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Asheville City Council Candidate Q&A: Nina Tovish

A graphic with BPR's logo and the text "Asheville City Council Candidate Q&A" and a black and white headshot of Nina Tovish pictured outside on a deck, wearing a patterned shirt and glasses, which are colorized in pink.

Editor's note: BPR's candidate questionnaire was created in May after asking community members to share their questions and what issues matter most to them and their communities. This Fall, BPR offered candidates the opportunity to update their bios and respond to three additional questions. Those questions are identified with an *. The candidates' responses have not been edited or fact checked by BPR.

Share your questions and ideas for future elections coverage by emailing us at voices@bpr.org or record a voice mail at 828-253-6700.

Nina Tovish Bio:

On Election Day, I’ll have lived in Asheville exactly ten years and one week. Moving here — to this beautiful city nestled in magnificent mountains and filled with creative, competent, compassionate, and often quirky folk — was one of the best decisions of my life. And it is this glorious environment, these wonderful neighbors, and our unique city that I seek to serve as a City Councilmember.

I’m a Yankee by birth, a Boston-area progressive by upbringing, and a former resident of Washington, DC. I hold a B.A. in Literature from Yale, and an M.F.A. in Visual Studies from SUNY.

I’ve made my living with words, images, and software; I write business prose and poetry, and craft strategic communications. I’ve designed textiles, worked in mixed media, curated exhibitions, led workshops, and been a professional photographer. I began my working life as a writer/editor for management consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Later I was the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s first New Media Producer, coordinating the work of a large, multidisciplinary team. Mostly, however, I’ve been self-employed—with clients in government, business, and the not-for-profit sector.

As I fell in love with our city’s diverse neighborhoods during my own home search, I chose to add a real estate practice to my portfolio. Although it’s been several years since I’ve done a transaction, I still hold an active license and have seen first-hand how affordable housing has become an impossible dream for so many of us.

Contact and campaign info:

twitter: @tovish4avl

If elected, what is your top priority as an Asheville City Council member and what steps would you take to achieve that goal?

From the moment I am seated, I will work to bring make our city government truly responsive, inclusive, transparent, and accountable.

Good government—a healthy democracy—is how people talk with one another to express their values and shape a society that serves everyone. It’s how solutions are negotiated and grievances redressed. That’s true at the national level and state level, and it’s equally true and vitally important in local government. Public engagement in the conversation generates public confidence in outcomes. And public trust is the cornerstone of every successful government undertaking.

Asheville deserves a city government that facilitates participation in policy decisions from the earliest stages, that responds to the concerns and queries of our residents, that does the public’s work in public without fear or favor, and is always ready to answer for its actions and choices.

I support a genuine open meeting policy. People should have easy access to meetings and be able to participate in person or remotely. Residents’ expertise and lived experience should inform government decision-making through well-structured and well-supported committees, boards, and commissions that report directly to Council.

All documents created by city government (other than those explicitly protected by law) should be readily available in a publicly accessible, searchable database. Council and City staff should be proactively communicating about their activities, their progress toward defined goals, and their planning process.

We’ll only overcome the many challenges our city faces when we invite and embrace the participation of all our residents.

Last Spring, BPR asked you about your priorities as an Asheville City Council member and what steps would you take to achieve those goals. What have you learned about these priorities during the campaign season?*

In an earlier response I wrote about the city’s ill-advised attempt to preemptively “realign” the citizens’ advisory Boards & Commissions. Since then, I’ve been an active participant in the Working Group of engaged citizens who called for a halt to the city’s initial misguided proposal. We demanded that the city do what they should have done from the beginning: survey current and past Board & Commission members to learn from their countless hours of experience—what works and doesn’t work, and what they recommend to improve these advisory bodies.

After a lively and sometimes contentious process, the Working Group has crafted a substantive survey which should be going out for responses in the next few weeks. We look forward to using the data we gather to make specific recommendations to Council about how City Boards & Commissions can work more inclusively, transparently, and effectively. I’m proud of the way this diverse group of engaged citizens came together to get this process onto a much better track.

This experience has reinforced my conviction that our city government serves us best when it does its work in dialog with residents; when it reaches out to include those who will be affected by city policies early in the process; and when it facilitates communication and coordination between residents, city staff, and Council.

