A public showdown at City Hall sets the stage for the final act of the budget wars and marks the end of a political era
Above: Luis Serabio, one of the first interpreters at an Asheville City Council meeting, translating the meeting into Spanish on May 23. Serabio would later sharply criticize Council for inaction and a failure to reach out to his community. Photo by Micah Mackenzie.
“Wait for the hearing.” For months locals heard this mantra from elected officials. They heard it as battle lines were drawn and fights over numbers, transparency and power brought into the fray people from across the city. The words hung over the city’s politics, over every meeting in the halls of government.
The budget is usually the biggest decision Asheville City Council makes all year, parceling out over $170 million, setting taxes and affecting everything city government does from July to July, from cops and social services to trash collection. By the time it wends its way to a public hearing in Council chambers, it’s usually been through multiple work sessions and presentations, dissected and re-formed. That happened this year too (though on some key matters far less transparently than before).
On every other front this year is one for the record books. Years of discontent around gentrification, equity problems and the power and seclusion of some senior city staff who effectively call many of the shots on where the people’s cash goes all erupted into the open this year.
Those pressures collided in a major fight over a controversial proposed expansion of the Asheville Police Department in the core of the city. APD Chief Tammy Hooper claimed the move is necessary to meet the challenges of a growing city and rising crime (though some of the numbers she’s cited have turned out to be dubious or missing key context).
But opponents countered it would only increase gentrification given the department’s major issues with racial disparities and use of force. The funds ($1 million a year), they said, would be far better spent helping housing and social service programs to deal with the desperation faced by growing numbers of people in the city.
Those opponents, including homeless advocates, civil rights activists left-wing groups and even an alliance of downtown business owners, mobilized into the A Million Dollars for the People” coalition. They were out in force at earlier budget meetings, getting the city’s political season off to a contentious start.
Senior staff didn’t exactly lower that tension. Hooper’s repeated refusal to go through the usual budget process of committee meetings and public discussion only fueled the controversy over the ensuing months. Open government advocates joined the other critics, asserting that the APD expansion lacked transparency and was grounded on shaky numbers. Meanwhile, business and gentry groups closed ranks in support, echoing Hooper’s line.
As tensions grew, elected officials repeatedly pointed to the May 23 public hearing on the budget as a place where locals (the final vote is scheduled for today, June 13) could fully weigh in. A Council candidates’ forum just two days before the meeting — organized by A Million Dollars for the People — saw locals, including civil rights activists, excoriate incumbents. The next day a Council committee moved forward with creating a Human Relations Committee like those in Durham and Greensboro, partly to address issues with equity and the APD.
On May 23, as the rain cleared and locals, bureaucrats and elected officials all made their way to City Hall that afternoon, it was already clear from the beginning that this meeting would be far different than the budget hearings of previous years. Protesters gathered outside City Hall an hour before a last-minute budget briefing, (also a rarity: budgets are usually set by this time in the process). That briefing saw Council shuffle around some dates and expenditures (rolling out the police expansion later than originally proposed) while keeping the controversial core proposal completely intact.
If it was an attempt to divert criticism, it didn’t work. Despite occasional defenses of the bureaucracy and the police by a few speakers, critics dominated the hearing. By the end a slim majority — the police expansion currently rests on a single Council member’s vote — still supported pushing forward, but even those elected officials felt the need to claim sympathy with the critics while still completely opposing everything they were requesting.
As Council convened for its formal meeting on May 23, something else was different: two interpreters from the Cenzontle Language Justice Collective translated the hearing into Spanish. One, Luis Serabio, to applause from almost the entire chamber, would end the hearing harshly criticizing Council for being too complacent about the needs of the people of the city, especially the Latinx community, as “City Council doesn’t do anything.”
That exemplified the tone of the evening: the array of people who packed City Hall were clearly out of patience with the status quo. While the exact reasons varied, the nature of this year’s budget — the least transparent I’ve seen in 12 years covering Council, and the first I’ve ever felt the need to comment on at the end of a piece — was a major factor. One reason this article is coming out the day of the final budget vote is that in the weeks since the May 23 meeting, the city has still failed to provide completely accurate, up-to-date budget information for the public.
