Asheville Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower wanted a war on drugs. What he got was a war of words.
The pitched battle took place during a May 3 City Council budget workshop. The conflict made public the acrimony that has simmered privately for months. At one point in the meeting, Mumpower accused Council member Terry Bellamy of making a "racist statement." That didn't sit well with Bellamy, the lone African-American on Council, who noted that it wasn't the first time Mumpower had leveled the charge. "Honey, that's reality -- it's about telling the truth!" she proclaimed.
But the heated exchange proved to be only the opening salvo. For the next two days, Council members continued to snipe at one another in conversations with this reporter.
Ironically, the blowup came mere days after Council had gone public with a new vision and operating guidelines hammered out at a recent retreat -- with the help of two consultants -- to improve communication and decrease personal squabbles and infighting (see "With One Voice?").
What prompted the firefight was Mumpower's push for a high-ticket war on drugs in Asheville. In the days leading up to the budget session, the vice mayor pushed for his initiative (see "Playing by the Rules" below). Further fueling the squabble was the fact that Council found itself, for the first time in several years, in the position of actually having some extra money to spend (see below, "War Chest").
For several Council members, however, Mumpower himself was the real story. Since taking office, the vice mayor has been one of the most vocal and media-savvy City Council members. But his aggressive use of the media has also raised eyebrows among his colleagues.
Asked about the grandstanding charge, Mumpower told Xpress: "I've never mentioned running for office. I feel like there is an attempt to minimize my efforts [on Council]; there's no legitimacy to it."
Mumpower has long been critical of what he calls "political gamesmanship," which he says has undermined Council's ability to function effectively. "Several members of Council ... continue to apply our recent agreements on Council process very selectively," Mumpower told Xpress afer the meeting. "The persistent personal insults and insinuations are in direct contradiction to the spirit and substance of the guiding principles that we have supposedly embraced. ... If this pattern continues, I would suggest that our arrangement is in fact about image over substance."
Bellamy, meanwhile, told Xpress after the meeting that it's Mumpower who was out of line: "We had agreed on one vision; we had agreed to work together. Then this came along and it destroyed the work we've all accomplished. We've been blind-sided by this -- and I thought we'd agreed not to do such things. But there we were -- next thing I know, it's them or us. Those guidelines sit next to our computers every Tuesday. It says 'one voice, one vision.' But clearly, not everybody is abiding by this."
Council member Holly Jones also chided Mumpower, telling Xpress, "For Carl, it's got to be his way, his time, his name in order for it to be valid."
Playing by the rules
Two days after Council members had laid out their new agreement in a jointly written commentary in the Asheville Citizen-Times (see sidebar), they gathered for their first budget workshop. But their cooperative vision quickly unraveled.
Even before the meeting began, Mumpower had taken the initiative in proposing how to spend the newfound surplus (see box). The night before, WLOS had reported that the vice mayor wanted to allocate $750,000 to wage a local war on drugs. And that very day, the Asheville Citizen-Times had carried a front-page story on the initiative, which carried an estimated $750,000 to $1 million price tag. The article recounted how the vice mayor had spent a night in one of the city's public-housing complexes "watching drug deals take place outside his window."
But Jones, Bellamy and Mayor Charles Worley all later told Xpress that they felt the news stories had undermined the budget deliberations before they'd even begun. The article, said Jones, had "painted [her] into a corner" because if she voted against Mumpower's initiative, she'd be accused of being soft on drugs. The three also maintained that in going to the media, Mumpower had violated one of Council's new operating guidelines, which specifically states that no Council member can have pre-planned contact with the media without first alerting the other six. The rule, Jones explained, "keeps us from being blind-sided."
Worley, meanwhile, noted: "I've tried, every time I've had a pre-planned contact with the media, to let Council know. That's in the spirit of our operating guidelines. I'm not sure [Mumpower's] interpretation is the same as mine."
But Jones was even more direct: "We need to bury that rule; it's clearly being violated. I believe we formulated that guideline at the retreat because of Carl's media activity. It was impairing us being able to work together. It's not good to open your Saturday paper and see an editorial about a city position. It's frustrating; we told Carl this was problematic. We weren't trying to censor him -- we just wanted a heads-up."
Mumpower, however, insisted that he's consistently informed the mayor about his media contacts. "I defy anyone to prove otherwise," he declared.
The war council
The Citizen-Times story, headlined "Councilmen Call for War on Drugs in Public Housing," said that Mumpower had enlisted the support of Council members Jan Davis and Joe Dunn. But in order to put their troops in the field, they would need at least one other Council member's vote -- and that proved to be a tall order.
Early in the budget meeting, Mumpower introduced his measure, noting: "Some of us at the table want to see a much more enthusiastic approach to the drug problem. ... The bottom line is that some of us feel very strongly that the issue of public safety is the City Council's No.1 charge.
