What Happened At The Asheville City Council Retreat - And What's Next?

Apr 15, 2021

Asheville City Council held its annual retreat earlier this month at Harrah's Cherokee Center Asheville.  The whole event was open to the public, but only after a lawsuit that was filed by five media outlets - Mountain Xpress, Asheville Citizen-Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, and AVL Watchdog. 

After a Buncombe County judge ruled the entire retreat had to be open to the public, the city canceled the live stream of it, promising to post the entire video of the event to its YouTube channel a few days later.  It eventually backtracked and live streamed most of the event after public feedback.

The lawsuit centered on a "team-building" event that started the retreat.  Initially it was not to be open to the public, while the rest of the retreat would.  Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Joel Burgess covered the first day of the retreat in-person, and the second day remotely.  He discussed what city council members discussed during the retreat with BPR's Matt Bush.  You can hear the full interview above, and during a new episode of The Porch Friday morning at 9 and Saturday afternoon at 3.

EXCERPTS OF INTERVIEW - 

Matt Bush: Before we explore what was discussed, tell us what the retreat is. This is something city council does every year.

Joel Burgess: The city council is the governing body for Asheville and what they have traditionally done, and a lot of governing bodies do this, is that they will have an annual meeting where they kind of huddle and talk about sort of big long-term goals. A lot of their meetings are occupied with things that have to be decided pretty quickly, but this is a time they get back and sort of strategize and say, 'Hey, here's what we'd like to see the city aimed for over the next year, two years, three years.' I'll just say as an aside, I always find it an interesting exercise. And it's probably a good idea to do these types of things.  It can often be forced by reality, meaning that things happen events happen, pandemics happen, protests happen that suddenly jar the city and can sort of shake up those priorities. But anyway, that's an annual retreat.

MB: So on the first day of this retreat, it included a team building exercise.  Initially that was not going to be open to the public.  The five media organizations in Asheville, including both of our organizations, brought this lawsuit to open this up to the public. And eventually it was ruled the day before the retreat (would be open to the public). You were there in person for it. So tell us what this team building exercise was and how did it go and what did it really focus on?

JB: That was fascinating because the majority of the council is actually new.  They were either newly elected or in the case of Antanette Mosley, newly appointed.  And so a lot of it was this concept of how do we get the council to just sort of function together. And again, I find that to be an interesting exercise because as a body, it's not necessarily their role to work as a team.  They vote on things and then the majority wins like in any governing body and that's the decision.  But what was happening is that the mayor was at least trying to get them to, if they're going to disagree about things, have a way to express it early to have a degree of civility to allow them communicate better.  There was a great sort of segue from Gwen Wisler, who had at time at one time was the vice mayor. And she was saying, look, it's fine if you're going to essentially blast me in public, but just let me know ahead of time. So it's they're trying to establish just some ground rules and a sense of decorum.  

MB: One of the reasons that it was initially supposed to be close to the public was that (the team-building exercise) would allow them to talk more personally or reveal personal information or personal feelings.  Did anything like that come up?

JB: Absolutely.  And I've just got to talk a little bit about the lawsuit and open records law. And what the law talks about.  The governing body is getting together to conduct public business. Then it has to be open to the public unless it meets the specific definition of a closed meeting. And those are things like if you're going to talk about an employee and talk about their performance or things like that need a certain amount of privacy given to them.  Or if they're going to get advice from their attorney, there's attorney-client privilege. And they said, well, you know, this isn't going to be closed meeting (just part of it), and we're not going to be doing public business.  We're just going to kind of talk about ourselves. Well, I don't know what they originally planned to talk about, but there certainly was policy-making aspects. And one of the interesting questions was 'who do you represent?'  Who do you, who do you feel like you're speaking for? And I'll bring Antoinette Moseley again, she's one of the black council members who joined the council recently. And she said I'm here to represent black residents, and black women residents. And so they kind of got into some of those things, and why they got into why they started to get into public service. 

MB: So you mentioned that it comes at this very interesting time.  As part of the discussions there, the mayor said something along the lines of this is now a very different city, certainly different than when she was first elected in 2013.  So let's talk about that. What was the talk about where Asheville is right now and where it's going to be in the future? 

JB: I think that people that have been here long enough, they could probably just start ticking off on both hands, how has Asheville changed? Folks here in the Nineties, we all saw that a lot of downtown was boarded up.  Cost of living was low, wages were kind of low.  Then it became a tourist mecca and property costs went up.  The wages necessarily have not gone up.  We have seen the impacts of that differently on different communities. Asheville's Black residents really have born more of the brunt of a lot of these changes. And we've seen a lot of outflow of Black residents, largely young African-Americans who have left the city.  Of course that's tied in with what's happening nationally.  'Reckoning' is the word that's often used about racial justice that is certainly happening in Asheville.  We're seeing just a really big rise in homelessness.  That's not unique to Asheville though.  And there's traffic now, which is interesting. And there's talk about growing pains in that way. There's an emphasis on public transit. Are we going to be able to really grow a transit system that helps everyone.  The city is going to get $26 million (from the American Recovery Act).  What are they going to do with it? It's really an unprecedented the amount of money, the amount of aid that is going to be flowing in both to Asheville and Buncombe County. So it's just a very strange, odd and historic time for the city.

MB: Was there anything (discussed) that may tip their hand as to where they might go? They're obviously coming up on budget season here.  This is a year after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. There were a of budgetary demands made by the people who marched last year. So what sort of policy directions or intentions came out of this retreat?

JB: So for one thing, the reparations program is high up there in terms of priorities.  That was passed back in July, it was a historic vote.  There were very few local governments that were talking about reparations back then.  Evanston, Illinois is one of them that is slightly ahead of Asheville. Well, more than slightly they've, they've actually gone ahead and set up a payment program to help residents black residents with housing. But Asheville really helped kick off the discussion about reparations with that July vote. And now the question is will the city and County, which has joined the city council follow through, and what will that follow through be and what will it look like?  And how will it be shaped? And so that's really the main focus of the city council going forward is how are we going to do this?  I will say there have been some steps that have been taken. For example, as many people know there was a moratorium on allowing new hotels for more than a year.  It was supposed to be a year, but because of the pandemic it was extended as the city council was trying to figure out what kind of new rules to come up with.  And what they decided was because you can't get ban hotels outright, state law does not allow that.  That's what a lot of people want.  What the city has said is if hotels will pay or participate in what we'll call a public benefits program, they will get an expedited approval process.  In other words, they won't have to come to the city council. They can just deal with city staff and maybe some volunteer boards. And part of those public benefits is a reparations fund.  So basically hoteliers can pay into this reparations fund. So hotels will be funding it if, if they want to do this. So an interesting thing that came out of this retreat is that public benefits idea might be extended to other types of development, like large housing developments. So really you can add these high-end condo and housing developments that might be facing a similar choice.