If the officials responsible expect that to tamp down public controversy, they’re fooling themselves, and May 23 shows why. In some previous years, no one spoke during public hearings on the budget. After May 23 it is crystal clear that will never happen again. The Asheville that it represented — of public quiet before the churning of city government — is done. The hearing was long, it was contentious and it was — like it or not — the end of an era.
While the opponents had originally planned a march from the federal building to the steps of City Hall, but due to the weather, they gathered in front of City Hall itself before doing a brief circuit around Pack Square, singing the labor hymn “Which side are you on?” and chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police.”
When they returned to the steps, holding signs and banners, organizer Nicole Townsend told media that Asheville’s racial disparities are in desperate need of redress, and that the $1 million a year would be far better used fighting those than worsening them. Organizer Amy Cantrell called the budget “a moral document” and said Council needed to side with more services for the people.
Inside City Hall, some of the demonstrators made their way to Council’s second-floor chambers for a last-minute budget briefing. The hour-long hearing ran right up to the beginning of the formal meeting, as Council and staff rapidly shifted around funding.
In addition to the controversy over the police expansion, Council faced several other pressures. Ashevillians overwhelmingly approved a $74 million bond referendum. But those funds must be paid back via property tax revenues, and this year Ashevillians saw a property tax revaluation.
Then there was the topic of transit. The city’s bus system is a lifeline for thousands of working class Ashevillians to go about their lives, but it’s faced major issues over the past few years, with the transit workers’ union and rider advocates claiming staff have ignored mismanagement and mounting problems. The latest transit contract process floundered amid multiple problems last year and staff now claim a new contract to ensure the system basically functions will cost considerably more than before.
Combined with decreasing state and federal subsidies and the pressure from rider advocates for more evening service, Council was pushing a half-cent per $100 property tax increase, supposedly dedicated to improving transit.
One major item involved what wasn’t discussed. Despite Council delving into multiple budget pressures and controversies over multiple sessions, a proposed $2.5 million pay increase for city staff, with half of it devoted to a pool for “merit” increases that will mostly got to upper-middle and senior officials — supposedly to deal with major turnover problems, didn’t get so much as a slide in a presentation, let alone any serious discussion. In a piece this weekend for the Asheville Citizen-Times, I delved into this issue and the surprising lack of public discussion on it.
Amid all that, Hooper announced to Council that she’d decided to start hiring for the expanded downtown unit later, pushing some of the expenses out of this coming budget year. The immediate request was down by $430,000, with the rest covered by shifting cuts within the police department to make up the rest of the cost (the unit will still cost just over $1 million more a year once it’s up and running).
Hooper again conjured the specter of major service cuts if her proposal didn’t pass, claiming that the department would have to back off a new use of force policy emphasizing de-escalation (partly adopted in response to problems with use of force and racial disparities) or training to deal with mental crises. At previous meetings she’d claimed the APD might have to back off traffic and minor crime enforcement, creating a crime-ridden dystopia (she compared the results to Chicago) if the expansion didn’t go forward.
Perhaps a bit more believably, she said the resources would be used to keep in closer touch with downtown business owners about their wishes and deal with protests (Hooper has taken a far harsher attitude towards clamping down on protests, especially those critical of the APD, than her predecessors).
Council member Julie Mayfield asked Hooper about the overall low crime increase (just one percent last year), and Hooper claimed violent crime was up 17 percent (for context: 2016 had 9 homicides up from 7, 48 rapes up from 33, partly due to improved reporting, 144 robberies down from 147 and 335 aggravated assaults, up from 257).
CFO Barbara Whitehorn would claim that if the expansion didn’t move forward the funds saved couldn’t be used for any other purpose, because the APD would need them for overtime. This appears to contradict what Hooper had repeatedly said in previous work sessions: that the police expansion would save around $375,000 in annual overtime cost. As you might have noticed, readers, $375,000 is a different number than $1 million.
Council members remains split on the issue. Council member Gordon Smith declared support for the police expansion “pretty easy” but Council member Brian Haynes noted he still didn’t support the policing increase and didn’t entirely believe staff’s claim that the funds couldn’t go to housing or transit instead.
