A recent bomb threat against the Asheville Jewish Community Center was discussed at the last meeting of the Asheville City Council. The threat coincided with thirty-one similar threats to either Jewish community or daycare centers in North America, which represented only the most recent wave of similar threats.
By Leslee Kulba – The last meeting of Asheville City Council was brief. Tribute Companies had withdrawn from a public hearing to determine whether they would receive a Land Use Incentive Grant for a housing project planned for 338 Hilliard Avenue. LUIG grants offer developers tax discounts for building low-income housing consistent with stated goals of city council members, like making the city more walkable and in other ways forestalling climate change. City leadership continues to evolve the LUIG grants, aiming for a point where developers will be able to use them and still qualify for financing. Mayor Esther Manheimer said more negotiation was necessary.
To make up for the brevity, three items were added to the agenda during the meeting. First, it is a sad statement about society when leadership bodies have to take special action to denounce evil. But it was deemed necessary to do so following a bomb threat against the Asheville Jewish Community Center. The threat coincided with thirty-one similar threats to either Jewish community or daycare centers in North America, which represented only the most recent wave of similar threats.
The resolution at-hand reaffirmed the city’s Resolution against Discrimination and Intimidation, stating, “We take great pride in being a welcoming and diverse community where all citizens can live and work without fear of physical violence, threats, or intimidation;” and such threats “will not be tolerated.” Manheimer added local Jewish leadership had anticipated problems and thus already engaged the Anti-Defamation League to develop courses of action. She added the present city council will continue to be quick to defend any group on the receiving end of hatred.
Later in the meeting, Manheimer gauged council interest in reopening discussions about short-term rentals. She knew members of the public would want to weigh in, so she merely asked if council wanted staff to explore expanding the definition of homestays to include any rental unit under the roof of a host’s home. Currently, only rooms may be rented as lodging for less than a month, and not, for example, basements with separate entries.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler was not in favor of reopening the discussions. The city had formed a task force, and people had spent a lot of time formulating recommendations for council. Throwing out their input, “sends a really not great message to any citizen volunteer,” she said.
Councilor Cecil Bothwell rebutted, “I would like to go on record saying that that task force was a train wreck. It wasn’t given clear guidelines, and that people in the end were allowed to vote for more than one thing.” He faulted the process for evolving votes to where members were asked not if they supported, but if they could live with decisions. “And then the results were reported falsely to us in council. I think the people went in with good intent and they worked hard, but because of the methodology, it was really screwy. I wouldn’t want anything I did on this council to work that way…. If we’re going to have task forces, they need to have rules, and we need to be able to rely on the votes that are taken.”
Councilor Gordon Smith challenged Bothwell, saying dynamic governance is a “messy” process. Council then directed staff to prepare modifications to the ordinance for council review.
Smith introduced the third issue. Concerned about long-term mayhem pending road construction in the River Arts District will pose, Smith asked if council could consider amending the Unified Development Ordinance to allow Slidr cars to be wrapped in advertising. Slidr is an alternative taxi company designed to be paid off advertising instead of fares, but the city doesn’t allow vehicles to bear advertisements for any company but their owner’s.
City Attorney Robin Currin explained commercial advertising is free speech protected by the First Amendment. However, the Supreme Court has ruled signs may be regulated to “directly advance an important government interest,” which would normally be something like aesthetics or traffic or pedestrian safety. Therefore, council had to “weigh the right to speech with the right to regulate.” Council does not need to have any regulations, but if they do, they must impose them uniformly. For example, one must come up with compelling reasons to explain why Slidr ads do not inflict harm on the community while those on any other “moving billboard” do. Since Slidr cars are small, an ordinance limiting size and number of signs per vehicle might be considered.
Given variables including personal choice, Bothwell described the question as “imponderable.” Even so, he doubted the ordinance would spark proliferation. “How many people would really want to have advertising on their cars? And how many businesses would really want to pay me to put something on the side of my Prius?” he asked. Despite a raft of emails, no action was taken.