Civic

Council Discusses Stripes & Homeless

Councilwoman Gwen Wisler warns her peers they are about have a closed-door session to discuss setting themselves up as the lead agency in solving the region's homelessness problem, a tremendous responsibility for which other agencies have more expertise, resources, and experience.

Asheville

Asheville Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked if her peers were going to get a grip or if they were planning to have another two-hour conversation about stripes a ball field at their next meeting. On the latter, Councilwoman Antanette Mosely, equally striped-out, replied, “Yes.”

It all started with trying to pass the consent agenda. Councilwoman Sage Turner asked that approval for contracting with AstroTurf Corporation, for $908,700 for upgrades to the field at Memorial Stadium Park, be pulled from the consent agenda. As council’s liaison to the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, Turner felt obligated to represent their concerns about striping the field.

It was a question of equity, explained Councilwoman Kim Roney. She told how striping the field permanently for football could compromise the strides Indigenous Peoples are making through recognition of their heritage sport lacrosse.

Turner said the idea was to have volunteer groups stripe the field between sporting events to not burden city staff. Mayor Esther Manheimer, however, said, citing experience, Parks & Rec staff doesn’t enjoy cleaning up after botched volunteer painting jobs. Wisler even relayed an incident to which she had close ties.

Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball added staff found striping for football to be most equitable because that is the sport played by the most BIPOC children. Those children, she said, were least likely to have access to not only private fields but volunteer striping crews as well.

In the end, the contract in question didn’t even say anything about striping, so the council went ahead and approved the item. Staff will now be reaching out to the community to help citizens get in touch to understand their striping needs.

After a small conversation about fee hikes, the meeting was winding down with board appointments when Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith, aware of a challenge to the recommendations from the council’s Boards and Commissions Committee, which she chairs; opened the floor for discussion.

Turner, who is not a member of that committee, said she had reached out to one of the candidates for the newly-formed Design Review Committee, Guillermo Rodriguez, and explained that since he was already serving on two large city commissions, he should sit this one out. In his stead, she asked that Bryan Moffitt be appointed.

In response, Wisler pointed out that Moffitt didn’t live within the city limits, and Smith asked if Moffitt had some special expertise motivating this nomination against the committee’s longstanding procedure of appointing persons who live within the city limits. Mosely shook her head and shifted in her seat.

Roney proposed a amendment including both Rodriguez and Moffitt among the four appointees, but Turner rejected it. The vote on Turner’s slate was approved with Mosely and Roney opposed.

During public comment, resident Grant Millin said the council’s discussion last month about a $275,000 grant from the US Drug Enforcement Agency as a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area was, “one of the most mysterious conversations I’ve ever heard a group of politicians have.” He said the council, “spent a lot of time talking about AstroTurf and fees,” but brushed over their rejection of a chance to interdict crime. As he recalled, “what it was about was Kim Roney saying, well it’s the DEA and Office of National Drug Control Policy, and it’s money from those organizations, so we aren’t going to use it.”

Millin said he would show up at the next Public Safety Committee meeting, and he wanted Roney and Smith to, “show us what you got” by way of statistics about the pros and cons of street dealing and fentanyl abuse. Public safety was more than just reimagining the police; it involved “dealing with crime,” he reminded them.

Before going into a closed session, Wisler had a word of caution for her peers. They were about to discuss, “behind closed doors,” the purchase of real estate for homeless shelters to be run by the city. This was more than an ideological discussion about staying in one’s lane, as in North Carolina, counties are the local governments charged with providing social services; the council was positioning itself to be the lead agency in the resolution of a multifaceted, persistent crisis of tremendous proportions.

In the past, the city had spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” partnering with nonprofits and the county, both of which have resources, expertise, and experience. Yes, the city had intervened during the pandemic, with federal dollars, which won’t be recurring in the city’s budget. But Wisler asked if the council was prepared to build out a whole new division, among all the other things it does, for housing the homeless.

Wisler spoke about the difference between displacing a problem and solving it. She insisted homelessness was a regional problem, and the city needed to partner with Buncombe and surrounding counties, businesses, the faith community, nonprofits, and others. In not so many words, the city was setting itself up to fail as the sole provider for the region.

Then, there were issues of process. Staff was going to be empowered to acquire property for a low-barrier shelter. The public had not seen a proposal, cost estimates, or proposed partnerships. Whether the city was overstepping its legal bounds or just biting off more than it could chew, Wisler did not want parties negotiating in good faith with the city to be left out in the cold. In the end, Wisler and Mosely voted against going into a closed session.

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