Walking the talk

“This is the most progressive City Council Asheville has ever seen.” Local media and conversations around town are abuzz with this refrain, but what exactly does “progressive” mean? The term has no universally accepted definition and is used to describe ideas ranging from liberal to radical. With this new City Council, Asheville has an incredible opportunity to craft our own definition of progressive politics as community-based governance that emphasizes social, economic and environmental justice.

Since the election, I’ve asked friends, acquaintances, well-known local activists, longtime Asheville gadflies and even people in the grocery checkout line what they’d like to see our new Council do first. Here are some ideas from those conversations:

1. Pass a living-wage ordinance. Low wages and a sky-high cost of living threaten to turn Asheville into a condo-filled theme park ringed by sprawl, with people who work here unable to afford basic necessities. Unless we adjust the wage-to-cost-of-living ratio, we are facing what some call “Aspenization.”

130 cities, counties and other jurisdictions have passed ordinances raising the minimum wage for public employees — and sometimes also for employees of companies that contract with the city or county. Durham County, N.C., passed a living wage indexed at 7.5 percent above the federal poverty level.

Asheville could improve on the Durham ordinance by indexing the wage to the NC Justice Center’s “living income standard,” tying wages to the actual cost of living. And we could go even further. Santa Monica, Calif., briefly boasted a living-wage law requiring private employers that had revenues of more than $5 million per year and that operated in the city’s tourist district to pay their employees at least $10.50 an hour plus health benefits, or $13 an hour without benefits. The first such law to cover employers having no direct financial relationship with the city, it was repealed by a narrow margin after a massive campaign funded by the hotel industry amid charges of deception and electoral manipulation. Asheville could be a national leader in living-wage efforts by enacting a Santa Monica-style ordinance.

2. Restore minimum housing-code enforcement. Asheville’s exemplary housing code was gutted in 2003. Mandatory inspections were replaced by a complaint-based system that leaves low-income renters at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Council should protect the health and safety of these families by reinstating mandatory inspections, which have proven effective for 10 years.

And while they’re at it, Council could repeal other recent ordinances that hurt low-income people, such as the unconstitutional panhandling ordinance, which criminalizes already-vulnerable homeless people.

3. Get serious about getting green. Council should move ahead with environmental initiatives in the city’s 2025 Plan that have yet to be implemented, including incentives for “green” building, integrating such techniques into city codes, and adhering to smart-growth principles.

We should fund greener transportation — including biofuels, bicycle infrastructure and better public transit — instead of building more multimillion-dollar parking decks. Council should also take an official position against the eight-lane Interstate 26 connector, which even the DOT’s own latest study doesn’t support. Asheville should have a multimodal transportation fund, support public transit by approving a “fare-free” system, extend the hours and frequency of bus service, and transition the city’s diesel buses and fleet vehicles to vegetable-based biodiesel (this can be done without modifying the engines).

Council should protect and increase green space and public space (a new Saint Lawrence Park on the site of the nixed parking garage would be a wonderful start), and reduce waste by adding business and residential compost collection (food scraps and other biodegradables) to the yard-waste composting already in place.

4. Extend equal domestic-partner benefits to all city employees. Since the city is self-insured, Asheville could set an example for our region with a fair, nondiscriminatory benefits system for city workers. Many cities (including Durham, Seattle and Philadelphia) have passed ordinances ensuring equal benefits for equal work. Unmarried gay, lesbian and heterosexual partners should receive the same benefits as married partners.

5. Promote affordable housing by implementing inclusionary zoning. Another goal from the 2025 Plan that has yet to come to life, inclusionary zoning would encourage or require developers to make a certain percentage of the units in new residential projects affordable by low- and moderate-income people. The most effective approach is mandatory inclusionary zoning for certain types of developments. Hundreds of cities across the country, including several in N.C., use inclusionary zoning to encourage racial and economic integration, address the affordable-housing crisis, and hold developers accountable to the community.

