What is the Committee Watcher Project?
If you’ve ever wondered how local policy comes to be, look no further! Although the ultimate authority for setting policy is held by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission, much the work of planning and policy recommendations is done on a number of committees.
These committees are composed both of elected council members/commissioners, and of appointed citizens with subject matter expertise to share on residents’ behalf. The recommendations made by these committees are almost always adopted by the City Council and County Commission. In order to change policy and hold those in power accountable, we need to be watching and reacting to the policy created at the committee level.
The Committee Watcher Project was launched in January 2021 in order to do just that. Watchers attend committee meetings, learn about committee priorities, gather data to inform RJC advocacy campaigns, and speak up to hold the committees accountable to the community.
Committees We’re Watching:
There are dozens of committees the City and County lean on to address everything from air quality to park benches. RJC is focusing on ten of these committees, whose agendas we believe most directly overlap with RJC’s purpose. Here are brief descriptions of these committees:
Planning and Economic Development
This committee addresses a wide variety of issues, including what kinds of jobs Asheville attracts (consider the recent Raytheon controversy), what kinds of businesses receive incentives to open, how the city uses the land it owns and acquires, and who Asheville’s economy is “for” in the long-term. Policies that promote equity by making business owned and run by Black people and other historically disadvantaged groups are considered in this committee.
Asheville City Schools Board of Education
The ACS Board oversees ten schools serving nearly 4,500 students in the city limits, 39 percent of whom are students of color. The Board sets educational policy and executes policy set by the State of North Carolina. Racial disparities in educational opportunity begin early, and have lasting impact on the job prospects, mental health, criminal justice contact, hopes, and dreams of students of color. These wrongs cannot be made right without visibility and accountability to the public.
Boards and Commissions Committee
The Romans had a phrase: “Who watches the watchmen?” Who vets the people tasked with looking after the citizens? In Asheville, it’s the Boards and Commissions Committee. This committee reviews and approves citizens’ applications to sit on other committees, which make direct recommendations to City Council that are then almost always approved. Whose interests are being promoted on these committees? Whose points of view and expertise are centered? The more we know about who represents us, the more we can ensure that an equity lens is being applied in the rooms where important decisions are made.
Housing and Community Development
RJC is committed to supporting policies that make it easier for Black families to begin developing the intergenerational wealth that they have long been denied. Home equity is a main source of this wealth, and without policies that help level the playing field, it is nearly impossible for economically oppressed families to create it. In addition to policies addressing housing affordability–one of Asheville’s most challenging issues–this committee also deals with matters related to homelessness, which continue to rise as the economic fallout of COVID grows over the coming months and years.
Public Safety Committee
The Public Safety Committee recommends policies related to the Asheville Police and Fire Departments (APD/AFD), and Emergency Management Services (EMS). Attention to APD policy is particularly important to the RJC as short- and long-term budget questions come up. RJC is pushing for a 50% divestment from the APD, paired with a corresponding investment in services that promote the wellbeing of Black Asheville. The Public Safety Committee also sets policies related to control and prevention of illegal drugs. Statistically, nationwide usage rates for illicit drugs are comparable across races, but Black people are significantly more likely to be prosecuted for drug-related crimes, in part because of discriminatory policing practices.
Planning and Zoning Commission
Zoning rules are the technical regulations for implementing the city’s vision of future growth and development. As these rules are considered in the Planning and Zoning Commission, the City’s commitment to reparations for Black Asheville must be a guiding light. The City receives immense pressure from developers to create rules that are sympathetic to corporate goals, typically to maximize profitability, not equitable availability. Left unchecked, this creates an Asheville that is more and more a “white space,” a change that can last for generations.
Affordable Housing Advisory Committee
Unaffordable housing is one of Asheville’s biggest problems, and a major driver of segregation and inequity. Asheville’s current definition of affordable housing is so out of step with what many people can actually afford that the term “deeply affordable housing” is now used to describe the aspiration of many housing advocates. Policies are necessary to provide incentives for truly affordable housing in a market that favors landlords and developers. These policy recommendations are developed in the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.
Multimodal Transportation Committee
Access to safe, affordable, efficient, and reliable public transportation is essential to stability of working people. Failure to provide comprehensive and accessible transportation isolates people of color (who already are the most likely to live in segregated communities) and cuts off economic opportunities. The Multimodal Transportation Committee guides public transit policy, as well as policy related to city roads, greenways, and sidewalks.
What You Can Expect As a Committee Watcher:
Expertise or a deep understanding of local government is less important than an equity lens and a commitment to learning how change happens at the committee level. As a Committee Watcher, you will receive an initial training session and on-going support from our Committee Coordinators.
Typically, Committee Watchers commit to attending and reporting on at least one committee meeting per month, with a monthly average commitment of 4 hours a month. If you have more time and interest, you can always attend more than one meeting!
If you are interested in becoming a Committee Watcher, please register and one of our Committee Coordinators will reach out to you with information on our next available training. If you have further questions, please contact us here.