But what emerged from a welter of jargon and timeline changes was that a majority of Council favored moving forward with the police expansion, same as before, just rolled out on a slightly different timeline to reduce the costs in this year’s budget. In fact, it was so key, senior staff claimed, that Jackson said they were willing to cut the rest of the department’s needs “to the bone” to go forward with it.
‘Fraught with the old way of doing things’
The lion’s share of Council’s formal meeting was devoted to the “official, highly anticipated hearing” as Mayor Esther Manheimer put it, with the comments and Council’s responses taking up about three hours.
Townsend was the first commenter. She harshly condemned the whole budget process as well as the push for police expansion.
“The current processes are not designed to ensure racial, economic justice and human rights for black communities,” she said. “There is a lack of community control over budget and revenue decisions.”
More control, she said, should be put in the hands of the community directly through embracing participatory budgeting and prioritizing addressing equity. But the needs went further, and she said “democratic community control of local law enforcement agencies” was necessary to curb racist violence and abuse of power, specifically civilian control of budgetary, hiring and firing decisions for law enforcement.
“Some folks on Council might say that’s illegal,” but she said Council should follow the example of Greensboro. That city has a police committee that, while it stops short of making direct personnel decisions, can investigate use of force incidents, make recommendations and seek evidence. Townsend said the city needed to start there and then push to go even farther.
“Even though things may be illegal on the state level, that’s what City Council is for, to work and push for legislation.”
But this hearing was also to feature pushback, sometimes contemptuous, against the coalition of opponents by defenders of the police and bureaucracy. The next speaker set the tone of that as well.
“I am not happy about the treatment of our police department by all these little groups and all the put-downs I’ve heard since last July,” Susan Watts said. “I know there have been mistakes made, but what’s going on now I feel is unreasonable.”
“The crime rate downtown is absolutely ridiculous,” she continued. She knew this fact, she said, from talking to police officials. “I think Chief Hooper should all the money she needs to put extra officers downtown.”
She blamed any problems with the APD on the conduct of the previous Chief William Anderson, the city’s first African-American police official, who left following his own series of controversies.
Open government advocate Patrick Conant countered that he wanted “a 21st century police force” but that the proposed expansion wouldn’t do that and the way it had rushed through the budget process without public input was “a failure.”
Asheville needed an APD, he said, that “values community engagement and collaboration with the public,” build trust through transparency, especially about its data.
“This request for additional officers has been fraught with the old way of doing things,” Conant asserted. “We’ve seen dubious statistics related to our police employee ratios and neighborhood crime statistics.”
Conant noted that Hooper had skipped most of the meetings where she was supposed to present the expansion proposal and take public questions. While the one committee where she did present it, the Downtown Commission, did vote in favor, he noted that it did so while citing major concerns about public input and transparency.
“I strongly believe if APD had conducted the process with an open mind, we might have a very different proposal today,” he continued. “Instead I’ve heard so many different reports on what the funding provides I don’t even know what we’re getting.”
Brandon McGaha of the Police Benevolent Association claimed that the department was under-staffed and “criminals in general outnumber your officers 24 to 1” (notably, this assumes everyone APD charges with a crime is a criminal) and that despite the racial disparity issues and use of force controversies, the real issue was an excellent police force inexplicably disliked by the public.
“Dealing with these kind of numbers without more help undermines the morale of the department,” McGaha claimed. “Morale directly affects retention when officers know they’re not cared about enough to be given the basic number of officers they need to do the job safely. Officers in Asheville are great people, they work for an average wage and take more criticism than any other profession in the city. In Asheville a great police force is held in contempt by the majority of citizens, moreso than any city in the region. I’ve seen very few places where officers are ridiculed as in Asheville.”
APD Officer Richard Tulles claimed that rather than criticizing, Council and the public should take Hooper at her word or give up the right to criticism from here on out.
“If you say no now, you should give up the right to critique later,” he said. “I’m not saying don’t ask questions, our Constitution was set up for the government to be accountable to the people. That’s a significant difference from holding the police in disdain.”
“Officers have a significant advantage over Council and citizens in this room,” he concluded. “They know what they need to accomplish their mission.”
