No more business as usual

Kudos to Judge Hyatt for her courageous decision regarding the Parkside issue and the ownership of City/County Plaza. I could hear a collective sigh of relief coming from the Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members: “Thank God we didn’t have to make the decision, and the developers can’t blame us.”

But before we go skipping off into the meadows singing “We (Have) Overcome” and “Kumbaya,” don’t let the recent comments by our county commissioners slip under the radar. Vice Chair David Gantt has stated that he has no problem with the fact that if the commissioners have their way, the new Planning Board will consist solely of developers, real-estate brokers, contractors and the like—because they appear to be the only ones applying for the positions. But that’s not a satisfactory answer: The Planning Board needs to be diverse, reflecting the thousands of citizens who have a problem with letting people like this unilaterally make key decisions about the future of this city and county. Do the words “conflict of interest” ring a bell?

The very idea of having a balanced, representative cross section of opinions on local planning boards seems to be anathema to many of our elected officials. This lies at the core of why the current city and county governments are so out of touch with their constituencies on development issues. We must ensure that Asheville and the county do not disappear in a glut of high-rise condos, malls and overcrowding. If we’ve learned anything in recent months, it’s that we can no longer conduct business as usual. Future elected officials must be real stewards of the mountains—unconflicted, ethical and committed to preserving this precious resource.

Xpress recently quoted Board of Commissioners Chair Ramsey—or should I say His Highness Ramsey—saying that Planning Board members “serve at the pleasure of the commissioners, and we can dismiss them if we don’t think they’re doing a good job.”

In other words, “We, the Royal High Pooh-Bahs, call the shots: You follow suit or you’re out.” This is the commissioners’ idea of checks and balances and transparency, and what makes it all the more insulting and egregious is that they’re preparing to revert to business as usual as soon as they feel the flap over Parkside has died down.

What is obviously missing is a new way of thinking about the issues facing this city and county, and few of our present “leaders” appear to have the requisite vision or insight. I, for one, am tired of hearing the usual politician-speak. How refreshing it would be to see politicians speak truth to power—to have the courage to “just say no” and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps Judge Hyatt’s example will filter down to some of our other government officials.

These are not stupid people; they know what they’re doing. Anyone who thinks the commissioners “just screwed up” in the case of Parkside is naive: They just got caught. And now they’re back at it, trying to continue stacking the deck in favor of the developers. If we allow this to happen, then the next development scenario will make Parkside seem like a fond memory.

One encouraging aspect of the Parkside flap is that “the people” finally galvanized around an important issue and refused to let it die, hopefully sending a clear message to all those who view Asheville as some sort of unlimited cash cow that they can exploit at will, without regard to the consequences for either the environment or our quality of life.

We cannot afford to turn that spotlight away from our elected officials, allowing them to get back to making deals that will affect us on a grand scale—such as the 23-story Ellington hotel and condos soon to be erected in the heart of downtown. Projects of this impact should require a voter referendum.

We allow these things to happen at our peril. Economic prosperity can be maintained in Asheville and the county by elected officials who are ahead of the curve, who understand that a new millennium calls for new paradigms in how we do business, how we allocate our resources and protect the ones we have, and how we maintain our infrastructure. And once and for all, I wish we could put an end to the notion that anyone—especially a developer—has the right to build anything they want to, anywhere, as long as they own a particular piece of property. While I respect the rights of people to enjoy the fruits of their labor, I do remember reading something somewhere about the common good. Will someone please show me the common good that million-dollar condos will have for the average Asheville resident?

Some years ago, I wrote down 11 principles that I called the Bill of Responsibilities. Some of them apply here:

1. Along with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I have a responsibility to do all within my power to help maintain the welfare and integrity of the country/county that has provided me with the opportunity to pursue those rights.

6. I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to ensure that the country/county I leave to my progeny is better than the one that was left to me.

8. I have a responsibility to question and hold responsible those entrusted to maintain this country’s/county’s status quo.

9. I have a responsibility to be involved in my country’s/county’s politics and welfare.

The issues we will face in the coming months and years will require strong, couragous and visionary leadership. So far, I’ve been disappointed in most of what passes for leadership here. Maybe 2009 will be better; or maybe I’m being naive. But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

[Arden resident Jesse Junior, a retired civil servant, hosts a radio show on WPVM.]

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