A panel of familiar faces is helping find Asheville’s next city manager. Sort of.
On Thursday and Friday, October 4 and 5, Asheville City Council conducted face-to-face meetings with the six semifinalists for the position of Asheville’s new city manager.
And it apparently did so without any prior direct input (see below) from a much-heralded “community partners” search committee that was created to provide advice and input in the selection process. That committee was actually formed in May, but was not finalized until September 14 and, according to city staffers, only convened once before being scheduled to meet the candidates during the October 5 sessions.
Meanwhile he city lurches forward with its own selection process. Nor does anyone seem to know when, or to what degree, the citizens’ committee may be further involved in that process.
And, as Shakespeare put it, “thereby hangs a tale.”
City: “Just kidding, it’s a done deal.”
On Monday, October 15, city officials announced that they decided to skip all the intermediate steps outlined below — including finalist meet-and-greets and further input from its blue ribbon committee — and go straight to hiring a new city manager.
A bulletin issued by City Hall said Council would meet in special session at 4 p.m. Wednesday [Oct. 17] to sign the new city manager’s contract. Following that formality, everybody would adjourn to Asheville’s trendy Twisted Laurel restaurant, where the public is invited to meet and greet the hitherto-under-wraps city CEO.
“City Council’s initial intention had been to hold a community meet-and-greet for the finalists; however, the anticipated candidate was so well aligned with the input received from the community, City Council and staff that City Council has decided to move forward with the anticipated candidate. The anticipated candidate had strong support from community stakeholders, City Council and City leadership team,” the city’s announcement said.
The announcement did not name or define “community stakeholders,” or explain the extent of their involvement in a selection process that has been carried out without public input, and largely without public knowledge.
Greenville, SC, is also interviewing finalists for a city manager this week, and both Greenville and Asheville have listed their openings with Texas-based recruiter Springsted-Waters. Asheville’s chosen candidate is said to have also been in the running for the Greenville position, though it is not known whether the candidate came through Springsted-Waters.
(For a narrative of how the city originally said it was approaching its selection process, read the original October 8 article below.)
But first, here’s the lineup:
- Terry Bellamy, former Asheville Mayor. Bellamy, a two-term mayor (2005-2013) was North Carolina’s youngest and Asheville’s first black chief executive. Generally considered a liberal, she nevertheless voted against same-sex partner benefits for city employees. In the spring of 2013 she put out a call on social media for citizens to join her in a 24-day period of fasting and prayer as her administration contended with a $3 million city deficit.
- Marc Hunt, former Vice-Mayor. Hunt, who shared a passion for bicycling with Jackson, worked closely — some said colluded — with him to wrest the Pack Place building away from its corporate board and hand it over to the Asheville Art Museum. Hunt has the distinction of being the committee’s lone male member.
- Kit Cramer, President and CEO, Asheville Chamber of Commerce. With a salary-and-benefits package reckoned at well over $300,000 per year, Kramer has a place on Business North Carolina’s list of the state’s 100 most influential people. More than once she has been called “the real mayor of Asheville.”
- Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, President, Asheville Chapter, NAACP. A native New Yorker, Ramos-Kennedy came to Asheville in 2007 from southern California. A disciple of state political activist The Rev. William Barker, Ramos-Kennedy is the Asheville NAACP’s first female president. She acted as Bellamy’s field director when Bellamy ran for Congress in 2014. Currently she serves as coordinator of the living wage program at Just Economics of WNC. (See Vicki Meath, below)
- Kim McGuire, Nonprofits Consultant. McGuire heads McGuire Consultants, an independent firm she founded after spending 13 years at Western North Carolina Nonprofit Pathways. Her firm specializes in advising civic and philanthropic clients.
- Elaine Poovey, Chairman, Malvern Hills Neighborhood Association. A longtime West Asheville resident, Poovey is a past president of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council.
- Djuana Swann, Attorney. Swann presently serves as counsel for the Asheville Housing Authority. She was for a time one of two county attorneys for Henderson County. She is also an alumna of Van Winkle, Buck, Wall, Starnes, and Davis, Mayor Esther Manheimer’s firm.
- Sala Menaya-Merritt, Chief Program Officer, Asheville YWCA. Merritt’s recent work at the YW has included an upgrade of the facility’s Healthy Meals Kitchen and an expansion of its early learning program. Like Ramos-Kennedy, she is an incomer from southern California.
- Vicki Meath, Executive Director, Just Economics of WNC. Meath also came to Asheville in 2007, but by way of Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked with the Cuyahoga County Living Wage Campaign. She is described as having “a strong commitment to and passion for economic justice work.”
- Roxanne Wynn, Marketing Manager at Integrity Brand Management. As an “online brand manager,” Wynn specializes in “soliciting new hotel and restaurant clients” and “coordinating their unique online reputation management and marketing campaigns.”
The City of Asheville loves its committees and commissions.
