Civic

Council Can’t Control Its Wish List

Facilitator Kimmie Hunter posted a slide to illustrate the confusion in the room at the beginning of the process.

Asheville – At their retreat, members of Asheville City Council had difficulty whittling their expansive list of ambitions down to a package that was economically and technically feasible for staff to complete. As the contracted time was running out, facilitator Kimmie Hunter informed them they had started with 13 items. Now, they had eight highlighted priorities and an additional 20 that had not been eliminated. “I live here. I wanna see it all done. But it’s not gonna get done,” she counseled. She added, “This is where Gentle Kimmie gets a little rough.”

The list was expanding largely due to a lack of clarity on how council wanted to define “priority.” When the moderators told council they had to cut their list to 3-5 items, Councilwoman Sage Turner kept adding items, and Councilwoman Kim Roney kept trying to merge items on the list, something that started well but was checked when it became evident renaming tasks was doing nothing to ease the load on staff.

Early in the process, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, wise to how these things work, said her experience with retreats was that people “brainstormed and spitballed ideas,” and then when council saw the finalized list at a later date, there would be things on it that all members could neither remember being suggested nor even explain what they meant. Priorities, she said, should have consensus, and it would be advisable for council and the facilitators to compare notes as the meeting proceeded in order to spare staff “hours and hours and hours” of developing workplans for extraneous concepts.

One example was something about the National League of Cities’ economic mobility plan. Nobody on council knew what it was or how it got on the list. City Manager Debra Campbell asked staff if they knew, and it turned out to be a list against which staff had been comparing city activity at the request of former Councilwoman Julie Mayfield. Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball said staff had been asking if they should do this, as its relevance was not obvious.

The meeting had been livestreamed on short notice due to public demand. Until recently, retreats and workshops, though public, were a chance for members of council to foat their ideas off-camera in order to learn and hash things out. In the current age of transparency, however, that was not acceptable to outside groups, so the fast attempt at appeasement was fraught with technical glitches. At one point, a break was called to rework the technology to get the big screen patched in so members of council and the facilitators could be on the same page. Later in the meeting, members of council changed the facilitators’ planned process to keep all members of council working together on activities, instead of splitting into small groups, as that has the same effect on diluting some ideas and elevating others.

One thing the discussion nailed was inadequate communication with the public. Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore asked what could be done to share councilmembers’ positions, the political analysis, with the community. She said a lot of hostility can be removed once people get the facts and understand motivations. For clarity, Manheimer explained Asheville has a weak-mayor system, so she doesn’t get a press office and other perquisites like New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Stories were told of not only members of the public not knowing about legal limitations on the scope of council authority, but candidates for the office and those now seated on council. Some of those limits were pointed out throughout the meeting, but it was decided council had to communicate more clearly about what it is doing to address priorities from previous years and issues that didn’t make the cut. This would work somewhat to ease the minds of parties whose issues did not make the final cut.

Even so, Manheimer often answered council member requests for inclusion of priorities with references to existing policies or projects already addressing those issues. Many items, like trash pickup, were built into the budget, and would not appear on the list. Since council had agreed equity and inclusion should permeate all council business, it didn’t need to be listed as a priority. On one subject that kept recurring, Manheimer asked if council was asking “to renew our vows.” A couple times, when Roney was asked what more she wanted, she suggested pulling together a task force of experts and stakeholders to decide.

Uncertainties in this year’s budget included millions and millions of dollars the city would receive in COVID relief. That amount was not yet known, and Councilwoman Gwen Wisler added he allowed uses are yet to be determined by the federal government, the city had to have plans before anything would be promised or paid, and, if council doesn’t do things by the letter, they’ll get sued. She added it might seem like a lot of money, but she was sure the community, because they were expecting it, had already spent it. Administering the funds alone will likely require hiring temporary staff. Since the city had to ensure equitable distribution, Manheimer convinced others this needed to

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