Playing defense: the city’s long road ahead in Raleigh
Every year, like clockwork, Asheville City Council approves a list of legislative priorities, things its members want from the state legislature.
In what is, as political science types put it, a “mother may I?” state, this is a particularly important event. While Council and city government have some important powers, many things require state approval or legislation to go forward. Alternatively, legislation can have a major impact on how a city operates, from the rules it’s allowed to make to the cash it brings into its coffers to the services it can provide.
In Asheville’s case, fights with the state legislature, especially the Republican part of the local legislative delegation, were a major political battle of the last four years. City government’s clashes with Rep. Tim Moffitt, in particular (and to a lesser extent, Rep. Nathan Ramsey) involved fights over the water system, the ownership of the airport, what the city could tax and control and even a possible overhaul of the city’s elections. Moffitt frankly tore into local government, called Asheville an enemy and asserted local government needed an overhaul. For its part, city officials were united in their opposition and had no shortage of sharp words. The city fought the takeover of the water system in court (so far successfully), held rallies and retained its own lobbyist to help keep off the legislative axe.
But last November, everything changed. While most Republican legislators held their seats, Moffitt and Ramsey did not, losting to Democrats Brian Turner and John Ager, respectively.
And like that, a huge political battle ended; it was doubtful any of Moffitt’s colleagues, for example, had his particular animus against city govenrment. At the same time, the city still wants certain things done at the state level and still has new legislation it fears going into effect.
So what’s the lay of the land look like? Late last year, Council approved its legislative hopes for 2015, and they’re a revealing picture. Last week, the N.C. General Assembly gaveled in its session while municipalities, including Asheville, wait to see what will happen.
Cash and authority
This year, the city’s demands boil down to two basic things: it wants more revenue (or lost revenues restored) to help avoid any more cash-strapped budget years. It also wants to keep its authority, especially over zoning and development, which are big issues in a growing city like Asheville.
On one of those fronts, the city is placing itself in opposition to the North Carolina Press Association and print papers across the state. It’s siding with a bill to end the requirement that cities place notices of public hearings and other major events in newspapers. Instead, the new rules would allow them to post those notices online.
From the city’s viewpoint, it saves them money and fits a more digital era. From the viewpoint of print publications, it stops informing large swaths of the community about major public events (and loses said outlets money as well).
Council also wants money it lost when the state curbed its ability to levy privilege license fees on businesses restored, as well as an increased ability to collect fines and parking tickets through electronic means. As the major city in Western North Carolina, the government wants the restoration of historic preservation and other tax credits scuttled during legislative battles last year. Also, it would like stricter rules on coal ash, given the role rivers have played in the area’s revitalization.
Other matters are less specific, but the word “oppose” shows up a lot. Given that its thinking isn’t exactly in line with the party that controls the legislatures, Asheville’s government at least wants to maintain its authority over zoning, building inspections, public utilities (like the water system) or even regulating trees. Some state legislators have proposed putting more of these under state control or sharply limiting the ways municipalities can regulate then, ostensibly to help businesses and standardize rules across the state.
While to some these may seem like somewhat bureaucratic matters, locals who are concerned about development or the environment might be in for a shock if the rules governing these issues were set in Raleigh instead of City Hall; these issues often form a major part of what Council considers.
In essence, even with the more direct threat of Moffitt and Ramsey’s potential legislation gone, the city is still a Democratic stronghold in a Republican legislature, and its agenda reflects that. While some of the rancor may have vanished, Asheville is still playing defense.
A thaw… or not so fast
Nonetheless, despite all these concerns, Mayor Esther Manheimer notes that, since the events in November, she believes things will be more cordial with the local legislators, Republicans as well as Democrats. Henderson’s Rep. Chuck McGrady is now the local delegation’s major Republican in the House, and, Manheimer says, “we get along really well. We’re still pretty divided over water, but we’re both lawyers. We know how to put that one issue over the side and talk about other issues. We’ve been able to find some common ground.”
Meanwhile, Turner and Ager, whom Manheimer respects, are still relatively new. Even putting their part affiliation aside it will take some time, she notes, for them to learn the ways of the legislature.
While many of the city’s goals note opposition or hope for restoration of lost funds, she still sees the situation as less defensive than the past few years.
“It’s very different, positively,” Manheimer, who was once did a stint as an attorney for the legislature, said. “We spent a lot of time on the defensive in the last few years. It wasn’t: can we get this initiative accomplished? It was: can we avoid whatever this bad legislation is that will affect us. First and foremost we will hopefully enjoy not having to spend time on the defensive, concerned about bills that will negatively affect Asheville.”
This year, she observes, many of the issues on the city’s agenda are less aimed at local legislation that targets Asheville in particular and more at statewide changes that might harms its interests as they reduce the authority or money that cities across the state receive.
“Funding transportation, not taking away our zoning authority, not taking away our environmental regulatory authority, those are statewide issues,” she says, adding that some legislation the city wants, like a ban on toplessness (in response to the annual rally in Asheville) or stricter laws on graffiti, were unlikely and aren’t really a point where the city’s willing to put political capital.
“I don’t know that the city is concerned that we’ll see those,” she adds with a chuckle.
Nonetheless, some of the statewide changes might hit home for local elected officials. While Moffitt’s bill to overhaul city elections might be dead, “I understand there’s going to be a push to move city elections to even years,” something she notes municipalities are opposed to.
“It’s purely political,” she says. “The odd year elections draw out these Democrats that live in cities and Republican don’t like the way that voting goes. The goal is quite clearly to get more Republicans on city councils.”
So despite the thaw, there might still be plenty of rivalry ahead as relations between Raleigh and Asheville remain, to put it politely, complicated.
David Forbes is a local journalist and editor of the Asheville Blade, a reader-supported site for sharp news and views.