by David Forbes August 7, 2016

Lessons from Council’s summer days. South Asheville organizes, process woes send bus system plans back to the drawing board, the bond vote moves forward and policing comes under serious scrutiny

Above: Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. File photo by Max Cooper.

Summer, including this particular, blistering one, is an unusual time in Asheville. Tourists come in while locals work, swelter or (if they can muster the cash and time) leave for a bit.

It’s also a bit unusual on the Asheville City Council front, with our municipal elected leaders taking their own break — July usually has just a single meeting — as things slow down, just for a bit. Council’s finished its budget wrangling, the legislature’s (usually) out of session. and more major initiatives wait until the Fall.

But this year, in the time from its June 28 meeting, a mini-meeting in July and the July 26 meeting, Council had quite the opposite happen. Things heated up. The legislature even ended its session only after a last-minute upset of a plan by some state legislators to gerrymander Asheville’s local elections.

Part of this rush of activity was the push towards the city’s first bond referendum since the 1990s, formally broached in early June (though discussion of the idea dates back a good deal further) as an attempt to better deal with a number of the city’s crises and concerns. As Council hammered out a total $74 million proposal for affordable housing, transportation infrastructure and parks/rec facilities, the schedule necessary to put the measure before the voters this November added to the summer agendas. Add in the ongoing questions about the fate of the bus system after some major issues with a bidding process that almost kept a controversial management company and the resolution of a major development battle, and you had some major questions before Council in what would have been its usual summer lull.

That nearly month-long timespan also saw a tragedy that’s rocked Asheville to its core. On July 2, Asheville Police Department Sgt. Tyler Radford shot and killed Jerry Williams in circumstances that still remain intensely disputed. Tapping into problems stretching back decades in a city that still remains deeply racially segregated, the aftermath has seen protests, arrests and ongoing debates about the way the APD does (or doesn’t) serve and protect the city’s people, and what changes might be necessary. That too ended up in Council chambers.

The work necessary for the Blade‘s in-depth piece on Williams’ killing and its aftermath, combined with an unexpectedly severe case of back strain and the work delays that created ended up delaying our usual Council coverage. So here, as things start to resume their normal pace, is what you might’ve missed from City Hall’s Summer days.

South Asheville deals

While battles over land and development are the bread and butter of local political conflict, the two-and-a-half meetings Council had during this particular spell only saw one of real note. But the future of a South Asheville apartment complex marked some potentially interesting shifts on a number of fronts.

Technically, developer Rusty Pulliam was asking Council to sign off on the rezoning necessary for the Mills Gap Road development to proceed, re-designating the former Plasticorps site for an apartment complex rather than industrial use.

However, over the course of last year and the beginning of this one, South Asheville residents rallied in opposition to the project, citing problems with its design and the increase in traffic it would bring to an already-congested area. As the project wound its way through the approval process, over 400 of them signed a petition opposing its passage.

In the process, the South Ashevillians opposed to the project became more organized as a whole and started sharing concerns about overall issues facing their area, forming the South Asheville Resident and Business Community Organization.

Staff was also opposed to Pulliam’s project — something else unusual for a development that makes it all the way to the Council dais — because of the city goal of retaining industrial land for recruiting future businesses. With combined opposition from the municipal bureaucracy and many of the surrounding residents, a development’s prospects are usually bleak.

But by the time June 28 Council meeting rolled around something happened, something rare in these kind of development battles: a deal.

Pulliam and many of the South Asheville residents initially opposed to the project had reached agreement on traffic changes, pedestrian improvements, an agreement to not bring the project online until 2020 (after the state completes some road modifications) and a different scale (more apartments, no commercial space). The developer was also offering to make 41 of the 272 units affordable for 15 years.

Vijay Kapoor, one of the co-founders of the residents’ group, said that the residents broke down into three groups: those opposed to the project until Sweeten Creek Road was widened (likely in 2024), those who believed a park or community center should go there instead (due to the relative dearth of such in the area) and those who would accept Pulliam’s development if the specific traffic improvements were made. Now, he noted, he was in that last group and asserted that about half of those who signed the earlier petition were in favor of the development due to the changes Pulliam had agreed to.

