. Instead, people and organizations that offer food as a “large group accommodation” in city parks would have to apply for permits. No more than two permits would be issued to the same person, group or organization for the same park within a 12-month period.

Mayor Esther Manheimer said Jan. 25 that the check-ins, which involve groups of three Council members and are thus not subject to state open meetings requirements, allow elected officials to ask questions and gather information from city staff before bringing new proposals to the public. While she acknowledged that records of those meetings are public, she noted Council usually avoids sharing information at early stages. 

“We have generally honored that system,” Manheimer said. “Unfortunately, and as you can see, when that system isn’t honored, there’s a great deal of confusion that was created in the community.” 

Council member Kim Roney supported the faith community’s position, asking that all discussions and research by city staff regarding the food distribution proposal be dropped. (Roney declined to comment on Smith’s remarks about leaking information.) But Council member Sage Turner said she was interested in continuing the conversation.

“Frankly, we’ve learned that there are some gaps to fill already, that we have some holes in how we are tackling these community issues. I’m all for continuing to discuss and explore how we can be better,” Turner said. 

APD recruiting to start in March

During a Jan. 25 Public Safety Committee meeting, Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack said that the work of Arizona-based consultant, EPIC Recruiting, would begin in March and last for two years. The APD had arranged a $225,000 contract with the company in December to market the city of Asheville to potential new police applicants. 

EPIC spokesperson Janae Toone said the agency’s work will consist of social media content and ads. She said those materials will depict officers from a range of ethnic backgrounds and genders to encourage a diverse pool of applicants. Zack noted that APD currently has 59 sworn officer vacancies out of 238 budgeted positions.


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9 thoughts on “‘Leaking’ Council faces ire over proposed food-sharing limits

  1. Taxpayer

    Does anyone even wonder why Asheville is a hot mess? For the love of God please get this clown car of a city council replaced by new members as soon as they’re up for reelection.

    • Big Al

      Clown Car governments are generally elected by clowns.

      Asheville has exactly the government it wants and deserves.

  2. kw

    Another quarter-million spent on out-of-state consultants to hire police that many local leaders have alienated and chased away. Warning to applicants from out of state: don’t be duped!

    And of course out-of-state applicants will absorb housing and this will enable greedy white developers to get some more government handouts to house underpaid cops.

  3. Lara L

    If the documents/proposals discussed in these meetings are immediately available upon public records request by the media, why can’t they just be made available to the public in the first place? Also, who wrote the proposed ordinance? Who was at the table? Why not bring stakeholders in earlier to work on some creative problem solving? We can do better.

  4. Nina Tovish

    Rather than concede that the entire “require permits for food distribution in parks” ordinance is a terrible, terrible idea, City Council just closed with complaints that this whole thing is the fault of whomever leaked the proposed ordinance.
    Uh, no.
    Council has egg on its face for trying to develop a supremely BAD IDEA which never should have been given the time of day in the first place. The time to “consult with stakeholders” was BEFORE even beginning to consider this abomination in the first place.
    Kim Roney was right. This “research” should end now. Cut the losses to Councilmembers’ reputations now and move on.
    Asheville City government operates with a shameful lack of transparency and accountability. Patrick Conant shared in this same meeting another example of a similar disregard for public participation, in a proposed elimination of dozens of commissions that solicit citizen input.
    City Council needs to operate in the open. We deserve to see the processes at work. We deserve the opportunity to participate and hold public servants accountable.
    When you start “blaming the leaker” for public outrage, your credibility and moral standing are already compromised.

  5. Soothsayer

    We must do better with our elected representatives. While attempting to seek redress of past issues I have personally written letters and emails requesting responses from our Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Councilwomen. Not a single response nor confirmation of receipt. Since then I have grown to learn that unless you are a big monied developer your inquiry and concerns are of little to no concern to the current leadership. As another commenter indicated we can do better.

  6. Curious

    Will this report help the discussion? https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2022/01/27/potential-asheville-food-distribution-ordinance-triggers-outrage/9227053002/
    Are there legitimate issues of safety and clean-up involved in large-scale distribution of food (more than 25 people)?
    Can I invite 30 of my friends to a picnic in, say, Pritchard Park?
    Do the people receiving the food travel to the park(s) specifically to get the food? How large are the groups coming?
    Do the people needing food go to sites run by these good Samaritans for food?

  7. WagonWheel

    The author writes: ‘Council member Kim Roney supported the faith community’s position, asking that all discussions and research by city staff regarding the food distribution proposal be dropped.’ This quote leads to ambiguity. Does this mean the topic should not be further discussed in the meeting OR, as it reads, ‘all discussions and research by city staff ‘ on this topic should not be discussed at all the city council? Removed from the city’s docket. The former would imply the comic nature of the meeting, The later, incompetency of the city council.

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