Government Accountability Project Asheville

Brief Update on Community Facilitator issue below…

The Community Reparations Commission meets virtually TONIGHT, Monday, March 11, 2024 from 6 pm to 8:00 pm. Meeting materials are available here. You can watch the meeting live (or a recording of it later) online here.

The Asheville City Council meets this Tuesday, March 12th, 2024 at 5 pm. You can attend the meeting on the 2nd Floor of City Hall, 70 Court Plaza in downtown Asheville. You can watch the meeting online at this link. The full agenda for the formal meeting is here.

The Community Reparations Commission has its next regularly scheduled meeting, Monday, March 18th, 2024 from 6 pm to 8:00 pm. The meeting will be held at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Banquet Hall at 87 Haywood Street in Asheville. The public is welcome to attend. Meeting materials are available here. You can watch the meeting live (or a recording of it later) online here.

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Things that seem problematic

Asheville City Council Agenda – New Business: Proposed Contract with Illumined Leadership Solutions for a Community Facilitator to support planning and implementation of the Boosting the Block project (Staff memo)

UPDATE: This past Tuesday, the Asheville City Council elected to withdraw this proposed contract from consideration. Our understanding is that City staff will now develop a new process for identifying the Community Facilitator for the Boosting the Block project. We will update you further as we learn more.

The City received a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation for various elements of the Pack Square Vision Plan. One of the elements of this plan is: “engineering and construction to better connect The Block and enhance its cultural character (‘Boosting the Block’); and programming and education around more inclusive storytelling and history efforts in our community.” The first step in Boosting the Block is the hiring of a Community Facilitator “to lead engagement and support all aspects of community organizing, planning, design and implementation of the project deliverables.” The City set up a selection process and team, made up of representatives from the City, County, and community members from The Block. The result of that process was the recommendation to hire Illumined Leadership Solutions, a Black-owned firm based in Durham, North Carolina.

This item was discussed at length at the City Council briefing on March 7th, 2024. The discussion starts at the 1:04 minute mark, and you can watch it here.

We see serious problems with both the result of this process and the way that it was undertaken. We spoke to all four local community members who had voting rights in this selection process, but what follows is our own assessment. We would encourage City Council to speak to these community members directly and draw their own conclusions. We have a more in-depth analysis of this process below, but here are the crucial points to consider:

  • It appears that a Durham-based firm “won” this process because City and County staff were strongly opposed to working with a local Black-owned firm, JD Ellison and Company. City Council should ask staff to explain why they opposed hiring JD Ellison and Co.
  • City Attorney Brad Branham has cautioned City Council around adjusting this or future bidding processes so that they favored local businesses. However, we wonder why the City can’t simply give the possession of “local knowledge” more weight in these processes, which speaks to qualifications, not zip codes. One could imagine a Charlotte-based firm led by someone who grew up in Asheville scoring higher on “local knowledge” than an Asheville-based firm led by someone who just arrived in the City last year. We would suggest that City Council ask Mr. Branham whether this is a legally permissible strategy.
  • Most of the local community representatives we spoke to are resigned to moving forward with this outcome because they believe that the only alternative to that is to start a new lengthy process, and that doing so would jeopardize the timeline and funding for this project. We would suggest that City Council ask staff to weigh in on this concern and assess whether there is time for a new process without jeopardizing the funding.

In reference to the last point especially, City Council may have no reasonable choice at this point but to approve this resolution. However, we hope that they will inquire into how we got to this point, where most of the community members who were supposed to be centered in this process are instead feeling frustrated. It may be too late to fix this process, but perhaps future processes can be improved.

Things to do

Write to the Asheville City Council to urge them to ask important questions of their staff, in order to better understand how this hiring process and outcome became so problematic.

We have prepared an email template that you can use to contact the Asheville City Council. You can (a) use this City Council 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.

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Subject: Why is The Block not getting the Community Facilitator they preferred?

