On Election Day 2022, I’ll have lived in Asheville exactly ten years and a week. Moving here — to this beautiful city nestled in magnificent mountains and filled with creative, compassionate, competent, and often quirky folk — was one the best decisions of my life. And it is this glorious environment, these wonderful neighbors, and our unique city that I want to serve as a City Councilmember.
I’m a Yankee by birth, a Boston-area progressive by upbringing, and a longtime resident of Washington, DC. I have a B.A. in Literature from Yale, and an M.F.A. in Visual Studies from SUNY.
I’ve made my living with words and images and software; I write business prose and poetry, I’ve designed textiles, worked in mixed media, been a professional photographer. Except for my first job as a writer/editor at Arthur D. Little, my time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (as New Media Producer), and a sojourn at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I’ve been mostly self-employed—with clients in government, business, and the non-for-profit sector. Here in Asheville, I became a real estate broker because I fell in love with our diverse neighborhoods during my own home search. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of housing affordability in a rapidly changing market.
I believe just about everything worth doing is a form of conversation, and that mutual communication of enduring truths and lived experience creates strong relationships and a world worth living in.
If elected, what is your top priority as an Asheville City Council member and what steps would you take to achieve that goal?
From the moment I am seated, I will work to bring make our city government truly responsive, inclusive, transparent, and accountable.
Good government—a healthy democracy—is how people talk with one another to express their values and shape a society that serves everyone. It’s how solutions are negotiated and grievances redressed. That’s true at the national level and state level, and it’s equally true and vitally important in local government. Public engagement in the conversation generates public confidence in outcomes. And public trust is the cornerstone of every successful government undertaking.
Asheville deserves a city government that facilitates participation in policy decisions from the earliest stages, that responds to the concerns and queries of our residents, that does the public’s work in public without fear or favor, and is always ready to answer for its actions and choices.
I support a genuine open meeting policy. People should have easy access to meetings and be able to participate in person or remotely. Residents’ expertise and lived experience should inform government decision-making through well-structured and well-supported committees, boards, and commissions that report directly to Council.
All documents created by city government (other than those explicitly protected by law) should be readily available in a publicly accessible, searchable database. Council and City staff should be proactively communicating about their activities, their progress toward defined goals, and their planning process.
We’ll only overcome the many challenges our city faces when we invite and embrace the participation of all our residents.
The 2036 strategic plan calls for Asheville to be “a city with abundant housing choices for people at all economic levels and stages of life. Chronic homelessness is a thing of the past and rapid rehousing strategies abound thanks to an effective network of service providers.” What action is needed today to reach these outcomes?
It’s time to dig deep and come up with creative solutions. We need to use every tool available and perhaps invent some new ones: community land trusts, LUIGI grants, perhaps even tax rebates for property owners who build and use ADUs for long-term rentals.
The model put forward in the recently-approved collaboration between the Haywood St. Congregation, Dogwood Trust, and the City of Asheville, which will bring 45 units of deeply affordable housing to the city, is a good start. We should explore similar projects on city-owned property, perhaps even building city-owned residential units so that a profit motive doesn’t constrain affordability. In Europe, government sponsored “social housing”—a form of self-subsidizing, cross-income-level housing—successfully increases housing availability for people at all income levels. Asheville could pilot a social housing initiative using funds (perhaps from bonds) that would ultimately be repaid in full and available to redeploy for the next construction project.
Helping our houseless neighbors find permanent shelter will require continuing partnerships across a broad spectrum of service providers: housing specialists, substance abuse recovery organizations, mental health support. I advocate an agile, experimental approach: it’s likely that no one solution will address every problem. We should try a spectrum of approaches and iterate the ones that are most promising.
As a City Council member, what is your role in building an equitable and diverse community in Asheville?
Every decision that comes before City Council needs to be considered through a lens that focuses on equity, in terms of accessibility, administration, and outcomes. That lens needs to make inclusion a priority from the beginning, and ensure measurable accountability for an equitable outcome. Everything from the budget to zoning, housing, policing, public transportation, and business development—all need to be considered in this light.
