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Mayor of what, exactly?

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The city the next mayor will inherit … and what the candidates hope to do with it

By Roger McCredie-An attorney and incumbent city council member, a consultant specializing in health care management and an activist waiter with a background in film production: Each of them wants to be the next mayor of Asheville. And they bring to the election table, at least according to their views expressed in a public forum last week, three highly different sets of priorities for running the city. It seems that one thing city voters will have going into this year’s election is a pretty clear understanding of which candidate stands for what.

The constant in the electoral equation, though, is the present state of the city that either Esther Manheimer, John Miall or Martin Ramsey will end up being responsible for.

Many say Asheville is a dynamic place whose strength lies in its diversity, and that it has thus managed not only to weather the worst of the Great Recession, but also to attract new industry, exercise better stewardship of its natural beauty and resources, nurture a vibrant and growing arts and cultural community and make strides in developing better land use and affordable housing – all this while retaining its blend of eclectic charm and natural beauty.

“Good Morning, America” included Asheville among its ten most beautiful places in the United States. CBS News called it a “new age Mecca.” Its profusion of craft breweries earned it the “Beer City USA” title two years running. In 2010 it was named the twelfth-most gay-friendly city in America. Survey after survey lists it as one of the nation’s most desirable places to live, work, retire and visit. As the Chamber of Commerce puts it, Asheville “attracts newcomers for its astounding quality of life, low crime rate and welcoming entrepreneurial environment. Known for its culinary delights, history, architecture, natural settings and as a Mecca for adventure lovers, Asheville has something for everyone.”

Others, particularly those who have lived and worked in Asheville for some time, think the city’s ever-burgeoning reputation as a sort of little New Orleans with hills is skin-deep – a Mardi Gras mask covering the face of a city with more than its share of social, economic and governmental problems. Recently the website “eBosswatch,” which features anonymous opinions of businesses and public entities written by people who work for them, carried a post from a current City of Asheville employee who said in part:

“Sadly the city government has suffered in recent years from an influx of incompetent, unprincipled opportunists … The city has a growing history of malfeasance and cover ups noted in the local media including sexual harassment by police staff, financial fraud by human resource staff, fraudulent hiring practices, failure to record financial and personnel documents with the state, and failures to provide specific public information upon request. Sadly these activities continue to this day …”

Anonymous personal opinions aside, it is a given that Asheville’s new mayor will inherit a corporate situation that includes a $6 million budget shortfall – which has resulted in services cutbacks, a tax hike and the abandonment of Asheville’s signature street festival — as well as increasingly strident charges of cronyism and incompetence at its corporate level. Those with an ear to the ground say they hear distinct rumblings of discontent, of concern that trying to be all things to all people has taken precedent over simply trying to keep house. A new bumper sticker, apparently a response to the popular “Keep Asheville Weird” one, reads, “’Weird’ Isn’t Working.”

Against this backdrop, the three mayoral candidates outlined their visions for the city and responded to audience questions before a packed house at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce last week. Unlike many such forums, this one left attendees in no doubt as to who occupied what place on the political spectrum.

Manheimer: It’s all good.

Esther Manheimer, who actually lives in Enka, is the daughter of a longtime UNCA philosophy professor and a librarian. She is married to a teacher/coach at Enka High and is a mother of three. But she is also a land-use attorney at the prestigious Van Winkle law firm and, appearing out of nowhere in the 2009 city council elections, she walked off with more votes than any other candidate. She presently serves as vice mayor. Among the candidates, she acts as head cheerleader for the current administration’s policies, which means that she frequently finds herself defending them.

For instance, one audience member asked point-blank whether the candidates, if elected, would favor retaining Chief of Police William Anderson, who has acknowledged taking part in a cover-up of a bizarre traffic accident involving his son and has also been accused of retaliating against officers who disagree with his policies. “I’m standing by the chief of police at this point,” she said.

Manheimer lauded the city’s economic development program for attracting employers with high wage scales, and said tax-funded incentives for such projects as the River Arts District will pay for themselves by attracting visitors to the city. She defended city council’s recent allocation of $2 million to the Asheville Art Museum on the same grounds, adding, “It’s an investment.” (In August, Manheimer said she was unaware that the art museum is already in default on $1.5 million city performance grants issued to it in 2007 and 2009.)

In response to a reporter’s question before the program, Manheimer also said she was “not sure” when asked if she knew why the city’s stormwater department borrowed $430,000 to purchase capital equipment when it presently has a reserve fund of $1.4 million. “I know they’re required to have a certain amount of money in reserve,” she said.

Miall: City of Health and Wellness

In a city that’s increasingly populated by incomers, John Miall wants to make one thing crystal clear: he’s an Ashevillian born and raised (grew up in West Asheville, graduated from Asheville High, Montreat-Anderson and UNCA). He spent 30 years working for the City of Asheville, in inspections, human resources and notably as Director of Risk Management.

Miall was a founder of The Asheville Project, a program designed to improve health care availability and lower its costs. The Asheville Project has since become something of a health-care template for municipalities nationwide, and since his official retirement Miall has worked as a consultant specializing in streamlining and improving health care plans for corporations and municipalities.

Thus, Miall declared that Asheville needs to wean itself away from a thin and unpredictable tourism economy, take advantage of the fact that it is a regional health care hub, and rebrand itself as “The City of Health and Wellness” as Durham calls itself “The City of Medicine”. He pointed to Charlotte as an example of the advantage of such focused branding. “Charlotte a generation ago was in bad shape,” he said. “Their council said, ‘What one single thing can we put in place here and become the hub of?’ They came up with banking.” This produced a smattering of grunts and a couple of muted boos, but Miall restressed his point: its health care system, not its tourism industry, needs to be the jewel in Asheville’s crown.

He also said city council needs to get its spending priorities in order, saying the art museum grant would have fixed a lot of potholes, and flatly said “no” when asked if he supported the police chief. “My friends in law enforcement tell me police officers are quitting in droves,” he said.

Ramsey: To the barricades!

Martin Ramsey is tall, good-looking and ferociously anti-establishment; as such, he had the rapt attention of everyone in the room under 30. A media arts graduate of UNC-Wilmington, he produced an award-winning documentary while still in school. Now he works as a waiter in a downtown restaurant, personifying another growing demographic: bright, overqualified young people supporting themselves at whatever while looking for a break. “The tourism industry pays my power bill,” he said.

Ramsey favors an expanded city council that would represent “a new Asheville of the people, stripped of the veneer of power and wealth that controls it now.” As a former “Occupy Asheville” participant, he decries banks as “parasites that produce nothing.” He opposes raising property taxes because, he said, “they lead to gentrification,” which in turn leads to exploitation of tenants. He also favors plowing money back into affordable housing instead of helping fund “an asteroid belt of architectural garbage.”

“Whatever happens, we’ve made a run at this thing,” Ramsey said, leading one observer to remark that Ramsey’s youthful passion may mask a certain political astuteness. He also did not wear a jacket, but spoke with his tie firmly knotted and his shirtsleeves rolled up – a look eerily reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy.

And in closing …

One point on which all three nominees agreed was that Asheville should continue its fight against the state legislature for control of the city’s water supply. Miall, perhaps, summed it up when he said, “Asheville is the most picked-on, abused city in the history of cities. Every time the legislature gets a bad idea, they ram it down our throats.”

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