Rich Answers Questions: Asheville Blade

Description

Name: Rich Lee

Profession: Financial Advisor

In up to three words, describe your political affiliation: Democrat

In one brief sentence, describe yourself and why you’re running: 

I believe Asheville ought to be doing better, and I believe we can improve the everyday ways we experience life in our city, now.

General questions

These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing city government and how you will try to deal with them if elected. Limit 300 words per answer.

1) Despite pressure from the transit workers union, riders and council repeatedly designating the bus system as a major priority, senior staff have consistently failed to provide it the funds even the city’s own plans say are necessary. How do you plan to deal with this situation?

Thanks to unprecedented advocacy, Asheville took the first steps to implement the Transit Master Plan (TMP) this year with the biggest budget increase in system history. The changes made in January would increase on-time performance, reach more areas, and lay the groundwork for 15-20 minute bus service along major corridors — all goals transit riders and advocates consistently say are needed, and that transportation experts say are absolutely necessary to increase elective ridership instead of increasing car use.

It was clear from the beginning that the schedule in the TMP was… theoretical. That, as with so many expenses in Asheville, reality was going to shake out differently from plans on paper. As a result, the plan’s first-year recommendations were broken up across 2019 and 2020. I was among those urging this slower, sustainable approach that would allow the city to build on improvements without running deficits or, worse, having to reverse previous improvements. Obviously, any delay in implementation translates to real costs in jobs and dollars for those who most need them. We were already seeing that with the broken, delayed system before the most recent changes. 

I’m positive we’re on the right track, though. The rest of the 2019 recommendations (later service for late-shift workers) are set to be funded and begin this fall, along with many of the plan’s recommendations for Year 2. Going forward, improvements will take a steady advocacy, deep knowledge of the budget, insight into funding sources like the hotel room tax, and a willingness to push and negotiate for every inch of ground. We’re building a system we can sustain, that can support us, without running Asheville off a fiscal cliff, and that’s the commitment and experience I’m offering as a council member.

2) Despite an incredibly poor environmental record, especially on the storage of dangerous coal ash, Duke Energy has kept gaining power in the city’s sustainability decision-making process. How will you respond to this?

Our legislature and utilities commission have empowered Duke instead of empowering communities, and Duke has consistently abused its power. The impacts of this are seen locally, not just in the city’s environmental and sustainability policy, but in other city moves, like the scrambling when Duke proposed to locate substations adjoining a school (Isaac Dickson Elementary), low-income black residents (in WECAN) and, most critically, a public housing development (Lee Walker Heights) nearly scuttling federal funding for renovations there. You can see it too in the crisscrossing high-voltage lines around downtown and the damage and removal of trees across the city, even as Asheville confronts a serious loss of tree canopy. 

I can understand city sustainability leaders, playing the hand they were dealt, reluctantly working with Duke on efficiency initiatives and other policies to undercut the case for a third natural-gas generator (a “peaker plant”) at Duke’s facility in Arden. Yet for the city to truly have the leverage we need to reach our ambitious carbon goals, we’re going to need something more: energy-market competition. That’s going to mean increasing personal, government, and community-owned renewables at a rate we’ve never seen here. 

In addition to a bold plan for owning the means of producing our own energy, I support community solar and the work of the city’s Sustainability committee (SACEE) to fund weatherization and energy-efficiency projects in low-income communities. I support the conversion of city buildings and vehicles to renewables. I support putting the city’s energy behind lobbying the state and federal government for more clean energy options. As someone who works in environmentally-responsible investing, I’m acquainted with the ways companies like Duke use bottom lines to drive their decision-making, and how corporate initiatives are “greenwashed” to protect profits. In the end, I think it’s only by mounting competition at a level that threatens Duke’s business model that we can truly achieve the environmental concessions we need. 

3) The city of Asheville’s land and facilities are dotted with blatantly racist monuments and memorials, from the confederate regime monuments in Pack Square to paintings like “the white man’s family council” in council chambers. What’s your plan to remove these?

