State Sen. Chuck Edwards (R) has taken up the cause of district elections for seats on Asheville City Council, an issue championed by his predecessor, fellow Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, shortly before Apodaca’s retirement last year.
Apodaca’s former 48th district — now represented by Edwards — includes a small area of the city of Asheville. The long-time senator introduced a bill to create district elections in the city at the end of last year’s legislative session.
Though that bill failed, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said at Council’s Tuesday, Feb. 28, formal meeting, legislators told City Council then that “we could expect to see this concept return to the legislature.” With that prediction — or threat — in mind, City Council had been scheduled to vote on a polling effort to gauge Asheville residents’ interest in district elections at Tuesday’s meeting. Edwards sent an email to Manheimer on Tuesday afternoon that appeared to try to force the mayor’s hand.
“I wanted to inform you of my intent to soon file a bill in the Senate that will require Asheville to conduct district elections,” wrote Edwards in the email, which Manheimer read aloud. “It will provide that six will be the number of required districts. It will also offer some flexibility for your Council to determine the geography of the districts. …
“I am open to realistic conversations as to the timing of the requirements. I am confident that this measure will pass both the Senate and the House. As a courtesy I am informing you of this intent, with the hope that your discussion should revolve more around how to district and forego the discussion of should we district. My actions are the result of trends taking place within municipalities as well as the feedback of the citizens of Buncombe County,” Edwards wrote.
Manheimer summarized the message: “That is the, ‘I’m going to do it whether your community says yes or no.'”
In a discussion that culminated in Council’s unanimous agreement to proceed with an effort to poll city voters as quickly as possible on the issue, members of the body expressed their displeasure with the tactics carried forward by Edwards.
“The people definitely need to have a voice,” commented Council member Keith Young.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said it was “extremely disappointing” that “we are back to ‘Raleigh says,’ and it doesn’t matter what Asheville residents say.” While she said she regrets spending money on polling, Wisler continued, “the information we get from polling will assist in making the decision if Raleigh does just unilaterally go ahead and say you’re going to get districted. At least this information will help us determine what those districts should look like.”
Council member Gordon Smith wondered aloud “what’s happened to that core Republican value around local control, because it appears to have evaporated.” Smith called the apparent effort to override “municipalities’ self-determination” an effort to have “affirmative action for Republicans in the city of Asheville.” The city’s elections are non-partisan contests. Six members of the current Council are Democrats; one, Brian Haynes, is unaffiliated.
Saying she had met within the past month with Edwards on “this and a whole range of other things,” Council member Julie Mayfield continued: “He said that he was continuing to get calls. And I said to him, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I haven’t gotten any calls and I haven’t gotten any emails.”
Directing her comments to “the people who are advocating for this,” Mayfield said: “We need to hear from you, who you are and why you want this. … It’s frankly a little outrageous that you would choose to go to the legislature instead of to us first, or even at all. So if you want this, please, please let us know, because I will tell you the emails that I am getting now are saying, ‘Why are we even having this conversation now? Asheville is fine, leave it alone.”
Mayfield also advocated holding a public forum during the legislature’s spring break in April. That would allow citizens to express their views in an open meeting, and also provide an opportunity for legislators to make their case for district elections to Asheville citizens, she said.
City resident Pat Thobe commented that residents need to be educated on the pros and cons of district elections before the poll is performed. “Nationally,” she said, “districting is a very manipulative strategy.” Thobe pointed out that even the language of the issue reveals how districts could impair municipal unity: “The very word dividing Asheville into districts is divisive.”
City Council recognized Steve Mitchell of Malvern Hills as Volunteer of the Year for his work in the service of his neighborhood and the entire city. Council proclaimed March 10 “Zelda Fitzgerald Day” in the city.
Manheimer introduced discussion of Council’s consent agenda with a last-minute addition: a resolution denouncing threats against those of the Jewish faith. In response to a bomb threat received on Feb. 27 at the Asheville Jewish Community Center, and at Jewish institutions across the country, Council affirmed its previous commitments to “being a welcoming and diverse community where all citizens can live and work without physical violence, threats or intimidation.” Further, Council “strongly denounces the vandalism and threats made against those of the Jewish faith.”
Council passed its consent agenda unanimously.
Presentations and reports
A report on the city’s finances in the second quarter of the Fiscal Year 2016-17 is available online, the mayor said.
City Transportation Director Ken Putnam provided a report on the city’s work on the Interstate 26 connector project with the N.C. Department of Transportation. Putnam directed citizens to a project page with the latest information on the project at the city’s website.
