Asheville City Council gets earful on police budget

Julie Mayfield reaches for common ground.
Julie Mayfield reaches for common ground.

By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – Literally hours of public comment at Asheville City Council’s last meeting were dominated by cries to defund the police 50% immediately. Speakers’ three-minute allotment was reduced to two minutes to allow all in the queue to speak; still, some speakers called in to speak on every issue. 

They also had to register, giving their name and city of residence, but many refused to cooperate. Speakers were also asked to observe reasonable standards of decency, as several had to be cut in previous meetings for using obscenities, but callers considered this censorship.

The main agenda item was the adoption of the city’s FY2020-2021 budget, a matter that had been postponed, according to the city’s narrative, to develop a response to the pressure group demanding reparations and defunding. The city had already been experiencing fiscal problems before the COVID-19 shutdown, however. City Manager Debra Campbell shared a three-month plan for listening to the community to collect input for reimagining policing in Asheville, but she said more time would be needed to eliminate the systemic racism believed by experts to permeate all city departments and every sector of society.

To address demands sweeping the entire country, Campbell said Asheville’s community roundtables will ask people what they need to feel safe, what functions they want from government, and which of those should be assigned to the police department. Members of the community who are also law enforcement officers would not be invited to the meetings, because it was decided their presence could chill the free exchange of ideas. They would, instead, be on standby should the communication circles need clarification or data.

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield spoke at length on general observations before giving reasons why the city should not defund the police immediately. 

Mayfield shared an adage, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and added if the council was going to work with the protesters, the protesters needed to soften a little. The city could pull the rug out from under the police, but who would answer calls for active shooter situations, scare away looters, administer Narcan, oversee car accidents, or break up episodes of domestic violence and escort victims of assault to a safe place? 

A dozen callers during public comment, white people speaking for “the community,” indignantly scolded Mayfield. “It’s rather condescending to assume your constituents cannot think critically, do not understand the complications of bureaucracy, and cannot understand other things,” admonished one. “You should be writing your apology right now,” shamed another. “Julie Mayfield, your senate seat isn’t happening after your show tonight,” berated a third, with hours of more insults to follow.

By way of contrast, about half as many callers praised Councilman Brian Haynes, who, at the beginning of the meeting read prepared remarks 100% aligned with the callers’ agenda. Another referred to Haynes as, “the only bastion of reason sitting on the council at this point.” Acknowledging he was not seeking re-election, one caller said she would vote for him for mayor should he decide to run. Several callers also praised Councilmembers Sheneika Smith and Keith Young who, while mostly silent, are on record for supporting the group.

On the subject of defunding the police, callers said the police weren’t doing anything to promote safety. They said police were more than inept; they “intimidate people of color,” “terrorize the community,” “engage in surveillance,” “humiliate victims of rape,” “uphold white supremacy,” and “underreport use of force.” Young concurred that people of color live every day of their lives “behind the eight ball” and feeling like they’re hanging by a thread off a cliff.

Callers said they were doing fine taking care of each other without the police. A couple said the APD’s workload could be mitigated by decriminalizing drugs, prostitution, and “poverty crimes.” Another suggested adding to the city charter a provision that would exempt blacks from paying property taxes. A few gave council the refresher history lesson about police departments being created to capture runaway slaves and continuing in the white supremacy business ever since.

Some callers accused council of making excuses, pretending they were powerless and passing the buck to some legal document or other that was allegedly exerting powers that no protester was feeling. They told how so many other cities had been adapting on a weekly basis. She put it that ”we do what we gotta do,”  and it has been a challenge on many levels.  The Cantina opened June 4th, Thursday through Sunday, 11 am to dark, with socially distanced seating inside and additional seating outside. They have just added 5 tables to the lawn area and have a new bar breezeway where orders are taken.  Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Coggiolas have been very generously providing their staff with weekly food boxes for their whole family. Happily, the need has diminished somewhat now. So, they are now contributing significantly to the local organization, MANNA Foodbank.  This week they will be contributing another $4,000 to that worthy organization.  Overall, Sherrye said, “This will make our contributions to date nearing 1/2 a million meals, and (we are) excited to hit that milestone.”

Sarah Marshall of the New Morning Gallery at 7 Boston Way also finds business “steady,” since the store re-opened in mid-June. Their handmade selection of unique decorative items, all made by American artisans, are a strong tourist draw.  However,  she finds their customers really want cheerful, whimsical items— with pottery and jewelry as their best sellers.   The neighboring high styled clothing store Bellagio just reopened for business July 30th. 

Little by little the stores and restaurants in Biltmore Village have found ways to comply with government regulations, keep safe from the COVID19 virus, and yet open up to customers.  Visitors can explore and enjoy themselves, as restaurants and retailers open up for business.

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