This was raised as a campaign issue when I ran in 2015, and again when I ran in 2017. Both times, every candidate promised to do something about the prominence of racist monuments in the city. Yet in 2020, nothing has been done, not even the contextualizing plaque by the Vance Monument that got unanimous support three years ago. I don’t know why. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s not just the state’s legal impediments or because council is controlled by racists. I ran against all of them. I watched their campaigns. I don’t believe any of them harbored secret thoughts that white supremacy is good for the community.

Instead, what I’m guessing happened is lots of other stuff. Departures by the city manager, attorney, two police chiefs, the school superintendent, and numerous staff positions. An unfurling police-abuse scandal. Hotel votes and a moratorium. Funding crises, on and on. And this council is one of the most reactive I’ve ever seen, in the bad sense of bouncing from crisis to crisis. 

So I can’t say removing the monuments is something I’ll do on my first day, even though I care deeply and believe it’s long overdue. My first steps will be getting our infrastructure on track, reducing homelessness, expanding transit, tackling the disaster at city schools, starting the zoning overhaul, and diversifying our economy. What I *can* offer is to get city government’s feet under it, so we’re handling things proactively instead of reactively. The city doesn’t need a different moral compass to know what’s right about these monuments. It knows. It just needs to get its head above water so it can do it. 

4) Senior staff have repeatedly ignored council on issues ranging from transit and development to refusing and delaying implementing rules reining in the police department. If elected, what will you do when senior staff outright ignore or defy elected officials?

Let’s take the consent-search rules, since that’s the clearest case of a city department slow-walking the implementation of a clear, legal policy directive from council. I believe the city manager and police chief had a straightforward responsibility to see that through much faster than they did. But there was also a responsibility for council to request and receive regular follow-up, and that didn’t happen until questions from the community brought it back under their spotlight, far too late. 

Lots can be said about council’s role as a board of directors with day-to-day action carried about by staff as employees of the city manager. And I’ll go on the record saying a council taking on and micromanaging more of management’s and staff’s decisions is not ideal for progressive priorities or for a well-functioning city. If staff isn’t carrying out the agenda set by council, hire different staff. If the manager is the roadblock, hire a different manager. But this was clearly in this city council’s oversight wheelhouse, and they didn’t request a follow-up (or even seem aware APD wasn’t already carrying out the policy) for months after consent-search passed. If you make a policy, make regular reports about implementation part of the policy. If the reports show bad faith by staff, know about it sooner. That’s the responsibility of every member of council.

5) Mayor Esther Manheimer, with the complicity of much of the current council, has repeatedly tried to silence dissent by enforcing a made-up rule against applause or demanding that locals have to give their addresses (they don’t). What will you do to ensure locals can criticize local government without fear of intimidation or retaliation?

I’ve been to dozens of council meetings, but, sorry, the concept of applause as a form of dissent threw me. Most of the time, I was speaking in opposition to some city action or policy. I’ve attended meetings where activists held signs, coordinated clothes, staged press conferences, and spoke one after another into the late hours, expressing their discontent. I don’t like silencing dissent, and I think in the end it’s self-defeating to decision-makers to repress voices in opposition. Asking attendees to hold applause, as long as it’s applied fairly to allies and opponents alike, doesn’t seem to unduly reduce the opportunities of the public to weigh in. 

The address thing is more worrying to me. What is the purpose of that demand, other than curiosity? Can a person still speak if they don’t give one? You can easily see how it would make, say, an undocumented immigrant hesitate before speaking publicly about their experience in the community. Or a homeless person. You can also see how it’s a useful check when — as recently happened — out-of-area activists showed up supporting a campaign against a needle exchange in the city. I would make address-giving optional. Saying who you are and where you live seems like one of those humanizing details that town councils have benefitted from since the beginning. I can’t imagine a good reason for requiring it, though. Make it a suggestion, and if there’s any disadvantage to refusing to say where you live, that’s on the speaker to decide. 

Yes/No questions 

These questions are about specific proposals Asheville City Council has or may consider, and how you would vote on them. The first word of each answer must be Yes or No. An explanation of one’s position — or an alternative proposal — may follow, with a limit of 300 words. Answers in this section that do not begin with “Yes” or “No” will not be published.

