By Leslee Kulba- Asheville City Council received two reports at their last meeting that concluded more overhead was needed. The first was a gap analysis conducted by Dovetail Partners, described as an “independent urban forestry group.” It was funded with a grant from the USDA Forest Service, passed through the state, and a $25,000 match from the city. This was one of three tree studies city leadership intends to complete. Two others, a canopy study and a master plan, have yet to be funded. There was some confusion in the room, as members of staff and council thought the $25,000 they had previously approved was for the canopy study.
Ed Macie, an urban forester retired from the USFS who now serves on the Asheville Tree Commission, presented the report. First and foremost, he said, the city needs an urban forestry master plan and an urban forester to oversee it. He argued the city already has an arborist, who tends to trees on a case-by-case basis. What it lacked was a professional who could take a systems approach to managing the natural habitat, as it interfaces with stormwater runoff, air quality, and human health, among other governmental responsibilities.
Other duties for the urban forester, and perhaps additional staff, would include conducting an inventory of all public trees and performing a canopy analysis, Macie noting that from 2005-2015, the city had lost about 7% of its canopy. Those tasked with looking after the city’s trees would also spend time “building community support and awareness” and updating city ordinances. Examples of possible ordinances included stronger protections for trees on lots to be developed and an urban canopy policy.
Mayor Esther Manheimer asked if those conducting the study had considered any state laws limiting the ability of cities to pass ordinances governing trees. Macie only hemmed and hawed about murkiness and a general sense that more enabling legislation was required. Councilor Julie Mayfield recalled a tour of Charlotte with that city’s urban forest team. She kept asking how they effected so many tree regulations, and she was told, “’We do it, but we live in fear every year that the legislature will yank it away.’” She added, “They were clear they were skating on very thin ice.”
The second report was from the Blue-Ribbon Committee of the Human Relations Commission. The committee was described as having been given three months to learn to work together and then come up with a mission, vision, and recommendations. The committee was formed to address deep-seated institutional and systemic racism in city government that, in the words of Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, “continues to cause a lot of pain.” It was a response to data showing African-Americans made up a greater percentage traffic stop targets than they do the general population; and that came with a national backdrop of race rioting set off by a rash of sensationalized white-on-black police incidents.
The city further responded by hiring Kimberlee Archie as its first equity and inclusion manager. Given the gravity and pervasiveness of municipal racism, the presenters and public commenters who followed urged council to elevate Archie to the level of a direct report to the city manager and/or council. As a department director, Archie would develop an Equity Action Plan, manage the city’s equity team, and “facilitate the adoption of an equity lens by all departments in decision-making.” In addition, an equity and inclusion program manager would “provide technical assistance on using the equity lens,” and oversee programming; a human relations specialist would receive complaints alleging discrimination and perform statistical analyses on pertinent data; and lastly, for this iteration, an inclusive engagement manager would supervise community outreach and education.
The presenters further recommended making the blue-ribbon committee a standing committee. It would have fifteen members who are continually actively engaged in addressing oppression. The group would have representation from the city’s north, south, west, east, and central regions; and members would include, at a minimum, six African-Americans, two Latino, two LGBTQ, three “professionals with influence,” two or three youth aged 16-25, two or three residents of public housing, and two persons with disabilities. The committee wanted at least two people from each enumerated group to be appointed in order to foster a sense of belonging.
During public comment, Ashley Cooper, a facilitator who works to eliminate skin-deep judgment, told council they were making volunteers do all the city’s heavy lifting. She wanted the committee to effect change and hoped the city would give it whatever resources were required. Elizabeth Schell, who is perhaps best known for knitting sweaters for trees about town, said, “Without money and support staff, you have set up a skilled black woman to fail. Don’t make her a scapegoat. Make her your conscience.” The proposal was turned over to council’s Boards and Commissions subcommittee for further vetting.