Letter: Saving the city’s participatory democracy

Graphic by Lori Deaton

A response to the proposal by the city of Asheville to restructure the city’s advisory boards and commissions [“All a Board: Asheville Seeks to Restructure Citizen Advisory Groups,” March 2, Xpress]:

While acknowledging that improvements in efficiency can be made, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods believes our current boards and commissions advisory system is the best example of participatory democracy in this city. We believe that reducing 20 advisory boards, manned by 130-plus citizen volunteers, down to four advisory boards of about 40 appointees will only suppress citizen knowledge and participation in our city’s governance.

We believe that this extreme attempt at dismantling this worthwhile system represents an existential challenge to Asheville’s most participatory layer of government, and that if implemented, will result in a less inclusive, less transparent, top-down form of governance that’s not in the public’s best interest.

We believe that inconsistent Council liaison attendance and communications of the work of boards and commissions, along with inconsistent city staff support, all contribute to the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of certain boards. We believe that no matter how inefficient it may feel to Council, they must make the effort to listen to the citizens and incorporate their feedback into city policy.

We know that our current boards and commissions represent an amazing and powerful assemblage of smart, active citizens who care about Asheville and are committed to transparent and inclusive governance. We question what will happen to the institutional knowledge, combined experience and continuity of their work if a board or commission is abruptly dissolved by Council.

Based on these beliefs and the opposition that we are hearing from the community, we believe that this restructuring proposal should be wholeheartedly and transparently challenged.

While we commend the city of Asheville for creating the Restructure Working Group/Pilot and for inviting citizens to participate, we believe simply accepting this city-mandated proposal is not in the best interests of our city. Instead of working to dismantle the current system, we suggest that city of Asheville and Council enlist citizens to help them:

• Conduct a comprehensive assessment of all boards and commissions to determine those that are currently fulfilling their charge and those that are not.
• Create a system to monitor city staff support, Council liaison attendance and Council communication of the proposals created by the boards and commissions to other Council members.
• Make substantial efforts to listen to Asheville residents, incorporate their feedback and update the plan before making any changes to the current system.

— Rick Freeman
President, Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods


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9 thoughts on “Letter: Saving the city’s participatory democracy

  1. Curious

    I’m curious if the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods supports district elections, rather than citywide, for council seats, so that all neighborhoods have a chance at representation?

  2. NFB

    There was a referendum on that a few years ago. By a margin of 75% – 25% voters supported maintaining the at large system. Switching to a district system failed to win a single precinct.

  3. NFB

    There are pros and cons to at large elections and pros and cons to district elections. But the decision should be up to the citizens of Asheville and not be imposed on us by Raleigh.

  4. SpareChange

    Asheville government increasingly suffers from “hyperpluralism.” This is a condition which exists when there are so many organized boards and issue oriented interest groups, and requests by government for more and more citizen input, that the multiple (often competing) factions eventually bring about a degree of political stalemate, and hinder representative government’s capacity to function effectively.

    This kind of citizen-input gridlock is what has happened in Asheville, and it is a significant contributor to the frequently passive, hesitant decision making so often seen on the council. Taken to the extreme we have seen, it slows or prevents the enacting and implementation of clear, thoughtful and consistent policies. It has reached the point that it often seems that about the only strong stand taken by the council, is the strong stand never to take a strong stand.

    Certainly there is a place for citizen boards, and there is a place for the city council and city administration to at times also seek direct citizen input through other channels, prior to making decisions, but what we have seen play out in Asheville shows that sometimes “more results in less.”

  5. Mike R.

    Yes, it is apparent to me that Asheville suffers from “too many cooks spoil the broth”.
    We definitely need to reduce/consolidate citizen boards.
    And we need to have district and at-large representation for council like virtually every other equivalent municipality in NC. The reason it didn’t pass is because the City Council (except for Vijay Kapoor) were opposed to it. They were opposed to it because they knew that many of them would not be elected with fewer at large seats and because Asheville opposes anything Raleigh or Edwards proposes, even when it’s in their best interest (e.g., we finally got school board members elected).

    • Stephen Hendricks

      The Boards and Commissions process needs to be improved. But the answer is not to disband them. The answer is to set up a rational process that will allow Boards and Commissions to “cross pollinate” and get more background information and cohesive recommendations to advise City Council. Now it’s sometimes just a contest of whoever makes the most noise gets heard.

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