Much has been made of the Asheville City Council’s just-concluded budget battle. To some, it seems inconceivable that four such disparate elected officials could successfully put aside their considerable political and personal differences in order to achieve a common goal. For others, the very fact that Terry Bellamy, Joe Dunn, Holly Jones and Brian Peterson shared their wishes and intentions outside the public spotlight suggests manipulation or possible violation of North Carolina’s open-meetings law.
But those making accusations of backroom dealing conveniently overlook the very public arguments previously offered by these four, both in earlier budget sessions and at Council’s annual retreat back in January. On more than one occasion, each of these Council members had sought to get their pet projects funded and been rebuffed. And joining forces with political adversaries for mutual advantage is in the very best democratic tradition.
In our view, these four’s motives and actions should be lauded, not lambasted. Whether the abrupt budget changes they’ve engineered ultimately benefit this city remains to be seen. But these officials were elected to collectively govern; City Manager Jim Westbrook’s job is to listen, advise — and then prepare a budget that’s in keeping with the Council’s stated goals. In this case, four of seven Council members obviously felt the proposed budget failed to reflect their priorities. Accommodating the divergent wishes of multiple bosses can be a daunting task for any manager. But when the manager’s proposal fails to satisfy, City Council is honor bound to amend it.
According to Bellamy, the decision to ram through the changes — which affected less than 1 percent of the total budget, mind you — was a painful one. Peterson, Dunn and Jones all concur, each noting that they felt they’d been pushed to the breaking point. Westbrook, we’ll remind you, serves at Council members’ pleasure. And at that moment, four of them seemed anything but pleased with his performance.
Idealists might maintain that politicians should never have to sully their hands by resorting to messy compromise. That wish, however, is wholly at odds with the realities of democratic governance — and, perhaps, of human nature itself.
“All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” That’s Edmund Burke talking — a man who knew a little bit about this thing we call government. Burke would have been proud of our four Council members, who clearly engaged in a level of political horse-trading that would have made Tip O’Neill beam. And in the process, they were transformed from disparate competitors into something altogether different: a functioning Council majority.
Joe Dunn showed that he’s a politician to be reckoned with. Whether or not you agree with his views, here’s a man who has always been up front about them. He’s never been shy about declaring how this Council ought to spend its money, either. And in this instance, Dunn clearly made some trade-offs in the name of gaining support for certain preferred causes.
Holly Jones, meanwhile, could not have been more vocal about her dismay over the budget in the weeks leading up to the coup. “I’ve never been more frustrated,” she told her Council colleagues at the final budget work session on June 17. “I feel like we instructed staff to do this six months ago.” And though her passion for affordable housing is no secret, neither is her support for the Parks and Recreation Department — which fell to the compromisers’ ax. As executive director of the YWCA, however, Jones knows a thing or two about budgets. And that experience stood her in good stead during this hard campaign: She made tough choices and stuck by them.
Terry Bellamy has matured considerably during her tenure on Council. Her bold motion to go into closed session to discuss Westbrook’s future signaled to many that she’s no longer the kid on Council. With that determined move, Bellamy showed she has some fire in her belly. But her concern about the state of Asheville’s public housing isn’t new. In the past, she’s asked Council to urge the local legislative delegation to consider limiting terms on the Housing Authority. And she once lit into an Ingle’s representative over the condition of one of its stores (which primarily serves residents of a nearby public-housing development).
Brian Peterson, who has recently endured a stunning political setback, has announced that he won’t be seeking re-election. But though Peterson may be down, he’s certainly not out. Someone had to crunch those budget numbers, and he appears to be the one wearing the accountant’s eyeshade. Just a few weeks ago, Joe Dunn was calling for Peterson’s resignation. Now, the two are in cahoots.
Opponents have accused these rebels of inappropriately indulging their personal agendas. But don’t all politicians fuse their personal beliefs and pet projects with the positions they espouse? And would we really want to be governed by someone who didn’t?
In any case, it seems clear that something greater than personal agendas lay behind this insurrection. To claim that the four skirted the open-meetings law seems at best naive, at worst agenda-driven sour grapes on the part of the three who appear to have been outflanked. The law is unambiguous: It’s a violation of the open-meetings law only when a numerical majority of a governing body simultaneously convenes to discuss business.
Peterson, meanwhile, has claimed that Westbrook has engaged in similar tete-a-tetes with pairs of Council members on any number of legislative items (an accusation that has gone noticeably unchallenged) — and bully for Westbrook if he has. Let’s not kid ourselves: Anyone whose job depends on winning the continued blessings of four out of seven ambitious and often contending individuals must know how to count noses, build coalitions and test the waters. But what’s sauce for the goose…
No, what’s happened here is exactly what critics of city government have long been calling for: bringing the machinations of government out into the open. In other words, the curtain has been lifted on the wheeling and dealing that most definitely occurs under any form of government.
It’s a long time since anyone in Congress has worn a cloak, yet the House and Senate still have their cloakrooms. And here in Asheville, we have politics, too.
It’s about time we owned up to that, instead of pretending that we govern by consensus, rather than by whatever number of votes it takes to get the job done.