But the speakers that came after weren’t, by and large, buying it. They sharply criticized policing in Asheville as targeting black, brown and impoverished communities disproportionately and swore the proposed expansion would make things worse, not better.
“I’m tired of having to find alternatives to policing because the type of policing that’s done now isn’t useful for folks in my community, I’m tired of fighting bills that are trying to criminalize black and brown communities,” Alan Ramirez said. “There’s no easy, simple or legal way to get a license, then they have a few tickets for driving without a license which moves into an arrest warrant which puts them into the deportation system.”
“This increase will make it so there’s more fear and less safety in our communities, less communication between the police and undocumented and immigrant communities,” he said. “Deportations destroy communities, please don’t choose that side.”
Council candidate Vijay Kapoor didn’t comment on the police aspect (he’s asserted elsewhere that he thinks it should be delayed for a year due to transparency issues) but asserted that the impact of the bonds wasn’t clearly spelled out in the budget.
Then the conservatives had their go at Council, though largely for a different set of reasons. Chris Peterson, developer and frequent critic of Council, asserted that the budget indicated the city was running a “Ponzi scheme” desperately short of money.
“This group here is very slick: if you vote ‘yes’ on this budget you shouldn’t be sitting here,” he said. “This Council needs to start firing and it needs to start at the top.”
“You don’t know how to do a budget, you don’t know how to cut and you’re going bankrupt.”
UNCA student Jae Slaughter, who did her thesis on policing, asserted that ratcheting up police enforcement while gutting social programs “is the legacy we’re seeing here today.”
“When you stop investing in tomorrow but keep this huge police force with lots of money, lots of personnel, lots of resources at disposal that’s what we see here today,” Slaughter said. “Instead of addressing the war on crime tomorrow we’re criminalizing them today.”
“It’s worrisome to see this exact same trend happening today,” “You’re not investing in drug rehabilitation, you’re not investing in housing. You’re putting that money into the police force, which is something we’ve already seen in the past.”
“Instead of using the police, invest in community resources that are already doing that,” Slaughter concluded. “Defund.”
“I am the grandmother of three biracial children and every year that they grow older I realize I have this deep-seated fear: ‘will they some day, for whatever reason, end up, for whatever reason at the hands of a police officer who in the name of doing his job, somehow affects their lives,'” Martha Mosseller said. “It’s pretty obvious from the figures that this is not [something imaginary] I or someone else have created.”
The week before, she noted, she’d seen three police cars and six officers present for the arrest of one person in Aston Park.
“Will a million actually protect us or will it just create more of what we’re already seeing on a nationwide and citywide basis?” she continued. “There’s no way I can support a million when I don’t see the money there being used in a responsible way.”
Elizabeth Schell, of Purl’s Yarn Emporium, presented a petition from 31 downtown business owners declaring that Council should oppose the policing expansion, with parking, infrastructure, affordable housing, services for the homeless and improved parks among the many needs they ranked ahead of more cops.
“We do not feel an increased presence of police downtown will help our businesses, but rather depict an image of Asheville we want to avoid,” she said. “Meanwhile, funding for increased parking, transportation, job opportunities and affordable housing would go much further to help our community as a whole.”
One speaker read a least of “facts about pigs” (the non-human animals), when his time ended before the list was complete, Manheimer invited him, as usual, to hand the remainder of his remarks to the city clerk.
Vicki Meath, director of Just Economics, was “too angry to speak professionally” and instead spoke as an individual.
“This is the least transparent budget process I have ever been through,” she said. Rather than its usual practice of presenting a “continuation budget” (the amount required to provide the same services as last year) and then specifying where they were increasing of changing services, she noted, the proposed budget had folded the controversial expansion of the police and pay hikes for staff (“in the past that’s been discussed”) into a “base budget,” making it far harder for the public to assess.
‘City Council doesn’t do anything’
The array of voices opposing the increase continued, even as Council returned from a break (a rarity in the middle of public hearings).
Hillary Brown, who came up with the “million for the people” moniker reflected on the impact of Jerry Williams’ killing last July — which highlighted major tensions about policing — and the winter announcement that Sgt. Tyler Radford would face no charges.
