Government Accountability Project Asheville

The Asheville City Council will meet twice this Tuesday, March 26th, 2024: at 2:30 pm for a budget work session, and then at 5 pm for their formal meeting. You can attend both meetings on the 2nd Floor of City Hall, 70 Court Plaza in downtown Asheville. You can watch the work session online at this link, and the formal meeting at this link. There is no public comment at the budget work session. The agenda for the formal meeting is here.

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Things that seem problematic

Asheville City Council Meeting (March 26) and Buncombe County Commission Briefing (March 19): Presentations on the Findings of Cease the Harm Audit by Carter Development Group (City presentation slides, County briefing video)

It is generally accepted in international law that a precondition for any reparations process is a cessation of the harm that is to be repaired. Recognizing this, the Community Reparations Commission (CRC) passed a unanimous recommendation in December, 2022 calling on the City of Asheville and Buncombe County to identify and “cease harms that continue to injure and, in turn, intensify disparities” for Black Buncombe County residents. (You can read the recommendation here.) The first step in that process was the Cease The Harm audit, which was designed “to ensure compliance with federal and state laws, regulatory bodies, codes of conduct, court orders, and consent decrees to allow for the acceptance of guarantees that the City and County have ceased to inflict further harm on the African American community.” (from the City resolution, adopted in January, 2023).

This audit, performed by the Carter Development Group, has now been completed. (You can read their full report here.) The findings were presented to the Buncombe County Commission in a briefing on March 19th, and will be presented to the Asheville City Council at their formal meeting on March 26th.

We are troubled by the dim light that both the City and County appear to be shining on this report. The County Commission didn’t put it on their formal meeting agenda, but instead invited the Carter Group to make their presentation at a briefing, with no public comment and much more limited visibility. The Asheville City Council did put it on their formal meeting agenda, but only allotted it the typical ten minutes.

This audit is groundbreaking – it might be the first of its kind in the entire nation – and it includes over a hundred recommendations. In the resolution approving the audit, both the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission committed “to take measures to create and/or strengthen the following: Confidence building between government and African Americans; Truth seeking mechanisms and processes; Timely accountability of the dispensation of the Community Reparations Commission’s immediate recommendations.” How are those commitments being kept? There appear to be no plans for proactively sharing this report with the Black community, which might build “confidence” that both governments are taking their reparations commitments seriously. There also appear to be no plans to publicize the findings of this report for general public consideration, in the interest of truth seeking and truth telling. Finally, both governments rejected the most recent CRC recommendation, asking for an extension of their timeline through December of this year, throwing into question whether they still plan to be accountable to the Commission and this process.

All of this means that the CRC is left with the full responsibility of publicizing and operationalizing the findings of the Cease The Harm audit. And because their extension request was denied, they have to rush to do so before their time expires.

We strongly believe that the City and County can and should do more. When they approved the audit, they committed to more than a simple accounting of ongoing harms; they promised to act on those findings and Cease The Harm. They need to ensure that this audit gets the attention it deserves, and that the Black community gets an opportunity to learn about and respond to it. They also need to publicly respond to its many findings and recommendations, and present a plan for remediating the many harms it identifies. Finally, they need to grant the CRC the extension they asked for last year, so they have the necessary time to incorporate the report’s findings into their own recommendations.

Things to do

Write to the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission to encourage them to shine a spotlight on the Cease The Harm audit and engage in a public conversation about how they will take action on its findings.

We have prepared an email template that you can use to contact both bodies. You can (a) use Cease The Harm template link to open up an email to adapt, (b) copy and paste the content below, or (c) write your own message to AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov, brownie.newman@buncombecounty.org, jasmine.beach-ferrara@buncombecounty.org, alfred.whitesides@buncombecounty.org, amanda.edwards@buncombecounty.org, terri.wells@buncombecounty.org, martin.moore@buncombecounty.org, parker.sloan@buncombecounty.org.

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Updates on previous items

Update: Buncombe County Commission Meeting March 19th – New Business: Employee Policy Update (Supplemental Pay Policy)

We reported on this last week. In sum, the County added a bilingual stipend for employees who are fluent in languages other than English and who use that skill in the course of their work. We wondered what safeguards the County was planning put in place to ensure that bilingual staff wouldn’t get overextended with work outside their job description.

We received an email from Jaime Brown, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategist in the City Manager’s Office for the City of Concord, NC, affirming our concern. Ms. Brown wrote: “We are scheduling a meeting in the coming months to discuss the exact issue you all have put forth because we are noticing non-emergency situations where bilingual employees are being asked to translate or interpret outside of their job function.” She added: “I have not heard directly from any bilingual employees that being asked to translate for events or other departments is an issue. We are trying to find solutions before anyone formally complains. Some employees do not mind, others may – which makes complete sense depending on personal preference.”

We appreciate Ms. Brown’s proactive approach, and that’s essentially what we were suggesting to the County. This stipend seems like a step in the right direction, but it’s important to think through potential implications, and following Ms. Brown’s example, look for “solutions before anyone formally complains.”

Things to do

We are not recommending any action at this time, but wanted to share this update on our report from last week.

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You can open this email in your own email program by clicking here. To proceed manually, you can copy and paste the text below into an email and then address it to the addresses listed.

Send to: AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov, brownie.newman@buncombecounty.org, jasmine.beach-ferrara@buncombecounty.org, alfred.whitesides@buncombecounty.org, amanda.edwards@buncombecounty.org, terri.wells@buncombecounty.org, martin.moore@buncombecounty.org, parker.sloan@buncombecounty.org

Subject: What’s the plan to Cease The Harm?

Dear Members of the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission,

You have had (or soon will have) a presentation by the Carter Group on the findings of the Cease The Harm audit. I’m concerned that this groundbreaking report is getting too little attention, since it’s confined to a ten-minute slot on this week’s City Council agenda, and was presented to the County Commission at a briefing, rather than a formal meeting. I don’t think that’s enough of a spotlight to fulfill the commitment you made in approving the audit to “truth seeking” and “confidence building between government and African Americans.” Are you all going to initiate more of a public conversation about the dozens of findings of ongoing harm contained in this report, as well as the hundred-plus recommendations? Is the work of crafting policy to address these harms being left entirely to the Community Reparations Commission, which didn’t receive their requested timeline extension, and is therefore only a few months away from wrapping up their work? Please tell me how you hope to publicize and respond to this very important report.

Thanks for your leadership,