City staff have released a proposal for restructuring the Advisory Board system that guides City Council. You can read more about it (and sign up to attend an informational session) here.
We understand why this proposal is being made. The current system has big problems, the biggest being that City staff members don’t have the resources or personnel to adequately support the work of all 20 current Advisory Boards. This has led to understandable frustration for both staff and the folks who serve on these Boards.
But there is another problem that isn’t addressed in this proposal at all, which is that many people in this region (and especially people of color) already feel locked out of any meaningful role in the way this City is governed. There are relatively few ways to make input, and even fewer ways to get a response. The Advisory Boards are one of the few places where citizens can engage in some meaningful dialogue. Eliminating them and replacing them with four super-committees will make government even less accessible, and thus even less accountable, and it is a major step in the wrong direction.
All of these Advisory Boards exist for a reason. When City Council created the African American Heritage Commission in 2014, it was because they had “determined that it is in the public interest to establish a commission to advise the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on issues concerning the enhancement of the economic, social, cultural and educational lives of African Americans in Asheville and throughout Buncombe County.” In 2018, when City Council created the Human Relations Commission of Asheville, its purpose was to “prioritize racial equity and… identify and assist in addressing all forms of individual, institutional and community discrimination through education, advocacy and policy recommendations.” The tasks these two Commissions were charged with are far from complete. In fact, we would suggest that they need a more central role in our City’s government, rather than being eliminated and replaced with committees that will try to address their issues alongside dozens of others.
For an extremely well-thought-out and compelling proposal for how City Government could be much more transparent, accessible, and accountable, have a look at the Open Meeting Policy drafted by our friends at Code For Asheville. You can also read the Government Accountability Project take on this issue (and several others) here.
If you prefer to copy and paste, here is the text we are suggesting.
Dear City Council,
I am very concerned about the proposal to eliminate 20 Advisory Boards (replacing them with four new ones), and especially about the apparent termination of the African American Heritage Commission and the Human Relations Commission of Asheville. I understand that one or more of these four new committees will be tasked with carrying on the work of those being eliminated, but they will inevitably have to juggle the workload that used to be shared by multiple Boards. There is the very real danger that many Black community members will be silenced in the result, which I know runs counter to your commitment to hear those voices and move our City toward racial equity.
I know that this restructuring proposal is an attempt to address some real problems, especially the fact that City staff lack the resources and personnel to adequately support 20 Advisory Boards. They are in an impossible bind, which I’m sure concerns you as much or more than it does me. As you begin work on the next annual budget, I urge you to consider increasing the resources you allocate to City staff. With your leadership, they can be empowered to support the important work our Advisory Boards do, and we can have more (rather than less) meaningful community engagement in City government.
Thank you for your service,