“There’s been a lot of talk about South Asheville’s voice not being heard,” Kapoor said, but as the residents organized he claimed he’d found staff and Council accessible and engaged. “The residents along this corridor would like to keep the area as residential as possible” as long as what they saw as necessary traffic improvements were made.

The whole process had highlighted, he said the need for residents to organize and get together with Council and state officials “figure out what to do with this area.” He anticipated their group would be back at City Hall.

While some of the residents remained opposed (based on the new apartments blocking their views, among other concerns), most who spoke were in favor.

“Last September City Council kind of challenged us, especially South Asheville, ‘you don’t have a voice, we don’t hear from you,’ I think all that’s changed now,” Pat Deck, another co-founder of the residents’ group, said. “You challenged us and I think our communities have risen to the challenge.”

The more they met, she said, the more residents realized they wanted to preserve the residential aspect of the area and needed to do so not just on this project, but in future planning as well.

It also helped that the development drew support from representatives of affordable housing nonprofits who said it would bring much-needed housing to the area and that Ben Teague, director of the Economic Development Coalition, noted that the site was unlikely to host any workable industrial business. With (most) of the neighbors on board, Council passed the project unanimously.

Council would dearly love for a lot more development battles to work out like this. Indeed, some said so at the time, advising other developers to take note.

“It’s a good effort from the applicant, creating a base for other developers to look at when it comes to how to deal with community issues and mitigate some of these things,” Council member Keith Young said.

That might be a much harder haul if it’s a type of project or scale a neighborhood’s current residents might oppose outright, but the case proved an interesting exception to the usually more intractable nature of Asheville’s development battles. In the meantime, however, it’s quite possible that the organizing frameworks built to oppose that single development may make South Asheville residents a more potent force in city politics in the months and years to come.

Bus breakdowns

City manager Gary Jackson also sent staff back to the drawing board on the key question of who gets to run Asheville’s transit system. Due to a conflict between state and federal labor law, the city has to hire a company to run the day-to-day operations of the system. Since 2008, that’s been Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Transit.

Last year, complaints from the transit workers union and rider advocates about First Transit’s management mounted, as they claimed that drastic mismanagement that resulted in late and missed routes, low morale and major technical problems. Further, they had also brought many of these concerns to city staff over a year earlier, but claimed that City Hall had failed to heed their warnings and the company was nonetheless granted another extension of its contract. In October, Council and Jackson decided against another extension and put the system’s management up for bid, creating the possibility that a different company could take over.

But as this year wore on, it looked like First Transit might remain in control of the system after all, with city staff recommending that they get another three years at the helm after a bidding process and comparisons with a proposal by Fort Worth-based McDonald Transit.

Union officials and rider advocates opposed the move, stating issues had not improved and that the decision-making process had major problems of its own. Thirty three of the system’s 52 employees, including some non-union workers, signed a letter of no confidence in First Transit. A city staffer claimed to one city commission that a side-by-side comparison of the bids was not available, despite completing one a month earlier. The city’s transit committee unanimously rejected staff’s recommendation, also expressing major criticisms of the process’ transparency and effectiveness with a majority recommending that McDonald get the nod instead.

In addition to all that, the process fell afoul of federal guidelines because the city’s initial request for proposals didn’t specify the criteria on which the award would eventually be made. On those grounds, Jackson proposed scuppering the whole process on June 28, asserting the city would go back to the drawing board and take entirely new proposals while giving First Transit a temporary, month-to-month extension.

“We are in the process, as requested by the FTA, to redo the process to be in strict alignment with the requirements,” Assistant City manager Cathy Ball said. “We do not know how long that will take, but we assure you we’ll do it as expeditiously but accurately as possible.”

Diane Allen, the local union president, requested that Council put a deadline in place, expressing the fear that the company’s tenure could go “on and on.”

“I accept responsibility for this process not being run in the way it should be run,” Jackson replied. “With the involvement of the city attorney’s office, we’re going to take direct involvement in this, make sure this process is done right. We have to get it right with consultation from the federal transit administration.”

