Name: Gwen Wisler
Profession: Vice Mayor of Asheville, Owner of Asheville Profits LLC, a consulting firm that asks clients to pay for services by donating time to a local non-profit
In up to two words, describe your political affiliation: Democrat
In one brief sentence, describe yourself and why you’re running: I’m running to continue my work in making Asheville safe, vibrant, healthy and accessible.
These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing city government and how you will try to deal with them if elected.
1. The scandal surrounding the actions of former County manager Wanda Greene have spurred a public debate about the level of accountability elected officials enforce on high-ranking local officials and the budgets they oversee. What’s your assessment of the city’s current processes for ensuring scrutiny of the budget and senior city staff? Are they sufficient? If not, how would you favor changing them?
First of all, let’s recognize that the most fundamental investment we ask of those we serve is trust. To maintain that trust we have to consistently demonstrate transparency and accountability by having systems in place that not only make lines of responsibility clear within staff and Council, but also clear to citizens. The City has had a nepotism policy for several years and does not grant stay bonuses or retention bonuses. Those policies alone make it unlikely we’ll make mistakes on those issues. Still, we can do more.
For example, I’ve been supportive of reviewing the 5-year and 10-year capital budget earlier in the budget process. That allows for more public review and for more chances to clarify goals and strategies together. I’ve also championed the formation of a review process of the partnerships the City has with non-profits to ensure that both the City and the non- profits are in compliance with all agreements. In everything we do, our goal should be: No surprises.
2. What role do you believe the city of Asheville should play in dealing with the current opioid epidemic and assisting local harm reduction efforts? What, if any, of the city’s current policies on this front would you push to change?
It’s no secret the opioid epidemic is a health crisis of the first order. In our state, counties have the principal responsibility for health and human services. Which underlines the necessity I want to stress across many topics: We must be more proactive and innovative when it comes to partnering with county governments in Asheville’s metro region. We need a regional strategy for dealing with the over prescribing of pain medication, for mental health treatment and for relieving the social and economic problems that seems to contribute to the current crisis in drug abuse.
What we can do in the City is to continue and where possible improve the strategies we’re already pursuing. For instance: The City’s first responders and police officers have access to Narcan and other emergency treatments for overdoses. And we can do more when it comes to communicating with one another in City departments serving at-risk populations to spot opportunities for intervention and support.
3. Local public housing is home to over 3,000 Ashevillians. While the housing authority is an independent agency, the city plays a major role in its operations, from the mayor’s power to appoint its governing board to partnering on the Lee Walker Heights overhaul and the controversial APD public housing unit. What changes would you propose in the city’s policies and approach towards public housing?
The role of a housing authority in improving access to safe, affordable and dignified housing for all Ashevillians is crucial. So we must look for every opportunity to support its mission and to be responsive to those it serves. I meet regularly with residents of the housing communities to hear their aspirations and needs and to identify opportunities to strengthen strategic partnerships. I want to continue to partner with HACA on renovating Lee Walker and explore other opportunities.
4. This summer saw a major controversy concerning cost overruns, transparency concerns and prioritization in the city’s massive infrastructure overhaul in the River Arts District. What’s your assessment of that situation and what approach do you favor going forward?
I was surprised about the extent bids exceeded the City’s estimates and about the timing of Council notification of the problem. Now, let’s not miss the chance to learn from it. We should ask and answer key questions going forward: What did that experience reveal about our approaches to planning and pricing major capital projects, and what has to change to align our processes with the realities of contracting projects in the current era? What systems do we have to have in place to monitor progress at every stage of planning, budgeting and construction? How do we assure transparency and accountability through each of those stages?
All that being said, I am committed to completion of the River Arts District project we visualized. The RAD will be a great place for our residents to live, work and play and will create much-needed connections within Asheville.
5. What rules do you favor for short-term rentals (Airbnb-style vacation rentals of a whole home or apartment) and homestays (permitted vacation rentals of a room or part of a home by its occupant)?
I realize this is a vexing challenge in many areas experiencing growth pressures. That’s especially true in close-in neighborhoods with access to transit or with easy walking and bicycling connections to jobs and to most daily needs. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC and other high appeal destinations are all struggling to find solutions. While there’s conflicting evidence about the potential long-term impacts of STRs on the pool of long-term rentals, there’s little doubt there’s a powerful perception of negative impacts and even less doubt that the perception drives pressure for regulation.
We’ve imposed a severe $500 a night fine for violations of our rules limiting the neighborhoods where whole unit STRs are allowed. And I’m against allowing expansions of areas where they are permitted.
These questions are about specific proposals Asheville City Council has or may consider, and how you would vote on them. The first word of each answer must be Yes or No. An explanation of one’s position — or an alternative proposal — may follow. Answers in this section that do not begin with “Yes” or “No” will not be published.
6. Would you vote to repeal the controversial $1 million expansion of the APD’s downtown policing efforts initiated earlier this year?
No. First of all, since the Chief of Police revised the request, the suggestion that a $1 million expansion is on the table isn’t accurate. What I approved and will continue to support is the creation of a full-time downtown police unit. That’s because I support community policing, which is a time-tested way to connect the goals and strategies of neighborhood residents with policies and procedures of those who serve them.
When officers get to know and regularly interact with residents, workers and business owners, everyone builds trust together. And as is the case with so many of our ambitions, trust is a necessary foundation for improving public safety.
There’s an additional advantage in bolstering downtown policing resources. Without a full-time downtown unit, officers are pulled away from other neighborhoods to respond to downtown issues. So by understaffing the downtown, we sacrifice effectiveness throughout the City.
7. Following years of pressure from local residents and activists, funds have been allocated to renovate the Walton Street pool, but city staff have pushed to use those to build a new pool at the Grant Center. Members of the Southside Advisory Board object, favoring a renovation or rebuilding on the current site, and a city survey of the area’s residents saw 64 percent of respondents back this approach. Do you favor renovating or rebuilding the Walton Street pool on its current site?
Yes. If the residents of the area want the Walton Street pool site on its current location, I would favor that.
8. Do you favor the city passing a fair housing ordinance based on that enacted by Greensboro’s local government?
Yes. Or more accurately, if we are confident that we need an additional ordinance to deal with priorities we can’t address with what we already have on the books. Before we add to our ordinances, let’s make sure we can’t get where we want to go by better aligning our goals with our current resources and with better focused procedures.
9. Are you voting “Yes” or “No” on the current ballot referendum to divide future Council member elections into six districts?
No. The big issues we’ll confront for the foreseeable future – community affordability, land use and transportation planning, health and human relations policies, equitable economic growth – are not just City-wide concerns. They’re regional challenges. And they require regional cooperation and regional strategies. If we elect candidates who’ll feel committed to prioritize issues by geography, we’ll never get where we need to go as a City and as a metro region.
10. Should Council revise the city charter to make the new equity manager position an independent office directly accountable to elected officials instead of the city manager?
No. While I’m committed to Council oversight for all our policy commitments, our goal should be to embed equity priorities in everything we do as a City. That requires constant interaction between an equity/inclusion manager and our departments and staff members. An independent office responsible only to the Council runs the risk of overly politicizing its efforts and complicating its effectiveness.