To the average city resident, Council members might seem to hold a lot of power. Under state law, however, there are certain things municipalities can't do without special permission from the state legislature.
Before Council can levy a new 1 cent prepared-food-and-beverage tax to pay for upgrading the Civic Center, for example, city leaders must get the General Assembly's OK. At their March 4 work session, Council members voted to send four such requests to Raleigh, including the tax proposal. (Council members don't generally take formal votes during work sessions, but with the deadline for introducing bills in the General Assembly coming up fast, Council voted to suspend the procedural rules to allow a formal vote.)
Other suggestions simply died on the vine. One such casualty was a request that the city be allowed to install cameras at red lights to catch traffic offenders; it gained no votes and generated little discussion. Mayor Charles Worley said the local legislative delegation had made it clear that they would not support the cameras and that the city should not pursue the idea.
Other items, however, got a good bit of floor time -- particularly the hot-button topic of campaign-finance reform.
A proposal to place stricter limits on campaign contributions than the state's $4,000 cap saw every Council member weigh in. Emotions ran high at times, exposing the very philosophical root of the argument.
"What's broken is the public trust," declared Council member Holly Jones, arguing that there is a public perception -- whether true or not -- that donations from political action committees buy them too much influence with elected officials. "If there's something we can do to bring back confidence, we should," she urged.
But Council members Carl Mumpower and Joe Dunn both rejected the idea that such contributions are a problem.
"I have to really disagree with you," said Dunn. As for PACs, he continued, "I have never been asked by any of those people to vote any way."
Dunn went on to say that he thinks "a lot of people got disenfranchised by the last administration." (After the meeting, citing the fact that four Council seats had changed hands in the last election, Dunn observed, "You would think that something had upset the constituents.")
Dunn also noted that both he and Jones were elected despite having raised the least amount of money.
"But you are only looking at the people who won," Council member Brian Peterson reminded Dunn. "The people who won are the people who spent the most money."
Dunn replied that anyone who votes based on money "is not a very educated voter in the first place."
At that point, Worley chimed in, placing the blame squarely on the electorate.
"The real breakdown is the apathy in the voters," the mayor proclaimed. "Most people don't pay attention to what goes on on a day-to-day basis. They vote more on the basis of name recognition."
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, seemed to take the matter very much to heart. "We have lost respect," she lamented, adding, "When you've done what's right, that's important."
No one on Council is in it for the money, noted Dunn, adding, "We're here because we want to be here."
And despite any sign of consensus, Jones suggested that Council ask state legislators for permission to further limit campaign contributions. Whether to actually make such a move could be decided later.
But Mumpower warned against the whole idea. "It scares me," he said. Such power, he added, could be abused by either this or some future Councils. (The permission, once granted, would continue indefinitely if not immediately used.)
Nonetheless, on a motion by Jones, Council members voted to send the request to Raleigh by the narrowest of margins (4-3, with Worley, Mumpower and Dunn opposed).
The decision, however, seemed to have more to do with a peculiar feature of state law than with any accord among Council members. By the time the vote took place, Bellamy had left the meeting -- but without asking to be excused. In such circumstances, that person's vote is automatically counted as a "yes." Worley later told Xpress that the local legislative delegation would be made aware that, but for that technicality, the vote would have been a 3-3 split.
Not all aspects of campaign-finance reform proved so troubling. Council members did agree on a related matter -- one not requiring state permission -- raised by a committee consisting of Peterson, Mumpower and Bellamy.
The committee proposed raising the filing fees for running for Council or for mayor, maintaining that the current $5 fee encourages too many "noncandidates." In its report to Council, the committee noted that, although there are only three Council seats up for grabs in each election, the proliferation of candidates who aren't really mounting a serious bid for office clogs the pipeline, making candidate forums more cumbersome and press coverage harder to come by. Cutting through this fog requires spending more on ads, signs and other name-recognition boosters.
Everyone seemed to agree that the filing fees should be raised to $75 for Council candidates and $100 for mayoral candidates; Council directed City Attorney Bob Oast to draft an ordinance to that effect. Money raised by filing fees goes into the Buncombe County general fund.
Another suggestion that failed to draw much support was the idea of switching city elections to a district system. Worley said he feared that such a system would tend to pit district against district. Council member Jim Ellis added that he would hate to see Asheville have to go through redistricting every time a new area is annexed.
Heel and tow
Oast told Council that people visiting downtown bars and clubs late at night have been parking in unmarked, private lots. In response, some property owners have contracted with towing companies to come and take those cars away.
"If they see a car that is not supposed to be there, they will tow it," noted Oast. The owners then have to pay to get their cars back. And though Oast conceded that property owners have a right to tow trespassing vehicles, Council members must also deal with complaints from people who've had to "buy back" their cars. And if word of such "predatory towing," as Mumpower put it, spreads, it could discourage people from coming downtown.
Oast suggested that Council require parking-lot owners who plan to tow to first post a sign. Besides making it clear that the lot is private, the signs would also give the number of the towing company servicing it.
Mumpower, however, said he would rather work with the Downtown Commission to try to alleviate the downtown parking problem than alienate business owners who might have been swayed by a softer approach. An ordinance, noted Oast, would also result in more signs downtown -- something many businesses have sought to avoid.
Nonetheless, the measure to request this option from the state passed unanimously, as did a request for permission to reduce the terms of Housing Authority members from five years to three years.
Go in peace
You could say that Council was privy to the privy.
But seriously, folks.
Since passing an ordinance forbidding public urination and defecation, the city has come under pressure to provide more public restrooms downtown.
Responding to a request from Council, Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining the problems and possible solutions.
Some of the problems are familiar to city officials, particularly the vandalism and abuse that have led to the closing of some downtown restrooms.
After reviewing case studies around the nation, Brinson presented a range of options, from portable toilets (the cheapest -- and the most vulnerable to damage) to a new downtown building complete with full-time staff (the most expensive).
At present, there are 12 public restrooms downtown, he reported, but there's little public awareness of them -- and none of them are open after normal business hours.
"We have a moral responsibility to provide more than we provide right now," argued Jones. "We need to put aside some money and figure out how to go forward."
Bellamy pointed out that downtown-business owners might not like the idea of using portable toilets, which have a strong odor and are easy targets for vandals. Such facilities, she said, are "cheap but not effective."
"It's unfortunate that our need for public restrooms is driven by a segment of our society that has no respect for the service," lamented Worley.
Jones quickly took issue with his statement, saying: "We are doing this for a broader segment of our society. But the cost is associated with a small group of folks; that's unfortunate."
The initial cost of creating a new downtown restroom can range from $35,000 to $250,000, plus annual maintenance costs, said Brinson. And that's not counting damage caused by vandals, he added.
Other options cited by Brinson include the "deluxe portable restroom" (an upscale version of the portable toilet that's more spacious and has porcelain fixtures), downtown "storefront restrooms" designed to blend into the downtown streetscape, facilities integrated into existing parking decks, and pay toilets like the ones used in European cities.
Brinson also noted that the restroom question is only one facet of the complex of issues that prompted the recent downtown urination/sleeping/panhandling ordinance.
"Solving the restroom issue would probably be the easiest part of this," he warned.
Brinson said he plans to solicit input from such groups as the Downtown Social Issues Task Force, the Downtown Commission and the Downtown Association before returning to Council for a decision.