What was different this year about Asheville City Council's three-day winter retreat?
For starters, Council ditched the traditional multihour litany of departmental reports. "Let's have less staff-report time and more creative discussions about priorities and policies," suggested Vice Mayor Ed Hay during a December work-session discussion on the upcoming retreat.
To make those discussions more efficient, Mayor Leni Sitnick suggested that, prior to the meeting, Council members create their own lists of priorities and issues, and turn them in to staff to compile. She stressed that the lists could be expanded or condensed at the retreat, if need be.
That way, Sitnick reasoned, Council could spend its time on what counts: coming up with a combined list of top priorities for 1998 -- and doing so early in the process. "Let's get all the meaty stuff done before we're exhausted on Sunday [the last day of the retreat]," Sitnick urged.
Her strategy worked. This year, three-quarters of Council's retreat time was spent setting goals, and less than one-quarter listening to staff reports. There was even time for an hour-long bull session, during which Council members tossed out their ideas and concerns.
Neither day's meeting went overtime -- in fact, they ended early. And on Sunday morning, new Council member O.T. Tomes -- who is a Baptist preacher in Asheville -- even managed to make it to church on time.
"I'm impressed," said the usually skeptical Mike Plemmons, director of the Council of Independent Business Owners, who had attended the retreat.
Some credit should also go to Mother Nature: This year's weather caused no problems. During the last two winter retreats, Council members were snowed in, holding late-night sessions lit by candles and camp lanterns.
But maybe this year's difference was in a little shtick Sitnick borrowed for the occasion: As the retreat started at the Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock, she hefted a 3-foot-long gavel for all to see, and threatening, "Any problems -- we use [this]."
Next week, Mountain Xpress will highlight the key issues that each Council member brought up during the retreat.