6. Protect constitutional and civil rights. In recent years, there have been a number of well-documented incidents of police misconduct in Asheville, and citizen groups have lobbied Council to make the APD more accountable by creating an independent police-oversight board (following the lead of cities like Denver, Tucson and Albuquerque) to conduct independent investigations of citizen complaints and to review police policies, practices, procedures and internal investigations.

Further, Asheville should join the more than 400 cities, counties and states (including Chapel Hill, Greensboro and Atlanta) that have passed resolutions opposing any federal measure that violates the rights and liberties guaranteed under state and federal constitutions. Atlanta’s resolution lays out specific actions to protect the rights of city residents, including immigrants. It directs the Police Department to refrain from surveillance of individuals or groups of individuals based solely on their participation in activities protected by the First Amendment and from any initiative that encourages people to spy on their neighbors, colleagues or customers.

7. Support local businesses: Limit “big-box” development with size caps and economic-impact reviews. Council should support a strong local economy anchored by small, locally owned businesses by amending the Unified Development Ordinance to include size caps for new retail businesses in all zoning districts and economic-impact reviews for large retail developments.

Huge retail developments dwarf surrounding neighborhoods, increase car traffic, burden public infrastructure, suck the life out of local businesses, and have been a bone of contention in Asheville for years. One-third of city zoning districts, including downtown and the River District, place no limits on the size of retail businesses. Adding size caps would curb those negative impacts and help sustain the vitality of small-scale, pedestrian-oriented business districts that nurture homegrown businesses. Without the “giant sucking sound” coming from big boxes, downtown will be able to support not just condominiums and boutiques but stores carrying practical necessities and locally grown-and-produced goods.

Faced with an impending big-box development, the town of Belfast, Maine, adopted a temporary moratorium on large stores until they could finalize size-cap regulations. In response to size caps, some national retailers will choose not to open a store smaller than their cookie-cutter format; others will design smaller stores to comply.

8. Tax tourists with a fair-share hotel-occupancy tax. While the city pours money into making downtown look like the “Paris of the South” and Asheville’s popularity as a vacation destination continues to grow, our city has one of the lowest hotel-occupancy tax rates in the state. The city gives the Chamber of Commerce $1 million every year while continuing to raise property taxes. Why not tax the folks who have the money to vacation here, using our sidewalks, streets and other facilities? Council member Brownie Newman has pushed this idea for years, and this Council could make it happen through its upcoming appointments to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The revenue could fund infrastructure benefiting both the tourism industry and the community.

9. Take a stand for public health and safety: Make Asheville a nuclear-free zone. More than 17 million Americans now live in “nuclear-free zones.” There are more than 4,300 of them worldwide, including cities such as New York, Chicago and Las Vegas; towns, counties and whole nations. Such resolutions pose both symbolic and real challenges to the nuclear-power and weapons industries, which transport dangerous radioactive materials on public highways, ignoring public health and financial risks.

These risks should be of particular concern to Asheville, which is already a transit corridor for nuclear materials and could see still more such traffic, if proposed federal initiatives to maintain old bombs, build new nuclear weapons, and dispose of nuclear waste are enacted (see “Nuclear Transport Threatens Asheville — Today and Tomorrow,” April 27, 2005 Xpress). Most NFZ ordinances prohibit cities from buying or leasing products made by nuclear-weapons manufacturers (e.g. traffic cameras from Lockheed Martin) or contracting with them. Many also prohibit city investment in industries and institutions engaged in nuclear-weapons production.

10. Change the rules regarding filling vacant Council seats. The city should adhere to the principles of representative democracy by letting the voters decide who represents us on Council, rather than letting Council members fill vacancies by appointment.

After years of fighting the same battles time and again, progressive-minded people in Asheville finally have a chance to shift gears and focus on the proactive and creative work of building a just and sustainable community. The ideas presented here are merely the tip of the iceberg: I encourage Council members to channel the creativity, experience and energy of the people who live here to make our city the shining example that it can be.

[Asheville resident Beth Trigg is a writer and gardener who has worked on social, economic and environmental-justice issues in the nonprofit sector for the past 10 years.]

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