From housewife to activist to mayor

KITCHEN-TABLE POLITICS: Leni Sitnick — Asheville first woman mayor — launched her political career from her home ... and a lifetime of interest and involvement in community issues. (Photo courtesy of Leni Sitnick)

When I came here with my husband and three young children in late 1976, Asheville was quiet and downtown was mostly boarded up. We lived in Swannanoa and I got involved with the folks trying to close the Chemtronics plant. That was the start of my political activism.

In 1980, we left Asheville for a few years and lived in New Hampshire, where I got involved with hazardous and nuclear waste issues. I was also working with Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, where I learned how the legislative process works. That was the start of my political education. After moving back to Asheville in early 1985, I learned that the federal government was proposing a site in Sandy Mush for a high-level nuclear waste dump, and I became one voice among many speaking out and opposing it. Over the next decade, I got more involved in the city — from singing backup with Robin Cape in my sons’ reggae band to serving on the Asheville Tree Commission and becoming such a regular at local-government meetings that Council member Gene Ellison called me an ex officio member. (He also taught me how to count to four.)

In the early ’90s, I got a call one day from a woman who encouraged me to run for office, something I had never given any thought to. When she said, “If not you, who, and if not now, when?” I started to give it serious consideration, and I ran for Asheville City Council in 1994. That was the beginning of my public service.

I came in last in the primary but first in the general election. In December 1994, my first duty as a newly elected Council member was to decide whether to fire or retain then-City Manager Doug Bean. The public had been aroused by news reports hinting that four of my colleagues wanted Bean fired. We were sworn in at City Hall, then, due to the large crowd expected, adjourned to the Asheville Civic Center Banquet Room for the vote. We were greeted by 350 concerned citizens — some for firing Bean, some for keeping him.

In the only order of business that night, Bean was fired on a vote of 4 to 3. I was one of the three who voted not to fire him, explaining to those present that I wasn’t going to fire Bean because I had never worked with him and didn’t know why I was being asked to do so. I also said that there was no way I was going to fire someone two weeks before Christmas.

Two recall petitions were immediately filed — one to oust the four Council members who voted to fire Bean and one to oust two of the three who voted to keep him. I wasn’t included in either action — recalls that divided the city. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or neglected. Folks later told me that it was because of the way that I explained my reasoning. I think they must have felt sorry for me, because I’m sure I looked like a deer caught in the headlights. That was the auspicious start of my elected political career.

Working for paradise

I knew Asheville would be discovered by more and more people looking to live in paradise, so I felt a deep responsibility to make decisions that would maintain its beauty, its history and culture and its way of life.

The issues, as I best recall, were about growth, development and zoning, water rates, stormwater, maintaining and expanding our infrastructure, bringing downtown back to life, taxes, jobs, the Civic Center, tree protection, greenways, pedestrian amenities, neighborhoods, greenspace, transportation, traffic — many of the same issues the City Council deals with today.

The Mountain Xpress (and Green Line, its predecessor) did a great job of covering the goings on in City Hall. Calvin Allen kept the community informed of all the details through the Fund for Investigative Reporting. Thank goodness for dear Julian Price, who kept Xpress going, kept downtown going and provided seed money to so many local business people. And much gratitude is owed to Roger McGuire, an early visionary and supporter who believed in Asheville’s potential and never said the word “can’t.”

Downtown became a passion of mine. Council and I worked to find ways to support those who were the early investors and risk-takers who brought their businesses and offices here and helped make it the economic hub of Western North Carolina — people like John Cram, Laurey Masterton, Emöke B’Racz, Leslie Anderson, Beth Stickle, Connie Bostic, Joe Eckert, and many more. Thank goodness for Barbara Field, my fellow Council member, for grappling with legislators and officials in Raleigh to find ways to save downtown buildings from demolition by coming up with codes and architectural genius to make the buildings fire and occupancy safe. Representatives from other cities started coming here to see our wonderful, happening downtown.

By the people

It seems the more I remember, the more I remember — the hard-working Susan Roderick greening Asheville with trees and beautiful flowers; the fight to save the ridgelines; the vocal many, like neighborhood leader Barber Melton, who spoke out against the widening of Broadway and the proliferation of billboards; the too-many-to-count public hearings on strengthening Asheville’s sign ordinance; my daughter, Hara, organizing the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day Festival downtown in 1990; my sons’ (Adam and Jason) reggae band, One Tribe, playing monthly at the new music venue Be Here Now and at many Bele Cheres.

And who can forget the French Broad River and the citizens who refused to let it become just another tainted waterway? We owe so much thanks to Jeff Fobes and his parents, my friends Hazel and Jack Fobes, to Karen Cragnolin and RiverLink, and to Green Line and Mountain Xpress, for keeping the people informed and involved and for joining the efforts to save our river.

