So, with no small effort, city staff researched recommendations to first and foremost get the tags off of downtown buildings. In April, city council adopted an ordinance and a program. It called for the fining of perpetrators on an escalating scale ranging from $200 for the first offense to $1000 for the fifth.
As for the victims, beginning July 1, they would be given a ninety-day moratorium to repair any defacing of their property. If a property owner needed help removing graffiti, he could contact the city. $300,000 was budgeted for the blitz, and property owners opting for municipal assistance would only be billed for 10 percent of the cost of removal, plus any expenses to the city in excess of $500 per incident. To further assist, a thoughtful and kind-hearted neighbor who chooses to remain anonymous offered to pick up the 10-percent tabs for the victims.
Beginning October 1, the moratorium would be over. Thereafter, anybody with property defaced by graffitists would have seven days to remove the graffiti or contact the city to request a cleanup and be sent a bill. Failure to comply could cause the city pursue legal action, and then resort to what then Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball described as “options available as we do with any other nuisances.”
As October 1 would come and go before the next meeting of council, it was time to review the ordinance. Speaking before council, DPW Greg Shuler indicated response to the city’s offer to help remove graffiti had not even qualified as lukewarm. Staff had advertised the program way beyond the point of diminishing returns, and people were still telling him they had not heard of it.
Cecil Bothwell would be the only member of council to vote against tweaks to the program. “Is not affordable housing more important than cleaning up somebody’s idea of art? And if it’s private property, why are we spending tax money on private property to clean things up?” He paused as applause erupted in the chambers.
“When I look at the pictures that you showed here, the pictures of the remaining big projects, most of those look like art to me,” he said to more applause. Bothwell indicated a preference for fining property owners. Then, he interrupted himself in exasperation, saying only, “Sorry. I can’t go there.”
Councilman Jan Davis called for a reality check. He suggested staff contact the 10-20 property owners who, having been vandalized in large and conspicuous ways, had failed to do anything about it. “Do they want to leave it up? Are they doing that for a reason, or is it just purely based on the fact that they can’t afford to take it down?”
Councilman Chris Pelly, in response to Bothwell, suggested a kinder, gentler way of making the sausage that is local ordinances. “I think the Asheville way is a way that seeks to not be punitive, but give people an opportunity to help us work toward public policy goals – before we go with the punitive option.”
The floor was then opened for public comment. Hannah Lauzon faulted members of council and staff for not doing due diligence and suggested some ideas she had found on her smartphone in just five minutes of research. Cherokee said reactionary policy never works.
Claire Hanrahan also received applause. Registering a complaint against the 6-inch tree pits in the sidewalk, she asked council members to, “redirect your concerns from painting over what some people might consider artwork. I’m not into defacing things, but I think our sidewalks are a defacement and an insult to the elders.”
JJ Hicks volunteered, “If you want to stop graffiti, you stop poverty and unemployment. You give people jobs. You do things like you give affordable housing and give people a chance to feel proud about the house that they’re in.” He argued the ordinance would force property owners to remove graffiti they may wish to retain and closed saying, “The artistic value of this graffiti is much like the buskers. It adds character this town that brings the tourists that support this economy”
Hashing things out, council finally decided to stay the course with a couple changes. They were careful to word the motion in a way that would not require a change to the city ordinance, as that would not be legal without delays for proper noticing. The first change was that the $500 subsidy from the city would remain available for graffiti removal for one more year or until the appropriation runs out, whichever comes first. The second was direction to staff to draft a proposal for dealing with the more extensive and expensive defacements and return to council.
The mayor then requested a break to go into closed session to discuss four matters. Bothwell started to object but hushed. As the public hearing had progressed, a crowd, alternative-looking for even Asheville, had been slowly trickling into the chambers. One carried a fairly large artificial potted pot plant. The closed session lasted almost an hour.