Civic EngagementNews

Debra Campbell, City Manager, Looks to the Future

By Dasha Morgan- Debra D. Campbell well articulated her thoughts on her vision and responsibilities as Asheville’s new City Manager.

She made a power point presentation to members and visitors of the Leadership Asheville Forum on Friday, May 17th, at their last monthly luncheon until the fall. Campbell left the job as assistant city manager for Charlotte to replace Gary Jackson in Asheville this past December.

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Campbell earned two degrees from Middle Tennessee State University: a bachelor of science in urban planning in 1978 and a master’s of public administration in 1980. Debra Campbell is Asheville’s first permanent female city manager and the first African-American to hold the job of overseeing nearly all daily operations, from police to road repairs.

Campbell comes to Asheville from the City of Charlotte, where she was employed in many strategic roles since 1988, including her most recent position as Assistant City Manager, starting in 2014. Prior to joining the Charlotte City Manager’s office Campbell served as the city’s Planning Director from 2004-2014, a time of booming redevelopment for the Queen City.

As Asheville’s manager, she is responsible for a $180 million budget and more than 1,000 employees providing a wide range of services for residents, businesses and visitors. Her job also will include managing a surge in public and private construction. And she’ll be asked to balance a booming tourism industry with increased community pushback over the number of visitors.

Her PowerPoint presentation at the luncheon started with a statement from Leon Krier, The Architecture of Community, stating, “A city is not an accident but the result of coherent visions and aims.” She followed this by speaking about “intentionality” and the need to understand what we want our city to be and then to go after it—intentionally. All must be leading for the same results.

She spoke about the COA Council Vision Statement. Asheville is a great place to live because we care about people, we invest in our city, and we celebrate our natural and cultural heritage. Our city is for everyone. Our urban environment and locally-based economy support workers, entrepreneurs and business owners, families, tourists, and people of all ages. Cultural diversity as well as social and economic equity need to be evident in all that we do and strive for. Our neighborhoods are strong, participation in civic life is widespread, and collaborative partnerships are the foundation of our success.

Campbell’s approach is simple: collaboration and cooperation. She sees herself as a conduit, trying to listen and to address common concerns. She sees herself as bringing experience, passion, and ideas to the table, but it will be the common effort of everyone in the community that brings the vision to fruition.

She spelled out her role in the process as:
1) Helping implement Mayor and Council vision and priorities
2) Coordinating the work of department heads and other employees
3) Developing and coordinating resources to ensure efficient and effective delivery of City services
4) Developing and proposing operating and capital investment budgets and plans
5) Listening to and trying to address community issues and concerns.

Budget concerns for FY 2019-2020 will soon be decided. June 11 is the scheduled date to adopt the budget. Campbell mentioned that she had only participated in the finalizing of the budget and not its conception this year. The total proposed budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 is $190.3 Million. This maintains the property tax rate of 42.89 cents and continues funding for existing services with minor enhancements that align with community, City Council and staff goals.

Campbell mentioned that the amount of revenue to be brought to the City by the recent Mission/HCA sale will probably be less than originally thought. She then discussed that necessary financial changes must be made in the future and showed graphs emphasizing that point.

Campbell spoke happily of the hiring of her new Assistant City Manager, Mr. Richard J. White, who is a native of Asheville, a graduate of Asheville High School, a Morehead Scholar and NC Fellow from UNC-Chapel Hill.

He is currently the Town Manager of Elon, NC, and starts here on July 29, 2019. She looks forward to working with him. In addition, she is heavily involved on a daily basis in narrowing down the search for the Police Chief.

When Campbell took the position, it was after the fallout from high-profile police incidents that strained relations with minority communities, including the beating of an unarmed black pedestrian stopped for jaywalking. Thus, she has been seeking input from many communities with drop-in information sessions, in order to make a better decision.

She wants to hear what the community thinks. She want to know their opinions, as to the qualities best suited for the person who takes on the responsibility to become Asheville’s new Police Chief. She is happy to report that there are 89 highly qualified applicants and is working through the hiring process carefully.

Other city issues were discussed, such as the many capital improvements required, transit investments with the need to improve service, the hours of frequency and on time performance, as well as the GO Bond Projects currently under construction, such as bus shelters, playgrounds, and traffic signals and GO Bond Projects under design. Affordable housing is another issue that has to be tackled and carefully thought through.

Campbell mentioned that more sources of revenue will certainly be required by 2021 and showed graphs that illustrated her point. The future has its challenges, and she has every intention of meeting them head on with community support and participation.

A vision of the future can be achieved with collaborative co-operation—but priorities must be set that are responsible and realistic. I will repeat the earlier quote she gave: “A City is not an accident, but the result of coherent visions and aims.” Asheville is very fortunate to have such an enlightened City Manager with so much experience and knowledge, who will help us—the City of Asheville— weave our way through the maze of possibilities in order to obtain the desired outcome.

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