Asheville – City Attorney Brad Branham reviewed an item on the consent agenda pertaining to the changing of local ordinances to comply with new state laws. Senate Bill 300, signed into law September 2, required local ordinances imposing criminal penalties to explicitly state those penalties in the ordinance. The city had used a “catch-all phrase” instead, so staff rewrote the impacted ordinances. Branham said this did not alter or intensify any penalties or methods of enforcement. If the city did not change and adopt the revisions by December 1, however, those penalties would not be enforceable.
Branham said ordinances affecting, “property damage, traffic and parking violations, discharging firearms, interfering with animal control officers, and breaching animal control rules,” were among those reworded. More substantially, S300 listed actions that could no longer be subject to criminal enforcement at the local level. Now protected from municipal criminal prosecution are actions governed by planning and development ordinances that do not threaten public health, stream-clearing programs, businesses and trades, outdoor advertising, solar collectors, cisterns and rain barrels, taxis, building setbacks, curb cuts, and tree management.
Branham also spoke about changes pertaining to the need to adopt ordinances at a meeting following their initial presentation before the full city council. He said council had been acting in accordance with the requirements of the new law; it was the ordinance that was antiquated. While this sounded innocuous, Branham’s statement that the city would only give ordinances a second reading at council’s discretion or as required by law seems to gain significance in that S300 states, “no ordinance specifying a criminal penalty may be enacted at the meeting in which it is first introduced.”
John Guze of the John Locke Foundation had encouraged legislators to adopt these types of reforms in 2020. He said, “The sheer number of criminal laws and criminalized regulations (and the haphazard and careless way they are documented) make it impossible for ordinary citizens to learn about and understand all the rules that govern their everyday activities and subject them to criminal liability. Moreover, because so many of those laws and regulations criminalize conduct that is not inherently evil and does not cause harm to any identifiable victim, citizens cannot rely on their intuitive notions of right and wrong to alert them to the fact that they may be committing a crime. And yet for many crimes, including most regulatory crimes, no mens real (mental state) element is specified in the definition. As a result, a citizen can be found guilty without proving any criminal knowledge or criminal intent at all.”
Branham described S300 as an omnibus bill but did not get into particulars. The bill was, in fact, lauded for “sweeping” criminal justice reform, enacting measures one would expect to resonate with the Defund and Reimagine movements. A lot of the reforms tighten the screws on officers, creating a public-access database of personnel action taken against officers and another database for law-enforcement agencies documenting each officer’s involvement in critical incidents; creating a library of fingerprints of all officers and allowing law enforcement agencies to engage the FBI for background checks of potential hires; requiring officers to submit to training on softer-side-of-law-enforcement topics; and promoting diversity recruitment. The portions of the bill addressed by Branham were promulgated elsewhere as decriminalizing poverty.
Councilwoman Kim Roney said she was concerned about the volume of changes made so swiftly and said in the future she would appreciate staff running their changes past a council subcommittee. To this, Branham replied all municipalities were given only three months to revise their ordinances and secure council adoption. Since council is not meeting Thanksgiving week, Branham said there was insufficient time for proceeding as he would in “normal circumstances.”
Consolidation of 911 Services
Later in the evening, outgoing assistant city manager Cathy Ball framed the long-sought consolidation of city and county 911 services as part of the vision for reimagining the police. It may seem the services had already been consolidated, but city and county dispatchers had merely been operating out of the same building. Buncombe County dispatchers handled all EMS and fire calls for the city, and they had been reimbursed $210,000 a year for it. This was on top of the $1,400,000 the city spends each year on police dispatch.
With consolidation, the city would transfer nineteen officers to the county. These officers would be dedicated to city calls and follow courses of action developed as the city transitions to dispatching social workers. The city would pay the county $2,000,000 a year for managing the dispatch of all city emergency responders. The additional $400,000 a year would help defund the police just as transferring animal enforcement officers to Development Services did.
During public comment, regulars Greenleaf Clarke and Melanie Noyes complained about eviction. Clarke said it was systematically and daily disenfranchising, displacing, and killing “us.” Clarke and Noyes read the same list of “community’s demands.” (1) The housing authority was to pay restitution to the family in question in the amount they demanded. (2) The city and county were to forgive all unpaid rent and cease evicting people. (3) The water department was to forgive all unpaid bills and waive late fees. (4) This is redundant, but the sheriff’s department was not to evict people and local governments were to declare a moratorium on evictions. (5) The city and county were to legalize camping on city and county lands and provide free, clean, 24-7 restrooms and free collection of trash, recyclables, and needles.