According to the city’s website, there are presently 36 city advisory boards, commissions, and committees, providing input on matters ranging from air quality to human relations, noise, and trees. (The city manager search panel is not listed among them, possibly because it would be considered a one-off, while the others are standing committees.) Some of these bodies, such as the Downtown Commission, the Multimodal Transportation Commission, and the Tourist Development Authority, are actually de facto authors of city government: some feel that Council receives their reports, sets the city’s seal on them, and hands them on as official policy.
For that very reason, the departed Gary Jackson, whose shoes the city now seeks to fill, did not like committees and commissions at all. He complained several times that they actually got in the way of his running his department. Analysts have said these citizen bodies were actually filling a vacuum. In Jackson’s time the City Manager’s office interacted with city council exactly once every two weeks: on the day before council meetings, when it submitted the consent agenda for review.
And, Jackson’s complaints notwithstanding, that system worked remarkably well for him. Right up until the morning Ashevillians woke to find that for half a year, the city he ran had been keeping an explosive piece of intelligence under wraps.
The Ballad of Gary Jackson, or, It All Started with Johnny Rush
In the early hours of August 24, 2017, Johnny Jermaine Rush was walking home from work at a Tunnel Road restaurant when he was intercepted on Biltmore Avenue by APD officer Chris Hickman and charged with jaywalking. Hickman later claimed that during the arrest Rush had attempted to leave and/or otherwise resisted, and Hickman said he used appropriate and necessary means to restrain him.
On or about February 27, 2018, person or persons still unknown emailed the Asheville Citizen-Times a copy of footage from Hickman’s body cam, showing Hickman beating and choking Rush. Rush is black; Hickman is white. The footage, released with an accompanying story by the Citizen-Times next day, went viral on the Internet and attracted international news coverage. On the heels of the initial blast of shock and outrage came a secondary one: the news that the incident had taken place in August, at which time, it turned out, Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper had immediately relieved Hickman of his badge and gun, and had intended to fire him but Hickman resigned first. How and why, people wanted to know, had this information been kept secret for six months? Who participated in the coverup?
The FBI got involved. Among the Asheville citizenry the torches and pitchforks came out. Moving swiftly to stop the bleeding, city council on March 20 issued a statement saying that Jackson, as the city’s chief employee and at whose door, therefore, the buck stopped, had been fired, effective immediately.
This amounted to little skin off Jackson’s nose. Just five weeks before, he had announced his retirement. (He received a standing ovation from city council and staff and Manheimer said in a press release, “Gary has served Asheville faithfully and effectively … with dignity and integrity.”) In terminating him, the city gave Jackson six months’ salary — about $98,000 — payable in monthly installments through September 30. So Jackson received his last severance installment of about $16,333.00, just a few days ago.
Help Wanted. Must Be Familiar with Dillon’s Rule.
And so Jackson departed, his former assistant, Cathy Ball, stepped in as interim replacement, and the city created its citizens’ panel to help screen candidates for Asheville’s new boss. But City Hall also did something that observers say is far more likely to have a bearing on who gets the job, and how soon: it listed the position with Springsted-Waters, a Texas-based recruiter specializing in municipal executive searches. Springsted-Waters’ description of the job includes this passage:
“Qualified candidate will have a record of successful leadership in executing strategic goals, managing organizational performance, transparent communications, prudent fiscal management, building effective intergovernmental and community partnerships, and engaging citizens. Experience managing rapid growth in a city with significant architectural structures and a thriving tourism industry is a plus. Familiarity with Dillon’s Rule preferred.”
Now, Dillon’s Rule — named for the Ohio judge who articulated it in 1872 — is a legal doctrine that places a very narrow interpretation on the powers of cities to govern themselves. It is, in effect, the opposite of the doctrine of “home rule,” which makes cities virtually autonomous. The state, under Dillon’s Rule, tells its cities what they can and can’t do, and beyond that cities have no legal initiative. North Carolina no longer applies Dillon’s Rule per se, but state legal scholar Frayda Bluestein says North Carolina currently “applies a rule that appears to be as strict, or perhaps even more strict, than Dillon’s Rule.”
Making familiarity with Dillon’s Rule a qualification for the city manager’s job has led some analysts to wonder whether the city expects further dust-ups with the North Carolina General Assembly in the near future.
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, a vocal critic of Asheville’s progressive brand of governance, called the search committee “window dressing.” Noting that the city began the year with a $3.2 million deficit — which it has trimmed to about $800,000, mostly by increasing city fees — he added, “Whoever they pick and however they do it, I hope [council] is honest with the new city manager and vice versa. It sure would be nice to show people the real budget numbers for a change.”
According to the city’s latest timeline, the city will make its selection the week of October 29 – November 5, and the announcement of the new city manager will be made the following week. So far, Enquiring Minds has not been able to discover notice of any scheduled interaction between city council and the citizens’ committee between now and then. It is not known whether the committee is considered to have discharged its duty after its brief existence, or whether it is still drawn up, waiting to serve, its banners stirring gently in the mild October breeze.
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