I served on the Tree Commission and remember when developers were building the Haw Creek Mews and someone cut down all the trees in the buffer zone. That fired up the birth of neighborhood associations all over the city, as did the zoning debates going on at the time. The Unified Development Ordinance was being written and, oddly, I was the chair of the Commercial and Industrial Hubs Subcommittee. I recall so many meetings and long, long hours of discussion. Great citizen participation, working with staff, gave us the living document we call the UDO. It isn’t perfect and needs continual tweaking, but it has kept chaos at bay.

I remember the Water Efficiency Task Force, which I proudly served on with Hazel Fobes, Rick Maas and others. We were recognized nationally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for our efforts to install water-saving devices throughout the city after experiencing a terrible drought. And of course, there was our fantastic Captain Hydro, Gawain Mainwaring from UNC Asheville, who, in costume, went around to all the schools and addressed some 10,000 children, handed out over 1,200 water-saving devices, and taught the kids about turning off the water when brushing their teeth. I remember the endless meetings with the Water Authority about establishing fair water rates for Asheville and Buncombe County users.

I remember the passage of Asheville’s nondiscrimination ordinance in May 1994. Originally, I introduced it with a list of about 15 categories of people and situations that the city government couldn’t discriminate against. In time, the list grew to well over 35 categories, including sexual orientation, corporeal manifestation, smokers, spouses with illnesses — and the list went on. The city attorney and I knew we needed language that included everybody and would hold up in court. After an almost all-nighter, the language we came up with was, slightly paraphrased: “The City of Asheville, in its hiring, firing and promoting practices, will not discriminate against anyone, for any reason, if they have the bona fide qualifications to do the job, and have good job performance.” It passed on a 4-to-3 vote. I got calls from cities around the country wanting copies of the language. Simple language, simple vote. Not such a simple process.

Because of the inclusion of the usual community hot-button issue of sexual orientation in the original language, there was an uprising in the city, and an historic 1,500 people attended the Council meeting, held in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium with police stationed around the hall — the largest council meeting ever. With the reading of the final language, the meeting ended without incident. (Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of turnout when Council talks about jobs, living wages and affordable housing?)

I remember dozens of official “plans,” the many visioning meetings, the long discussions about the hotel room tax being raised a bit and part of it offered to the city for civic use (as is done in almost every other large city in the state) so the Asheville taxpayers alone don’t have to foot the bill to maintain a city enjoyed by tourists and all of Western North Carolina. The endless discussions we had on how to revitalize the Eagle-Market Street area and reclaim its history continue to this day, finally, with some movement.

Becoming mayor

After two years on City Council, however, I chose not to run for a second term. My wonderful mother passed away shortly after I was elected, and I needed personal time to mourn her loss. I stayed involved as best I could, got several phone calls in mid-1997 suggesting I run for mayor. Initially, I thought, “Some 200 years of male mayors — there is no way I could ever get elected.” So, in typical fashion, I jumped in, had a 100-person committee before I announced and was quickly labeled the “hippie, granola, Birkenstock candidate.” Go figure. I guess it was the hair. Someone actually sent me two boxes of hair relaxer during the campaign. I was a wife of 36 years, a mother, a grandmother and had worked all my life, yet I was labeled a hippie. I didn’t mind at all.

The night of the election, a huge crowd gathered at Richard Puia’s Beanstreets, another early downtown pioneer, spilling out into the street. Virgil Smith, then publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times, walked in and mouthed the words, “You won by 58 percent of the vote.” I put my hands to my cheeks like the little kid in Home Alone and said to myself, “What have I done?” — looking, once again, like a deer in the headlights, I’m sure.

Being the first anything creates a whole new energy and a whole new set of expectations. Being the first woman mayor, I had to make my own case. What made it easier than it might have been was that the City Council I served with never made me feel uncomfortable — never made me feel that I had to prove myself beyond my best ability. I can say the same for city staff. My term was four years, so, heading up Council members who were serving two-year terms, I served with Edward Hay, Barbara Field, Chuck Cloninger, Brian Peterson, Charles Worley, Earl Cobb, Terry Bellamy, O.T. Tomes and Tommy Sellers. We worked hard to find solutions that were fair and practical. Council and staff worked together with the people on the mayor’s roundtables addressing issues like litter, the environment, safety, etc. We worked for positive outcomes.

The press was a different story. A new editor had joined the Citizen-Times and, while then-publisher Virgil Smith was the greatest and a true professional, George Benge was determined to create controversy whenever and wherever he could. And create it he did. Thankfully, in time, we came to respect each other.

