Summer Political Drama Continues at City Hall

Summer Political Drama Continues at City Hall

Nick Bottom, unaware he has been changed into an ass, startles his fellow actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (act 3, scene 1) in a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  (From a contemporary woodcut.)

Council Passes Budget, Adopts Police Measures

Last week the Asheville City Council passed the city’s 2018-2019 operating budget, as well as a package of three resolutions calling for the adoption of increased regulation of police procedures.  No surprise there; both measures had been expected to be adopted.

But at no extra charge the public was treated to another session of the same political drama that was introduced at council’s May meeting.  That program featured something called a public filibuster, followed by a game of parliamentary chicken between two members.  June’s meeting spotlighted two inspired individual performances: a one-person sit-in and a star-quality turn by council’s newest leading man.

For those who tuned in late …

The Fiscal Year 2018-19 Asheville budget document runs to 141 pages and totals more than $180 million.  It has increased 21% since FY 2015.  It contains some provisions, such as stormwater fee increases and allocations, that have been fiscal hot buttons for over a decade, and others, such as staff salary increases, that are always scrutinized (though to little avail).  There are also new budget controversies, such as the city’s raising parking fees to try to mitigate its burden of debt.

Ordinarily all this would have made for lively debate.   Indeed the budget was scheduled for a public hearing at the May 22 council meeting, but comment was truncated because council had spent the first three hours of what became a five-hour session having its collective behind handed to it on a platter , first by the “filibusterers” and then by councilman Keith Young (see below).   The two-pronged social justice juggernaut let up only when council passed a package of police procedure resolutions that had not even been agendaed.  Many attendees complained that, as a result, the meeting lasted so long that they had to go home before they could comment on the budget. (Council may have felt that it’s an ill wind that blows no good.)  The agenda for June 19 stated in bold print that no further public comment would be taken prior to the budget vote

As it was, such public budget comment as did manage to be heard on May 22 was colored by the same topic that had hijacked the entire meeting: the powers, alleged abuses, and proposed additional funding of the Asheville Police Department.  Then, although council had officially banned further budget debate on June 19, anti-police forces still managed to get their licks in about APD allocations, thanks to a one-person sit-in.

“Sit Tall”

The Rev. Amy Cantrell, an ordained Presbyterian minister originally from Spartanburg, is the animus behind BeLoved Asheville, an organization founded in 2009 as an “intentional community” to embrace, protect, and provide a voice for marginalized people.  Under Cantrell’s leadership, BeLoved has evolved from a loose association of volunteers into a full-fledged nonprofit corporation with a full slate of projects and programs, including a tiny house village, street medics, an art and music collective called Rise Up, and sanctuary space.

On a more confrontational level, Cantrell has led BeLoved Asheville to partner with the Campaign for Southern Equality, Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Grassroots Equity Alliance, the NAACP’s “Moral Mondays” program, People’s VOICE on Transportation Equality, Just Us For All,  the Center for Participatory Change, and Just Economics of WNC.  She has been described as “following the wildly loving and radical Jesus.”  Her prior street creds include being arrested during a Moral Monday gathering, as well as for being one of a quartet of women who used household tools to try to remove a small brass plaque depicting Robert E. Lee from the granite Dixie Highway marker on Pack Square.  “We understand that the removal of this monument would be symbolic of removing white supremacy from the very center of our City. We know that this must be connected to the deep work of ending systemic racism and white supremacy culture here,” Cantrell said in a statement at the time.  She and the others were ordered to perform several hours each of community service as a penalty.

During the June 19 meeting Cantrell decided to expand her resume.  As city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn began her pre-vote presentation of the budget document, Cantrell announced, ““As a faith leader and a person of conscience, I cannot stand for this budget,” by which, it seems, she meant one item on it: a $2 million increase for police department operations, including $1 million for enhanced police presence downtown.  Cantrell then walked to a position behind Whitehorn and sat down cross-legged on the floor, remaining silently in place as Whitehorn finished her remarks and council left the room to go into a private session, the subject of which was not revealed.  Asheville’s Mountain Xpress ran a photo of Cantrell in situ behind Whitehorn with the caption, “Sit Tall.”

