Consent and reports

by David Forbes February 15, 2015

As a major land battle is delayed, Council turns its attention to local organizing, a contentious consent agenda and several reports

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

Asheville City Council’s Feb. 10 meeting began with the first appearance in the halls of city government of a new group — the Asheville Freedom School — bringing together three generations of civil rights activists.

The group’s first efforts are educational in nature, taking local students to see the film Selma — about the organizing and struggle behind the 1965 civil rights march — throughout the month of February.

Council member Gwen Wisler presented an official proclamation recognizing February as “Seeing Selma Month” in recognition of Black History Month and the organization’s goal of bringing together civil rights veterans and emerging leaders, the proclamation “encourages all citizens to support this worthy cause.”

“We’re very detached from black history, at least my age and my group,” Asheville High student Brittany Boseman said. “We really need to bring that back, especially to Asheville.” She added that the initiative had already taken 54 students to see Selma and that due to this, she’s registering to vote.

“It’s taking the momentum from the movie and using it on the ground with young people to make some change, to put them to work and be more engaged in their community and register to vote,” DeWayne Barton, a longtime activist, artist and one of the founders of Green Opportunities, told the Blade about the effort. “It’s about community youth engagement and how we set the infrastructure for that to be ongoing.”

“This is just getting off the ground, it’s fairly new, but one of the goals is to have after school and summer programs,” Tiffany Debellott, one of the freedom school’s organizers, said. “This will help not only to have students engaged as far as learning the history, but it’s also going to build their self-esteem and help bridge the education gap and teach them about economics so they can not just work for others but be their own bosses as well.”

“It’s about bringing the acknowledgement of black history to Asheville; we don’t even celebrate it at Asheville High, we don’t have a class for it, we don’t learn about it that often in history class,” Boseman said. “Black history loses that effect in Asheville and this event is part of bringing it back and teaching our youth what they’re capable of.”

‘Are we still on the consent agenda?’

As the agenda was originally printed, Council and the city’s moment of relative unity about the efforts of the freedom school looked like it would be prelude to another major development fight, this time over proposed housing in West Asheville on a spot some neighbors don’t want developed for worries it will harm local character. But due to a misprint of the address in the original public notice, that particular battle was delayed until the next meeting, on Feb. 24.

Usually, the next part of a Council meeting — the consent agenda — isn’t a big deal. In fact, it’s something that’s designed to pass quickly: a consent agenda is a list of minor items, usually ones without any major controversy or debate, that Council approves in one big block. These votes are almost always unanimous, and the items are usually things like relatively minor expenditures, tweaks to an ordinance or approval for city staff to negotiate an agreement with another organization. But this part of the agenda is worth watching too. Occasionally, like the time the Buncombe County Commissioners used it to approve a controversial land sale, the items on it are actually pretty important.

In this case, one of the items on Council’s consent agenda this week had to do with a major public controversy: the surveillance of peaceful protests by local police and how long those tapes are kept. The city had no clear policy for destroying recordings made by hand-held or body cameras and the Asheville Citizen-Times has sued the city after officials offered contradictory explanations about the purpose of the tapes and denied that they were public record. Also, with national calls for more ways to monitor police behavior (i.e. increased use of body cameras) how long the police keep video, and who can access it, is a topic of some interest.

So now, on the consent agenda, Council was adopting the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources’ special rule on retaining and destroying such videos after 30 days, as the state’s in the process of formulating new rules on the matter. Given the context and the controversy, there was some discussion.

Assistant City Attorney John Maddux noted that the city was in communication with the department to see if there were any videos worth retaining, after Vice Mayor Marc Hunt asked about keeping videos that might have historical significance, given that the city had videos of protests going back to 1980.

City Manager Gary Jackson promised that, come March, they’d have a report for Council’s Public Safety Committee on what the city would keep and discard. “There are also liability considerations, statute of limitation considerations that may also enter into how long it is wise to keep certain video tapes. That would be something we’d welcome policy direction on” from Council, he added. He also promised that the city and APD will have clearer policies going forward on how videos are made and retained, and wants an APD Captain to oversee when tapes are made, “we wouldn’t just be empowering everybody who has a camera to go out and take videotapes; there would be rhyme and reason to what we do.”

He added that the city will have procedures so it only tapes in a way “considerate of and sensitive to people’s rights.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell, who last year criticized the APD’s surveillance as violating a civil liberties resolution that he was the architect of, noted that cities who kept too many videos had encountered logistical issues. “You end up with a real morass if you keep all that stuff, simply as a practical matter.”

