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.