He noted that there will be an entirely different team, out of his own office, overseeing the process this time, but that it was necessary to get it right (something he estimated might take four to six months) to avoid future legal challenge.

Amy Cantrell, representing rider advocacy group the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality, cautioned that they would continue to hold the city accountable throughout the process and suggested that this time more riders be included directly into the process to add their perspective.

That means that the city is possibly set for a whole redux of the fight over who runs the bus system, something that effects the lives of thousands of Asheville’s people, especially its working class.

The bond question

One of the main reasons for the city’s busier-than-usual summer season is the push to get a $74 million bond referendum before the city’s voters this November.

While a common feature in many cities in North Carolina and around the country to fund big infrastructure changes or major projects, Asheville’s generally stayed away from them. It’s been more than two decades since city voters last had one on the ballot.

But with crumbling infrastructure, a rising population, a growing housing crisis, a backlog of projects still stalled from the recession’s aftermath and limited other funding options for major changes, city leaders decided that it was time. The issue was discussed during last year’s election and in Council’s January retreat and March budget planning, though it was mostly mentioned as a possibility for future years rather than an imminent issue for this one.

Cities take on debt in a variety of ways, but usually it’s tied to a specific building (for renovations or repairs), using that as collateral or to revenues a specific fund (like parking or water fees).

But bonds (technically, general obligation bonds) are tied to city government itself and its property tax revenue. Because of that, under state law they must be approved by the voters directly in a referendum, and they can require an increase in the property tax. Their format also requires approval from the state’s Local Government Commission (the Blade will have a more in-depth piece in the coming days on the bond, how it came about and what it might mean for city).

On the morning of June 28, Council held a work session to hammer out the size of the bond they would put before the voters. After some back and forth over the specific amounts they would request (Mayor Esther Manheimer and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler favored around $5 million for affordable housing while other Council members wanted considerably more) they agreed to not seek funds for overhauling the city’s public safety buildings but go forward with a $74 million bond: $32 million for transportation infrastructure, $25 million for affordable housing and $17 million for parks and recreation.

Ashevillians will vote on each of those three items separately. As Council sees it, it’s a way to use the city’s high bond rating (obtained last year) and relatively low debt compared to other N.C. cities to start dealing with some long-running problems.

In the July 5 mini-meeting, they moved the process forward again, formally setting the bond amounts and notifying the Local Government Commission.

More information emerged at Council’s July 26 meeting, as by that point the city had a professional poll conducted by Columbia, S.C.-based Campaign Research and Strategy of 403 households from June 29 to July 1.

The poll showed that when asked to list their top concern, a quarter of respondents named affordable housing, the most by far of any specific problem (though “miscellaneous responses” tied it). The poll results also found especially ardent support for the affordable housing bond measure (67 percent of those polled favored it, with 56 percent strongly in favor and 11 percent somewhat in favor) and the transportation infrastructure piece (also at 67 percent, with 50 percent strongly in support and 17 percent somewhat supportive, with 21 percent against). The parks and rec proposal had 60 percent support, though with less intensity and with 27 percent against.

However, the poll also had 52 percent of the respondents saying property taxes were too high and 39 percent that they were about at the right rate. Fifty-one percent of those polled said that roads were worse than average. Also, 48 percent said that the city was doing a worse than average job of dealing with the affordable housing crisis. After pollsters informed people of the city’s estimate for a potential property tax increase on the bond ($9 a month for the owner of a $275,000 home), 48 percent were more likely to support the bond, 37 percent less likely. In total, 53 percent said they would support all three bond proposals while 26 percent would vote against all of them.

“What we’re seeing here is the community basically speaking to us, saying that they feel like there’s a need,” Tige Watts, the firm’s president, told Council. “These are the issues that do concern them.”

He added that support for the bonds in Asheville were among the most favorable he’d seen in any community since the 2008 recession. “I haven’t seen numbers this strong in about eight years.”

