Anxious. Skeptical. Weary. Relieved.
That’s how members of Asheville City Council described their state of mind as they settled in for their two-day annual retreat at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. As the sometimes contentious discussions unfolded, members grappled with ambitious priorities for the upcoming year, and, perhaps more importantly, what their working relationships would look like for the next 18 months.
For members Sandra Kilgore, Antanette Mosley, Kim Roney and Sage Turner, it was the first time participating in the annual policy-setting forum. For Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith, member Gwen Wisler and senior city leadership, it was the first retreat with loose social distancing measures in place. For all, it was the first time meeting in-person as a group after conducting official business remotely since May.
As facilitators Nicholas Beamon of Charlotte and Kimberly Hunter of Asheville walked Council through exercises meant to “build a solid foundation for success,” the conversation kept returning to trust: in fellow members, in city staff and among skeptical community members.
The good, the bad, the united
The first five hours of the March 31 session were devoted to team-building — a necessary step for what Beamon repeatedly referred to as a “historic” group, a nod to the all-female elected body. Members were asked to reflect on their motivation for running for office and, later, to share the “idea, possibility or group” they most passionately represented in this moment.
The day before, a coalition of local media outlets, including Mountain Xpress, sued the city over its plans to conduct the team-building portions of the meeting in private. Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steve Warren ruled the team-building sessions constituted an official meeting, opening the door for members of the media and the public to attend the retreat in its entirety.
Mosley, who was appointed to fill outgoing Council member Vijay Kapoor’s vacancy in September, spoke of her commitment to speak up for Black women during the ongoing conversation around community reparations. Turner, the parent of two adult children, said she felt compelled to fight for everyday Asheville residents who soon may be driven out of the city by high costs of living. Roney, who works with young people on a daily basis, is committed to including their voices in decisions.
Kilgore wants to bring unity back to Asheville’s Black and white communities. And Smith shared that she was driven by a desire to bring Asheville back to “the good ol’ days” — but better. “Everything about Asheville is a utopia to so many people, so let’s get back to that utopia.”
The conversation then transitioned to a critical analysis of the group’s professional and personal dynamics. Almost every member pointed to a lack of active trust among colleagues as a major team weakness. Unity also needs to be a priority, said City Attorney Brad Branham. “It doesn’t have to be on everything, but we all have to row in the same direction,” he said.
The idea of unity is common among board members working in the private sector, Turner added. Once a decision is made, a private board stands by that choice as one unified body, she said, a mentality that could be applied to Council’s work.
But Council is overseeing people, not a product, countered Smith. Even if members were to come together as a unified body, discussions will inevitably turn from “rules of engagement” to “rules of war” as members speak up for their beliefs, ideas and constituents.
“Our focus, anyone who is at this table, is not to appease each other,” Smith said. “It’s to work for the people we serve.”
To build the active trust the team has been lacking, Beamon asked members and staff to share agreements that would “ensure an environment of respect, trust and productive dialogue.”
Kilgore, who was the sole member to oppose the removal of the Vance Monument, asked that members make time to listen to the concerns of others without immediately dismissing their ideas.
Feedback should be given early and often, offered City Manager Debra Campbell. Mosley took the suggestion a step further, asking that feedback be given first in private before offering thoughts in a public setting. And Wisler requested there be “no gotchas, no surprises” at Council meetings.
“There are many times when we as elected officials need to say something publicly,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean what I’m going to say at the dais is something that staff is really really happy about, but no surprise ‘gotcha’ moments. Staff should know what we’re going to say, if it’s something we’ve contemplated.”
Roney immediately pushed back, reminding the group about the recent release of the Asheville Police Department’s 303-page after-action report detailing the agency’s response to the spring’s racial justice protests. It came out just 16 hours before Council’s Public Safety Committee met to discuss its findings.
“Often, in meetings, we’re dealing with some pretty heavy stuff,” she said. “I’m often surprised by what I hear in the meeting, and there may be times I do something surprising because I’m also surprised.”
Manheimer chimed in, saying Roney had nearly made the mayor “have a heart attack” when Roney asked a direct question of Campbell at the March 9 Council meeting. “What I heard in that moment was ‘Debra, I’m very critical of you and how you’re managing things,’” Manheimer said. “Maybe you didn’t mean it that way, but I spent two hours after that thinking how you could have said that in a way that didn’t make me have a heart attack and let me hear what the real issue was.”
That wasn’t her intention, Roney said. She offered her own commitment to ask for clarification on future topics and to be more careful about comments that could be misinterpreted.
By the end of day two, members had whittled their key priorities for the coming year down to four. A plan for reparations, including identifying funding streams and crafting a policy for the disposition of city-owned land acquired as part of urban renewal efforts of the 1970s and ’80s, topped the list, as did directing federal COVID-19 relief spending.
The city is expected to receive $26 million from the federal American Rescue Plan. Crafting a policy framework to equitably distribute those funds within the federal guidelines will likely take significant staff time, Manheimer said.
Implementing pay raises for city employees and continuing to reimagine public safety priorities round out the focus areas. At Council’s regular meeting of Tuesday, April 13, Campbell will share a summary of the strategic priorities and a general timeline for delivering results. A third budget work session will be held at 2:30 p.m. the same afternoon.
“Essentially, we have consensus on these four areas,” Turner said. “I think that sends an incredible message.”