Asheville City Council Feb. 22, 2011 meeting
- Ingles expansion vote postponed
- Development rules tightened
The chamber was packed 20 minutes before the Asheville City Council’s Feb. 22 meeting even began. Outside at Pack Square, a crowd rallied before a rainbow flag. Inside, assorted local ministers sat together in a row, recalling prior fights over similar proposed legislation they felt was immoral and chatting about their belief that the Antichrist will emerge from the European Union.
The cause of all the hubbub was an equality resolution on the evening’s agenda. Pushed by Council member Gordon Smith and several groups promoting LGBT rights, the ordinance was first unveiled in January at a rally organized by People of Faith for Just Relationships.
The sweeping resolution calls for: adding protections for sexual orientation, gender and gender identity to the city's employment-discrimination policy; crafting an ordinance prohibiting bullying on city grounds; creating an official domestic-partner registry; and endorsing the idea of civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“I know the heartbeat of Western North Carolina,” the Rev. Wendell Runion declared during the hearing. “This is not in line with the values of our community. Where will we go from here if this passes? Will we go then to pedophiles or, even further, to sex offenders?”
Asheville resident Tom Astik said he and his wife would consider moving out of the city if the resolution passed.
“God is not mocked,” proclaimed Randy Bray, telling Council members they'd have to answer to divine authority for their vote. “You have eternal consequences for the actions you make. You'll have a great number of people praying for you.”
And the Rev. Larry Sprouse warned Council about “abominations before the Lord. ... I never thought in America we'd be debating this issue.”
But most speakers favored the resolution, saying it represented Asheville's best trait: a celebration of diversity.
“It is still true that a person in our community can be fired because of their sexual identity; there is no way for a same-sex couple to be in a partnered relationship that allows them the 1,100 rights and privileges heterosexual couples have.” In introducing the proposal, the Rev. Joe Hoffman of People of Faith for Just Relationships asserted, “The resolution we have presented is a civil rights document.”
Angel Chandler of GetEQUAL NC said, “Everyone in this room has the right to believe whatever they want, but the government does not have the right to pick one religion over another or one denomination over another.
“Personally, if you really want to go Bible, start reading it: There should be motions before this Council that divorce be made illegal, because Jesus clearly stated that. You better shut the Lobster Trap down too, because there are people over there cracking shellfish,” she added. “Our government should treat us all equally. I'm a citizen, a homeowner and a taxpayer, and I don't get near the rights as all these people complaining earlier.”
Speaking as a transgendered person and a Buncombe County native, Yvonne Cook-Riley said: “Asheville has afforded me the right to walk down the street without being attacked; to be with my friends and dress as weirdly as we want while having fun safely. This resolution addresses that safety and [our] ability to live here as citizens of this community.”
Simon Thompson said he and his partner have been together for 12 years and own two businesses in Asheville.
“I guarantee every member of Council has frequented a business run by someone in the LGBT community,” he asserted.
Equality and safety
After more than an hour-and-a-half of public debate, Council members took up the matter directly.
“Our job as Council isn't to prefer one religious view over another,” argued Smith. “Nothing we do here tonight will restrict you from believing what you want to believe. What we do here tonight will address the equality and safety of all the residents living here in Asheville. This is about justice.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell, who seconded the motion, quoted the Golden Rule, saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I can't think of a higher law than that, and that's why I'm going to vote for this.”
Jan Davis, who voted against last year’s proposal to extend benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees (those benefits are slated to take effect July 1), said he was “conflicted” about the current resolution but felt he had to vote for it.
“Take religion and government out of the issue and it's about rights for people,” said Davis. “I do not fear that day when I stand in front of God. What would give me fear is if I went against the teachings of Jesus in love and respect for other people.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy wanted a delay to consider the matter further, but she found no allies on Council, though they did agree to clarify the details of the forthcoming anti-bullying ordinance.
And as Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council member Esther Manheimer also voiced support, it became clear that only Bellamy opposed the resolution.
The mayor then launched into a long, emotional speech concerning both the current proposal and the public reaction to her previous stance against domestic-partner benefits. In the wake of that vote, Bellamy said she’d had trouble getting served in restaurants or helped in stores.
“I have never had a malicious thought about a gay or lesbian person, but I've been demonized because of my views,” the mayor declared. “In Asheville, N.C., in 2010, I was threatened. To say that discrimination is going to go away because Council approves this is just not true. It's unfortunate I can't say I'm against same-sex marriage without being condemned.”
“People believe I shouldn't be at an event or don't represent them: That is a lie from the pit of hell!” Bellamy proclaimed angrily. “I represent them, like it or not — all citizens of Asheville. I won't be pushed into a corner.”
In response, Smith assured Bellamy that he has “the utmost respect” for her. “If the bullying ordinance comes back and it's against free speech, I'll be the first to vote against it,” he vowed. “But this sets an important direction.”
Council member Bill Russell was absent due to illness, as he had been for the domestic-partner-benefits vote. The resolution was approved 5-1, with Bellamy dissenting. Applause broke out, and the mayor banged the gavel, trying to calm down the audience.
Smith, countering Runion’s earlier reference to the 1994 LGBT rights fight, cited the change between then and now, noting that this time, opponents hadn’t filled the chamber. “This is an idea whose time has come,” Smith declared.
After the vote, opponents (including many of the ministers) made their way out, shaking their heads as they wondered how such a measure could have found overwhelming support in a place that, as one speaker put it during public comment, “used to be the heart of the Bible Belt” — and, in their eyes, still ought to be.
Meanwhile, proponents (some of whom burst into tears of joy as the long-awaited resolution was approved), adjourned to the nearby Pack's Tavern, where — joined by Manheimer, Newman and Smith — they hoisted beers, toasting, “to equality!”
No vote on Ingles expansion
In other business, Council:
• Delayed consideration of a major expansion of the Ingles grocery store on the Smokey Park Highway until March 22, to give the developer time to reconsider lighting, parking, tree and sidewalk plans that don’t conform to city guidelines. Ingles was seeking an exemption from these requirements, but staff disagreed, saying they seemed to be based on the business’s preferences rather than actual needs dictated by the site.
Attorney (and former vice mayor) Gene Ellison, representing Ingles, cited safety concerns in explaining why the proposed design failed to satisfy those requirements. But several Council members were skeptical, noting that big-box developers such as Walmart have met them in the past.
• Approved new development rules requiring developers to wait up to a year before re-submitting a project for consideration after Council has rejected it, and increasing the minimum space between two projects for them to be considered separate.
Manheimer didn’t participate in the 5-0 vote: The Caledonia Apartments project had retained her law firm, posing a potential conflict of interest. After City Council unanimously rejected the controversial project last fall, the developer re-submitted it as two separate proposals not requiring Council approval, sparking the push for the new rules.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.