Room at the Trough
A Peek at City of Asheville Cronyism, Nepotism, and other Isms.
Wherever there is government there are “isms” that tag along behind it like camp followers trailing an army. These isms describe the various ways in which the crumbs and plums of financial, political, or personal gain that bureaucracy always generates are handed out as rewards or favors.
There’s nepotism, the unfair use of power and position to obtain jobs or advantages for relatives; cronyism, the appointment of friends or associates – especially political ones – to positions without regard for their qualifications; and favoritism, the practice of giving preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.
Then there are two closely allied practices that are isms by other names: conflict of interest, defined as a situation where “a public official or fiduciary who, contrary to the obligation and absolute duty to act for the benefit of the public or a designated individual, exploits the relationship for personal benefit, typically pecuniary;” and influence peddling, the outright use of position or political power for personal favors or money.
And indications are that a whole stew of isms has for years been simmering right along under the art deco lid of Asheville City Hall.
Now, the city of Asheville has an anti-nepotism policy; in fact, according to city Human Resources Generalist Caroline Long, it’s a constantly evolving one. “Human Resources staff continuously review and update City of Asheville policies on an ongoing basis,” Long — who is no kin to Assistant City Manager Cathy Deyton Ball Long (see below) — told the news blog Asheville Unreported last fall. The current policy, adopted in February of 2016, is concise, containing only three provisions:
(1) “Direct reporting relationships between immediate family members” are not allowed;
(2) “Immediate family members and significant others” are not supposed to hold positions having direct influence over another family member’s “employment, promotion, salary administration, or other related management or personnel considerations;” and
(3) if family members “work in the same department they shouldn’t work in “the same section or work unit” unless on different shifts.
(The policy was revised, in fact, shortly before Human Resources Director Kelley Dickens was abruptly “relieved of her duties.” Dickens was the third HR director to serve under City Manager Gary Jackson. She had been hired as part of an overall restructuring of the HR department following a 2010 upheaval in which the then director, the assistant director, and two staffers were all indicted on a variety of charges including obstruction of justice, forgery, and obtaining property under false pretenses.)
And yet, policy or no policy…
Cathy Deyton Ball Long, Asheville’s Assistant City Manager since 2014, was promoted to that position from Public Works Director, a post which she had held since 2009. Shortly after she assumed the public works job, her husband, Jeff S. Long, went to work in Public Works’ facilities management division.
The city’s most recent payroll update lists Jeff Long as a “tradesworker” with a salary of $46,755.28. (As Assistant city manager, Cathy Ball – she uses her maiden name professionally – currently makes $219,179 in salary and benefits.) Whether Ball personally hired her husband has not been documented, but according to former city Risk Manager John Miall, “Even if a Division Head does the hiring, only the Department Head can sign the paperwork to officially hire/fire them.”
Records indicate Ball also recruited McCray Coates away from his state DOT job as District 13 (Madison and Yancey Counties) Maintenance Engineer to become Asheville’s Director of Stormwater Services. Coates, in turn, had previously hired Ball’s nephew, Chris Deyton, to work on his Distict 13 crew, and after Coates made the move to Asheville, Chris Deyton took over Coates’ position. Apparently it was also Coates who hired Ball’s niece, Amy Deyton, as a Project Development Manager in the Stormwater Division.
Ball hired Greg Shuler, who is a cousin of former U.S. congressman Heath Shuler. Critics said the musical-chairs arrangement was politically motivated, since Heath Shuler was still in office at the time, and that Greg Shuler did not meet the posted education and minimum experience requirements for the position. A former city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity charged that Ball rewrote the job requirements so as to hire Shuler “out of a pool of applicants who were more qualified…”
When Ball was named Assistant City Manager Greg Shuler became her successor as Public Works Director. He still holds that position.
“Your city tax dollars at work”
Kathi Willis, longtime Public Works Administrative Assistant, is also Secretary of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Public Works Association (APWA), a position she has held for more than a decade. The AWPA job is salaried and records indicate Willis does much of it on city time, on city equipment (she uses her City of Asheville contact information on the APWA website.) Former interim city attorney Martha McGlohon reportedly cautioned Willis in a letter that this arrangement was inappropriate and could be illegal.
McGlohon’s concern with legal niceties was less evident in 2013, in the matter of the Eagle Market Street development project.
At that time, then-councilman Gordon Smith asked McGlohon whether he should recuse himself from voting for his brother-in-law, Chris Bauer, to be made overall manager for the project. McGlohon told him there was no conflict involved; accordingly Smith voted for Bauer, who was duly appointed. Shortly afterwards it was discovered that the estate of McGlohon’s recently deceased husband, Howard, was a part owner of the Eagle Market Street property.
And — in a situation that has been frequently noted by the public but not addressed by City Hall – City Principal Planner Shannon Tuch is married to David Tuch, the head of Equinox Planning and Design. Equinox was retained to design the West Bank extension of the city’s French Broad River Greenway.
Conflict vs. Coziness
Other situations and relationships arise from time to time that at first glance may seem to be isms but are not. For example:
In January of 2015, while she was working on contracts between the city and New Belgium Brewing, Assistant City Attorney Jannice Ashley asked New Belgium attorney Joe Davis if he thought the brewery would consider hiring one of her brother’s friends, who had applied for work there. Then, in a P.S., she sent out a feeler on her own behalf, saying, “I am personally curious about whether you ever hire for a local legal team?”
The e-mails became the subject of an internal investigation led by Ashley’s boss, City Attorney Robin Currin, who invoked employee confidentiality in refusing to discuss it. The matter went away. Ashley still works for the city and was included in the last round of pay raises.
In 2012 the city hired William Anderson as its Chief of Police. Anderson retired in 2014 amid personal and professional controversy, but during his term on the job his wife was hired by the city’s downtown development office and his son came to work for the water department.
An elderly Ashevillian, who also requested anonymity if he were quoted, said via e-mail,
“In my time things were more direct. If you wanted a favor from the city you went down on a Saturday to the basement of the old produce place on Lexington and had a hot dog with [legendary city manager] Weldon Weir. But Weldon had a good deal of integrity and if you wanted something shady you probably wouldn’t get it. Simpler times.”