What's on the minds of individual Asheville City Council members for 1998?
Chuck Cloninger still has an eye on signs and cell-phone towers; Tommy Sellers still plays the quiet man on Council, worrying about alcohol sales at city-sponsored events and working behind the scenes to smooth things between businesses and neighborhoods; Vice Mayor Ed Hay is still focused on the Civic Center's future; Earl Cobb takes a neighborhood slant on traffic and infrastructure; Barbara Field still ponders downtown and transportation issues; the Rev. O.T. Tomes supports the idea of bringing people of all cultures together ...
And Mayor Leni Sitnick is still the Queen of Lists.
A few weeks before Council's Feb. 6-8 retreat, she asked each member to turn in a list of goals and issues for 1998. Everyone did, except for Tomes -- and he had a reason (see below). Sellers' list contained one item; Hay's had eight; Cloninger's, 20; Cobb's, 23; and Field's, 26.
But Sitnick's own list included more than 70 items, covering issues ranging from global environmental concerns to the very local need for residents and business owners to display street numbers on their property, so the Fire and Police departments can find them during emergencies.
Hay looked over Sitnick's shoulder at her master list -- growing minute by minute throughout the retreat, as she added all the other issues discussed there. "It goes on forever!" he exclaimed, teasing her.
"I've got four years," she replied, laughing.
Jokes aside, though, Sitnick's idea about the lists helped make the 1998 retreat one of the most efficient in recent years.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sitnick's list is the broad mix of concerns it reveals (apparently, she thinks about everything -- including suggesting that someone ought to use the French Broad River for aquaculture). Here's a small sampling:
• Add an open-space/parks designation to the zoning classifications in the city's Unified Development Ordinance.
• Hold an economic-development summit.
• Improve affordable-housing opportunities in Asheville.
• Commission public art by local college students, for murals or for display in public open spaces.
• Reduce bus fares for students and the elderly.
• Look into ways to make sure that children whose only meal may be a school lunch get fed when schools are closed for snow or other emergencies.
• Increase the public's access to Council members, by changing Council meeting times or setting up a radio talk-show where people can call in and ask them questions.
• Keep an eye on changes being made by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, such as the widening of Interstate 240. DOT, beware: "I've got a whole other list for [DOT] board member Gordon Meyer," Sitnick noted.
There's more -- much more -- on Sitnick's mind ... but on to other Council members (ranked here by how many goals they listed, in ascending order).
In his first few months on Council, the Rev. Tomes has shown that he prefers to listen first and make suggestions later.
"Being new on Council, I didn't feel I had enough information yet," Tomes said after the retreat, explaining why he didn't turn in any goals. Besides, as he has told Council members, "Sometimes, if you listen, you pick up vital information."
Once the retreat got going, though, Tomes pitched in his share of ideas, often bouncing them off issues raised by city staff and fellow Council members:
• Find ways to help neighborhoods that don't have the money to split the costs of traffic-calming measures, street maintenance or sidewalks with the city.
• Do more than talk about cultural diversity. Tomes suggested that Council -- and city staff -- become more involved with efforts to ease racial tension and encourage dialogue among diverse groups, perhaps by supporting programs such as Building Bridges (which he has been involved with in the past), CommUNITY Day (held to counter a KKK march) and the YMI Cultural Center. In past Council meetings, Tomes has also stressed the need for city-department heads, in particular, to put more effort into supporting the city's Minority Business Plan.
Another man of few written-out goals was Council member Tommy Sellers, who submitted one:
• Establish an office of community affairs, to encourage dialogue between neighborhoods and businesses.
Sellers already pursues this goal, in his own way: When a west Asheville church got into a zoning tiff with residents over its proposed expansion, he worked with staff on alternative solutions.
During the retreat, Sellers also reiterated a pet peeve: Alcohol sales at city-sponsored events. In his first two years on Council, Sellers pushed for gradually getting the city out of the alchohol-selling business at Bele Chere and other events. During the retreat, he echoed Sitnick's concern that alcohol not be sold at Civic Center events aimed at children, such as the circus.
Going by the numbers, Council member Hay comes next:
• Improve press relations. Asheville Citizen-Times editorials, he complained, "are not based on fact. ... Disagreeing with us is fine, but when they get [the facts] wrong, it's a community problem." Of particular concern to Council members were recent articles and editorials accusing them of working key deals behind closed doors (the Memorial Stadium sale and the InterMedia cable franchise, for instance). Hay suggested that someone on Council should be in regular contact with the Citizen-Times' editorial staff.
• Review and improve the city's public-transit system: Should the city take back control of the financially strapped Transit Authority?
• Address downtown pedestrian issues. In recent years, downtown Asheville has grown, and so has the number of residents, he pointed out. That, in turn, has changed the dynamics of pedestrian, bicycle, handicapped and vehicular traffic. Hay should know -- he just moved downtown himself this past fall.
• Review the soon-to-be-completed Civic Center study. It may mean that Council has to put its money where its commitment is, Hay noted. Early reports suggest that an expansion, renovations and perhaps an adjacent hotel may be called for, if the city wants to woo conventions.
• Consider changing the primary/general election system. "The present system is stupid ... really stupid," Hay declared. It's expensive for candidates -- and, given the small number of candidates in 1997, superfluous. He suggested switching to a runoff system.
Tomes isn't the only one concerned about celebrating cultural diversity. Field asked Council to:
• Support events that "celebrate the diverse segments of [our] population and bring them together" -- especially those involving children.
• Strengthen the local day-care system. The lack of affordable child care is a nationwide problem that particularly effects shift workers and young mothers in school.
• Develop a "coordinated, economically sound public/private transportation system." Field mentioned one idea that keeps cropping up: electric trolleys for downtown. She also stressed the importance of taking a "multimodal" approach that addresses the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as motorists.
• Determine what to do about the pending deadline for completing safety inspections of housing in Asheville. According to staff reports, it's unlikely that the city will be able to cover every house and apartment not yet checked -- even with the help of private inspectors. Field suggested moving back the July 1999 deadline.
• Update the 2010 Plan.
• Develop a policy on public art.
At least a third of Cloninger's top issues zero in on tough enforcement of the city's sign and telecommunications-tower ordinances. But he's also got a little green on his mind:
• Build more playing fields and passive parks -- and figure out how to pay for them. Cloninger stressed prioritizing our top parks-and-recreation needs, including greenways. A city master plan is due out soon.
• Hold down taxes, and find ways to maintain or increase the city's revenues.
• Make sure city staff have adequate resources to enforce the sign ordinance.
• Develop a parking plan for downtown, Biltmore Village and west Asheville. A consultant's study on these areas will be completed soon.
• Market space on city-owned property for telecommunications equipment. The city just leased antenna space on a mountain-top tower above Kenilworth to Bell South Mobility, for example.
There's a definite neighborhood, quality-of-life slant to Cobb's top issues:
• Support community litter cleanup. Enforce the removal of junk cars, yard trash, old refrigerators and the like.
• Find ways to slow down traffic in neighborhoods and on city thoroughfares.
• Explore ways to encourage private investment in and development of affordable housing. Like several other Council members, Cobb believes that bringing well-paying jobs to the city is part of the housing picture.
• Develop bike and walking trails, skateboard parks and other recreational opportunities.
• Find new revenue sources for the city. Cobb repeatedly stressed that non-city residents who use city streets and facilities need to "pay their share" -- especially those who work in Asheville but live elsewhere.
• Review the Unified Development Ordinance. City Council has scheduled the new ordinance's first annual checkup for May.