Three city police officers came and hovered neutrally over Cantrell.  Two of them knelt and seemed to be chatting amicably with her at eye level.  At length Cantrell rose, put her hands behind her back as though she expected to be handcuffed (she was not) and was escorted untouched out of the chamber.  She was taken to city jail where she was booked for second-degree trespass and released on her own recognizance.

The Keith and Vijay Show

Council returned from doing whatever it was doing in closed session and sat down to tackle the subject that for many was the evening’s principal attraction:  the revisiting of a package of three resolutions dealing with police powers that were passed at the previous meeting.  Councilman Vijay Kapoor objected at the time, saying the measures had been introduced and voted on improperly.  (The subject had not been on the agenda, but council caved in the face of the “public filibuster” disruption, which was led by former council candidate Kim Roney.  That in turn paved the way for councilor Keith Young to introduce his resolutions, on which he shut down debate by improperly “calling the question.” The city attorney, who had been sitting five feet away from Young when he pulled his end-run, said nothing at the time but had an interim change of heart, agreed with Kapoor, and decided, with Mayor Esther Manheimer, that a do-over was in order.

Young’s resolutions called for doing away with prior criminal records and “suspicious behavior” as grounds for conducting “consent searches,” as well ratcheting back traffic stops for “low-level” offenses, and — most contentious of all — drafting a measure that would require officers to obtain written consent before performing searches of individuals or property.  Police advocacy groups had strongly objected to being deprived of addressing the measures, which the do-over insured would now happen.  Young was not best pleased that his pseudo-parliamentary thrust had been blunted by the administration’s second thoughts.

Prior to the meeting Kapoor told Enquiring Minds,“I think the two sides [on the consent search issue] are actually closer to agreeing than people may have thought.”  But when Mountain Xpressasked Young what could be expected from the comingdiscussion, he replied, “Fireworks.”

The Transmogrification of Keith Young

Keith Young was first elected to city council in November, 2015.  He spent the least amount of campaign money but garnered the most votes in the six-candidate field.  (Interestingly, in 2017,  the top vote-getter was Young’s emerging nemesis, Vijay Kapoor.)  Young’s early days on council, however, were so quiet that he was accused of “taking up space.”  Late in 2016 an anonymous citizen sent city officials packets of documents showing that Young was claiming a house he owns in Arden was his primary residence (to satisfy his mortgage lender) but listing his parents’ house in the city as his abode (in order to be eligible to serve on city council).  The anonymous sender demanded an investigation but the county Board of Elections avoided the matter and city administrators, after some preliminary mumbling, had nothing more to say.  There was considerable speculation that the would-be whistleblower was a member of the city’s super-progressive faction, who were disappointed in Young’s tepid performance and wanted to replace him with a bona fide activist, but that didn’t happen either and Young retained his seat in 2017.

Having dodged one residency issue, Young decided to beef up his resume by running for Congress.  He rented a mailbox in Charlotte and declared he was throwing his hat in the ring in the 12th District, 130 miles from home, against powerful incumbent Alma Adams.   (There is no residency requirement for state offices.)  As of April, he had raised $86 in campaign money via Fundly, including a dollar from his old campaign manager, David Roat.  At home he grew more and more outspoken.  In January he called for the removal of Asheville’s most prominent landmark, the Vance monument, on account of Vance’s Confederate associations, and announced ,”If I could I would [urinate] on Robert E. Lee’s grave.”  And when news broke in March of the horrific beating of black pedestrian Johnny Rush by a white police office last August, Young found himself ideally positioned to declare himself Council’s voice for racial justice.  He also began to display a chameleon-like ability to adapt that voice to various situations.

