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Council plays catch me if you can

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By Leslee Kulba –

In observance of Passover, Asheville City Council agreed to move their formal meeting up from 5:00 p.m. to 2:30. There may have been an ulterior motive, but the tribute to the God of the Old Testament seemed a little uncharacteristic, coming from council members who, with two exceptions, substitute secular readings for invocations for the blessings and guidance of Deity at the beginning of meetings.

Freedom of religion must be practiced. But somehow that freedom conjures images of, for example, King Artaxerxes granting a leave of absence to his trusted cup bearer, Nehemiah, so he could go rebuild Jerusalem. One seldom thinks of moving a public meeting into normal business hours to cause any first-shifter who may care to speak to obtain permission and arrange for substitutes on short notice.

An obvious gesture of tolerance would have been to grant Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer leave to worship according to the dictates of her conscience, and to further clear the agenda of matters Manheimer deemed important, or that directly involved others who expressed a desire to observe the holiday.

Council is currently working on its budget for the next fiscal year. In past years, work sessions, open to the public but not televised, have taken place early Tuesday afternoons. The difference is, a schedule is normally presented well in advance and subject to few adjustments. This year, interested parties need to keep checking for updates.

Less than a month ago, members of council sprang news on the mayor and public that they had decided to convene a retreat the next week. This was after cancelling prior arrangements after the facilitator had signed a no-refund contract. Indignantly, but warmly, the mayor resolved, “I’ll clear my schedule.” Commitments scheduled by others in the peanut gallery for the new retreat date were not so quitclaim. Had the same method of calling the meeting been employed in a made-for-television drama, one would certainly know the scoundrels had something up their sleeves.

Regardless, Tuesday’s early meeting got off to a late start. It was delayed a couple minutes as Manheimer, City Attorney Bob Oast, and Jan Davis had a confab, apparently pertaining to the manner in which the meeting was to be conducted. When the gavel went down, three members of the body were still not present. Councilman Cecil Bothwell did arrive a couple minutes later. Mayor Terry Bellamy and Councilman Gordon Smith never showed, and, contrary to tradition, no reason was given to explain their absences.

As one of their first decisions, the skeleton crew decided they would move the time of their next budget work session up from 3:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Council would be discussing proposed cuts to and user fee increases for the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Department, which happens to be the city’s third largest department. Manheimer said a number of people had expressed an interest in appearing before council to share their dissatisfaction with proposals. To restate the situation, advocates for subsidized recreation are not tied down to a desk or assembly line in the middle of the day.

Throughout the meeting, Oast advised council on the numbers needed to pass measures with or without requiring a second reading. One item, consideration of whether or not a special signage plan could be tweaked to allow tri-fold fast-food menu boards, was continued until more members of council could be present.

The signs are allowed under the existing zoning, but they were left out as an oversight in the signage plan. They wouldn’t even be visible from the road, but members of the public, who did not want the McDonald’s going near their homes for fear of property devaluation and excessive, unsafe traffic, wanted to use the sign issue as a pivot point for getting McDonald’s to abandon its plans to build a store in the Weirbridge community.

Davis has on occasion complained about a lack of clarity and transparency in council’s methods of late. As further evidence of the board not communicating its intentions with those it serves, Jim Curl, president of the Crowfields Condominium Association, apologized for the low turnout, saying a hundred people would have come had they received timely notification of the public hearing. Curl had only learned of it Monday.

Denying McDonald’s the privilege of using signs, which no doubt are used to improve efficiencies, would likely contribute to more traffic clogging. Either that, or the city would be opening itself up for a lawsuit for using little more than a scrivener’s error to force a business it didn’t like out of the development. Even so, perhaps only to woo votes, members of council were sympathetic to neighbors’ anti-McDonald’s sentiments. Chris Pelly even voted against continuing the item as an expression of support.

Manheimer left at 5:00, and then there were four. Davis was chosen to preside over the meeting after Manheimer left, amidst a number of jokes about what he should be called.

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