By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Asheville City Council called a special meeting two days after the public hearing on its FY2020-2021 budget in order to adopt it within statutory guidelines. The city had been operating under an interim budget for the month of July, and City Attorney Brad Branham explained council could not adopt another interim budget because tax rates had to be set in an annual budget by the first of August.
Council adopted the annual budget, with no tax increase, but agreed only to fund the first three months, after which, it was hoped, the city would have had enough time to defund, or reimagine, the Asheville Police Department. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Councilman Vijay Kapoor, in the minority, voted for funding the full year up-front.
Wisler spoke frankly. She did not believe the people dominating council’s public hearings would be satisfied with any concessions council could make by September. While all on council believed there was room for more effective ways to deal with mental illness and substance abuse than incarceration, an immediate defunding would have been irresponsible. Council had to look after the innocents and stay within the law, and that took time. Wisler then said the community was somewhat justified in not trusting council because members were not speaking out and saying that staff cannot perform the three-month “miracle” protesters requested.
Kapoor, who was enduring his last meeting, having resigned in March to be closer to family in Philadelphia, said it was aspirational at-best to believe the city could reimagine the police department in three months. Now, with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, he spoke up for Councilor Julie Mayfield, who had been inundated with shaming language at the last meeting. He said she was only trying to find middle ground, and her only mistake was assuming with her accusers that she had no right to speak her mind.
The speakers, who were part of a well-coordinated effort, also had every right to speak as did he. However, he said, he was always skeptical when people claim to speak for the community or the people. Their claim to represent the group discounts the existence or belonging of members who think differently. It implies those with different perspectives are The Other. Kapoor said he had been on the receiving end of a lot of that growing up as a brown child.
One particular comment he found ironic was the one “angrily chastising” Mayfield and Mayor Esther Manheimer for inserting themselves “in front” of the reparations movement. A white male was telling two elected females “what was off-limits for their comments and how they should conduct themselves.” What’s more, Manheimer, Mayfield, and Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell had all had signs put in their yards with their names on them, demanding the police be defunded. Kapoor said that was intimidation. It was cover for saying, “We know where you live.” There was no reconciling the treating of the city’s first African-American city manager that way with reparations, he said.
Back to the budget, Kapoor, and Wisler, thought it was highly likely the city would continue to be barraged by the same group, who told council they would grow in numbers, take matters into their own hands, etc., three months from now. Kapoor said the council had a lot of other things on their plate: They had to fill his vacancy, deal with the devastation of COVID-19 and the financial implications of the shutdown, figure out how the city was going to pay reparations, deal with a backlog of issues put on hold during the shutdown, and manage any new emergencies. Kapoor said he wished the public could see how the staff was stressing already.
As Wisler described it, approving a full year’s budget would put staff in a better position for managing the crises. Without it, it would be more difficult to plan. Asheville Budget Director Tony McDowell had already said balancing the budget would rely on state and federal grants and fund balance.
Kapoor and Wisler further thought it highly likely council would not come together on who should replace him, leaving his seat empty. Wisler then envisioned a 3-3 vote forcing a decision on funding to fail and making council as much of an embarrassment as the federal government had been when it shut down. Kapoor further suspected the organized protesters were going to apply pressure to use support of their agenda as a litmus test for his replacement.
Kapoor said council had set community expectations “sky high” by pretending they could find and execute a plan for laying off 100 officers without endangering any innocents in three months. It would be impossible for council to deliver. Kapoor said he respected the right of others to reach their own conclusions about appeasing the group that monopolized public comment and engaged in a pattern of intimidation against anyone not wholly aligned with them, but asked them to think again. Kapoor closed saying there were many Others out there who were, “looking to us to do the responsible thing.”
Manheimer, seeing no political advantage in voting with the minority, said the other members of council had told her it was possible to have the police department divested and invested in three months, and she was going to trust them. In her private life, Wisler worked in finance before becoming CEO of Eastpak, First Alert, and Coleman. Kapoor, an attorney, continues to run the Kapoor Company, providing economic analysis for workforce issues.