Thus, when Young began to speak on the police powers resolutions June 19, gone was Young the parliamentary bluffer, who in May had managed to buffalo city council into passing a set of improperly presented resolutions. Gone too was the overbearing Young who, at the same meeting, badgered the Asheville Museum of Science’s Alison Gooding by demanding that the little museum provide “ðocumented proof” that it interacts with city and racial justice agencies instead of just “saying buzzwords,” if it hoped to get any city funding (which it did not get anyway).  Instead, this time council watchers got to see Young the orator.

“I actually prepared several statements …”

Young opened with his own version of the tried and true I-am-tearing-up-my-prepared-remarks gambit.  “I actually prepared several statements, depending on how this meetinng went,” he said, producing a sheaf of papers to chuckles from the spectators.  “They went from Kumbaya” (here Young wadded up one sheet and tossed it aside) “to ‘Let’s work it out’ ” (another crumple, another toss) “to hellfire” (a third throwaway).  It was not possible to see if there was any writing on the papers.

Instead, Young began to parry, one by one, a whole list of observations that had been made during public comment.  “I heard somebody say this [written search consent] was a ‘social experiment,’ ” He began.  “We’re talking about upholding people’s rights, and I don’t think upholding someone’s right to tell you you can’t do something is a social experiment.”  He continued down his list; when he said, “We were told this is a black thing,” he confined himself to an eloquent shrug that drew scattred applause.  Then he switched gears.  “We know,” he said, “that the vast majority of police officers do a difficult and dangerous job fairly and professionally.  They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.” But, he concluded, “From this point forward, If I see the word ‘ideally’ in a policy that relates to this, we will be back again and again and again and again, because whether I can exercise my rights is not a matter for you to decide.  Ever.”

Young was a hard act to follow, but Kapoor managed a last word.  “It is very concerning to me,” he said, “that there may be council members who will require such a policy without any exceptions, even in the event that the public’s or the officer’s safety may be in danger.”  Nonetheless he joined in the unanimous approval of all three resolutions, which are now to be used as guidelines for the drafting of actual policy by the city manager’s staff and the police department, working together.

The Schooling of Vijay Kapoor

A week after the council meeting, Young took to Facebook to make a curtain call, lecturing Kapoor on the finer points of Georgia v. Randolph, a case Kapoor had cited to support his position that written search consent is neither necessary nor practical in cases of clear and present danger.  At the time Young had said, “I’m going to go ahead and call b.s on that.”  In his post he elaborated, saying “[Kapoor] did some in-the-moment research and objected … I don’t think he’s even read Georgia v. Randolph because it literally carves out a domestic violence exception” that disproves the very point Kapoor was trying to make.  Young went on to quote the majority opinion in the case, in which he saw Kapoor’s Georgia V. Randolphand raised him Texas v. Brown, a case that reaffirmed the inherent right of police to seize evidence “in plain sight” if they are already lawfully present at a possible crime scene.  Case law, Young said in effect, already conferred on police the very things Kapoor was afraid written consent would strip them of.

Young is a deputy clerk of Buncombe County Superior Court.  Kapoor is a business consultant who is also an attorney.  Neither practices law.

The groundlings want to know:  What’s playing next?

On Monday, July 2, at 5 p.m., council will meet to hold a public hearing on the issue of adopting new water department “system maintenance and capital fees” — and to rename them “development fees.”  Increases will range from 9% for a 5/8″ meter to more than double for a 10″ industrial meter.

There will doubtless be some astringent public comment keyworded “water,” “debt,” “fee,” “tax,” and “slush fund.”  But citizen input will probably not be as dramatic as it has the past two months.  For one thing, the matter is essentially a done deal; copies of the empowering resolution have already been submitted for signoff.   And for another, Asheville’s demonstrator rank-and-file generally view financial discussions as crass and boring unless they can be directly related to societal issues.  But should a protest materialize, it will probably have the desired effect.

A local physician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Asheville’s governing body “apparently suffers from LDTD — low disruption threshold disorder.”

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