Dear City Council Members,

On Tuesday you will be voting on a resolution to approve the hiring of a Durham-based firm to serve as Community Facilitator for the Boosting the Block project. This appears not to be the candidate most favored by the folks on The Block, which I’m sure you will agree is a deeply disappointing result. I appreciate the concerns already raised about this process and outcome by Council Members Antanette Mosley, Sage Turner, and Kim Roney. I am writing to you to ask you to raise several important questions with your staff: Were you opposed to working with the candidate most favored by the folks on The Block, JD Ellison and Company, and if so, why? Is there a legally permissible way to give more weight to local knowledge in assessing candidate qualifications for contracts like this? And is it true that embarking on a new (and hopefully improved) selection process at this point would jeopardize the funding for this vital project?

Thanks for your leadership,

More In Depth Analysis of the Boosting the Block Community Facilitator Hiring Process (back to top)

Here is what we’ve learned from watching the City Council briefing on March 7th, 2024, and talking to the four community representatives on the selection team. As we indicated above, the conclusions below are that of GAP, and we encourage City Council to speak to the Block community directly.

Local community members preferred local Black-owned firm JD Ellison and Company for this role

  • At the City Council briefing last Thursday, several City staff members implied that the local community members involved in the selection process, representatives of The Block Collaborative, were all in favor of this recommended resolution and the hiring of Illumined Leadership Solutions for this role. This is inaccurate and misleading.
  • The Block Collaborative’s representatives in this process wanted the job to go to local Black-owned firm JD Ellison and Company. A major reason for this preference was that founder and principal JD Ellison has a deep knowledge of that region’s history, as well as relationships with other community members. He is already doing much of the work named in the Request For Proposals. In the eyes of The Block Collaborative this made him and his company uniquely qualified for this role. 

City and County staff appear to have been opposed to JD Ellison and Co. to getting this contract

  • For JD Ellison and Co. to have placed lower in the scoring, despite being the preference of community members, means that this firm must have received very low scores from the City and/or County staff who participated. 
  • We have to wonder if the City and County were against this firm for the same reason that the community favored it, the fact that JD Ellison and Co. is deeply familiar with The Block and can be relied on to advocate fiercely for its interests and not be controlled by staff. City Council should ask staff to explain why they opposed hiring JD Ellison and Co. 

The selection process did not give appropriate weight to local knowledge

  • In the City Council briefing last Thursday, Downtown Planning Manager Dana Frankel and City Manager Debra Campbell both suggested that “local knowledge” was given significant weight in the selection process, showing a slide that indicated that 30% of a firm’s score was for “relevant experience as well as an understanding of the community (specifically the history and cultural heritage of The Block).” 
  • This is misleading. The 30% in question was for all “qualifications,” and “understanding of the community” was just one of six different subcategories that an individual scorer was supposed to consider. A better estimate of how much “local knowledge” factored in was a mere 5% of the total score. 
  • At the briefing, City Attorney Brad Branham cautioned City Council that favoring local firms in processes like this one would be a legally precarious strategy. However, revising the City’s contracting process so that “local knowledge” got more weight wouldn’t mean favoring local firms explicitly, because it would be measuring a qualification, not favoring a zip code. 
  • We see no reason why future processes couldn’t give more weight to a “local knowledge” qualification, especially when it is so directly relevant to the desired outcomes, as it is here.

It’s unclear if there is any reasonable path forward other than hiring Illumined Leadership Solutions

  • City Attorney Branham made it clear in the briefing that simply discarding the staff’s recommendation and hiring a different firm would open the City up to litigation. To open the possibility of a different outcome, the City would need to begin a new selection process.
  • City staff suggested that the community representatives on the selection team were not in favor of starting over. We spoke to all four community representatives, and opinions varied on this matter. One was in favor of starting anew. Another was simply in favor of moving forward. Two were in favor of moving forward with Illumined Leadership Solutions, in spite of it not being their first choice, out of concern that further delay would endanger the project being completed on time. 
  • We would suggest that City Council ask staff to confirm these community members’ concern: Would a new process, and some delay in getting underway, jeopardize the funding for this process? If the answer is “yes,” local community members do in fact want to move forward with Illumined Leadership Solutions, despite their misgivings about how all of this unfolded. But if not, they would prefer a new process, one that would take their preferences more into account.