Mayor Esther Manheimer then brought up another consent agenda item: a revision to the city’s rules allowing people to park in reverse, something they can currently get ticketed for in some city parking lots. Particularly, she observed, the city’s ticketing people parking with the front of their vehicles facing outward at spaces near the Grove Arcade, “but it doesn’t make any sense in that particular space because the road is two ways.”

She also had a question about the wording, which she found confusing. Transportation Director Ken Putnam said the intent was to allow back-in parking in many places, but keep it banned in areas where people might back into traffic or cause a safety hazard. But “it’s not intuitive that’s illegal to people,” Manheimer said. Council agreed to delay the item to the next meeting.

“I think everybody ought to be comfortable with it,” Hunt noted.

Then Council member Jan Davis had questions about a loan from the city’s affordable housing trust fund for two developments, $200,000 for 24 rental units on Oak Hill Drive and $120,000 for 12 units on Hazel Mill Road. Both projects are for “hard to house” residents, including people with very low incomes or disabilities. Davis questioned the generous terms of the loans — 30 years with no interest — and wondered about the rationale behind the deal.

The developments promise to house people that don’t normally have access even to affordable-rate housing, Jeff Staudinger, the city’s community development director, said. “In light of that commitment, the committee recommended the waiver of the policy to allow for zero percent interest.”

Davis asked Staudinger to define “hard to house” and he replied “these will be persons who have not been able to make it in other permanent housing situations,” noting that Homeward Bound and MAHEC would provide assistance and help to the residents to serve households with mental health or physical disabilities. The developments won’t require a credit check, removing another barrier to housing the “hard to house” population.

Then Davis expressed concerns as to what could happen to such a development if the non-profits providing services went away. Staudinger replied that if the developments weren’t providing services at some point in the future, they would owe the city its money back.

“I just worry about putting something like this next to a neighborhood if it ends up in private hands,” Davis said. Council member Gordon Smith replied that due to the number of organizations partnering on these particular developments, if something did happen to one of the nonprofits, it was likely another could take their place.

Council member Gwen Wisler then asked Staudinger about the amount of funds available in the trust fund, and he replied that with money coming in from previous loans, the fund will have enough to meet its commitments.

“Are we still doing the consent agenda?” Manheimer asked, just after those questions were answered. With that, Council approved the consent agenda unanimously, with the exception of that vexing parking change.

Food and the legislature

Council then received an update on efforts by the city and the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council to increase access to food across the city, a major concern in a place with an increasingly renowned food scene but high rates of hunger.

Joey Robison, staff’s liaison with the Council, noted that the city has reduced the fees for new farmers’ markets by 75 percent and shortened the approval process “so more farmers’ markets have an easier time starting up in the community.” The city’s also in the process of turning over more of its own land to support growing food and composting, as well as revising its own rules to allow residents to more easily construct outbuildings necessary for larger gardens in residential neighborhoods and allow more food growth in parks and greenways, though she added “at this point there are insufficient resources” to expand that further.

As the legislature, an entity the city’s often had icy relations with, is back in session, Council’s also watching what goes on in Raleigh. For its part, the city still has a lobbyist, Jack Cozort, in the state capitol.

This year, City Attorney Robin Currin said, the city’s watching legislation on potential changes in eminent domain, a rule allowing electronic payment for parking meters (something the city already does) and further curbs on the ability of cities to regulate aesthetics on new construction.

Manheimer, who’s expressed hope for a thaw in relations between local government and the legislature, noted that she’d be making her first trip down to the legislature a week after the meeting and will meet with Sen. Tom Apodaca and Commerce Secretary John Skvarla  “and get a feel for what else we can expect to see.”

She added that there were more possible issues on the horizon as “I continue to hear concerns from cities and counties, broadly, around the issue of sales tax reform and the sales tax allocation formula, if there’s a change to more the distribution away from cities into more rural areas. We’ll be at the table trying to participate in that conversation, as will many local governments across the state.”

Calm before the storm

Council also passed two rezonings, allowing a two-story building on Broad Street and a redevelopment of some group homes in Montford into condos and single-family lots with some common areas. The developer of the latter, RPMM Properties, is still deciding if any of the units will be affordable housing. Neither attracted any comment from the public, and both passed unanimously. It is certain that the proposed Craggy Avenue development that Council delayed will attract a good deal more controversy at its next meeting.

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