City Council should include the voices of everyone who is affected by its decisions *early* in the decision-making process, and proactively reach out to underserved communities to ensure they can participate *before* policies are formulated. While digital surveys are easy to create and deploy, often they wind up being used by an small and unrepresentative slice of our community. I strongly believe that both Councilmembers and City staff should be out making direct contact with neighborhood associations, community advocacy groups, and individual residents at the locations.
Many of our neighbors whose voices have been historically ignored, excluded, or actively silenced have—for good reason—little trust in the institutions of power, including government. It’s our job on City Council to give them good reasons to change their minds, to invite them to share their wisdom and lived experience in the formulation of our city’s policy-making, and to demonstrate that government can and will act to improve their lives. Without intentional action, Asheville will continue to see its legacy African American communities dwindle, as young people see no meaningful future for themselves here.
How should the City fund reparations efforts?
The City has already allocated $2.1M to Reparations, of which $1.9M remains as yet unspent. That is barely a down-payment on the true cost of compensating our African American community for its losses.
The current “point system,” through which proposed new hotels seeking approval can avoid having to go through Council, should be modified to provide a greater incentive for developers to contribute substantially to the Reparations Fund.
Given the hugely negative impact of “urban renewal” on the Black community (during which thousands were dispossessed of their homes and businesses), it seems appropriate that any future sale of City property should generate capital for the Reparations fund. I’d also suggest that TDA funds be used to strengthen African American-owned businesses in the tourism industry.
As a Council Member, I will listen to and be guided by the recommendations of the Reparations Commission. Buncombe County and Asheville have entrusted these 25 members (and their alternates) to work through the painful and difficult issues of our history and propose meaningful steps toward Reparations. I’ll ensure they get the City Staff support they need to do their work effectively and facilitate, to the best of my ability, their community engagement and communication.
What role should the City play in helping residents respond to extreme weather and climate change?
The City took a first step toward acknowledging the urgency of climate change in a resolution in January 2020. A 2018 Climate Resilience Assessment had identified those neighborhoods and communities which would likely be most negatively affected by the weather extremes brought on by climate change. (And a new tool, the Climate Justice Data Map shows that, unsurprisingly, the burdens of climate change fall most heavily on areas with higher proportions of BIPOC residents.) In June 2021, the City hired a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive Municipal Climate Action Plan, with a scheduled delivery date in January of 2022. There were a number of benchmarks planned before then, but I haven’t seen interim reports from that undertaking.
To directly help residents, the City should protect and enlarge our tree canopy, which helps mitigate the heat sink properties of the urban environment. The City could provide incentives for individuals and neighborhood groups to generate community solar energy—as well as live up to its own goals of installing solar panels to power municipal buildings and enhancing their energy conservation properties. To mitigate flooding damage, effective stormwater management must be part of all new construction. The current infrastructure urgently requires maintenance and upgrading.
Public transportation and any city-owned fleet vehicles should transition as quickly as possible to electric vehicles. And our public transportation infrastructure—including bike paths and greenways must be improved so that residents and visitors have less need to rely on high carbon-footprint cars.
What development priorities would best serve Asheville moving forward?
We need to taking a ground-up look at the UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) which has, over the years, accumulated a patchwork of ad hoc overlays and modifications. It’s time to revisit city zoning with smart, sustainable growth in mind, prioritizing residential construction in locations that can be well-served by an agile, electric public transportation system, and promoting walkable communities with local commercial amenities.
Asheville needs to invest heavily in upgrading every aspect of our infrastructure to support the growth that sees us nearly doubling in size in ten years. (I hope that some of the recent federal infrastructure bill’s funds will be available to municipalities like ours.) We need to put special emphasis on public transportation, ensuring that it is convenient, reliable, and accessible for all our residents. We can use ride-share technology to create a hybrid system with scheduled service at peak hours and flexible, on-demand service in smaller shuttles at less-traveled times. This will ease traffic loads and reduce our community’s carbon footprint.
