Reparations: Now Two Years in the Making - TribPapers

Reparations: Now Two Years in the Making

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra.

Asheville – At their last formal meeting, the Buncombe County Commissioners heard an update from the Reparations Commission. Assistant City Attorney DK Wesley recalled that the commission had been formed in the summer of 2020, but it was almost a year later before the first meeting. The delay was due to the “time-intensive and very resource-intensive” activities of soliciting and appointing members and developing a process for internal governance. Wesley said this was probably the easiest part of forming a committee. “It’s getting to know and coming together to determine, what needs to get done.”

County Manager Avril Pinder discusses pros and cons for filling the vacancies on the Reparations Commission. Screenshot.
County Manager Avril Pinder discusses pros and cons for filling the vacancies on the Reparations Commission. Screenshot.

Wesley said those organizing the commission didn’t want to take for granted the groundwork that often gets bypassed when committees are formed. The next half-year was spent, sometimes painfully, working through challenges and lessons learned. Working on reparations in Asheville, she said, was so much more complicated than it is in Illinois. Here, there were five impact focus areas, all layered with historic and real trauma. “If we’re going to do something this historic, we need to tell the story in full,” she said.

Members of the commission, county staff, and members of the project management firm put a lot of effort into “getting to know each other” and building trust. They grappled with questions like, “What does it mean to lead? What does it mean to support, co-lead, and collaborate?” After all, the committee was struggling to figure out how to shift power to a group that has been historically excluded.

Throughout the process, county staff provided in-kind support that included planning, “legal advisement,” subject matter expertise from leaders representing each of the five focus areas, and security from the sheriff’s office. In 2021, the City of Asheville contracted with TEQuity for project management, but that group had, a few months ago, subcontracted with Christine Edwards of Civility Localized, who participated in the commissioners’ meeting remotely. At the same time, over in City Hall, the Asheville City Council was approving an assignment of the management contract to Civility Localized in what was described as a mere formality.

By way of the consent agenda, council approved changing the Reparations Committee’s project management company. The reasoning was, “Due to capacity constraints associated with the company president accepting a full-time position with another agency, TEQuity, LLC, wishes to assign this contract and responsibility to a separate entity and requires consent of the city for the assignment.” In a competitive bidding process, Charlotte-based Amplify Consulting, LLC, d.b.a. Civility Localized, was selected over eight other minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) that applied. Civility Localized’s project manager, Edwards, has actually been managing the project since August. In addition, she worked with the city on its Reimagining Public Safety and Equity-Focused Budget initiatives.

During public comment, two members of the Reparations Commission spoke before council. Bobette Mays supported the staff’s recommendation. She apologized for the slowness of the commission but explained it was because members were being very careful. Dewana Little resented how the decision about the new management company had been made by city staff, “not with us but to us.” She said there should have been a conversation with the commissioners, and they should have been given time to process the information. She said since council had appointed the commissioners based on their skills and talents, it should trust them enough to let them have a say in their own leadership.

Back in the commissioners’ chambers, Edwards explained the project had reached a pivotal point. “And now, we’re moving into this idea of identifying harms that were done and developing recommendations,” she said. She saw her role as providing organization, structure, and a process for developing short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. She will be working virtually from Charlotte most of the time, but she will try to be in Buncombe County at least once a month.

Edwards’ immediate goals as manager will be to keep track of the voluminous data requests submitted by constituents and improve communications with the governing bodies, and the public through their public information processes. This would include special emphasis on a “partnership with youth-led BIPOC multimedia communications.” Edwards hoped to have the first tranche of recommendations before the commissioners by the end of the year. This, she said, would require a lot of input from the legal team.

One of her recommendations, which she believed may have been approved by the commissioners already or was at least up for consideration, was for the county to budget $500,000 for reparations, with a 2% annual escalator, in perpetuity. Back in July, the county actually approved $2 million for reparations plus the perpetual, escalated $500,000 that Edwards is now recommending. This form of permanent welfare, unfortunately, fell short of Commissioner Al Whitesides’ dream that the committee would work itself out of a job by getting the county to the point where no group felt slighted by prevailing institutions.

Getting down to business, Wesley said staff had planned on having vacancies on the commission, but they didn’t foresee the current situation. The county appoints six members and two alternates to the board. The City of Asheville and “the neighborhoods” also have their appointees and alternates. The county now has a vacancy on the board, but both of its alternate positions are also vacant. So, the commissioners were asked if they wanted to fill the board vacancy with one of the city or neighborhood alternates, with an applicant who had not been selected on the first round, or with somebody selected from a reopened process.

Commissioner Terri Wells liked the idea of elevating one of the other groups’ alternates, as they have been attending the meetings and wouldn’t bog things down as they got up to speed. She did not, however, see any advantage to turning one of the other groups’ alternates into a county alternate. Furthermore, doing so would leave people who do not live in Asheville geographically underrepresented.

County Clerk Lamar Joyner said time was of the essence for filling at least the non-alternate position, because he was told this was a “critical time” with a lot of important decisions being made. Chair Brownie Newman concluded that staff would circulate the information they had on the alternates and other applicants with the county commissioners, “and then at the next meeting, we’ll either decide to go ahead and appoint one of the alternates or explore other possibilities or do interviews.” Whitesides said he knew an excellent candidate who said his application had been lost in the process.