It was Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer’s turn to open Asheville City Council’s meeting with an invocation. City council lost the tradition of invoking the blessings of Divine Providence before meetings some time ago. Whereas a few still pray, others use the time to recite secular poetry.
Manheimer always asks her father, Ron, to prepare a message pertinent to items on the current agenda. In light of what Esther referred to as “an interesting proclamation” soon to be read, Ron prepared a tribute to two men both born on February 12, 1809: Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Reading, Esther asked that those present invoke their spirits. Darwin, she continued, was an avid abolitionist with an interest in American democracy. He believed in an invisible hand that guided events, whereas Lincoln believed in the voice of the people.
The “interesting proclamation” was placed on council’s agenda by Councilman Cecil Bothwell, at the suggestion of Jennifer Lovejoy. It proclaimed what was left of the evening “International Darwin Day in Asheville.” Given a chance at the microphone, Lovejoy appeared overjoyed. An avid humanist and atheist with a strong online presence, she excitedly shared how the proclamation helped Asheville be a role model for liberating other cities to celebrate science and human achievement.
Among other things, the resolution stated Darwin’s theory of evolution is “recognized as the foundation of modern biology” and “an essential tool in understanding the natural world and the development of life on earth.” In addition, “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has provided, and continues to provide, the basis for great advances in science, medicine, and philosophy.” After some hodge-podge about the city’s commitment to “scientifically-based environmental awareness” and other jingles from the sustainability lexicon, the piece of work was proclaimed in the name of Mayor Terry Bellamy.
The meeting wasn’t going to be taken too seriously. Members of council staggered in a few minutes after 5:00. Bothwell and Gordon Smith, who didn’t catch the bus, let members in the audience know the others were attending a celebration at UNCA for the Asheville Cougars’ high school marching band. The band had played at President Obama’s second inauguration.
What’s more, members of council had recently gotten news that they would be allowed to visit Linamar the next day to see the president. Obama was scheduled to be in the city for only two and a half hours, and his visit was not open to the general public. It was only fitting, then, that members of council not be caught on TV entertaining the normal Tuesday night frufru when the president was giving his State of the Union address.
A buzz was in the air, and members of council frequently ducked off the dais. Bellamy, who normally takes great care to leave no stone unturned, was moving things along at a clip. She strictly enforced a thirty-minute time limit on a public hearing, did not clarify for the public how votes were split per her usual courtesy, and did not open the floor for public comment when a motion was made on a “New Business” item.
Fortunately, no right-wing group seized the opportunity to disappoint members of council by filibustering toward the witching hour. Public input was brief, and only two regulars engaged in public comment at the end of the meeting. One, Christopher Chiaromonte, who referred to himself as the prophet of Asheville, complained about the police and courts infringing his ability to sell marijuana as a free exercise of his church’s religion. The other, Leicester resident Alan Ditmore, explained how birth control was the answer to all the world’s problems.
Council had matters to discuss in closed session, so the public meeting ended before 8:00.
Asking for a Sign –
Council approved amendments to the signage plan for Biltmore Park Town Square. Paul Szurek, representing the urban village, argued retail space remains 30-percent vacant. Speaking to members of council in their own tongue and referring to the village as a sustainable ecosystem, he said the space would garner more revenue for the city rented than vacant. He believed occupancy rates could increase if retailers could communicate their existence to passersby on I-26. The mall’s signs are visible from I-240, but due to guidelines agreed upon by city staff and the developer, a garage had to block commercial frontage. Szurek added the garage had been built with private dollars when the economy was in bad shape.
Attorney Patsy Brison argued merchants in Biltmore Village had objected to unfair competition that more signage would afford Biltmore Park Town Square. The way she read the ordinances, Szurek had already had two more amendments than he was allowed. City Attorney Bob Oast said the ordinance said “notwithstanding” Brison’s arguments, council may still make changes.
Council also approved a signage plan for UNCA that included the hanging of banners. They did not even take the time to hear a presentation on the second reading.