In a year already filled with surprises and uncertainty, the Asheville City Council race is likely to experience even more twists before the year is over — starting with the appointment of a new Council member Tuesday, Sept. 8.
After former Council member Vijay Kapoor resigned his seat effective Aug. 8 for professional reasons, having served less than half of his four-year term, the city called on community members to fill the vacancy. The remaining six Council members must now choose one person from a diverse pool of applicants to serve alongside them through 2022.
Of the 30 applicants for the vacancy, Council only nominated six finalists: hotelier Pratik Bhakta, activist Robert Thomas, realtor Sandra Kilgore, community engagement specialist ZaKiya Bell-Rogers, financial adviser Rich Lee and attorney Antanette Mosley.
The stakes are high: The appointment could shape the outcome of the general Council election on Tuesday, Nov. 3. And the very night that the appointee is expected to take their oath of office — Tuesday, Sept. 22 — they will also cast what may be the deciding vote on funding for the Asheville Police Department.
With the exception of Mosley, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, Xpress spoke with the finalists about their plans if appointed and how the decision may impact the upcoming Council election.
Asheville’s charter affirms that Council must appoint a successor for any vacant seat, as last took place in 2008. Members voted 4-2 to appoint Kelly Miller, who at the time was executive vice president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, to fill the seat vacated by Holly Jones after her election to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Nevertheless, some community members have criticized the appointment process as being undemocratic, especially since it would occur within two months of the election. In an Aug. 9 op-ed in the Citizen Times, musician and former City Council candidate Andrew Fletcher and realtor Nina Tovish, both of whom applied for the Kapoor vacancy, proposed that whoever is appointed in September pledge to resign after the general election. After the three election winners were seated, Council could then select the fourth-place candidate in the popular vote to serve the remainder of the two-year term.
“Which course most closely resembles democracy: six people interviewing and selecting from among self-nominated candidates, or an entire electorate choosing from among six candidates who have already survived one round of voting?” Fletcher and Tovish wrote.
Most of the finalists for the nomination aren’t on board with that plan. Thomas, Kilgore, Lee and Bell-Rogers all say that if appointed, they would hold office for the entirety of the unexpired term, citing their desires to serve in the position and let the process unfold as expressed in the city’s charter.
“I do understand the reasoning behind the appointee resigning their seat ahead of the election; however, if appointed, I do not plan to resign my seat,” says Thomas, who works as a community liaison at Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition. “I applied for the vacancy with the intent of fully engaging as a City Council member for the purpose of supporting and uplifting the voice of our community. That is and will remain my reason for applying, and I will show up in that way for the duration of my term.”
“I think that given the short turnaround time between potentially being appointed and the November election, it does not make sense to leave the seat a month after being appointed,” Bell-Rogers adds. “I do hear the concerns, but given the current circumstances and my resolve to create lasting change in Asheville, I would want to stay in a position that would enable me to do so.”
Bhakta says that he hasn’t considered Fletcher and Tovish’s proposal because by his estimate, his chances of being appointed by the Council are “slim to none.” He emphasizes that, while different approaches to filling the Council seat may offer strategic nuances, voters should not lose sight of the bread-and-butter issues, such as property taxes and clean water, during the Council appointment and general election.
Weighing the odds
Both Kilgore and Lee, who are also on the November ballot, say they intend to remain in the race even if appointed in September. While Lee says he generally agrees with the concept of the appointee stepping down after the election, he’s hesitant to make that pledge himself because being appointed may diminish his electoral chances.
Lee, the primary’s fourth-place finisher, suggests that voters might not choose him for a four-year term if they see him already seated on Council to fill out Kapoor’s remaining two years. “My plan is to run hard and win a full term,” he says. “In a situation where I place in the top three in November, I’ll resign the appointed seat and urge that the fourth-place finisher get it.”
Kilgore, who placed sixth in the primary, says that she would also stay in the race in hopes of being elected to one of the four-year terms. If appointed, she would turn her attention toward working with the African-American Caucus of Buncombe County to increase voter registration and awareness around early voting and absentee ballots.
City Attorney Brad Branham notes that if either Kilgore or Lee were appointed by Council to finish out the two-year term, no law prevents the candidates from continuing to campaign for the November general election. But if either were to win one of the three elected seats, they would need to resign their appointed seat before the new term began.
Should Lee or Kilgore be appointed by Council and then elected in November, Branham continues, Council members will once again find themselves appointing a replacement for Kapoor’s former seat.
Ballots for the general election are already being sent to absentee voters. Also vying for one of the three available seats is incumbent and Buncombe County Deputy Clerk of Superior Court Keith Young, piano instructor Kim Roney and French Broad Food Co-op project manager Sage Turner. Another factor surrounding this year’s election, however, offers even more possibilities as to who might take office in December.
Activist Nicole Townsend, who placed fifth in the primary, announced on Aug. 22 that she was dropping out of the race, citing the impact of COVID-19 on her family and “the role [she] would play in the continual perpetuation of systemic harm” if elected to Council. In a statement released to supporters, she also argued that while the race for Asheville City Council is nonpartisan, local Democratic Party leaders had “strategically interfered” with her campaign.
Regardless of her intentions, Townsend will still appear on the ballot in November and she could still earn enough votes to be elected. In that case, Branham says, she would have to decide whether to serve in the position or resign. Townsend’s resignation would punt the seat back to Council for appointment.
And while Council could choose to appoint the election’s fourth-place finisher, it is not obligated to do so, Branham says. Instead, members could require that the vacancy be filled through the same appointment process being used for Kapoor’s seat. That decision and appointment would probably be managed by the newly elected Council.
“Once elected in November, the new Council members will take their seats in early December. Based upon the short timing, it would be likely that the decision about how to appoint a replacement member would likely be made by the new Council,” Branham explains.
Striking a balance
All of these scenarios assume that the current six-member Council will agree on an appointee for the Kapoor vacancy. As previously reported by Xpress, members were split in their finalist nominations.
Kilgore, Lee, Bell-Rogers and Thomas were the only candidates nominated by at least two Council members; the remaining finalists only received backing from one member. Council will conduct public interviews with each finalist starting at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 8, only hours before the scheduled vote on the appointment.
Mayor Esther Manheimer explained during the Aug. 25 meeting of Council that the criteria for selecting an appointee are entirely subjective. At least four votes are required to appoint the new member, which may present a challenge to a Council that has previously found itself divided along ideological lines.
In 2018, for example, members passed the city budget ordinance in a 4-3 vote after Young, Sheneika Smith and Brian Haynes disagreed with police funding increases. Kapoor voted with the majority of Manheimer, Gwen Wisler and Julie Mayfield. Another 4-3 vote in 2019 approved the conversion of the historic Flatiron Building into a hotel; Young, Smith and Haynes were again in the minority as they expressed concerns about gentrification and overdevelopment.
And difficulty in making an appointment does have precedent. In the case of the Miller appointment in 2008, the final vote only came after two failed attempts at reaching a majority.
Should the Council remain divided and unable to select an appointee, Branham says that members will be required to carry on city business as a six-person group. They must then continue to seek consensus until one of the finalists is appointed.
“There is no legal deadline for finalizing this action, but the duty remains in effect,” Branham says.