Name: Rich Lee
Profession: Socially-responsible financial planner
In up to two words, describe your political affiliation: Progressive Democrat
In one brief sentence, describe yourself and why you’re running: I believe my experience as a community organizer, working to make local government more transparent and responsive to its people, makes me the right choice for the big decisions the city needs to make.
These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing city government and how you will try to deal with them if elected. Limit 300 words per answer.
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?
The city has some advantages over the county system under Wanda Greene. Namely, Asheville puts more distance between the Manager’s role and Budget Director’s role. It has more staff with oversight roles on the budget, and those persons aren’t the Manager’s immediate family. We have anti-nepotism policies on the books, a whistleblower hotline that is protected against manager interference. (The county’s whistleblower hotline rang to Greene’s office.) We have no retention or early retirement incentives like those abused by the manager and upper-level staff.
That said, the city’s system could be stronger in a few areas: First, Asheville needs a formal anti- retaliation policy on the books like the one the county just passed. Second, the city needs to keep opening data, including compensation data, to the public. The city has improved its transparency during my years of involvement, but we can still do better. I still chafe at the multiple firewalls the manager’s office has placed between council and staff, and staff and the public. Third, the city needs to seriously examine the proliferation of interim and temporary positions in upper management. A few highly compensated staffers have filled double roles for years, including at the department head and assistant manager level, with no end in sight. This is bad financial practice and concentrates power in a few people with little oversight. The city should fill out staff and close out temp/interim management positions. Fourth, we need to strengthen, not dissolve, the Civil Service Board, which was designed exactly as a bulwark against nepotism and corrupt practices. Fifth, the management review process needs to be revived and continued on a regular basis. Building culture of compliance is an ongoing, neverending effort, but these steps would be a solid start.
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?
Obviously, given the nationwide scope of the epidemic, it’s clear nobody has found the silver bullet. Bigger governments than ours have tried and failed. However, after a lot of discussion with community members affected by and working on the crisis, I believe there are some immediate steps Asheville can take. First, I’ve heard conflicting answers on whether Asheville Police carry Narcan for overdoses. Getting anti-overdose meds on every first responder is an important first step. Second, the city needs to better support community health services, the main healthcare point of entry for low-income residents and addicts. Third, though not last, though opioid addiction and overdose is shown to cut across race and class lines, economic security is a defense against addiction. The most economically disadvantaged areas are likely to be the hardest hit by prescription drug and opiate abuse, and Buncombe County has the lowest economic mobility, largest education achievement gap, and the worst of other economic metrics in WNC. In that context, improving education can help against the opioid epidemic. Increasing housing access and preventing homelessness can help. Raising wages can help. Diversifying the economy can help. Breaking up concentrated poverty can help. We can’t pretend any one thing will make all the difference, but approaching every decision through this lens, and working on all of them at once, can make a difference.
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?
As the city transitions from traditional public housing to mixed-income housing and rental-assistance vouchers, some former public housing residents are finding their Section 8 rental vouchers aren’t applicable to available housing stock or that landlords explicitly (and legally) ban Section 8 tenants. Former residents end up pushed out of the city or even homeless with vouchers in hand. This needs to change, or else we need to slow the push to break up the projects. To the extent that we can legally require landlords to accept Section 8 or tie acceptance to incentives, we need to. The Lee Walker overhaul needs to go off flawlessly, under the guidance of the Residents’ Council, and that is going to require more resources. The current overhaul is too ambitious and expensive to qualify for necessary housing tax credits, and the next council is going to be asked to approve a scaled-down design. The city can’t give up too much, as it arguably did when the Eagle Market Place housing development hit similar snags last year.
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?
As a member of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission and the city’s public outreach team this summer, I had a front-row seat on the action. Here’s what I can offer: The overbids and lack of bids were truly unprecedented for public work in NC, and yet we’re hearing they’re happening in every county and municipality with work underway in the state. Contractors tell the city they’re filled up with private work on hotels and subdivisions and don’t need to make multi-year commitments on government projects they don’t have time or staff for. Critical pieces of the project, namely the Livingston Street repaving and sidewalks, didn’t even draw a single bidder. The city has never run into this situation before.
That said, here are the lessons learned. First of all, labor and material inflation are having huge impacts. We’re talking 10 percent+ inflation every year. It’s for that reason that I support the city’s continued work to keep RADTIP going, including keeping the $20 million dollars of outside grants and funds, and completing the bond work as fast as possible. At around 2.5% interest, bonds are going to be cheap compared to the cost of delaying a project even a couple years. Second, we need more volunteer and interim community-led work like the Green Opportunities project that is going to build portions of the Southside Town Branch Greenway and another, TBA, on the West Bank of the river. Third, we need fewer can-kicking multiyear planning and design processes like the one that took nearly a decade to complete for RADTIP. This would have been so much cheaper if we’d done it a decade ago. Lastly, the city needs to be more forthcoming with the public, even when embarrassed by setbacks.
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)?
The endgame as I envision it is to protect neighborhoods, shut out short-term rentals owned by serial outside investors and investment consortiums with no stake in the area, increase regulation on STRs in downtown and River Arts (where currently there is none,) and offer some more flexibility than we currently have for locals renting on their own property. That could mean easing restrictions on renting a basement or garage apartment, or, say, a teacher renting his whole house out while traveling during the summer.
I do want to be clear that any loosening of rules in residential neighborhoods must be balanced against traditional neighborhood concerns about noise, nuisances, parking issues, absentee ownership, and the hollowing out of Asheville’s historical residential areas. Cities that have dealt with these problems longer than ours have seen whole neighborhoods turned over into vacation communities with no real residents. And while Asheville’s current best estimates are fairly low – only around 500 illegal rentals citywide – the problem is clearly concentrated in hot walkable districts like West Asheville and north of downtown. I couldn’t vote for a change from the current “homestay” rules if I thought it would lead to more neighborhood turnover and nuisance.
That said, I feel reasonable people on both sides of the debate are driving toward practical, realistic compromise positions, and I support their efforts. We don’t know what the specifics or legal mechanisms will be in the end, but I can see a common vision of the city we want forming on both sides, and that’s promising.
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?
Yes, in the sense that I don’t feel hiring new officers at current starting salaries and requirements is solving the problem. The department has a retention problem. There are a number of causes, but the easiest to address is financial: police officers don’t earn enough to live in the city they protect, and we don’t pay them as much as other departments do, so officers leave – for the county or nearby higher paying cities. If presented with a similar funding request aimed at raising salaries to at least a current housing wage in the City of Asheville that competes with other departments, while simultaneously raising hiring requirements to include a college degree, I could approve it.
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. I support neighborhood led processes and decision-making. That’s one of the reasons I support bringing a Participatory Budgeting process to Asheville, where individual neighborhoods get decision-making power over parts of the capital budget. I’ve worked with colleagues at Participatory Budgeting Greenville, a pilot NC program, and they’re eager to share their knowledge with the city during the current budget cycle.
8. Do you favor the city passing a fair housing ordinance based on that enacted by Greensboro’s local government?
9. Are you voting “Yes” or “No” on the current ballot referendum to divide future Council member elections into six districts?
No. If the district bill is defeated, I believe the city should start its own conversation about changing to residence districts with citywide vote, a mix of district and at-large seats, or some other system that suits us. But I don’t believe Raleigh should meddle in local elections. And I don’t want my vote for all council members (or at least a majority of them) taken away for a concentrated vote for only one representative. It takes a majority of council to pass anything, you need to have a say in voting for or against anyone up there.
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?
[Candidate’s answer did not have “yes” or “no” as first word.]