In municipal Council and mayoral elections, Asheville's ballots are devoid of the big "D" for Democrat and "R" for Republican, even though parties contribute to campaigns, and newspapers (including this one) identify candidates by party. Under the city charter, Asheville's elections are nonpartisan. But City Council at its May 8 meeting declared its intent to explore the idea of partisan elections.
"I think we've all seen that political parties are already involved," said Council member Brownie Newman, who introduced the issue. Newman pointed out that the parties currently raise money and send out mailings for candidates and noted that partisan elections would ensure that the same number of Democrats and Republicans ended up on the general-election ballot. The telltale D or R helps voters understand a candidate's political philosophy, he argued.
Council member Robin Cape said that the current system forces candidates to work outside an existing party structure that is designed to help them. And when Carl Mumpower, Council's lone Republican, objected that partisan elections would create barriers for independent and third-party candidates, Cape responded: "If you can't raise 2,000 signatures, you're not going to win." (An independent or third-party candidate would need that many signatures to get on the ballot.)
Others argued that the practice of partisanship is more honest and transparent.
"We are kidding ourselves if we don't consider the last election partisan," said Council member Jan Davis. Davis later told Xpress that he is still wary about the change. "I probably stand to lose more than anybody else on that," he said, noting that he relied on some Republican votes to win his seat -- votes that could go away if a "D" appears next to his name.
Mayor Terry Bellamy said the move would hinder other minorities in an already difficult political arena. "When we introduce partisan elections, we make the hurdle a little higher," said Asheville's first African-American mayor. "I can't support it. I won't support it."
Bellamy herself introduced a proposal from the Buncombe County Board of Elections that would change Asheville's ballots to allow for instant-runoff elections. The mayor said she would not support this move either, but explained that the change would allow voters a first, second and third choice for each open Council seat. If a ballot's first choice were eliminated, its vote would automatically go to the next preferred candidate. The process, she added, would eliminate the need for a primary election.
Bellamy read through the document provided by the Board of Elections, but Council members found it confusing, and with no one there to explain the language and answer their questions, several rejected the idea outright.
"This is not a ballot, this is a portal into hell," warned Mumpower.
Cape, on the other hand, was open to the idea, but did not want to lose the primary before trying the system out.
"It has been used in other countries and places and has worked pretty well," she said, arguing that the instant-runoff system allows everyone's vote to count.
But there was no other support for more information on the subject, and it was voted down 6-1, with only Cape in favor.
Council did take a step toward partisan elections, on the other hand, voting 5-2 to declare its intent and has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for May 22. Mumpower and Bellamy voted no.
Ride around Sally
The Asheville Transit System has retained some of the increase in ridership it gained during a three-month ride-for-free promotion that ended last November, Transit Director Bruce Black told Council.
"What happened was beyond expectations," he said.
Issuing his report on the bus system's numbers, Black said that almost 20 percent more riders are using the system this year over the same months last year and about 8 percent of that can be attributed directly to the fare-free promotion.
The 90 days of free ridership obviously tapped into a demand for free transportation, he said, but the system -- both the busses and drivers -- experienced "significant stress" during that trial, when ridership swelled 59 percent. "But you can hold your breath and do anything for 90 days," Black said.
Newman, who had championed the promotion, hailed it as a success, despite the burden on the system. "We went from a situation where no one was riding the bus, to one where too many people were riding the bus," he said, pushing Council to stay focussed on public transit. "We've [laid] the foundation for some future success."
Mumpower dismissed the goal of increased ridership as unrealistic and maintained that too much subsidy -- about $4 in public money for every $1 in fares -- goes into the system. "That's a lot of money to move people around." He also highlighted drivers' criticisms of the promotion, including complaints about an increase in homeless riders, verbal abuse and the refusal of some riders to give up seats to senior citizens. "Those are pretty strong indictments," he said.
But Black insisted that a lot of those problems have disappeared since the return of fares.
Meanwhile, Council members and Black offered some ideas for enhancements, including fare-free rides on days when the ozone levels are in the red zone and continued surveys of drivers' experiences.