“My issue is that the police force will continue to grow,” Brown said. “People of color, poor folks, certainly people who live at that intersection, will continue to live so precariously in Asheville. A million dollars or budget cuts from other departments, the police department is still being funded and we aren’t.”
“Our police force has shown itself to be racist,” she continued. “Our police force already engages in very aggressive policing of homeless folks who live downtown.”
“Tammy Hooper has failed to fulfill the requirements of her job, which include interacting with and remaining accountable to the public,” Brown concluded “The answer isn’t more money now or more money later. I don’t think anyone here cares where the money comes from: we don’t want more police. We don’t want more dead bodies, we don’t want more racist traffic stops, we don’t want more park bans, we don’t want more of Asheville’s version of community policing.”
Cantrell presented a petition with 903 signatures declaring “we don’t need more police, we need more community.” As a longtime advocate for the homeless, she said she’d seen overpolicing of communities, indicating that the APD is mis-using its current resources. She showed a photo of 11 officers surrounding two homeless men near the United Way building and condemned the city’s latest budget shuffling.
“A lot of what’s happened here would be called faulty logic: it’s moving things around so we feel better,” Cantrell said. “Who will pay the social costs? Black and brown-bodied people and the homeless, we’ve seen that from the numbers.”
“I love all people: I don’t care what uniform or badge you put on or not, for me this is about a broken system. I want investment in systems that work better.” The People’s Council that emerged out of the opposition efforts, she noted, had a range of ideas, from alternatives to 911 in some situations to better rehab programs, housing and education. “We can be a model for the country.”
Brit Castaneda asked Manheimer, Wisler and Bothwell to drop out of the Council race in favor of Sheneika Smith and Dee Williams, both candidates highly critical of the current conduct of APD leaders and the city bureaucracy.
“I’m astonished at the tone policing going on through this process from [Council members] Gordon Smith and Julie Mayfield,” he said. “I don’t really understand how you expect to stay in office or promote democracy when you’re stifling criticism of a broken system.”
Alan Sweaton cautioned Council that “this is the working class of Asheville getting up and saying we want change, we want sustainable governance. If we don’t start to see real, sustainable change in our government here, I can’t speak to what will happen. We’re currently using your preferred method of communication, we’re playing nice.”
Casey Campfield, one of the aforementioned downtown business owners, also took aim at what he saw as Council’s failure to hold Hooper accountable, given the response to Williams killing, her defense of officers’ use of force, her refusal to address racial disparities and other actions.
“You and your department stand accused of rampant racial discirmination, of racially-biased traffic stops and searches, of obscuring data regarding your stops and searches,” he said. “Of repressive measures against protesters regarding the death of Jerry Williams, of the arrest of a law-abiding journalist covering said protests, of recently drawing an assault rifle on Asheville minors, of fabricating statistics to justify this proposed police spending increase. Those are just a few highlights.”
“I’d like to remind the public that Chief Hooper is a city official that draws over $160,000 per year of taxpayer money,” he continued. “The citizens of Asheville demand you hold Chief Hooper accountable for mismanagement and systematic racism first before you come to us asking for a $1 million increase.”
“The average net worth of a black woman in Asheville is in the single digits,” Angel Archer said of information discussed at the candidates’ forum. “None of the candidates really brought that up afterwards, but all the candidates there spoke of the barriers of getting things done in City Council, the barriers of changing anything. No one seemed hopeful that situation would change. I found that absolutely astonishing.”
“You’re giving the police already, $27 million a year, that [the poverty of black women in Asheville] is something you could fix, if you wanted to,” Archer said. “Yet everyone acknowledged there’s no way within the system for them to do anything really. There’s just minor concessions here and there.”
Declaring that “people are running out of patience,” Archer spent the remainder of her time reading from Lenin’s “The State and Revolution.”
Dewana Little, who’s involved in multiple local non-profits, spoke as “a native of Asheville” and declared she saw “people of color pushed out.”
“It is almost sickening,” she continued. “We see police every five minutes, but if something happens it takes them 45 minutes to two hours to show up.”
She said she’d even seen nearby police not respond after a call went out, that family members had faced racist violence at the hands of APD officers and that complaints did nothing.
