There are two important matters that City Council needs to hear from us about on Tuesday:
- Council appears prepared to pass a resolution suspending the sale and rezoning of city-owned land that was obtained through urban renewal—something we’ve advocated for since early September. This is a positive development, but a closer look reveals some problematic details. The city is carving out an exemption for a property they already contracted to sell. The bulk of the money coming in from that sale isn’t going to be set aside in a Reparations Fund, but will instead go into the General Fund. Council needs to revise this resolution so that it truly is consistent with their commitment to reparations.
- Council is doubling down on their inequitable public comment process, which requires that people pre-register 29 hours in advance in order to speak, thereby locking out countless important voices from the conversation.
We’re asking RJC members to make public comments on one or both of these issues. You can pre-register to speak live, or communicate via voicemail or email. The urban renewal moratorium is on the Consent Agenda, which will be discussed toward the beginning of the meeting (start time is 5 p.m.). Comments related to Council’s refusal to reverse their inequitable public comment policy can be made at the end of the meeting, during the Informal Discussion period.
- To make a live public comment, fill out the online form at ashevillenc.gov/comments or call the Clerk’s office at 828-259-5900, no later than noon on October 26.
- If you can’t virtually attend the City Council meeting on October 27 at 5 p.m., you can also pre-record a voicemail comment or email a comment. To leave a voicemail, call 855-925-2801 and enter Code 6713. To email a comment, email AshevilleCityCouncilOct272020@PublicInput.com. The deadline for pre-recorded voicemail or email comments is 5:00 p.m. on October 26.
Please fill out the Report Back Form so we know what action you plan to take. Below are some talking points and additional details.
Some things you can say or write:
On the urban renewal moratorium:
In July, Asheville became one of the first cities in the US to pass a reparations resolution, pledging to “[make] amends for carrying out an urban renewal program that destroyed multiple, successful black communities.” I appreciate the broad intent of the resolution on the consent agenda, which declares a moratorium on the sale of any more land obtained through urban renewal. However, this resolution does not go nearly far enough. There is a property the City plans to sell, because it is already under contract. The proposed resolution directs most of the money from that sale into the General Fund, rather than earmarking it now as funds that can only be used as part of the Reparations process. The resolution should be amended to establish a Reparations Fund, with the $2.1 million from this sale as the first installment. Money made from the sale of property that was taken from Black people during urban renewal must be dedicated to repairing that harm. I urge you to vote to amend the resolution accordingly.
On the public comment process:
I’m reaching out today to urge you to reinstate the Open Live Public Comment process for City Council meetings that was previously used, beginning at the November 10th Council meeting and continuing once Council meetings transition back to an in-person format.
The City Charter, which you swore to uphold, declares that Council “must provide for giving citizens reasonable opportunity to be heard at its meetings.” The current process, which requires people to sign up to speak at least 29 hours before the meeting, is not reasonable; it is drastically different than in-person options that allowed people to sign up at the start of the meeting, and where the Mayor invited comment on each item from those in attendance. Pre-registration is also not equitable. By narrowing the time between when the agenda is announced and when people can choose to engage, you are favoring a select and narrow population in our community who have the time and access to act under these constraints. I know how committed you are to equity from so many of your prior comments, and because of your support for the Reparations Resolution. I’m asking you to demonstrate that commitment by bringing back Open Live Public Comment without the unnecessary burden of pre-registering at least 29 hours in advance, and by making sure that these options continue once in-person meetings return.
Background Information for this Call to Action
For more information about the moratorium on urban renewal land, check out our original call to action on this issue – https://www.rjcavl.org/urban-renewal-moratorium/
Why is Public Comment important and why should everyone be able to do it?
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” — Arundhati Roy
Asheville City Council is the place where all of the public governance decisions are made—each and every one of them impacting our City residents’ quality of life and well-being. The City Charter declares that council “must provide for giving citizens reasonable opportunity to be heard at its meetings.” Public comment is the critical forum where residents can make the Council aware of the potential harm their decisions may cause, and help Council make beneficial, informed decisions and policy. At the beginning of the pandemic, the City used a system for Open Live Public Comment that allowed Council and the community to hear from dozens of speakers on a variety of issues, informed uniquely by the Council’s discussion at the meeting (rather than only based on what is stated in the agenda)and often in response to other live-commenters—such as those at the meetings on reparations and the removal of racist monuments.
The City has made it harder for folks to provide Live Public Comment.
After the July 14th City Council meeting, where pressure from community voices contributed to the passing of the Reparations Resolution, the City instituted a pre-registration process for folks who want to make a public comment at a Council meeting.
Before the new restrictions, all you had to do to make a public comment was tune in at any hour of the meeting and wait in a queue. Now, prospective commenters must sign up at least 29 hours in advance and are required to describe what they will say in their comment ahead of time. They must do this with only the weekend to review the agenda and documentation released on Friday near 5:00 p.m.—before the pre-registration deadline at noon on Monday—and without hearing from Council members on their positions. This new process is unnecessarily cumbersome for people with busy lives, especially those with kids or who work in one of this city’s many low-wage jobs.
Voicemail and email public comment processes are made available to people who cannot be present in real time, however these are less impactful and are not heard live during Council meetings. They are also less responsive to the meeting’s proceedings, and in some cases won’t be received by Council until after they have voted.
What is the impact of making it harder for folks to provide Live Public Comment?
The shortest answer to this question is that fewer voices are being heard by the Council in their decision-making, and the excluded voices may be the ones who are most vulnerable or most negatively impacted by their decisions. A system that makes live comment cumbersome is inaccessible and invalidates the voice of folks who do not have the time and flexibility to do research over the weekend or to schedule this type of time commitment in advance; it also assumes access to the privileges of technology and internet. This process is not reasonable and it is not equitable.
What Council can do to ensure a fair and equitable incorporation of Live Public Comment
Now: The City should return to an Open Live Public Comment process (without pre-registration), beginning with its next scheduled meeting, November 10, 2020.
In the near future: When the Council meets in person again, the City should continue the remote Open Live Public Comment option (without pre-registration) to ensure that the voices of those who are unable to be downtown for a 5:00 p.m. meeting still have a channel by which they can participate in real time. Often, meetings start at 5 p.m., and can go as late as 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. This is not accessible to most families with children, covering dinner time and bedtime. The City of Asheville has a responsibility to the commitments they have made to equity and reparations, and to the City Charter they have sworn an oath to uphold. If Council sincerely wants public engagement and equity, the reinstatement of an Open Live Public Comment process without pre-registration, and the continuance of this practice once Council meetings return to an in-person format, are concrete steps they should take toward these goals.