6. During the year-long hotel moratorium, council is reviewing the city’s rules on hotels. Will you reject final power over hotel approval being given to an un-elected board like planning and zoning?

Yes. I don’t think decisions on hotels should be decided on a case-by-case basis by council *or* P&Z. I think we should be using this time to write airtight, community-sourced rules about what developers can and can’t do in the community, make those rules public or transparent, and leave the individual votes out of it. Yes, consolidating more and more decisions to seven council members with their own whims and tastes sounds good when you agree with them, but you won’t always. And doing so raises the stakes for lobbying, corruption and electioneering in local politics that we don’t need. An almighty council isn’t a progressive goal. Nor is an almighty board of any kind. 

7. The APD is the largest police force per-capita of any major city in the state, has some of the worst racial disparities in enforcement and a long history of targeting the homeless and impoverished. Will you support cutting the APD’s budget by at least $7 million?

No. When considering what’s “per capita” in Asheville, we should first consider that this city, unlike any other in the state, effectively doubles its population over the official census figure every day, thanks to tourists and commuters-in. We have an oversized police force for 95,000, but not for 180,000. More importantly, a yes or no funding decision either way misses what’s wrong with APD and what’s needed to fix it. Will reducing the police budget mean higher-quality officers and better training? Officers more experienced in dealing humanely with addiction, racial disparity, mental illness and social issues? What if the base pay for recruits was $70,000 and you had to have a Master’s in Social Work? On council, I wouldn’t automatically support *or* oppose any budget item without a good idea what results it would produce. 

8. Asheville is one of the most unaffordable cities in the country. Instead of giving city-owned land to private developers, will you support the city building housing and turning it over to independent tenant co-ops to own and run directly?

Yes. I think it’s time to give this a try, starting with the large parcel on Biltmore next to Lee Walker. I don’t oppose all land-for-affordability deals, but I don’t think they’re very likely to result in good terms for the city. I would still be open to considering offers on a case-by-case basis.

9. Will you publicly call on the Buncombe County commissioners to abolish the Tourism Development Authority by repealing the hotel tax it relies on for revenue?

No. Or rather, I would only if they don’t come forward this year and join with the city and county in pushing for equitable terms. I don’t begrudge the TDA its ability to pool funds for advertising and promotion but, like most people I talk to, it seems, I think their advertising budget has grown out of all proportion and is causing negative consequences in the community. Lately they seemed locked in a cycle where more hotel rooms feeds more demand for advertising, which feeds more advertising. This isn’t healthy for our economy (including our tourist economy), our infrastructure, our environment, or our future as a city. Meanwhile, partly as a result of our huge flows of tourists, the city faces infrastructure needs now and a systemic revenue shortfall. We can’t keep putting that on the backs of city residents. 

I see signs the TDA may be coming around to that perspective itself. But as someone who made this call as a member of the public at TDA meetings the better part of a decade ago, believe me, I’ve been burned before. The nuclear option for county commission to repeal or reduce the tax on its own is our leverage. But no, I don’t believe in using it just because we have it. 

10. City workers face a major wage gap, with some senior staff raking in $150,000 (or far more) a year while firefighters, water system workers and many others remain desperately underpaid. Will you support a minimum salary of $40,000 (tied to inflation) and a maximum salary cap of $100,000 for city workers and staff?

No. I absolutely believe low-end city staff are underpaid and it’s a glaring problem. Firefighters and Civic Center workers who don’t currently meet the city’s living wage standard, especially. Low pay among the rank-and-file should be addressed immediately. But I don’t believe our progressive goals are served by capping senior-staff salaries in a competitive job market. Yes, we should absolutely take better care about who is *in* those positions. But if we lose every qualified, innovative, progressive applicant to an opening in Knoxville that pays $50k more, we’re going to feel it everywhere in the city in our failure to carry out the important things we need qualified city staff to do. What that looks like in practice will be wage compression. It will mean smaller raises or no raises at the top, much larger ones at the bottom, and then better hiring practices, accountability and constant evaluation up and down the line.