Since it generally deals with matters that are considered non-controversial or have been previously reviewed and advanced by Council committees, Asheville City Council’s consent agenda often passes without discussion. At Council’s Sept. 6 meeting, however, the board’s consideration of that portion of its agenda led to impassioned discussions about the wisdom of America’s 46-year war on drugs and the city’s role in promoting economic justice through its contracting arrangements.
Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper explained that an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Asheville Police Department to enable collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Agency had been in place for many years. “We have one detective assigned to the DEA task force for Western North Carolina,” she said. The agreement gives the APD the ability to investigate drug cases and sources beyond its regular jurisdiction within the city limits. In its consent agenda, Council was asked to approve extending the agreement through Sept. 30, 2017.
Asked by Mayor Esther Manheimer what the impact of not continuing the agreement would be, Hooper replied that “It would mean that we would not be able to investigate cases for drug suppliers outside of Asheville and Buncombe County.”
Saying he was not commenting on the performance of local law enforcement, Councilman Brian Haynes read a statement in which he traced the history of the “war on drugs” launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. The main casualties in that war, Haynes said, “have been people of color.” Haynes spoke of a critical need to reform the criminal justice system and the drug-related policies that have led to skyrocketing incarceration rates. “In 2013, there were 2,220,000 people incarcerated, and another 4,700,000 on probation or parole,” Haynes said. Though blacks and Latinos make up 25 percent of the total U.S. population, he continued, they account for over half of the country’s incarcerated population. The disproportionate impact of drug policies, and the policing that enforces them, on minority populations is a major contributor to the tensions that have developed between police and minority communities both nationally and here in Asheville, he said.
“I cannot in good conscience vote to reenter into this agreement,” Haynes concluded.
“The war on drugs has been an utter and complete failure by any measure,” said Councilman Cecil Bothwell. “The only thing I can do at the city level to reject that is to vote against this.”
Manheimer entered the fray to explain her reasons for supporting the joint agreement. If polled, she said, the majority of city residents would favor legalizing marijuana. But that is only one of many drugs law enforcement is tasked with policing. “If anyone’s interested, you can actually sign up to participate in a police ride-along. And if you ever do that, what you’re going to find out is there’s a whole lot of meth out there, and there’s a whole lot of opioids out there and a lot of people that are shooting up all those things.”
“That is a real problem for our community,” she said. From a Council level, she continued, “I feel we need to support law enforcement efforts to handle drug enforcement in the city, and that’s going to sometimes mean looking at suppliers outside the city…I don’t feel I have the luxury to vote against it because I have concerns about the war on drugs, which I do.”
The 4-3 vote went in favor of continuing the arrangement, with Bothwell, Haynes and Councilman Keith Young voting against.
Three contract agreements with private businesses to provide services to the city on an hourly basis also came under Council scrutiny. One such agreement is with Guard-One Protective Services, which has held the contract for providing security guards at Asheville City Hall and other city buildings for several years. A second agreement concerns FIRST at Blue Ridge Inc., an agency which employs people transitioning from chronic substance abuse addiction to productive employment. FIRST employees perform cleanup activities such as graffiti and trash removal. The third contract is for maintenance of landscaping in city medians and sidewalk bump-outs. The low bidder on that contract was Pinnacle Landscaping LLC.
While city staffers couldn’t immediately address Council’s questions about the wages Guard-One pays its employees, Bothwell seemed to be satisfied by an assurance from Brad Stein, the city’s Risk Manager, that the guards do receive health insurance through their employer.
Public Works Director Greg Shuler clarified that FIRST employees are paid $9 per hour, but also receive housing, transportation and job and life skills training. Considering those benefits, commented Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, the total compensation far exceeds a living wage.
Council passed the contracts for those two companies unanimously.
The vote on the Pinnacle Landscaping contract played out differently. Haynes requested that Council be provided with the rates a contractor’s employees will earn while engaged in city projects when Council is asked to approve such contracts in the future. Bothwell went a step further, saying, “I’d like to know what the arguments are for using private contractor versus city employees?” City Manager Gary Jackson pledged to study the issue and to provide Council with an assessment of the budget impact of filling contracted functions with city employees earning a living wage. He also said he would research whether the city would be legally permitted to ask a non-binding question on contracting bids about whether the company does or does not pay a living wage.
Manheimer again provided context for current city policies. “We’re not allowed to make [paying a living wage] a requirement of our contractors yet we’re still subject to public bidding requirements. So we’re pretty hemmed in in terms of what…we’re fine to review it and take it into consideration, but we have these legal parameters that are unyielding.” Manheimer was referring to legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly that prevents municipalities from enacting ordinances that require contractors to pay living wages.
Speaking of a past Council decision to require city contractors to pay a living wage, Councilman Gordon Smith said, “This board stepped up and made that promise and they [the General Assembly] made it illegal for us to keep that promise.”
Haynes commented, “If our contractors are not being paid a living wage, then we should hire more city employees.” Bothwell agreed.
The vote on the Pinnacle Landscaping contract passed 5-2, with Bothwell and Haynes voting against it.
Up next: Ingles withdraws sign request in face of Council opposition; officials approve affordable housing, Bouchon in Haw Creek