Above all, the City should be nurturing and cultivating homegrown businesses that have the potential to provide well-paying jobs and keep profits circulating in our local economy.
How do you respond to voters who feel the City is prioritizing tourism over investments in public services?
I say they’re right.
The truth is that tourism is expensive for residents. The hospitality industry is mostly *not* homegrown; it exports profits out of Asheville while largely paying its workforce less than living wages. Visitors and the hotels that serve them place high demands on our infrastructure and provide little to no support for its maintenance. The TDA enjoys the fruits of the occupancy tax, which the City collects on its behalf, and spends 75% on marketing (virtually all of which is dispensed outside our community). The City gets the remaining 25%, but is hamstrung at to what it can spend it on—it has to be tourist-related. This is a bad deal for residents.
The reality is that we don’t actually know the true net value of tourism to Asheville. Lots of numbers about income get bandied about (and they’re big!), but we don’t hear much about the costs of the hospitality industry for the City and its residents. We had an opportunity during the hotel “moratorium” to get answers about the true carrying costs of tourism (how many hotel rooms would be too many for our city?)—but City Council didn’t choose to pursue those questions.
How will you approach policing and public safety in Asheville?
Asheville Police Department is at a crossroads: rather than seeing this as a problem, we can approach it as an unparalleled opportunity to create a deeply responsive and engaged team, whose mission to truly protect and serve will be welcomed by all our city’s residents. High-quality policing is about high-quality personnel, not about a bigger arsenal or more powerful vehicles.
We need a police force that embodies the fundamental values of public service, personal integrity, and respect for the dignity and civil rights of all. We should recruit specifically for those values—attracting officers whose careers show evidence of a deep commitment to community engagement and an ego-free, servant’s heart even in the most difficult of interactions. With the money that’s been accruing in the budget due to unfilled positions, we can offer incentives to bring in a handful of outstanding mid-career candidates to train and lead the next generation of young recruits, and ensure they can afford to live in the city they serve.
Let’s also explore the Denver Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) model, which has been successfully deploying medical and social services teams in lieu of police to thousands of 911 calls.
What is your position on the proposal to restructure City boards and commissions?
The current “pilot” proposal is a prime example of the City failing to incorporate the views of those likely to be affected by a policy until much too late in the decision-making process.
They *should* have begun with an in-depth survey of the current Boards and Commissions members, soliciting their views about what was working well and what wasn’t. Participants on B&Cs represent years of volunteer professional expertise and lived experience. These are folks who, out of love for their community, contribute their know-how and wisdom to the City.
Instead, the proposal greatly reduces the specificity and focus of B&Cs, creates unnecessary bottlenecks to the flow of information, disempowers its citizen-members, and reduces City staff and Councilmember participation. It diminishes public transparency and accountability. In the March 7th workshop I attended on this proposal, *no one* was enthusiastic about it. The *right kind* of restructuring could improve B&Cs’ contributions—but this is not it.
In my view, B&Cs should largely be structured to correspond to City department/functional areas, ensuring good liaison with staff and access to information. I’ll be participating in a City-led follow-up work session on May 5th.
How do you plan to engage community members in the Council’s decision-making process?
Let’s start by instituting a genuine Open Meetings Policy (see one such proposal here: https://openmeetingspolicy.com/) for the City of Asheville.
Our residents deserve to see the public’s work being done in public. Our residents deserve to be invited into the process *early enough to be able to contribute to the outcome.* Our residents deserve easy access to participation; there’s absolutely no excuse for not enabling fully hybrid meetings (the technology is ubiquitous now), and no reason why people should have to sign up in advance to speak. Access to relevant documents and data should be simple and routine.
Councilmembers must regularly show up and participate in community gatherings/associations, soliciting residents’ views and sharing the City Council’s upcoming agenda items and other matters of concern.
As a Councilmember I pledge to report to the public each week on every conversation I have with anyone who has business before Council, including what we discussed and how my views on the matter are evolving. When it comes time for me to vote, you’ll understand why I vote as I do and, I hope, have greater confidence in how the decision was reached. (Read my full pledge here: tovish4avl.com/pledge)