Signs of the Times in Asheville

Signs of the Times in Asheville

The aftermath of a racially-charged beating shines a light on multiple other problems in one of America’s “Best Small Cities”

asheville city council
Public Opinion Poles:  These flyers appeared on utility poles in various locations across Asheville on March 20, just hours before the city council voted to dismiss City Manager Gary Jackson

“As public servants, we must hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards. Any breach of those standards is simply unacceptable.” – Gary Jackson

On the gray and chilly morning of Tuesday, March 20, homemade signs appeared like a rash on utility poles all over town.  Computer-printed in block allcaps on plain copy paper, they all carried the same terse message:  “DO NOT TRUST CITY COUNCIL.”

That afternoon, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer issued a terse statement. City council had voted to relieve City Manager Gary Jackson  of his duties, effective at the end of the day.  Although no cause for council’s action was specified, it was generally understood that Jackson was being dismissed for neither informing council about, nor appropriately dealing with, the assault on Johnnie Rush, a black citizen, by Chris Hickman, an on-duty white Asheville police officer.

That incident took place in the early hours of last August 25, but it did not become public knowledge until February 28, when an anonymous source emailed footage from Hickman’s body camera to the Asheville Citizen-Times.  The video clearly shows Hickman repeatedly striking and then tasering Rush, who had attempted to leave while being written a ticket for jaywalking across a deserted Biltmore Avenue.

Predictably the video, once released, went viral on the Internet.  Then ABC, CNN, and all the rest of the television alphabet soup sent talking heads to town.  Newspapers from The New York Times to London’s Daily Mail ran the story.  And suddenly Asheville – named “One of the Best Small Cities in the U.S. for 2018” by National Geographic Traveler, as one of the “2018 Top 100 Best Places to Live” by Livability, and as “One of the 15 Coolest Place to Go” by Forbes – became “Asheville-where-a-black-man-walking-home-from-work-gets-beat-up-by-a-white-cop.”

177 Days

But it was the lapse of 177 days between the beating and its reveal that angered and puzzled people even more.  What the hell, they wanted to know, had been going on all that time?

Well, first, it was election season.  In November Manheimer easily won a second mayoral term and councilor Gwen Wisler returned, now as vice mayor.  There were two newcomers: frontrunner Vijay Kapoor and – ironically — black activist Shenieka Smith, whose campaign had focused on city government/minority relationships.

Behind the scenes, as it was later established, police chief Tammy Hooper had taken Hickman’s badge and gun the day after the beating and put him on administrative duty.  The same day, she allegedly alerted Assistant City Attorney John Maddux and later also informed interim Assistant City Manager Jade Dundas.  Subsequently she held meetings with both Maddux and District Attorney Todd Williams, both of whom viewed the body cam footage.

On December 19, Williams asked the SBI to investigate Hickman’s use of force, and on December 22 Hickman was formally suspended.  On January 5, Hooper said, she met with Hickman to fire him, but Hickman resigned before she had the chance.  The following week the SBI told Williams and Hooper it would not be investigating because Hickman had already resigned (not, as was later alleged, because too much time had elapsed before the request was made).  Two weeks after that, FBI agents appeared and questioned Johnnie Rush extensively.

Then, on February 13, Jackson announced his intention to retire at the end of 2018.  The mayor praised his “dignity and integrity” and said he had served “faithfully and effectively.”  Jackson said it had all been “an honor and a privilege.”

That was just 15 days before the people of Asheville would become very familiar with the name of Johnnie Jermaine Rush.  And when it happened, they rose up righteous.  This was worse than unacceptable, and those responsible were going to pay.

Vox Populi

At a strident town hall meeting on March 8, Hooper, whose termination was being demanded, said she’d quit if it would help anything. Later,  Manheimer wrote an abject apology to Rush on behalf of the city.  Council, which expressed shock and outrage, drew up a list of proposed policing reforms that included hiring more black officers, a non-police official to review all body cam footage, and an outside attorney whose sole duty would be to “facilitate” complaints against the police department.

Not good enough, The People said; nor did they buy the official party line coming out of City Hall: that neither Manheimer and council on one hand nor Jackson on the other knew anything about the beating until they saw the media reports.  On March 8, Assistant City Manager Dundas issued a statement assuming full responsibility for the city manager’s lack of knowledge, saying he had never informed Jackson – his boss – of the incident after Hooper told him about it in August.

That dog, it turned out, wouldn’t hunt.  Neither did the twin assertion that atty. Maddux had likewise withheld that tidbit from his own boss, City Attorney Robin Currin.  John and Jane Q. Asheville categorically rejected the assertion that a problem of this magnitude never made it past the lower echelons.