To air is human
If Buncombe County bites, a representative of Henderson County may sit on the Airport Authority board.
The move came after a presentation by airport Director David Edwards, who noted that the current authority arrangement expires in 2018. Edwards came before Council to explore the idea of an independent authority, which would give the airport greater power and flexibility to make its own decisions about important issues such as expansions. Buncombe County, Edwards said, has approved a resolution to explore the idea, and state Rep. Bruce Goforth has introduced legislation in Raleigh to that end.
But federal regulations prohibiting reimbursement to Asheville -- which funded the airport's construction -- made Council opt for a less-dramatic option.
Under that new proposal from Council, which still has to go through a city public hearing, Asheville and Buncombe County each would keep seats on the board, but Henderson County would also be able to appoint a member, who wold replace an at-large member. Henderson County has never had representation on the board, even though the airport is located on its border.
Council also voted to ask Goforth to move his bill through the House but not send it to the Senate until city staff can thoroughly examine all the implications of the change. The motion passed 6-1 with Mumpower opposed.
Slip slidin' away
After a gruelingly long evening, Council attempted to chip away at an extensive list of recommendations by city staff on the Unified Development Ordinance's steep-slope rules, but wound up approving only two of them and delaying action on the rest.
At 10:20, with amendments to three parts of the Unified Development Ordinance on the agenda, Bellamy briefly flirted with delaying the entire discussion. But noticing that several audience members festooned with "Save the Slopes" stickers had waited patiently through the long meeting, Council pressed on with steep-slope discussions. They postponed debate, however, on two other UDO issues: open space and retaining wall requirements.
When the steep-slope issue last came to Council, at its April 24 meeting (see Asheville City Council, May 2 Xpress), the crowd was packed with citizens who spoke in favor of restrictive steep slope regulations. This time, however, it was developers, business representatives and landscape architects who stepped to the mike to push for leniency and the ability to build at steeper grades.
As it had in the initial presentation two weeks earlier, Council considered one recommendation from city staff and another from the Planning and Zoning Commission. The two differed in the elevation where the ordinance would kick in. City staff has recommended that the line designating steep slopes be held at 2,220 feet, whereas PZC has recommended pushing the elevation up to to 2,500 feet. Additionally, the staff's suggestion would restrict building on hillsides below 2,220 feet that have a grade of 25 percent or more.
John Carroll, president of the Council for Independent Business Owners, called either proposal an attack on private property rights and affordable housing. "Thousands of people will be disappointed when they try to build on their land," he said.
Trying to better illustrate what the slopes in question look like, Carroll trotted out landscape designer Martin Kocott, who, bearing a tape measure and yardstick, demonstrated 20 percent and 30 percent slopes. "This is very buildable in my world," Kocott said of the 30 percent slope.
Gerald Green, a consultant to developers and a former planner for the city, said the changes would hurt the city's ability to create infill development. He urged the city to designate different regulations for urban, near-urban and suburban development.
And indeed it was concerns about the one-size-fits-all policy and the crush of complex details that prompted Council to take pause.
"It is a big issue that took a year, and for two weeks we've been wrestling with it," said Cape. "I'm sorry if I can't get it right tonight."
Newman pressed forward, trying to move on the percentage of slope, but Bellamy too had reservations about the numbers. Arguing that elevation and slope designations do not take into account the slope's surroundings or proximity to downtown and its viewsheds, Bellamy feared that adopting a single percentage might be unneccesarily restrictive.
The maps presented so far, she noted, lack sufficient detail to enable Council to consider the specifics of different sites.
Cape agreed: "When we think we are talking about the side of a hill and it turns out we are talking about the middle of a valley, we are making a mess."
City Planning Director Scott Shuford pointed out that the North Carolina Geological Survey will issue highly detailed maps later in the summer and suggested holding off on a decision until Council can refer to them.
In a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, Council did approve language that excludes development under 2,220 from the ordinance except for geological surveys, which will be required for building on all grades of 36 percent or more.
Before voting on any more details, Council will take a work session in June to set its main goals for the ordinance.