The winds blew cold on Feb. 26. But even the plummeting temperatures didn't chill the anger of the nearly 50 citizens who gathered on the lawn at City/County Plaza to demand campaign-finance reform. Saying they were frustrated and disgusted by the amount of money spent in the last municipal election, they stood in front of City Hall for an hour before the start of City Council's formal session.
And though the speakers at the rally made it clear that they weren't targeting any individual politician or contributor, some of those who rose to address Council later that evening aimed their stinging comments with pinpoint accuracy during a colorful and combative public-comment session.
Some who attended the Council session had come to challenge a plan (proposed by Council member Joe Dunn) to prohibit noncitizens from serving on city boards and commissions. But the policy change had been dropped from the agenda after City Attorney Bob Oast, in a confidential memo to Council members, warned that such a move could leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits. Much to Oast's chagrin, Council members had publicly discussed the private memo during their Feb. 19 work session. Heeding the city attorney's advice, however, Council had then sent the matter back to the Boards and Commissions Committee for review.
Presumably, the sticking point is the equal-protection status that the Supreme Court has consistently afforded noncitizens in similar cases. The three-member committee (made up of Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Holly Jones and Carl Mumpower) could decide to tweak the resolution to stipulate that only people eligible to vote could be considered for appointment to boards and commissions (a requirement that already applies to City Council candidates).
Council may, however, rest assured that the tabling of his initiative has not left city government at risk of infiltration by foreign agents. Xpress has confirmed with the city clerk that no citizen of any of the countries that make up President Bush's Axis of Evil has submitted an application to serve on any city board or commission.
Another vexing problem facing the committee is the awkward and ambiguous status of applicants from Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. Although natives of these exotic locales are U.S. citizens, they aren't eligible to vote in U.S. elections. So a policy limiting board-and-commission appointments to those actually eligible to vote would discriminate against these bona fide U.S. citizens. And when we throw in the residents of American Samoa -- who are U.S. nationals but not citizens -- things get even more complicated. Applicants hailing from there might well sue if they felt that they'd been unfairly barred from serving on the Asheville Tree Commission or the Board of Adjustment. Clearly, the troika on the Boards and Committees Commission has a tough row to hoe if it still wants to weed out noncitizens.
Affordable housing redux
Council members also heard a request by Affordable Housing Director Charlotte Kaplan that they approve five loans from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to developers seeking to increase the city's stock of affordable housing. Council voted unanimously to approve the loans; during their discussion of the matter, however, Joe Dunn questioned the practicality of one of the projects. Mountain Housing Opportunities had requested a loan to renovate two dilapidated old houses (on Clingman Avenue and Rector Street). Noting that such historical renovations can be costly, Kaplan said the added expense would be offset by the need to combat urban blight. Dunn questioned whether the city would be "getting the biggest bang for our buck" by funding historical renovations.
Council member Holly Jones wasted no time in challenging Dunn's assertion, stating: "While it is important for us to be good stewards of our citizens' tax dollars, getting the biggest bang for our buck is not everything. ... Historical renovation [for affordable housing] is an asset to our community; it is a community good -- neighborhoods become more diverse, schools become more balanced."
Mumpower chimed in that he felt Dunn was right in seeking the biggest bang for the buck. Jones, though, remained unfazed, adding: "It's wonderful that we have this funding, but we can't kid ourselves -- it's not enough. We need more solutions. We're not going to buy our way out of this problem. This is not just about protecting the fund, it's about people. Let's not forget we are putting people in homes."
Members of the public, too, added their voices to the discussion. Buncombe County resident Walter Plaue, who frequently attends Council meetings, noted, "Holly Jones is right -- there is a human element here." Plaue also encouraged Council to consider building affordable housing within the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction: "Granted, there isn't a return on property taxes, but we can get land where the dirt is less expensive -- a key element in affordable housing."
Fred English, a vocal supporter of Dunn, had a different opinion. "I'm sick of hearing about affordable housing," he declared. English then heaped praise on Dunn for having cast the vote that derailed Mountain Housing Opportunities' proposed 36-unit project in Chunn's Cove during the previous Council meeting. In a rambling statement, English attempted to make a connection between affordable-housing initiatives and people who move here from places such as Oregon and California, noting, "We're gay-friendly -- that's why they come here."
Bad dogs and more board appointments
Council also voted to approve higher fines for pet owners who violate the city's animal-control ordinance. After hearing numerous complaints about dogs terrorizing neighborhoods and dog owners thumbing their noses at the city's enforcement efforts, Council decided to put some teeth in the city's ordinances. Fines will increase from $10 (first offense) and $20 (second offense) to $50 and $100 respectively, with additional increases in $50 increments for continued violations within the same year. The fines will be levied if an animal-control officer determines that excessive barking is violating the city's noise ordinance or for dogs that are allowed to roam free and create a nuisance.
Kenilworth, Shiloh and Haw Creek residents packed the chamber to show support for the measure. Several told of dog problems in their neighborhoods and of pet owners who refuse to comply with city animal-control regulations. Police Chief Will Annarino gave the increased fines a ringing endorsement, noting that though it's only a small minority among the city's pet owners who continually violate the laws, the situation in some neighborhoods has gotten out of hand and is becoming a safety issue. Council voted 6-1 to pass the measure, with Mumpower opposed (because he felt the increase should have been phased in).
In addition, Council made some long-awaited appointments, including several to the closely watched Board of Adjustment. The decisions of this powerful body -- which can say yea or nay to development projects requiring zoning variances -- are final and not subject to review by City Council.
In 2000, the Board of Adjustment rejected a request by the owners of the former Sayles Bleachery site to develop a Wal-Mart Supercenter on their property along the Swannanoa River. One of those who voted against the project was longtime Asheville resident Dennis Hodgson, an Australian citizen. Having already served two terms, Hodgson was ineligible for reappointment.
Board of Adjustment member Lauren Malinoff also turned thumbs down on the Wal-Mart project. But even though she's a first-term board member, she will not get to serve another term. Worley, Dunn, Mumpower and Council member Jim Ellis voted to replace her rather than reappoint her, naming Beverly Robinson and Tom Muncy to the board, and Steven Sizemore as an alternate.
Later that evening, during a discussion about another board, Mumpower stated that it is Council's policy to reappoint board members who have a good attendance record and have "performed well." Malinoff regularly attended Board of Adjustment meetings, it was noted.
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Asheville resident Sharon Martin raised objections to the vote. She also made public a rumor that has been circulating since the election. Martin started by citing Council's usual practice of reappointing those who are eligible. "So why wasn't there any discussion about reappointing Malinoff?" she asked, before going on to state six points:
1) The political action committee Citizens for New Leadership contributed a large amount of money to the campaigns of Worley, Dunn, Mumpower and Ellis.
2) The PAC was organized by Asheville developer Bob Jolly.
3) Jolly is one of the owners of the Sayles Bleachery site.
4) Jolly went before the Board of Adjustment with his Wal-Mart project and was rejected.
5) Dennis Hodgson voted against the Wal-Mart, and Joe Dunn introduced a measure to restrict service on city boards and commissions to U.S. citizens.
6) Lauren Malinoff voted against the Wal-Mart and was not reappointed like most committee and board members.
"This is what happens when you have PAC-funded elections," asserted Martin.
Council members also made the following, less-controversial appointments to boards and commissions: Leslie Hennessee and Dan Comer (Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council); reappointed Christiana Tugman, Kim Moore and Jim McCulley (Asheville-Buncombe Fair Housing Commission); and reappointed Claudia Nix, Ron Lambe, Althea Goode and appointed Mickey Mahaffey (Asheville Transit Authority).