"One of the most neglected areas in our community is street-level drug interdiction," he continued. "We are doing a poor job going after these people; our belief is that we need a level of service to chase these folks wherever they go in our community -- 24 hours a day."
The opposition, however, quickly weighed in. Everyone on Council, countered Jones, agrees that drugs are a problem the city needs to address -- particularly in public housing. But she said she wants to see a more "holistic approach." Mumpower agreed that a holistic approach is needed, but he insisted that there's an immediate need and that Council has a "direct charge to police drug dealers."
Council member Brownie Newman sided with Jones, saying city leaders need to "examine the root causes" of the problem and encourage a communitywide dialogue involving not only the police, but also the Planning Department, given that the concentration of poverty in certain areas of the city is one possible cause.
Mumpower's response was: "We don't have the time for lengthy deliberation. In the meantime, you can buy hard drugs 24 hours a day."
At that point, a frustrated-looking Jones asked whether the incidence of rape and sexual assault is higher in Asheville than in the state as a whole. She immediately answered her own question, saying, "Yes -- it's equally horrible. How do we prioritize these things?"
Mayor Worley, siding with Jones and Newman, called for a holistic approach while urging caution. "The process needs more attention," he observed. City Council, said the mayor, is "universally concerned" about drugs in the community, but before taking action, he wants to hear from the new police chief -- who won't start work until mid-June. Worley went on to raise several questions of his own: "Where's the cost/benefit analysis? Is there a problem compared to other cities? ... Let's be realistic: I don't think any of us are going to eliminate the drug problem."
Dunn, however, argued that there has already been too much talking and not enough action. "We can't just sit back and study the problem -- we need to take a step. ... There are criminals out there corrupting our children," he declared.
And Davis reminded his colleagues, "If we miss this opportunity, we're talking about a year down the road" before Council once again discusses the budget.
Newman then brought the debate to the national level, asking: "How much money does the U.S. spend every year fighting drugs? This is a theory that says that if we spend another million, the problem is going to go away. These problems are going to stay here even if we spend $2 million."
Mumpower responded: "Brownie, you're right -- we're not going to eliminate it, but by god, we're going to reduce it."
A tale of two sons
After biting her lip through the better part of this debate, Council member Bellamy waded into the fray. "Dollar for dollar -- if you get a million for police, I want a million for after-school programs. Dollar for dollar -- if we increase patrols in Deaverview, then increase them in north Asheville as well. Dollar for dollar!"
Bellamy then bitterly flashed back to last year's budget battle, when she'd been the one to speak out about the drug problem in public housing -- and Mumpower had been one of several Council members who rejected her request for additional police funding. "Last year I begged for this issue -- begged!" she bellowed angrily. "But it takes somebody running for office to make it happen" -- a not-so-subtle dig at Mumpower's political aspirations. She also stressed the differing realities faced by blacks and whites in the war on drugs, noting that she was the lone African-American in the room during the debate.
Mumpower reminded Council that he has "a 20-year-old son, and if my only two choices are seeing him on a corner with a gun in his pocket selling poison to children or prison -- then I'd choose prison."
Bellamy shot back: "Well, I have a 1-year-old son, and chances are he's more likely to go to jail than your son."
A scowling Mumpower charged, "That's a racist statement."
And Bellamy glared as she shot back in a thundering voice: "Give me the numbers! How many have been arrested?"
That prompted Mayor Worley to jump in, urging Council members to respect one another as an awkward silence hung over the room.
Eventually, Jones made a motion to approve the Police Department budget as is -- without Mumpower's extra million for the drug war. Her motion passed 4-3, and Mumpower accused the four who'd voted against his plan of "turning their backs against a drug-interdiction program." Both Jones and Worley denied the accusation, which Worley called "untrue."
But the final decision on this matter won't come until Council approves its budget, probably in late June. And in an interview after the meeting, Mumpower said he plans to bring the issue up again.
In a welcome change from the constraints of recent years, the city has a little wiggle room in developing this year's budget. During the May 3 workshop, Budget Director Ben Durant said the city is projecting a 5.3 percent increase in property-tax revenues for fiscal year 2004-05. He attributed the growth, which he called "higher than normal," to increased construction activity and annexation.
City Manager Jim Westbrook, meanwhile, noted that the state's economy is "showing signs of improvement" and that the city can also expect a 1.5 percent increase in sales-tax revenues. All told, Westbrook characterized the upswing as a "good, healthy increase for Asheville." Durant added that the growth translates into an extra $1.8 million in this year's $103 million budget.
A series of budget workshops -- all open to the public -- will be held most Mondays in May. Each meeting will focus on a different aspect of the budget: public safety (May 3), environment and transportation (May 10), culture and recreation (May 17) and general government/outside-agency funding/fees and charges (May 24). A wrap-up meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 1, and a week later (June 8), Council will hold a public hearing on its recommendations. The final vote to approve the budget is slated for Tuesday, June 22.