By Sally Kestin, AVL Watchdog
Asheville City Councilman Vijay Kapoor, who plans to resign this summer and move to Philadelphia, spoke in-depth earlier this year to Asheville Watchdog founders Sally Kestin and Steve Keeble about who holds the power in local government, why the council isn’t serving the needs of many residents and what’s needed to prevent undue influence over politicians in development decisions. (Asheville City Council will choose a person to serve out the rest of Kapoor’s term on Sept. 8.) This is the first of a two-part series. Read part two here.
Q: What can you tell us about serving on the City Council that would perhaps surprise us the most?
A: We have a lot of incredibly passionate people for a city of 90,000. The kind of community interaction that I’ve experienced as a council member is something that I think is usually more reserved for cities that are much larger. And I think there are both positives and there are, I would say, drawbacks.
In Asheville’s case, there are groups here in the city who you can reliably expect to hear from. And I think sometimes that actually drowns out the voices of people who are perhaps less organized and kind of have less of a niche area that they’re focused on.
One of the things that has surprised me is how much power advocacy groups have in the city versus the average resident and frankly, how little time you see council members doing what I would consider to be general constituent services, like, ‘I’ve got a problem with the sidewalk. I’ve got a problem with my road. I want park improvements to this particular park.’
We’ve got really strong, passionate advocacy groups. And I think those folks have a disproportionate voice on the council.
And I think our current structure by being elected all at large has a lot to do with it. This is part of the reason I thought if we moved to that district concept, that would actually focus people on some of the more day-to-day things that impact people’s lives in the city. Those interest groups, I cannot underestimate how much political power they have.
We in Asheville have so many things going for us. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches compared to other cities. We’ve got beautiful natural resources, but we always seem to be at each other’s throats. It doesn’t matter what the issue is.
We can’t seem to compromise in this city. Compromise seems to be a swear word.
And whether it is in tourism, whether it is in development, we have the ability I think to really move this city forward if we sit down and actually look at the facts, not what people feel the facts to be.
We’ve got to have local leaders, whether they’re elected or business leaders or otherwise who are willing to push back against folks out there who frankly don’t have the facts right. And I think that’s a critical thing for the city going forward.
Q: Who are these advocacy groups that have outsized influence over what happens in Asheville government?
A: In terms of political power, you’ve got really strong environmental groups here. You’ve got MountainTrue. You’ve got the Sierra Club. They endorsed me. No disrespect to them, they do a lot of good work. But they will man polls, and that matters to people.
Just Economics is an advocacy group for transit and living wages, really effective here. They do a very good job of pushing what their interests are. I don’t disagree with a lot of the stuff that they’re pushing for. It’s just that there’s other things on the table.
On the flip side are groups that I don’t hear from or that do not have the same type of effect but do in other cities are business groups. Usually, there’s some sort of counterbalance. You know, if you hear someone saying, ‘We think hotels are bad, or that kind of commerce is bad,’ usually you have a group out there saying, ‘Well, no, I represent a bunch of independent organizations or independent businesses, and we disagree.’
It’s almost like we’re going to hear from the same people over and over again. And then we don’t hear from the people who need to advocate for some of those things as well. They don’t have an advocacy group or they’re not in front of us in council and sometimes they don’t want to because if they get out there, it’s going to be their names dragged on Facebook.
You’ve got to have the backbone to be able to say to people, ‘No, you’re not right or no, here’s a different opinion.’ And it’s hard to do that in a smaller city and folks tend to know each other, and people are worried about retribution from their businesses, whether or not that’s true. I think that tends to be a little overblown.
Q: Is the City Council focusing on the right issues?
A: So much of our agenda on Council is set by trying to avoid people from yelling at us. There seems to be a fear in this city of getting criticized on Facebook. And it gets pretty vicious out there.
There’s the Asheville Politics page, and every elected official reads that, and every elected official fears having their name dragged on that. And until people are willing to say,’Look, I don’t mind if you scream at me. I don’t mind if you drag my name through the dirt here. These are the problems that we need to be addressing right now.’
If there’s a fault in Asheville in terms of management, I think we often take on more things than we’re actually capable of doing. We over-promise and we under-deliver repeatedly. That’s what we do. It’s almost the Asheville way.
And I think the transit master plan is a great example. A lot of people spent a lot of time and a lot of effort went into that, and it is an incredible aspirational plan for how we want to see our transit system work.
We’ve talked to our city manager and brought in a transit expert. She’s like, ‘There’s no way we can responsibly tell you that we can implement this in a timeframe that people expect.’
And the advocates for the transit organizations, and they’re incredibly successful advocates, that’s not good enough for them. They’re saying, ‘No, we need to implement this. This needs to happen.’
I would much rather us go to the community and say, ‘You know what? These programs, we’re not able to deliver on. But you’re going to be upset about that. We understand that. We’re going to take the heat for it and we’re going to move on.’
Elected officials in this city don’t like to do that. And I think that’s a problem. I think that’s one of the big issues. We’ve got to level with people about what the true facts are and what we’re really able to do.
Q: What are some of the other projects that fall into the over-promised category?
A: I think the transit master plan is probably the biggest one. That’s not going to be a situation where I think we’re going to have the money to extend hours.
Another thing that we’ve got to look at here realistically is our sustainability program — how much money we can actually put in towards that in order to make us effectively a carbon-neutral city that includes, like an urban forestry master plan. I’d love to see if we can find other ways of doing it because right now, we really don’t have the money to do all that.
Q: You have advocated for some changes in the council and how it is elected. Do you think our current part-time mayor-council structure is still appropriate?
A: We don’t have the kind of a strong mayor that I’m used to dealing with up in the Northeast. I think that would be a very interesting thing to look at in Asheville. I’m not sure if we can even do that under the North Carolina Constitution or under the current statutes.
