Five Principles for Accountability and Transparency:
1. Empower the people to set priorities
What does this mean? In a phrase: "Participatory Budgeting." The City of Greensboro did a pilot project with this last year. It's time for Asheville to follow suit. In the Greensboro budget, $500,000 in city capital funds were divided among the five council districts. Community members came up with uses for the funds, debated them, and voted on them. The winners are being put in place. Asheville may divide a similar fund among the five area zip codes, or using historical neighborhood boundaries. Over time through direct democracy, the tools developed in this process can be used for other kinds of city decisions, leading to a more engaged public, a more responsive city, and more accountable decision-making. It's fun, inventive, and messy -- like democracy!
2. Open data.
What does this mean? The city has been lately offering tools like Simplicity, a website that offers street-level crime statistics, building permits, and tons of other useful information gathered from dozens of city databases. The city should offer the remainder, including promptly clearing the backlog of public-records requests from citizen groups and news organizations. Committee meetings should be livestreamed and their agendas and minutes promptly shared online (most currently aren't.) As a longtime government transparency advocate, co-founder of the sprawling Asheville Politics Facebook Group, Rich believes sharing information, warts and all, is in the government's interest. It's in the absence of good information that rumors and resentment grow. There should never be a situation where it's preferable to hold back than to entrust the public to handle the full picture ourselves.
...Except: Releasing police video from bodycams and dashboard cams should balance the public's right to information against privacy concerns. People innocent of any crime shouldn't fear their homes, their children, their least-prepared moments being shared on YouTube because they were filmed by chance during a police encounter. Yet the decision to release footage of vital community interest shouldn't reside with the Chief alone. A public body charged with discretion should be given the responsibility of handling bodycam videos requests, the family of citizens involved in police interactions should always have unquestioned access, and there should never be an excuse for a police interaction with a city where the officer isn't wearing a functioning camera.
3. Hold district elections.
What does this mean? Rich envisions a blended election system with three council districts (West, North and East/South) similar to the county election system. Districts would have similar numbers of voters and wouldn't be designed to punish or disenfranchise any constituency. According to UNC School of Government, council districts can increase racial diversity on council and, as a consequence, among staff. They can result in councils that pay more attention to the needs of their districts. There are potential pitfalls, and the districts proposed by the legislature last year would certainly have led to a fractious council of "ward bosses" only elected by a few hundred supporters, but those problems should be addressed rather than ignored. If the choice is districts imposed by Raleigh or a system designed by city residents themselves, the correct decision is obvious.
4. Department-level problems are burning public trust.
What does this mean? Chaos at the Development Office, lapses in communication at Parks and Rec, poor retention at Budgeting. Vital city services are being threatened by systemic issues. The problems are bigger than any one fix, but here's an idea: The city should hire and promote from within, and from within the community, whenever and wherever possible as a matter of policy. Full stop. Find people who know the department, have an attachment to the area, and advance them up the ladder with pay that will keep them invested. Sure, we benefit from outside ideas snatched away from other "comparable city" departments in Florida and the like, but we lose out when four career budget writers leave (simultaneously!) for other positions in other local governments. Institutional memory is a powerful tool, one we lose as we more and more become a city of newcomers. The city should tap the talent that's here, and foster and keep it.
5. Do right by Lee Walker Heights, affordable housing, and bonds.
What does this mean? The city has missed two crucial opportunities this last year to make good on the public trust, and stands on the brink with the next. First, the Lee Walker Heights project, flagship of a citywide public-housing rehabilitation effort, hit rocks when the tax credits needed to fund it were denied. The project was too big, too focused on folding in higher-end apartments, at too high a cost per unit, and it seemed the fears of Lee Walker residents, who worried the project would leave them with less than they had, were realized. The city has to make good, at whatever cost, and protect those residents right to their home place.
Second, the vote to reduce affordable housing in the troubled Eagle Market Place project was a stab in the heart of Asheville's historic black Block. When the city commits to providing affordable housing, which it should do with smaller and more strategic efforts, the result can't be homes that are unaffordable by any reckoning.
And lastly, the city sits on $74 million of bonds approved by voters, technically useable for anything in the broad categories of transportation, affordable housing, and parks and recreation. While the city's current commitment to using the funds on the projects listed in their original proposal is genuine and laudable, there will be contingencies and situations where funds have to be diverted from one project to another, most notably as initial cost estimates come back on the project to turn the Charlotte Street Public Works facility into housing. Funds should be issued quickly, and when the purpose is changed, it should come at the end of a transparent community discussion.