Earlier this week, former Asheville mayor Leni Sitnick posted her reaction to Tuesday night’s vote by Asheville City Council to turn the Flatiron Building into a boutique hotel. Sitnick’s comment garnered a lot of reaction, and it got me thinking about an earlier version of Asheville. Sitnick was elected as Asheville’s first woman mayor in 1997.
Here’s a breakdown:
What Leni wrote in a Facebook post regarding the Flatiron: “When I said enough was enough, I was told I didn’t care about the business community. When I said don’t kill the goose or the golden egg, I was told to be quiet. When I said I won’t sell Asheville’s soul, I was told you can’t run a City that way. When I said lets not make Asheville like ‘anywhere USA,’ let’s not make Asheville like the places people are running away from, I was told I was unrealistic. This vote makes me think about running for Mayor again.”
Reaction to the reaction: Leni’s post set off an outpouring of love and exhortations to go for it. Leni was generally well-liked when she was in office more than two decades ago, and she clearly still has a deep well of support. That got me thinking about that old Asheville.
So is she serious? I messaged Leni after I saw her comment and asked her if she’d like to talk. “While I’m still just thinking about it, I have to be realistic about the big picture. So as soon as I come to a conclusion, you will get the scoop,” Leni says. “Never, ever expected the reaction my comment has caused.”
Political education: Leni moved to Swannanoa with her husband and three children in 1976. She became an environmental activist, joining the fight against the pollutingChemtronics plant there. She and her family moved to New Hampshire a few years later, where Leni worked on hazardous and nuclear waste issues. She also worked on the presidential campaign of Gary Hart. Returning to Asheville in 1985, Leni continued her community involvement and civic engagement. She joined the city’s Tree Commission and was a regular at Asheville City Council meetings.
Her style: Leni styled herself as Asheville’s first full-time mayor. She held regular office hours and maintained an open-door policy. She had a dish full of chocolates ready to hand out, and a dream-catcher over her desk. When it came to City Council business, her idea of open government was a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it meant an unprecedented number of people felt they had an ally in local government, and they showed up. On the other, it meant ass-numbingly long meetings that often ended in no action. They were punctuated with Leni’s endless “lists” of discussion points and action items.
Time machine: Let’s just take a moment to look at the Asheville landscape of the late 1990s. (Leni’s tenure as mayor ended in 2001) It was an in-between era for the mountain metropolis. It wasn’t the boarded up ghost town of the 1980s, and it wasn’t the percolating post-recession darling of today. Marijuana activists calling themselves the Cannabis Clowns donned orange wigs and overside shoes and attended council meetings. The Asheville Motor Speedway closed and the property ended up in city hands following a questionable procedure. A giant Walmart store development proposal was a lightning rod for debate. A guy in a thong drew national attention.
The controversies: Leni ignited one of biggest controversies Asheville City Council dealt with at the time when she introduced a nondiscrimination ordinance in 1994 as a council member. “Because of the inclusion of the usual community hot-button issue of sexual orientation in the original language, there was an uprising in the city, and an historic 1,500 people attended the Council meeting,” she recounted in theXpress column. As mayor, she presided over discussions of all the hot-button environmental and development issues of the day. Her proclamation officially honoring “earth religions” triggered such a hew and cry that she rescinded it and vowed to never issue another proclamation, typically a non-controversial oasis.
That was then, this is now: We are now two decades on from the Asheville of Mayor Leni Sitnick. Is there a a nostalgia, a yearning, for that bye-gone time? Yes. Is there a will to fight the tides that threaten to swamp the city today? Yes. Could, and would, Leni lead us back? Maybe. She’s in her mid-70s now, and the media-savvy social media age has overtaken the person-to-person politics of her day. We shall see.