Through many conversations throughout this campaign season, I’ve been inspired and heartened by the residents I’ve met who are doing the quiet, hard work of caring for their neighbors and building up our community. More than ever, I believe that Asheville has everything it needs—the talent, the resources, the environment—to be a shining example to our nation of how a small city can grow responsibly into an equitable future, one in which all our residents thrive and prosper. We just need a city government that is as creative and compassionate as the people who live here.

The 2036 strategic plan calls for Asheville to be “a city with abundant housing choices for people at all economic levels and stages of life. Chronic homelessness is a thing of the past and rapid rehousing strategies abound thanks to an effective network of service providers.” What action is needed today to reach these outcomes?

It's time to dig deep and come up with creative solutions, using every tool available and inventing some new ones.

The recently-approved collaboration between the Haywood St. Congregation, Dogwood Trust, and the City of Asheville, which will bring 45 units of deeply affordable housing to the city, is a good start. We should explore similar projects on city-owned property, perhaps even building city-owned residential units so that a profit motive doesn’t constrain affordability. In Europe, government sponsored “social housing”—a form of self-subsidizing, cross-income-level development—successfully serves people at all income levels. Asheville could pilot a social housing initiative using funds (perhaps from bonds) that would ultimately be repaid in full and available to redeploy for the next construction project.

The City should make it straightforward and attractive for homeowners to add ADUs (accessory dwelling units) on their property. I’d investigate the possibility of tax grants for the creation of ADUs offered for long-term rental. Homestay regulations should be fully enforced, which would likely increase long-term rental availability. Along major corridors we should be “building up, not out.” Sprawl is ecologically damaging, much more expensive to provide city services, and puts greater demands on transportation infrastructure.

The City should experiment with different ways to help our houseless neighbors. Through testing and iteration, agile, short-term pilot programs—in partnership with a broad spectrum of service providers (housing specialists, substance abuse recovery organizations, mental health professionals)—can help us find strategies that work.

As a City Council member, what is your role in building an equitable and diverse community in Asheville?

Every decision that comes before City Council needs to be considered through a lens that focuses on equity, in terms of accessibility, administration, and outcomes. That lens needs to make inclusion a priority from the beginning, and ensure measurable accountability for an equitable outcome. Everything from the budget to zoning, housing, policing, public transportation, and business development—all need to be considered in this light.

City Council should include the voices of everyone who is affected by its decisions *early* in the decision-making process, and proactively reach out to underserved communities to ensure they can participate *before* policies are formulated. While digital surveys are easy to create and deploy, often they wind up being used by a small and unrepresentative slice of our community. I strongly believe that both Councilmembers and City staff should be out making direct contact with neighborhood associations, community advocacy groups, and individual residents at the locations.

Many of our neighbors whose voices have been historically ignored, excluded, or actively silenced have—for good reason—little trust in the institutions of power, including government. It’s our job on City Council to give them good reasons to change their minds, to invite them to share their wisdom and lived experience in the formulation of our city’s policy-making, and to demonstrate that government can and will act to improve their lives. Without intentional action, Asheville will continue to see its legacy African American communities dwindle, as young people see no meaningful future for themselves here.

How should the City fund reparations efforts?

The City has already allocated $2.1M to Reparations, of which $1.9M remains as yet unspent. That is barely a down-payment on the true cost of compensating our African American community for its losses.

The current “point system,” through which proposed new hotels seeking approval can avoid having to go through Council, should be modified to provide a greater incentive for developers to contribute substantially to the Reparations Fund.

Given the hugely negative impact of “urban renewal” on the Black community (during which thousands were dispossessed of their homes and businesses), it seems appropriate that any future sale of City property should generate capital for the Reparations fund. I’d also suggest that TDA funds be used to strengthen African American-owned businesses in the tourism industry.

As a Council Member, I will listen to and be guided by the recommendations of the Reparations Commission. Buncombe County and Asheville have entrusted these 25 members (and their alternates) to work through the painful and difficult issues of our history and propose meaningful steps toward Reparations. I’ll ensure they get the City Staff support they need to do their work effectively and facilitate, to the best of my ability, their community engagement and communication.

What role should the City play in helping residents respond to extreme weather and climate change?