However, he repeatedly cautioned Council that the poll was a snapshot of voters’ feelings at a specific point in time, that “the election is not today and there’s a lot of things that can happen.”

The poll was also interesting in its own right, as due to its size Asheville doesn’t see many professional political polls (us local political analytical types usually have to make due with election returns). If the poll’s findings are correct, it shows that Ashevillians are overwhelmingly in favor of more public spending on affordable housing and infrastructure. While not entirely surprising given the degree to which the housing crisis and infrastructure problems come up repeatedly in city politics, it’s one possible indicator of how deep the concern about those issues goes.

That data, Manheimer said, affirmed Council’s course and had bolstered concerns that she and some other members had about the amount of the total proposal (the poll found that support and opposition stayed about the same even with lower proposals).

“This indicates to me the community supports the level of bonds we’re looking at, which was something I was very concerned about,” she said.

Council member Julie Mayfield noted that while she’d heard some concern about how quickly the bond process was moving forward, she felt the survey also indicated that Ashevillians were, overall, fine with the pace because “the concerns in this community are pretty clear, and we’re united around them.”

While “it’s happening in a compressed timeframe,” she said that Council members and staff were open about the efforts and the city was making a considerable push to inform as many people as possible about the bond.

“It’s great to see these kind of survey results,” Council member Gordon Smith said. “When you’re elected to Council, you hear from a lot of people who are letting you know that the needs of the community are very great and you hear about a lot of needs that are not being met.”

The survey, he continued, showed that the concerns about the issues targeted by the bond are “community-wide” and “this town is ready to accelerate progress.”

Not everyone felt the same way. While only two people commented on Council moving forward with that stage of the bond process, they were both in opposition and focused on the potential tax burden.

“I live on a pension; Social Security and retired Army pay,” Fred English told Council. “I can’t afford the taxes. I don’t know who took the survey but I don’t believe 61 percent of the people in Asheville, North Carolina would vote to increase them.”

Sidney Bock doubted Council’s estimates, asserting that he believed the necessary property tax increase would end up far higher than the city was asserting.

“The city doesn’t have the revenues. Where’s it going to come from? Well, you’re looking at it,” Bock said. “It’s going to be put on the backs of the property tax payers of the city of Asheville.”

He compared the city’s bond goals to “Cadillacs and Rolls Royces” and said the cost for them would outweigh the benefit.

Council member Cecil Bothwell countered that the pollsters had informed the people polled of the potential tax increase.

The maximum amount of a tax hike, Manheimer said, was 4.1 cents per $100 in property value, depending on on a number of factors and while the city had presented that before in public, she asserted they would do so again over the coming months of debate on the bond referendum.

“Asheville actually has an extremely low debt service compared to other cities across North Carolina,” she said. “In comparison we’ve been very conservative over the years. We have now a AAA bond rating and we also have a very healthy reserve fund set up. So we’re in an excellent financial position to be able to do this. If you really want to get the most bang for your buck, the way to do that is through issuing debt.”

With that, Council unanimously moved the bond measure another step forward, setting the stage for the public to weigh in at its Aug. 9 meeting.

Policing the police

While the July 5 meeting had a very light agenda (moving the bond forward and a proclamation hoping the controversial I-26 connector plans will continue to take into account city government’s wishes), the shooting of Jerry Williams did come up.

“We have had an officer-involved shooting this weekend, as you know,” Manheimer said. The city would make department policies and information available on its website, she added.

“This is an SBI investigation, so the city is somewhat limited int he information we can provide, but we can certainly provide the city’s information.”

Throughout the month tensions continued to build, as the shooting’s aftermath tapped into deeper concerns about segregation and the APD, many of them mounting for years, even decades.

Later that month, protesters occupied part of the Asheville Police Department lobby for over 30 hours until seven of them (and a journalist) were arrested. Controversially, after tracking through social media and video footage, the APD later issued citations to people involved in the march to the police station the morning of July 21 and another protest later that day, asserting that they’d caused a disturbance by blocking traffic.

On July 26 multiple speakers asked Council to take a closer look at the way the city was policed, and the concerns that were raised during the protests.