“We are really dealing with racism at the highest level,” Little asserted. “We are the ones that are negatively impacted by this police force daily. We are really bullied, it’s a mis-use of power. They came into our communities and racially profile. When kids cry when they see the police, who are supposed to be there to protect and serve, you know you have a problem.”
Immediately following Little’s remarks, FOP President Rondell Lance claimed he couldn’t understand why people were against more funds going to expanded policing but not to parks or fire, blaming it on “some kind of bias.”
“That makes me think there’s anti-police sentiment here, it’s not about the budget, it’s just about not liking police,” Lance said, claiming that the increase was necessary to prevent major service problems. “To me as an individual that enjoys coming downtown I feel the city is failing to do their due diligence if they’re not providing security and safety for the citizens and safety of downtown.”
Lance declared that the APD “love everybody” to reactions of laughter and shaking heads from throughout the room.
But Dee Williams, who’s campaigned with the NAACP for reforms the city’s traffic stop policies and is running for Council with the support of the Green Party, said the situation was very different.
“I’m grateful for people that have finally awakened,” Williams said, the purpose of the reforms had been safety for police as well as citizens. “When you have a job that gives you the power of life and death it has to be used in a very wise way.”
But modern policing, she continued, is built on earlier systems of slave catchers and the protection of the property of landed gentry and “that has to change.”
“There’s nothing to be proud of in this city except that some folks have not given up hope.”
“We are finding our allies and we will make it hard on you now and in November” if the police expansion passes, Matilda Bliss told Council.
“The older gentleman stated that officers will put their lives down for anyone: that is not true, and it is so very evident in this city wherever you go,” Jacqueline Mace said. “Are they [the APD] serving the tourism industry 40-year-old frat boys from Florida in their bachelor parties on the South Slope or are they people who live here, the people who work, struggle and hopefully triumph here.”
Council candidate Kim Roney also harshly criticized Council.
“Sad to say I expected the shuffle in numbers, that we’d see a broken process that puts public comment at the end of decision-making and ignores loving, people-powered solutions,” Roney said. Council had “missed an opportunity” when it ignored police reforms, failed to stand with Charlotte before HB2. “We need courageous leadership.”
After hours of acting as an interpreter, Luis Serabio went to the podium to address the elected officials.
“I’m very disappointed in you: you are the City Council and somebody else brought us here to be the voice of our community, because City Council doesn’t do anything,” he said, drawing loud applause. “When are you going to do something? Please think about it. You can see me here, there are many people like me. I can speak English, I can speak Spanish. You can reach out to my community: we are not invisible. All of you, what do you do to reach out to my community?”
“We work every day in this city, in the tourism industry there are many people that speak Spanish, that are maids in the Grove Park, the Biltmore Estate, in the stores you patronize every day,” Serabio concluded. “Acknowledge that we’re here by making information like what you’re discussing here available in our language. It’s amazing that a non-profit had to bring us here, but you, the city that’s asking for $1 million for the police, doesn’t have money for us.”
‘A cry from the people’
The impact of the criticisms from speaker after speaker clearly reached the dais, with Manheimer declaring after that the turnout “is something really new for us, it’s exciting.”
But Bothwell, even though ostensibly opposed to the police increase, still defended the budget process.
“What’s been characterized as a shell game is how you do a budget: you figure out where to take money from and where to put money to,” he claimed, and the only differences were caused by the revaluation this year. “I think it’s been pretty transparent.”
“We have increased transit and we’re increasing affordable housing, we’re fixing sidewalks and building new sidewalks, we’re doing things cities do,” he continued. “We can’t solve poverty overnight in the city, $1 million wouldn’t come near to solving the poverty problems in this city.”
“It’s something!” an audience member shouted back.
Council member Keith Young compared the situation to the Conflict of the Orders between plebeians and patricians in classical Rome.
“What I’ve heard tonight seems on the surface a sense of despair, a sense of dejection, possibly a sense of discontent towards police and policing itself,” Young said. “But I think it’s a little bit more than that, I’ve heard a cry from the people. People are wanting to be closer to power, closer to the decision-making itself and closer, more importantly, to the money.”
He agreed with the earlier call for participatory budgeting, as Greensboro is moving forward with, something some in the audience applauded.
