The former city councilman and vice mayor was escorted from last week’s city council meeting under orders from current mayor Esther Manheimer, after he had managed to characterize the council as “corrupt” and the city’s latest budget a “Ponzi scheme.”
Peterson was accusing Manheimer of “feathering your nest” at taxpayer expense when Manheimer banged her gavel and ordered a city policeman to escort him from the public comment podium. Peterson was less than four minutes into the ten minutes he had been allotted to speak.
Peterson, who has numerous business interests and real estate holdings in town, has been a longtime vocal critic of city government and policy. The city is presently using its power of eminent domain to sue him for possession of the former 12 Bones Barbecue property on Riverside Drive. The 12 Bones property is the linchpin of 36 riverfront properties the city is moving to acquire through eminent domain in order to launch an ambitious riverside development project. So far, however, Peterson is the only property owner to be sued.
For his part, Peterson has been saying he intends to sue the city over that process ever since plans to acquire the property were first announced in February of 2015. Now that the city has made the first legal move, Peterson says he is in a position to countersue.
But Peterson’s purpose in coming before council last week was to call attention to the newly drafted 2016-17 city budget. He had announced in advance that he would be calling city management to account, and he did not disappoint.
Peterson’s opening salvo was fired at City Manager Gary Jackson.
“On November 16 of last year I called Gary Jackson – again—and said, ‘Gary you’re seven million dollars in the hole. Gary said, ‘Well we’re not gonna raise taxes.’ That was pretty clever, Gary,” Peterson said. “You didn’t raise taxes, you raised fees and charges.”
Peterson was apparently referring to recent hikes in city utility rates, particularly for stormwater and other water department services. Many Ashevillians refer to stormwater fees as “the rain tax.”
Peterson did not explain where he got the $7 million deficit figure, but he waved a sheaf of papers that apparently were a copy of the budget. He said:
“You folks out there in television land, budgets are boring. People don’t like to look at them. But you can go online and see this. You can see what this corrupt council has done to your budget.”
Alluding to the form-based building code the city has adopted for its riverfront project, Peterson then said, “You’re going to change the zoning down there, and the reason why, folks” – here Peterson swiveled his head to address the audience behind him, then looked front again – “is, then when they pass these millions of dollars you’re going to pay, they won’t have to take a vote.”
“Mister Peterson,” the mayor cut in, “you can address the council –“
Peterson peered at Manheimer. “I’m going to address you and council,” he told the mayor. “Your law firm is making a lot of money on these [riverfront] confiscations and you are too. I have a right to talk. This is a democracy, unlike some of you up there that don’t believe in a democracy.”
Manheimer’s legal specialty is creditors’ rights, especially regarding land disputes; she has been described as a foreclosure attorney.
“Let’s see here,” Peterson said, consulting his paperwork. “Oh – your transit system. That’s a four million dollar hole. It’s totally mismanaged. And your rainy day fund – you’ve set aside the barest minimum for it. It’s at a dangerous level. You’ve only got $15 million in it and you should have more like $40 million.
“Now, your legal fees, and I see Ms. [Robin] Currin there, your lawyer – “
“Mr. Peterson, please address the council!” Manheimer snapped. Though he had glanced in Currin’s direction, Peterson seemed to be directly addressing the council.
“ – She has twelve people on her staff and her department budget is a million dollars. That comes to about $140,000 a person. Good job,” Peterson said.
“Back to your stormwater tax,” Peterson said, “you’ve got a $6 million stormwater budget, yet you only plan to spend $600,000. Your numbers don’t add up. This is a Ponzi scheme and it’s getting ready to blow up.”
Peterson returned to his notes. “Oh,” he said. “Your greenways. You’re taking hundreds of acres for them [by eminent domain]. You’re bringing all that off the tax books. And the real reason” — he paused and looked directly at Manheimer – “You’re taking people’s property for [New] Belgium Beer. For their trucks. You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
“And by the way, you’ve got a hundred-year-old railroad bridge down there that’s going to have to be fixed. That’s another six or seven million. Gary,” Peterson said, glancing at Jackson, “that’s not in your budget.
“So I’m going to be here every year, just like I have the past three years,” Peterson began. Then he stopped as the mayor appeared to suppress a chuckle.
That tore it. “Yes, Mayor, you can laugh,” Peterson said. “It’s all funny, isn’t it?”
“It’s not funny,” Manheimer began. Then, as Peterson glanced behind him, she banged her gavel energetically. “ Mr. Peterson!” she yelled, “I would like you to address this council – “
“You are feathering your nest,” Peterson said. “so I just want everybody to know – “
But at that point Manheimer said, “All right, we’re done.” She signaled to a nearby policeman, who walked to the podium and said something to Peterson. Peterson replied inaudibly, nodded, turned, and left the room with the officer following him as far as the door.
“He just told me, ‘You have to leave,’ Peterson said later. “I told him I’d been thrown out of better places than this.”
The City of Asheville’s rules governing public comment at council meetings state that “Persons addressing the Council are expected to observe the decorum of the Chamber, to be respectful of the Council and the public, to refrain from the use of profanity or foul language, to refrain from personal attacks … ” There is no stipulation that a speaker must at all times direct remarks strictly to council members. The city manager and the city attorney, both of whom Peterson addressed, share the same dais area with councilors.
Speaker rules also further state, “The mayor may also rule out of order any comments made during this part of the agenda that are rude, inappropriate, or intended to harass any person or group of people, and is authorized to take reasonable and appropriate measures to ensure compliance with these rules.”
During her exchange with Peterson, Manheimer did not declare him out of order, nor did she announce that she was invoking any rules.