Lia Kaz was concerned about the lack of city response to state legislation requiring court orders to obtain body and dash camera police footage.

“As long as we have bias, in any form — as we know we all do, you are just as susceptible as I am — and we have police officers who are human beings with weapons we will see disproportionate rates of violence,” Kaz said.

Williams case in particular, Kaz continued, showed the problems that arise when there’s no clear video footage and a lack of transparency after a police killing.

“When HB2 passed I heard very moving words from this Council about how we can’t support discrimination in any form. I’d like to hear from the Council about HB 972, making it illegal for me to view that footage. We shouldn’t have to see people gunned down to believe communities of color when they say they’re being hurt. The fact remains that lack of footage creates lack of impact.”

While it didn’t go as far as the state legislation, in March Council passed its own policy barring public access to much of the body camera footage, though it did allows it release to some people (relatives, lawyers, those directly featured on the footage) and in some circumstances.

Dee Williams, who’s helped advised the local Black Lives Matter group, said Council should take their concerns seriously and work together.

“It’s been a very long two weeks,” she said. “There’s a new paradigm. I heard that you’re looking for people to talk to.” In reaching out, she advised the city to not just rely on African-American ministers, but reach out further. Had officials done so earlier, she said, some tensions with Jerry Williams’ family might have been eased.

“The cherry-picking of leaders is something any of us can ill afford to do,” she cautioned.

“I’m very concerned about the Asheville community as a whole,” Ray Mapp said. “I’m hoping that City Council can be instrumental in trying to push policy that will make the community safer and the police safer.”

“Right now the legal system allows police sometimes to not follow procedure and kill people, and that’s disgraceful,” Mapp continued. “Anytime a police officer decides not to follow procedure they’re no longer police, they’re a domestic terrorist.”

The aftermath of Williams’ death, he said, had terrorized the surrounding community.

“Please help us put policies in place that help police follow procedure,” Mapp concluded.

Katie Dellin said Council’s commitment to racial justice should extend to the push for better infrastructure in historically segregated communities, especially if the bond moves forward.

“The big question is where? Where are streets and sidewalks going to be improved? Where are the bike paths?”

Manheimer noted that the Racial Justice Coalition, an alliance of local public and private organizations, to look at complaint process, bias training and the use of force policies.

But the groups included weren’t finalized she said, and the RJC was still reaching out to other groups (notably, the local groups of Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice are not currently part of the RJC).

“There’s a lot more to say about this topic “We as a Council are struggling, we hear the community, we ant to be responsive, we want to be inclusive, we want to be thoughtful. We’re looking for a way to move forward. I’m hoping we’ll be able to bring many more voices forward.”

Bothwell noted that as the RJC represented a range of groups, “it made sense” for the city to work with directly with them, and for them to reach out to others on any police policy changes. He also defended the city’s previous body camera policy as more “balanced,” noting that while it didn’t make videos public, it also allowed those directly involved, their lawyers and some relatives to view the footage, and didn’t go as far as the state legislation did.

“Of course, if they become evidence in a case that’s adjudicated they become public,” he said, but the city had a legitimate concern in trying to keep people who had innocent encounters with the police or were victims of domestic violence from having “their faces all over the internet.”

“We tried to find a balance there and it’s wildly ironic that he state legislature steps in and says none of it can be public,” he added. Bothwell is personally opposed to the law and Manheimer noted she believed the city’s opposition “went without saying.”

“The grief the community is going through around Jerry Williams’ death is providing this Council with a really grave responsibility to move forward and a really enormous opportunity,” Smith said. He asserted that Council had tried to push forward to address systemically racist policies of the past in areas like housing and transportation.

“Systemic racism is here, there is a deep culture of that here,” he said. “Black lives matter, we all need to be saying that.”

The city is currently conducting a disparity study to try to reduce bias on multiple fronts, he claimed. “It’s really time to move on this stuff.” The history, he added, of city government claiming it would address racial issues but failing to follow through “absolutely can not happen again.”

If that happens, or if tensions continue to escalate on this front, remains to be seen.

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