Smith, completely and ardently opposed for months (and after May 23) to the protesters demands and criticisms of the APD and Hooper, nonetheless declared A Million Dollars for the People “inspiring” and “really great.”
“Asheville does have a legacy and a history of racism in its land use policies, in its policing policies, in its economic development policies” “I’ve said this a lot. There are some deep structural issues.”
He claimed, however, that the city was putting record amounts, “more than this city has ever spent” into housing and transit in the budget (notably, though, some of the main numbers he quoted were federal grants given to the city every year that must be spent on those purposes).
“I have done a terrible job of communicating this stuff, it adds up to $67 million, so when folks think City Council is doing nothing it’s incorrect,” he said. “But it’s crystal clear we’re not doing enough.”
“I just want to again state I do not support increasing the staffing for the police department this year,” Haynes re-iterated. “At the same time we’re told we need additional officers for the APD, we have communities coming to Public Safety and other places voicing their opinions about how they’re being over-policed in their communities.”
Clear as mud
However loud and repeated that “cry from the people” on May 23 was, it obviously fell on deaf ears in City Hall. The information on the May 23 changes, including the last-minute “budget briefing” overhaul to the APD expansion, wasn’t included in the updated full budget released May 30, nor in the document included in the meeting agenda released late last week (which doesn’t even mention the police expansion).
As a journalist, I have to say this year’s budget process is both frustrating and unusual. I wish there were clearer numbers to lay out for the readers. I wish I had all the answers you deserve.
I have covered city budgets for 12 years, through recession and boom, good decisions and bad. This is the most muddled, un-transparent, contradictory and disturbing process I’ve ever seen.
For the first time, a major pay hike — one with no shortage of benefits for senior city staff — wasn’t even seriously discussed or presented to the public. This hike is supposedly justified due to major turnover within several city departments. One would think that alone would be an issue meriting a bit more public discussion. But getting information about that has proven challenging.
Repeatedly, a major city official pushing the most controversial budget change in over a decade has skipped the normal process for debate and questions. This is ridiculous. No one who makes $160,000 a year from the people’s coffers should have the option of refusing to do their job on such a basic level. Even now, key budget changes are not available to the public in any clear or concise fashion, and the “base budget” process used this year has obscured, rather than clarified, spending on important public issues.
For all this, Council should be ashamed. They are the elected officials here, and at the end of the day responsibility rests with them. They could have insisted that the staff pay hike receive at least basic discussion. They did not. They could have told staff to give a public rundown of the turnover issues so everyone could have a clearer idea of the situation their city is facing. They did not. They could have insisted that the budget be laid out in a far clearer fashion, especially since they continued to change it until very late in the process. They did not.
They could have insisted, through the city manager, that Hooper show up to committee meetings to answer basic questions about her proposal, as they repeatedly promised would take place. They could have refused to take the numbers cited at face value after open government activists demonstrated real problems with them. They could have demanded more and clearer data.
They could have reminded the police chief that de-escalating use of force and appropriately dealing with those facing mental illness are fundamental parts of the APD’s job, not bargaining chips to be thrown away the second she might not get her way in a budget scrap. If she refused, Council could have publicly said such behavior from a public servant was unacceptable. They did not.
Budgets are complicated, certainly, and it is entirely possible for good people to disagree on them. But whatever one’s views on the right way to divide resources and combat our city’s many problems, an inability to even discuss them clearly and accountably in such an important time is a stunning failure. Importantly, it is a failure Council could have avoided with a few simple steps and a drop of willpower. They did not.
Ashevillians are repeatedly yearning for more participation in their government and more improvements in their city. When they do not receive these, when their efforts are met with contempt or evasion, they understandably become angry.
When Council faces that popular anger, they often shoot back that locals should abide by “the process” if they want change. But a process that amounts to “the hostile whims of senior staff” is no process at all. So the Council members prone to this tone policing should cease their chiding: people don’t trust the city’s process because it’s not trustworthy. The problem isn’t with Ashevillians, it’s with Council. They could change this situation, they could remember that the world doesn’t collapse if they say “no” to a bureaucrat. Indeed, they have a duty to. They have not.
The people of Asheville have our differences. Every last one of us deserves better than this.