I would prefer a strong mayor form. What we have right now is I would call a strong council form, which I don’t think is really helpful.
We have a city manager. We’ve got a really active council who likes to get into the weeds of how the city is run. And frankly, I don’t think a lot of us have that experience, that expertise in terms of directing our city manager to do things where she is really the professional.
I think we should be saying to the city manager, ‘We want you to be able to, for example, improve our environment and improve the urban canopy.’ And I think having a council focus more on the needs, the kind of day-to-day needs of neighborhoods and the average citizen, I think is sorely lacking in the city.
Q: How does the City Council ensure we’re getting the best value for our tax dollar and avoid a Wanda Greene situation? [Greene, the former Buncombe County Administrator, is serving a 7-year sentence for fraud and misuse of taxpayer money.]
A: I think the county didn’t ask the questions they needed to be asking. And the first thing was they didn’t have a multi-year financial plan. And once you have that type of financial plan, you’re able to sort of suss out, if you will, monies that are not being spent the way that they said that they’re actually being spent.
You’re asking if Council should be full-time? I’m not sure that’s going to do it here. I think it’s more making sure Council is trained and actually learns the right questions to ask.
When I was first elected, we had an orientation. I’m expecting a briefing of all the stuff that’s going on in the city, like all the various initiatives and different projects and where they are and what the budget is on this. What are the pressing issues facing Council?
It was the city manager, the mayor. It was the clerk, the city attorney. It was only scheduled for an hour. A lot of the discussion was about ethics and the powers of Council and at the end, I get a sheet of paper. And the paper says budget issues, police development and it had a blank and a line.
And I said, ‘Well, what’s this?’ And they said, ‘Check the areas you want to be briefed on.’
The next day, I sent an email to the then city manager saying, ‘I really appreciate your time. I learn best when I meet with department heads and sit across the table. I will read whatever documents, briefing documents they have. Over the next couple of weeks, can we set this up?’
They couldn’t believe I asked for that because no one had ever done that before. This is what you’d expect as a nonprofit board member, much less a council member.
That is going to be our process going forward. We need people here who are on this council who are able to ask the right questions. We also need a strong press. We as a council and a government cannot function without a strong, aggressive press.
Q: You’ve advocated for stronger ethical requirements for council members. What did you mean?
A: We have a lot of leeway on how to negotiate development deals. There’s no real disclosure here once you get on Council about campaign contributions and influence. I want us to be absolutely transparent about who is donating to who and not just during the campaign. It’s also afterwards.
Councilor [Keith] Young, I could not believe this, it came out the week before the election that he had taken a $3,000 donation, which was pretty much his entire campaign, from a hotelier who got his hotel passed by a 4-3 vote with Keith being one of the four. What I’m saying is you’ve got to disclose that. This got dropped from the public. People were kind of concerned about it, whereas in other municipalities, this would have been like front-page [news], above the fold running for a couple of days.
(Young received the contributions in January, 10 months after the vote approving the development. Young told Asheville Watchdog, “Nothing was violated. Council can review and amend all policy. I wish Councilman Kapoor well in his future endeavors.” The developer did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.)
Q: What’s the solution?
A: My idea was if there’s an entity which had a financial interest in an action that we took, that council member needs to immediately inform the other council members as well as the city clerk and the city attorney of that campaign contribution.
Disclosure. Not saying you can’t do it, but you disclose it immediately because the problem we have now, the way these campaign finance things work is once you file the stuff with the Board of Elections, it’s often after the election before you even know who contributed. The primary’s already happened.
Or if there’s an entity who’s coming before Council, whether it’s a developer or anyone else who has a financial interest, they have got to say that they have provided a contribution to a council member. If that discourages some people or makes them think twice about donating when they’re going to have business in front of the city, OK.
With the way we have our development rules set up now, whether it’s for hotels or otherwise, the likelihood of something like that happening again is actually high because we have so much discretion given to council members to negotiate what they want as part of the project as opposed to saying, ‘Yes or no, this does or does not meet the criteria.’ And that is why in particular, a lot of developers, frankly, are actually happy with the proposal I made because they’re like thank God they don’t have to worry about being asked for a campaign contribution by an elected official.
Q: You advocated increasing the size of the council to nine at one point. Was that a workload issue?
A: I was trying to compromise. Having some kind of a hybrid system makes sense. We’re almost involved in too many things.
Council members are assigned to be liaisons to a bunch of committees and volunteer boards across the state. We’re expected to be at those. We don’t have staffs. We get a bunch of emails we have to respond to directly.
We don’t have the time to spend on things like training us on what is good development? What does a good water system look like? What is a good capital project? What should our employees really be paid? What are the real needs in the city?
I think it becomes difficult to focus on the basic governance that we need to have. I’m not advocating for full-time council members. I’m saying we ought to rethink what council members should be doing on a day-to-day basis.
Q: We’ve talked about all the passionate, opinionated people here, but voter turnout is not robust. Why do you think that is, and is there anything the council can or should do about?
A: I personally think a district system would actually get more people out because I think people will then see more of a direct correlation between their vote and what happens in their neighborhood.
I think a lot of people right now have felt, alright, you know what? That’s what’s happening downtown. They kind of watch us for amusement, see if we do anything crazy, see if we make the news or start yelling at each other, whatever. But I don’t think they think that what we are doing on Council is directly necessarily affecting their neighborhood. Having that type of system where you could go to a council member, one individual who is responsible for their neighborhood, ‘I’m going to make sure that person is held accountable for making improvements in my neighborhood and in my life.’ I think that’s especially true in underserved communities.
This is why you have district systems as opposed to at large because they better represent the average individual. And when the average individual feels that their voices are being heard, that their vote makes a difference, I think they come out.
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.