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Council revs up its schmoozing


By Leslee Kulba-Tuesday, Asheville City Council met in a specially-called work session to discuss their legislative agenda. The task was business carried over from the retreat held earlier this year. The city’s lobbyist, Jack Cozort, led the discussion, saying he had braved snowstorms in Raleigh in order to attend the meeting.

Something that kept coming up in the meeting was the way the Town of Cary manages its lobbying. For one thing, they have a set of “Advocacy Principles.” Cozort explained that a lot of legislation hits the floor before lobbyists get a chance to see it. As some of it is fast-tracked through the General Assembly, it is helpful for lobbyists to argue a client’s positions rather than try to get in contact with key people on the spur of the moment.

Cary’s “Advocacy Principles” are organized into eight categories and address topics ranging from municipal autonomy to community planning. As an example, the town’s position on mandates is, “Burdensome and expensive legislative, regulatory, or administrative mandates to perform functions or activities should not be enacted without adequate local authority, flexibility, and financial resources for development, implementation, and maintenance.”

Council decided it would like to follow Cary’s lead, but, like many things, shifted the task of working out the details to council’s new Governance Committee. Headed by Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and Councilman Gordon Smith meet once a month to hash out policy matters in an advisory capacity for council in general.

Hunt expressed his opinion that it was more important for council to develop its legislative agenda, taking specific positions on legislation expected to come before the General Assembly during its short session, which will convene May 14. Council supported his recommendation to postpone the drafting of the principles until afterward.

As for legislation that might be of interest to council, former City Attorney Bob Oast used to track bills as they moved through the legislature. He would present council with a proposed legislative agenda and share the agendas of the League of Municipalities and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce as well. Since Oast left to teach law in Ohio State, the responsibility had not been covered.

Martha McGlohon has been serving as the city’s acting attorney. She received a standing ovation, prompted by Jan Davis, for her efforts. Earlier in the meeting, the city’s new attorney, Robin Currin, was sworn in as the city’s new attorney. Currin worked with her husband at the law firm Currin and Currin in Raleigh, where she specialized in land-use and zoning law.

Currin will begin working for the city May 1. By that time, Manheimer thought it would be unrealistic for her to be up-to-speed on the city’s issues. Council therefore discussed who should develop the legislative agenda. Manheimer suggested obtaining Oast’s most recent legislative agenda, at which point Cozort said it was still up on the city’s web site.

Council also discussed how they should interface with legislators. Cary’s town council hosts an annual dinner for their legislative delegation. Cozort acknowledged that several legislators may be too busy, so they would have to be contacted individually. Cozort presented members of council with a list of members in the current legislative delegation. It included brief bios, committees on which they serve, and contact information.

He and Hunt then elaborated somewhat on the importance of deciding which council member or member of staff should interact with which legislators. Davis said he had found the legislators very cooperative in communications about the SoCon. He did not think they would be as adversarial as they had been perceived to be in the past. Comments by members of council, however, were replete with undertones of negativity toward state Republican leadership.

Moving on to specific bills, Cozort presented a handful to start the discussion, which was deferred. HB 74, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, would prohibit the city from enacting environmental regulations pertaining to areas already regulated by state or federal guidelines. During the last session, lobbyists succeeded in watering down the language somewhat to allow local governments to enact more stringent regulations with a unanimous vote of the full council.

Another part of the bill would grandfather-in billboards in perpetuity and, further, allow billboard owners to rebuild billboards without losing the grandfathered-in status. A number of other specific restrictions on the ability of cities to restrict individual property rights were also included in the bill, which presumably will be subject to further attempts at watering down. The bill only passed the House in 2013, so it will be brought back to the floor this year. Cozort said the proposed changes have not yet been made public.

Another bill of interest to council is HB 568. This bill would de-annex the property on which the Asheville Regional Airport is located. It was part of a major move by Republicans to strip municipalities of assets, and was viewed as a purely political attempt to reduce revenue streams to Democrat strongholds. HB 568 passed the House in 2013, but it was committeed in the Senate.

Cozort said HB 150 would not matter as much to Asheville as it would to other municipalities, like Cary. It would limit the degree to which municipalities could regulate the design and aesthetics of single-family homes and duplexes. According to Cozort, “Controls that would be prevented would be requirements related to exterior building color, roof style, location of windows and doors, and the number and types of rooms in the house.” This bill is also being brought back after being committeed in the Senate.

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