The City took a first step toward acknowledging the urgency of climate change in a resolution in January 2020. A 2018 Climate Resilience Assessment had identified those neighborhoods and communities which would likely be most negatively affected by the weather extremes brought on by climate change. (And a new tool, the Climate Justice Data Map shows that, unsurprisingly, the burdens of climate change fall most heavily on areas with higher proportions of BIPOC residents.) In June 2021, the City hired a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive Municipal Climate Action Plan, with a scheduled delivery date in January of 2022. There were a number of benchmarks planned before then, but I haven’t seen interim reports from that undertaking.

To directly help residents, the City should protect and enlarge our tree canopy, which helps mitigate the heat sink properties of the urban environment. The City could provide incentives for individuals and neighborhood groups to generate community solar energy—as well as live up to its own goals of installing solar panels to power municipal buildings and enhancing their energy conservation properties. To mitigate flooding damage, effective stormwater management must be part of all new construction. The current infrastructure urgently requires maintenance and upgrading.

Public transportation and any city-owned fleet vehicles should transition as quickly as possible to electric vehicles. And our public transportation infrastructure—including bike paths and greenways must be improved so that residents and visitors have less need to rely on high carbon-footprint cars.

What development priorities would best serve Asheville moving forward?

We need to taking a ground-up look at the UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) which has, over the years, accumulated a patchwork of ad hoc overlays and modifications. It’s time to revisit city zoning with smart, sustainable growth in mind, prioritizing residential construction in locations that can be well-served by an agile, electric public transportation system, and promoting walkable communities with local commercial amenities.

Asheville needs to invest heavily in upgrading every aspect of our infrastructure to support the growth that sees us nearly doubling in size in ten years. (I hope that some of the recent federal infrastructure bill’s funds will be available to municipalities like ours.) We need to put special emphasis on public transportation, ensuring that it is convenient, reliable, and accessible for all our residents. We can use ride-share technology to create a hybrid system with scheduled service at peak hours and flexible, on-demand service in smaller shuttles at less-traveled times. This will ease traffic loads and reduce our community’s carbon footprint.

Above all, the City should be nurturing and cultivating homegrown businesses that have the potential to provide well-paying jobs and keep profits circulating in our local economy.

How do you respond to voters who feel the City is prioritizing tourism over investments in public services?

I say they’re right.

The truth is that tourism is expensive for residents. The hospitality industry is mostly *not* homegrown; it exports profits out of Asheville while largely paying its workforce less than living wages. Visitors and the hotels that serve them place high demands on our infrastructure and provide little to no support for its maintenance. The TDA enjoys the fruits of the occupancy tax, which the City collects on its behalf, and spends 75% on marketing (virtually all of which is dispensed outside our community). The City gets the remaining 25%, but is hamstrung at to what it can spend it on—it has to be tourist-related. This is a bad deal for residents.

The reality is that we don’t actually know the true net value of tourism to Asheville. Lots of numbers about income get bandied about (and they’re big!), but we don’t hear much about the costs of the hospitality industry for the City and its residents. We had an opportunity during the hotel “moratorium” to get answers about the true carrying costs of tourism (how many hotel rooms would be too many for our city?)—but City Council didn’t choose to pursue those questions."

How will you approach policing and public safety in Asheville?

Asheville Police Department is at a crossroads: rather than seeing this as a problem, we can approach it as an unparalleled opportunity to create a deeply responsive and engaged team, whose mission to truly protect and serve will be welcomed by all our city’s residents. High-quality policing is about high-quality personnel, not about a bigger arsenal or more powerful vehicles.

We need a police force that embodies the fundamental values of public service, personal integrity, and respect for the dignity and civil rights of all. We should recruit specifically for those values—attracting officers whose careers show evidence of a deep commitment to community engagement and an ego-free, servant's heart even in the most difficult of interactions. With the money that’s been accruing in the budget due to unfilled positions, we can offer incentives to bring in a handful of outstanding mid-career candidates to train and lead the next generation of young recruits, *and* ensure they can afford to live in the city they serve.

Let's also explore the Denver Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) model, which has been successfully deploying medical and social services teams in lieu of police to thousands of 911 calls.

What is your position on the proposal to restructure City boards and commissions?