One of my campaign promises was to be a full-time mayor. My office was always open to all. I had a dish of chocolates ready and a dream-catcher over my desk. Council meetings started at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers, instead of in the conference room at 3, which allowed for more public participation at meetings. All the issues we had dealt with during my term as a Council member continued — tourism, bike lanes, affordable housing (a term I dislike), a living wage, air quality, the environment, Interstate 26. The most fun I had was visiting every school I could and meeting with the kids in their classrooms and auditoriums. They taught me a lot. I loved when George Stowe, the architect, made a 10-foot-tall papier-mâché replica of me, hair and all, draped in a purple cape, and pulled it in a Christmas parade on a queen-sized metal bed frame.

City Council became a television show, and for those not bored by the tedium, by Mr. Bishop, Ukiah Morrison (the thong guy) or by the cannabis twins, our every word and vote could be analyzed. We formed the Mayors Committee on Sustainable Economic Development, chaired by Jack Cecil, where we had to define what sustainability meant. Two of the things we came up with were two of the things I had campaigned for. I believed, and still do, that art and filmmaking were important parts of our economic engine. Art was already an established fact of life, but not necessarily thought of in economic terms. When I suggested establishing the Asheville Film Commission to work with the state and WNC film commissions, everyone embraced it. That led to the very successful but short-lived Asheville Film Festival. We are a nationally recognized arts destination and continue to stay on that list thanks to our artists, musicians and performers, who are appreciated and supported by residents and tourists alike.

I remember the closing of the Asheville Motor Speedway. The owner of the track had been trying to sell it for four years. When the real estate transaction took place between the owner and the buyer, the seller no longer wanted the property to be used as a racetrack. He wanted to dedicate part of it as a greenway named to honor his father. The buyer gave the property to RiverLink, which then gave the property to the city at a City Council meeting. Some citizens accused the Council of having a secret meeting to close the track, which was a much-loved part of Asheville history. Such a meeting never happened. No one has ever been able to say where and when that meeting took place and who attended it. No doubt it remains a sad chapter in Asheville’s past.

What’s next

When I campaigned, I spoke of our amazing medical community and the growing alternative medical therapies happening here, which started with homeopath George Guess and acupuncturist Cissy Majebe. Now we have every complementary modality available for health and wellness. Asheville has a past known for people coming here for health purposes, and that continues today. I thought how great it would be for Asheville to have the first college of complementary medicine, where all the therapies could be taught under one roof. We already have the finest that medicine has to offer. We are a city of open minds, open hearts and open possibilities, so we would be a perfect place for such an institution. Maybe someday.

The most difficult and painful day during my term as mayor happened in 2001. It was the day that “911” went from being a number to call in case of emergency to a number that would forever be etched in our memories as a day of unbearable grief. I remember calling for a day of prayer and reflection at City/County Plaza and speaking with a heavy heart to a dazed crowd. I knew that the age of innocence was over and that things would never be the same again.

I very much enjoyed serving the people, both on Council and as mayor. I know I made some mistakes and did my best, and my only regret is that I didn’t run for a second term and finish some of the things we started back then.

I am buoyed by the fact that since the end of 2001, when I left office, the mayors and Council members who followed continue the hard work to make Asheville a great place to live.

Leni Sitnick served on the Asheville City Council from 1993 to 1995. She became the city’s first woman mayor in 1997, serving through 2001.

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3 thoughts on “From housewife to activist to mayor

  1. Peggy Seeger

    Hello Leni, from NEW ZEALAND … just writing my memoir. you’re in it. i googled you and found this site. just wonderful what you are doing!!! Hope all is well. Lots of love, Peggy (for self and Irene)

  2. Toby Sitnick

    We must be related! I’m a clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, NY. I’m originally from Baltimore and my grandfather was from Lodtz Poland. I haven’t been to Asheland yet but I’ve heard wonderful things about your city. I am also an activist and I’d love to hear from you.

    • James L. Smith

      ‘Asheville,’ dude, and if you’ve never met Leni, you are missing out. She is a classy lady. I used to see her a lot at the Fresh Market in N. Asheville. One day I was seated out front with another foodie friend enjoying a food promotional at Fresh Market. Leni walked up to say HELLO and about that time a lady walked up with this beautiful Golden Doodle. The question of the animal’s name came up, and the owner gave his name as “Rock Hudson.”

      My big mouth and I just had to pop up and ask, “Is he gay?”

      Immediately Leni chided me by pulling my ear. Ever so gently she let me know she disapproved. She is such a class act.

      Come see us, Toby. You’ll never know what you missed if you don’t.

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