Hence the Signs…

… which appeared after council announced it would hold a special closed session before its regular meeting the day Jackson was fired.

Many who saw the placards interpreted them as a warning that council was about to turn on the smoke-and-mirrors switch in connection with the Rush case.  But others said they could just as well have been posted by someone with a longer, wider view of Asheville politics; someone to whom the present upheaval was symptomatic of how the city governs itself in general.

“Naw, I didn’t put them up, and I don’t know who did,” former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson told Enquiring Minds.  To some, Peterson, whose open despisal of Jackson and contempt for Manheimer have become a local legend, seemed a logical suspect.

“But whoever did it deserves a damn medal,” Peterson said.  “And Johnnie Rush probably doesn’t feel like it right now but he did this town a world of good. He uncovered the whole nest of snakes that run this city, and how they operate.  But here’s the thing:  Will people do anything about it?”

Blame the Great Disconnect

City council apologists, who seem to be in increasingly short supply, blame council’s lack of oversight of everything from policing to spending on an “ongoing disconnect” between the city manager’s office and elected officials.

This disconnect was cited by Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler last July when Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball (Jackson was absent) broke the news to council that RADTIP, the city’s sacred-cow riverfront development project, was going to cost $26 million more than originally anticipated.  The 52% miscalculation has since been called the greatest financial boondoggle in Asheville’s history.

(The mayor said she was “shocked” on that occasion, too.)

Wisler pointed out that council only received direct input from city staff every two weeks, on council meeting days.  At that, input was mostly limited to the consent agenda, the list of supposedly routine business items to which council is asked to give blanket approval.  Wisler asked that the manager’s office “keep us in the loop on a very routine basis” from then on.

Her suggestion may not have gotten much traction.  Sandwiched between the reportage of Dundas’ offering to fall on his sword and of Jackson’s termination was a modest news item that attracted almost no attention:  Barbara Whitehorn, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, told council at a budget work session that the city has a nearly $6 million operating budget deficit, four times the amount deemed customary and acceptable.

“All the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” Whitehorn said.  Then she spelled it out:  “In the absence of new revenue, adding programs or projects to the operating budget requires an offsetting reduction which will require service reductions.”

Or Blame the “Issue Entrepeneurs”

One reason for the success of Jackson’s arm’s-length approach to dealing with council may have been a sea change in the motives and methods of individual councilors, some analysts believe.

In a December, 2017, interview with Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo pointed to the rise of “amateur” politicians driven by a single issue rather than by an overall party platform.  These “issue entrepreneurs,” he said, garner support from voters devoted to the same cause, but single-issue politics also makes consensus and compromise among lawmakers difficult.

Some Ashevillians put it more pointedly.  “The mess this city is in,” said one, who requested anonymity, “is what happens when you keep electing [city council] members from the same pool of self-impressed yuppies who don’t know jack s —- about how the city should be run and treat it like it’s their own private sandbox. That’s how Gary Jackson has led them around by the nose for years.”

Epilogue

Johnnie Rush has retained a prominent Charlotte-based civil rights attorney who has already informed the city of intent to sue unless suitable financial reparations can be made out of court.

Chris Hickman has been charged with assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury, and communicating threats.  His court date has not been set.

Gary Jackson has not said what his future plans may be.  Under the terms of his contract, despite his firing, he will receive six months’ pay with full benefits, a package worth about $143,000. He has the distinction of being the only Asheville City Manager ever to be hired after having previously been fired from a similar position (Fort Worth, Texas, in 2004).

Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball will assume Jackson’s duties until his replacement  is found.

Mayor Manheimer stated, “My colleagues and I are committed to hiring the most effective replacement possible.”

Chief Tammy Hooper is still at her desk.

No punitive action was taken against Jade Dundas.  He has been reassigned to his previous job as director of capital improvements.

Barbara Whitehorn now estimates that, at the present rate of increase, Asheville’s deficit could reach as much as $28 million by 2023 unless spending can be reined in.  So far there has been no official comment on her findings.

… And a Voice From the Past

In 2014 Paul Fetherston was recruited out of Boulder, Colorado, to serve as Asheville’s Assistant City Manager.  He was at his job less than two years before it was discovered that he was looking to make a move.  He stayed at his post until last June, when he accepted the job of Assistant County Administrator of Lake County, Illinois.  He vanished into the mists of Asheville history.

But on March 17 he surfaced in a discussion about Asheville on the social media platform Topix.  “I got out just in time before the shtf [sh—hit the fan],” Fetherston said.  “Working in Asheville’s city hall was like swimming in a cistern of soup loaded with maggots, leeches, and fruitfly larvae.”

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