The current “pilot” proposal is a prime example of the City failing to incorporate the views of those likely to be affected by a policy until much too late in the decision-making process.

They *should* have begun with an in-depth survey of the current Boards and Commissions members, soliciting their views about what was working well and what wasn’t. Participants on B&Cs represent years of volunteer professional expertise and lived experience. These are folks who, out of love for their community, contribute their know-how and wisdom to the City.

Instead, the proposal greatly reduces the specificity and focus of B&Cs, creates unnecessary bottlenecks to the flow of information, disempowers its citizen-members, and reduces City staff and Councilmember participation. It diminishes public transparency and accountability. In the March 7th workshop I attended on this proposal, *no one* was enthusiastic about it. The *right kind* of restructuring could improve B&Cs’ contributions—but this is not it.

In my view, B&Cs should largely be structured to correspond to City department/functional areas, ensuring good liaison with staff and access to information. I’ll be participating in a City-led follow-up work session on May 5th.

How do you plan to engage community members in the Council's decision-making process?

Let’s start by instituting a genuine Open Meetings Policy (see one such proposal here: https://openmeetingspolicy.com/) for the City of Asheville.

Our residents deserve to see the public’s work being done in public. Our residents deserve to be invited into the process *early enough to be able to contribute to the outcome.* Our residents deserve easy access to participation; there’s absolutely no excuse for not enabling fully hybrid meetings (the technology is ubiquitous now), and no reason why people should have to sign up in advance to speak. Access to relevant documents and data should be simple and routine.

Councilmembers must regularly show up and participate in community gatherings/associations, soliciting residents’ views and sharing the City Council’s upcoming agenda items and other matters of concern.

As a Councilmember I pledge to report to the public each week on every conversation I have with anyone who has business before Council, including what we discussed and how my views on the matter are evolving. When it comes time for me to vote, you’ll understand why I vote as I do and, I hope, have greater confidence in how the decision was reached. (Read my full pledge here: tovish4avl.com/pledge)

Is there a role City Council should play in countering misinformation and threats to democracy? If so, what?*

Absolutely. The biggest threat to democracy is people’s increasing disconnect from and distrust of their government.

The first and most important step in reversing that trend is a commitment to real transparency. As I mentioned in my earlier response, City Council should adopt a robust open meetings policy and should direct the City Manager to ensure that city staff make all public documents available promptly and all meetings easily accessible (both in person and remotely).

The residents of Asheville deserve a clear, truthful, and ongoing account of what their public servants are doing and why. Council and city staff should welcome public scrutiny, and only conduct business behind closed doors when required by law or under very limited exigent circumstances. In a democracy, trust and accountability go hand in hand.

The second essential step is facilitating greater public participation in the development of public policy. If people don’t feel that their needs and concerns are being heard and taken seriously, their disconnect and distrust are reinforced. Conversely, when we believe that our voices are heard, and we can see that our participation actually makes a difference, our faith in democracy grows.

This a key reason why effective Boards & Commissions are so important. It’s also why Councilmembers should spend as much or more time out in our community, talking with a broad spectrum of constituents, as they do consulting with city staff and deliberating among themselves.

Asheville City and Buncombe County filed a lawsuit against Mission Hospital alleging monopolization and inflating prices. What do you think are the most important steps City Council can take to improve healthcare in Western North Carolina?*

City Council must lend its voice, through its legislative agenda and lobbying in Raleigh, to demand that the General Assembly expand Medicaid in North Carolina. Our state is foolishly leaving millions of federal dollars on the table, and cruelly leaving millions of North Carolinians without access to affordable healthcare. The dwindling availability of hospital care in rural areas of WNC is just one outcome of this choice.

City Council can use all the tools in its policy toolbox to help ensure that our residents have safe, habitable homes and access to nutritious food. (It’s hard to stay healthy if you don’t have a roof over your head and enough good quality food to eat.) To ensure we achieve these goals, the city must collaborate with Buncombe County government and coordinate with our local not-for-profit organizations who already do so much to serve residents’ basic needs for shelter, food, and healthcare.

When choosing between comparable healthcare providers, City Council should give preference to not-for-profit organizations that prioritize patient care over profit margin and support fair labor practices for their staff.