Asheville – Three months after the un-extended deadline, members of Asheville City Council approved a $134.7 million budget with another $65 million for enterprise funds like water and transit. Staff talked about the impact of COVID and how the city had been overly conservative in bracing for reductions in revenue paralleling those of the economy in general. While the state has not yet released final numbers, it appears sales taxes for April, May, and June was only 2-3% short of budget, and the damage to the general fund balance is expected to be between $500,000 and $2 million, instead of the estimated $2.5-$4.5 million. But that was not the hot topic.
Council members Brian Haynes and Sheneika Smith voted against the budget, stating it did not go far enough to address systemic racism in policing and elsewhere. Smith spoke of Mario Cuomo’s “tale of two cities,” explaining some people defined safety as having a police presence, while others are frightened at the sight of police, not because they’re engaging in criminal activity, but because years of profiling leave them expecting to be hassled or falsely charged. She said her vote was intended to reflect the sentiments of the community that their concerns had not been heard.
Haynes also wanted better compensation for firefighters. The city’s human resources director, Peggy Rowe, as well as City Manager Debra Campbell, tried to explain there were a lot of inequities in the city’s pay system, and restructuring pay scales piecemeal in such a large organization would only move the problem around. That’s why Campbell commissioned a compensation study. Haynes was also told the numbers he was quoting were not accurate, and it would cost much more to do what he was requesting. The council directed staff to explain the situation in greater detail at an upcoming work session.
Councilman Keith Young spoke for 23 minutes. While voting in favor of the budget, he said too little had been done for social reform. “The entire fabric of our social construct has been put on notice…. The term, ‘defunding the police,’ has morphed into the perception that it is what I would call the dreaded Death Star to the current policing policies around the country.” Young said it was, “a grave mischaracterization of these foreshadowed changes when folks pretend to perpetuate a narrative that when you call the police, there won’t be anyone there to answer your call because they’ve been defunded. Or that when you dial 911 it will just ring and ring. Or the stories of the burglar coming into your house with a crowbar and a gun, and the only person on the way to the rescue is a social worker. That is fearmongering at its worst, and it’s ignorance in my opinion at its best. That is not what reimagining police is about.”
He continued, “Fundamentally, at its core, policing in this country is riddled with huge disparities between black and white residents, and it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is, as a black man or woman, those disparities still exist, and the gap still widens. Even in this community, they exist, and we have the data to prove it.”
Distancing himself from the Antifa movement, he made over half a dozen allusions to wanting a city manager that keeps the trains running on-time. Other points made were that money had nothing to do with ending racism and that he was in conversations with unions. “The days of incremental change [have] left us, and we are definitely living in a society that requires institutional change,” he said.
The gist of Young’s message appeared to be that Campbell had not done enough to promote equity and inclusion, and a large portion of his comments spoke to the recent resignation of the city’s equity and inclusion director, Kimberlee Archie. In her resignation letter, Archie said there were many influential people in the city’s government who had “created an unsupportive and/or hostile work environment,” and that she was not going to jeopardize her health by remaining.
Even in Zoom format, the tension was thick, Young being expected at any minute to call for Campbell’s resignation. Relatively new in her position, she has navigated the crazy waters of 2020 with nothing short of diligence and grace, playing a key role by, among other things, digging for opportunities to give the dispossessed a voice in the marketplace of ideas instead of leaving their frustrations no outlet but to turn Asheville into a conflagration mirroring other communities.
Instead, Young only requested that Campbell be “reviewed” immediately, “to better synergize [her and council’s] expectations and communication.” Addressing Campbell, he said, “Your clock has run out on dealing with equity, dealing with the equity department on your own terms.” He called for the director of equity and inclusion to report directly to the council, independently of the city manager as a “check and balance.” He also demanded that Campbell reverse course and fill Archie’s vacancy immediately, prompting Manheimer to interrupt and remind Young that Campbell had already referred to the position as “vital” and “not subject to the hiring freeze.”
During public comment, Charlie Hume and Andrea Olson supplied statistics on rising crime, an overworked police force, and public sentiment working against scaling down Asheville’s police force. Black AVL Demands’ Rob Thomas and David Greenson spoke against oppression and capitalism, and in favor of rebuilding law enforcement from scratch; and Branton Burleson said the nation has lost its moral and spiritual compass.