The NCDOT is scheduling neighborhood meetings for the Hillcrest and Fairfax and Virginia avenue neighborhoods in West Asheville on March 21, Putnam said; the time has not yet been finalized. The agency, he continued, recently met with the Burton Street neighborhood, which will be eligible for “special money for improvements” because of the project’s impact on that community.
Putnam reported that the selection of a consultant to assist the city in evaluating DOT proposals and other design considerations for the project, which was recently approved by Council, is underway. The city team that will evaluate the consultant proposals will make its recommendation to Council on April 25, he said.
Prior to its formal meeting, City Council interviewed six candidates for three seats on the Asheville City Schools Board of Education. During its regular meeting, Council voted to appoint Patricia Griffin, James Lee and Joyce Brown for terms beginning on April 1.
After Council’s vote on the school board appointments at around 6 p.m., Manheimer proposed reopening discussion of one aspect of the city’s homestay ordinance for a certain type of accessory dwelling units. Currently the city’s homestay ordinance allows residents to host short-term visitors in no more than two bedrooms of their primary residence. The homeowner or tenant host must be at home overnight during the homestay. Rooms in accessory units — including basement apartments, garage apartments or accessory structures — are not eligible for the homestay program.
Manheimer suggested considering allowing homestays in accessory units under the same roof as the primary dwelling, such as basement apartments. She did not specify whether one unit of a duplex would be eligible.
Mayfield said she’d be open to a new discussion on the possible expansion of the homestay program if it included a push to involve online short-term rental websites like AirBnB to assist with the city’s enforcement efforts.
Wisler, on the other hand, said she would give a “thumbs down” to reopening discussions about homestays less than four months after a citizen task force on the issue narrowly recommended retaining the existing rules.
Council directed city staff to conduct further research and bring a proposal to City Council for review. Any proposed changes would then go to the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission for a vote before coming back to Council for final approval.
Smith then changed the subject to the free electric car shuttle service Slidr, saying Council members had gotten “a raft of emails” from River Arts District residents and business owners asking Council to allow the service to sell advertising on the outside of its vehicles. The requests came in the context of discussions about how the city might reduce the traffic and parking impacts of upcoming major road and infrastructure construction in the District.
City Attorney Robin Currin explained that it is currently legal to advertise a business on the exterior of a vehicle owned by that business. Third-party advertising on vehicle exteriors is not legal in the city. All sign ordinances, which place limits on speech as defined by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Currin said, must apply equally to all businesses and individuals. If a municipality does place limits on mobile advertising, she said, the courts have indicated that those limits should involve “important government interests” such as aesthetics, traffic safety or pedestrian safety.
Thus, summarized Mayfield, Council cannot allow Slidr to advertise on its vehicles without changing all of the city’s sign ordinances and giving the same right to all businesses and individuals in the city.
Smith urged Council and the public to “consider the underlying need,” which he said was “How are we going to insure mobility needs throughout this construction process?”
City Manager Gary Jackson said staff is planning to come back to Council’s Planning and Economic Development committee with more information about how the city plans to work with business groups and property owners in the RAD over the next 18 to 24 months. “It will be intense for several months,” he said.
City resident Mike Lewis had nearly the final word of the meeting, demanding that Council member Keith Young clarify his residency. As recently reported by the Asheville Citizen-Times, Young’s voter registration lists his address as Martin Luther King Drive in Asheville, while the Deed of Trust for a property he purchased last year in Arden contains a statement that the property would be his primary residence. If Young’s primary address is in Arden, he is not eligible to serve on City Council, Lewis maintained. And if Young’s primary address is in the city, his Deed of Trust contains inaccurate information and “false pretenses,” Lewis said.
Smith closed out the session with a reminder that this weekend’s Southern Conference Basketball Tournament in Asheville is the only Division 1 tournament of the NCAA that will be held in North Carolina this year. Smith attributed that distinction to Asheville’s reputation for inclusiveness and the leadership of those in charge of the SoCon tournament. Many major sporting events left the state in the wake of legislation passed last year that requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates, among other provisions.
City Council’s next meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14 in Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville.
For more information on the Feb. 28 meeting of City Council, see Council to pick Board of Education members on Feb. 28.
For more of the latest city and county news check out Xpress’ Buncombe Beat.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 1, 2017 at 8:47 a.m. to reflect that Brian Haynes is unaffiliated; Cecil Bothwell is currently registered as a Democrat.