Community members claim Asheville City Council tried to limit opportunities for public comment during its meeting of July 28 by introducing several new policies to regulate callers. “It seems like a direct attempt to stifle dissent,” said Ben Spencer, a South Asheville resident who called in several times during the meeting.
Commenters were required to sign up in advance to speak live during the virtual meeting, a policy that was not in place for Council’s several most recent remote meetings. According to city spokesperson Polly McDaniel, both state law and the city’s rules of procedure grant Council the discretion to set or adjust rules to “facilitate the efficient conduct of public meetings.”
“By requesting speakers to sign up in advance, city staff are able to inform speakers of their place in line, as well as communicate specifically with the person intending to speak next,” McDaniel said in an email exchange with Xpress. “These changes were intended to address issues which occurred during the recent meetings.”
McDaniel did not indicate which specific issues those changes were meant to correct.
In past meetings, all speakers had been given three minutes to comment on each public hearing item and during open public comment. However, at the beginning of the July 28 meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer deviated from this precedent, announcing that each caller signed up to comment on the 2020-21 fiscal year budget would instead have two minutes to speak.
Prior to making the change, McDaniel said, Manheimer consulted City Attorney Brad Branham “on multiple occasions,” and all members of Council were informed. No Council member objected to the change, McDaniel added, and no formal vote to approve the moves was required.
“The time limit was reduced by 60 seconds per speaker in order to allow sufficient time for all speakers to have access to the Council and still allow reasonable time to complete the informal comment period as well,” McDaniel said. “As the meeting lasted over six hours, the need for this modification is evident.”
Callers were outraged by the decision, which they argued was not made clear when they signed up for live comment. Emailed instructions sent to registered callers around noon July 28 did mention the reduced time limit, but the change was not listed on the meeting agenda, the city’s public engagement hub or the speaker sign-up form. Council’s rules of decorum, which were explicitly listed on the meeting materials, state that “each speaker is allotted 3 minutes to speak on an agenda item.”
Several callers also claimed they were excluded from comment despite following the city’s procedures, adding to frustrations that their voices weren’t heard. While 20 names were included on the caller list to speak on the consent agenda, only two spoke live. During the budget hearing, which had 82 registered callers, only 44 spoke.
According to city staff, said McDaniel, some participants did not call within the timeframe an item was being discussed, did not press “3” to be added to the speaker queue, never called into the meeting or declined to speak when contacted by staff.
After the close of the budget hearing, member Brian Haynes informed Council that he had received a text message from an individual who was still waiting in the speaker queue to comment. Manheimer responded that staff had checked the queue and found no one left waiting.
Manheimer made several announcements reminding anyone who got inadvertently disconnected to call back, McDaniel said. She acknowledged that, about four hours into the meeting, the bridge between the virtual meeting and the city’s engagement hub disconnected. Staff quickly restored the line, she added, and callers who were inadvertently disconnected were brought back into the queue.
Resident Alexandra Lines said she was one of the people skipped. After signing up online and carefully following all of the instructions provided by city staff, she entered the speaker queue when the budget hearing began. When the name before hers on the speaker list was called, she assumed she was next.
Instead, Lines said, she stayed on the line for another hour and was still waiting in the queue when the budget public hearing ended. She contacted Deputy City Clerk Sarah Terwilliger about the issue; Terwilliger responded that Lines was signed up to speak during informal comment, not the budget hearing — despite her name being on the list for both.
The process is unacceptable, Lines said, and has left many people feeling unheard.
“It’s not OK that you’re ignoring people, straight-up ignoring the people that you’re supposed to represent,” she told Council when she was finally able to get through at the end of the meeting. “It’s so clear why there’s no trust. You don’t deserve trust.”
Updated at 3:00 p.m. on July 31 to add additional comment from Polly McDaniel about technical difficulties and phone line procedures.