Weaverville – The Weaverville Town Council held its regular monthly meeting on Monday (June 28th), where the town passed its 2022 budget and addressed picketing regulations and polling site behavior.
Preliminaries in the meeting
President and businessman Lou Accornero first addressed protests during public comment.
“I’d like to bring to attention the protests we had in Weaverville. The number one question if someone wants to have a protest In Weaverville, do they have to pull a permit? If not, I think you need to investigate the procedure of having a permit,” Accornero told the board.
He said that business owners do not want to see any protests, but citizens have a right to protest and protect their property. Accornero would like to see a bond equal to the replacement of the town’s downtown area to be posted for protestors.
“It [The bond] might be ridiculous, but so are these protestors who want to destroy.”
Mayor Al Root told Accornero he showed up on the right night as the board planned on discussing a permit ordinance for the town and that it was coming up later in the meeting.
Weaverville’s protest last summer featured one group for Black Lives Matter (BLM) that ended with no violence or vandalism. It was mild compared to the destruction seen in Asheville.
After public comment, the board moved into the consent agenda. The council approved the monthly tax report (98.45 percent complete), several budget amendments for the community center, the Waterline Extension Project and the Cops for Kids Capital Project. Also on the agenda was a capital project ordinance for the Water Treatment Plant Expansion Project, a Planning Board appointment of a new alternate member (Jane Kelley) and a renewal of a Buncombe-Madison Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan design to help both counties in their dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).
Then Town Manager Coffey told the board that she tried to contact US Cellular about the cell tower perpetual easement but had gotten no response either by phone or email. She also updated the board about the town’s 4th of July event and the bike/ped plan. Coffey then said the Saturday Summer Music Series will start again in July and the search for a recreation coordinator was going slow; only eight applications were submitted.
Discussion and action items
The meeting then moved to the discussion and action items of the night. First, Matthew Selves, the Public Safety Risk Management Consultant with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, presented a risk review plaque to Weaverville Police Chief Ron Davis. Selves presented the plaque three years ago to then-Weaverville Police Chief Greg Stephens. He thanked Chief Davis and Assistant Chief Oberlin for their leadership cooperation in the review process.
“They were very open and transparent in this process,” said Selves.
The risk review looked at several different factors, including equipment, facilities, officer interviews, observation of operations, policies and best practices. There are 36 categories in all.
Next was the passage of the almost $11 million budget for the fiscal year 2021-2022. Just over $8.3 million is budgeted for the general fund and another more than $2.4 million for the water fund for a total of more than $10.7 million. The budget did hold the line on a revenue-neutral tax rate. They also voted on a new fee schedule.
Council had few comments about the budget, one of the first from Councilman Andrew Nagle who said, “You listen to us and I like these numbers.” Concerning fees, Councilman Jeff McKenna said, “We’ve got to, especially for the taxpayers, keep that entry-level very easy.”
When Mayor Root asked for additional comments, Councilman Patrick Fitzsimmons asked Coffey to address merit pay. Coffey explained her choice of no automatic cost-of-living increase and the various levels of criteria for merit pay. Root asked Coffey if the framework for merit pay would be voted on at the July meeting, which she confirmed.
Vice Mayor Doug Jackson commented about how inflation was calculated; Nagle also commented saying he was not in favor of automatic pay raises for the public or private sectors. Nagle pointed out that an average five percent pay raise per year equated to about a quarter-million per year in additional money in the budget.
“I agree to paying people who work for us [the town] a living wage and not hiring burger flippers and Walmart Greeters. That’s a whole other conversation. So…looking at that, maybe you have to reduce payroll by one or two people,” said Nagle, “Less pay no one less than $16 per hour, but you still need enough money to meet payroll.”
He explained how a private business might apply raises, adding that his fear is the town’s tax bill becoming unsustainable for average working citizens turning the town into a collection of, “wealthy, wealthy people and we’ll be the North Biltmore Forest if we’re not careful.”
McKenna had another take on the pay, saying that maybe people would say, “Wow, Weaverville is really raising the standard on what it means to be a police officer or public works official. So there’s a little bit of a long play here.”
Later, after Fitzsimmons made a motion to adopt the budget and was seconded, an additional comment concerning the lack of a completed fee schedule in the budget arose. Coffey pointed out the town was only days away from needing to approve a budget, as demanded by state law. The budget was eventually adopted unanimously.
The board also heard an update on the new community center at Dottie Sherrill Knoll, which was pushed back to July 9 by Goforth Builders. Coffey also recommended several employees for the incentive program where employees with ideas to save the town money are rewarded.
Picketing regulations and polling site behavior
The last item on the agenda, before hearing reports from public works and water, was picketing regulations and polling site behavior. The discussion was brought before the board after the town realized they had nothing on the books about picketing and protests, said Root when he opened. He then asked Town Attorney Jennifer Jackson to continue the conversation.
Jackson pointed out these types of ordinances “butt up against a First Amendment issue…so what the law allows is time, place and manner issues. They have to be content-neutral.”
Jackson said she had looked at Maggie Valley’s ordinance enacted last summer, which was “just one example of another small town that’s kind of struggling with these issues.”
She then asked of council what they were most concerned about polling site behavior. Restricting guns from polling places is something the town can do, she told the board, referring to an incident last November where a voter open carried while voting.
Nagle asked if the electioneering prohibition within 50 feet of the polling site could be expanded. “I’m not worried about the guy open carrying. I detest people barraging me all the way to the polls…I get it, a lot of people were scared by the open carry, but I’m more scared of people yelling in my face as I’m trying to go vote.”
Fitzsimmons would like to see something to keep parties with opposing views apart in these situations.
Root referenced Accornera’s suggestion about a type of bond for groups protesting, to which Jackson said she would have to check into that. Nagle said he agreed with Accornera, but there’s also just random vandalism. Fitzsimmons saw police presence at protests as a deterrent to such vandalism. McKenna said having some hoops people have to jump through weeds out some protestors.
Root pointed out that last year’s protesters gave the exact start and stop times as well as location, which was very useful for the town. Vice Mayor Jackson spoke about space on the sidewalk for people to be able to pass by the protest without having to get in the road. Nagle mentioned Asheville allowing protests to march down Patton Ave. bridge.
“Asheville did it all wrong…someone could have died and that doesn’t work. You are not going to be able to block Main Street,” Nagle said.
Jackson pointed out that the ordinance had to be content-neutral and if you were going to do it for Art in Autumn (an annual local event), you would have to for protests. Nagle asked if there would be a cost associated with a shutdown of Main Street, to which Jackson said yes, to cover the cost of personnel to handle such an event. Accornero pointed out that Weaverville merchants who sponsor events like Art in Autumn were already paying taxes where protest groups were not. The council left the matter in Jackson’s hands to come back next month in the council’s workshop with recommendations.