Should Asheville City Council impose restrictions on what people can talk about at formal meetings?
"With all due respect ... why sit here and waste the taxpayers' money?" asked Council member Chuck Cloninger on Aug. 11, faced with numerous speakers urging the city to ease up on prosecuting people for personal marijuana use. City Council, he pointed out, doesn't have the authority to tell police officers which laws they should and should not enforce. "I'm glad to hear city business, but I'm not sure the city has [this] authority."
"We are the taxpayers!" several people in the crowded Council chambers yelled out.
"We have the obligation to listen," responded Mayor Leni Sitnick, calling for order. Each week, Council includes an "other business" section in its agenda -- expressly to enable members of the public to bring up anything they wish to discuss, she pointed out.
"I would like to discuss that policy," said Cloninger, arguing that allowing any and all topics "will set a precedent where any group can come in here with a mile-long line and take up our time."
But Sitnick stuck to her guns, letting a dozen people speak.
"A line a mile long should draw your attention," said former law-enforcement official Ukiah Morrison, who argued that marijuana users are not usually violent.
And one young woman argued that allowing mile-long lines is crucial in democratic societies, adding that marijuana use is a "victimless crime."
"It's not true that the city is powerless," said Steve Rasmussen, citing other municipalities whose officials, he said, have set a low priority on marijuana-related arrests, and at least one that allows limited possession and even production of marijuana for medicinal use. Rasmussen argued that taking such steps would remove the criminal element associated with drug trafficking. "No exchange of money, no drug dealers," he said.
"The issue is freedom and truth," asserted Gordon Piland, handing each Council member an educational video about hemp, which has numerous non-drug uses, such as providing inexpensive material for paper and cloth. He asked that Council member Tommy Sellers -- who left without explanation during the discussion -- also get a copy.
Piland urged Council members to take a look at the video and educate themselves and their children about hemp's uses and its history. He added, lightly, "I guarantee, you're not going to feel bad."
Dan Waterman quoted Thomas Jefferson, arguing that the prohibition against marijuana violates the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, which Council members should uphold. Calling marijuana "one of nature's most beneficial of plants," Waterman urged Council to proclaim Asheville a "community of compassion," where adults are free to use marijuana for private, medicinal and religious purposes.
"We appeal to you for a change in attitude," said Maria Leatherwood, owner of High Mountain Hemporium in downtown Asheville, which sells a variety of non-drug-related hemp products, ranging from massage oils to clothing to paper. She urged Council to support educational efforts about hemp, which she said has thousands of non-drug-related uses. Making marijuana illegal is "like making corn illegal, because you can make whiskey from it," added Leatherwood.
Others urged Council to instruct police to make violent crimes a priority in local law enforcement, instead of arresting and prosecuting marijuana users. And one young, unidentified woman observed: "We're here because we have no other office to turn to. [City] government is set up so people can come to local meetings and be heard."
Sitnick thanked them all for coming and speaking up. But Council members took no formal action on the group's proposed resolution.
Council members tackled another touchy subject on Aug. 11: sex-oriented businesses in the city. By unanimous vote, they imposed a nine-month moratorium on the expansion of existing sex-oriented businesses -- such as topless bars and adult bookstores -- or the creation of new ones.
The moratorium will allow staff to evaluate what new restrictions the city could impose on such businesses in the future, City Attorney Bob Oast told Council members. A new state law gives municipalities more authority to restrict business hours and locations and regulate how much clothing employees wear.
Sylvia Hitchcock urged Council members to support family values by imposing the moratorium -- and working to rid the city of such establishments, which, she said, degrade women and spur violent crime. "We encourage you to set a standard for Asheville," she proclaimed.
But David "Badger" Erickson countered: "Sex has been around forever. It's not sinful. It's not dirty. It's natural." It's about time, he said, that people recognize their sexuality.
On a subsequent motion by Tommy Sellers, seconded by Ed Hay, Council voted unanimously to impose the moratorium.
Rezoning on Mace Avenue
Accountant George Love's property was zoned for commercial use when he bought it in 1996, and he'd like it to stay that way.
Trouble is, in May 1997 -- when Love was buried under a mountain of tax-return work -- Asheville City Council adopted the Unified Development Ordinance, which classified his property and the surrounding lots RS-8, a residential-only, single-family designation.
On Aug. 11, Love asked Council to rezone eight Mace Avenue lots -- located one block off Patton Avenue in west Asheville -- from RS-8 to Office. Love told Council members that he wishes to expand his business but can't do so under the current zoning. Most of the other lots are vacant. He lives and works out of one home on the street.
"It would be a fair compromise to make it Office," said Mary Jo Butron, the owner of one of the other lots, all of which are located on the south side of the dead-end street. The north side is zoned Highway Business, since those lots face Patton Avenue and include a Burger King, an apartment complex, a bookstore and a restuarant.
Most Council members agreed to Office zoning, remarking that it would serve as a buffer between the Highway Business uses and the residential neighborhood to the south, on Belleair Road.
On a motion by Tommy Sellers, seconded by O.T. Tomes, Council voted 5-2 in favor of the rezoning. Earl Cobb insisted that the street should remain residential. And Mayor Leni Sitnick, who also voted against the motion, expressed concern that emergency vehicles have no turnaround on the street, which would probably face increased traffic volume.