Before the end came to his downtown Asheville ministry, Pastor Samuel L. Payne Jr. and his wife Janice tried mightily to demonstrate love and charity to the deeply troubled homeless people who overwhelmed the Sycamore Temple Church of God in Christ.
Every Sunday after services the couple offered free meals in the church basement, just like Payne’s father and his predecessors had done since the mid-1930s. For most of that time, people hungry for food, for temporary shelter, for human kindness, and perhaps for an inspiring sermon, came to mingle with the congregation’s Black members.
Then, about four years ago, things began to change.
“We started getting a different crowd,” said Janice Payne, known to congregants as Mother Payne. “People came who had no respect for the church and the ministry. They had drug issues. There were needles in the back alley where people would do drugs. They would defecate on our steps and do worse things. Our elderly became afraid to come for services. Parents wouldn’t bring their little children because of what the children would see.”
Pastor and Mother Payne said they believe most of these drop-ins were drawn to the church from the building next door on North Ann Street, called AHOPE Day Center, a nonprofit operated by Homeward Bound that provides services to people living on the streets or in shelters. At first the Sycamore Temple congregation supported the facility’s work and members reached out to help, just as their faith called them to do.
Yet soon they felt overwhelmed by the numbers of people who were drawn to AHOPE, and under siege from some who apparently suffered from substance abuse and untreated mental illness.
While still putting their faith in love, charity, and divine guidance, they also turned to the City of Asheville and its elected leaders for more down-to-earth help: A greater police presence, a permit to erect a fence around the church, and a city cleanup of used drug syringes, litter, and human waste.
What they learned — before finally giving up and abandoning the church building, when no help from the city was forthcoming — comes down to this:
None of the Asheville politicians elected to serve the people — neither the mayor, nor the city council members — can actually do anything directly to help constituents like the Paynes.
In fact, under North Carolina law, the elected officials would be breaking the law if they took action to help a citizen directly.
Under Asheville’s “council-manager” form of government — sometimes also known as “strong manager, weak council” — only City Manager Debra Campbell is authorized to operate the city’s levers of power. Mayor Esther Manheimer has officiating duties but has no more authority than any other member of the city council.
The city manager alone can hire and fire police chiefs, firefighters, urban planners, trash collectors, and everyone else on the city payroll. If there’s a crisis in the city — say, a water system failure that left tens of thousands of residents without clean water for as long as 10 days over the holidays — only the city manager has the power to address it. The only check the elected officials have is the power to fire the manager they hired.
But what happens when Asheville’s city manager isn’t a strong leader?
Conflict Averse and Slow to Act
In interviews with The Watchdog, business leaders and others described Debra Campbell as smart, professional, well organized, and detail-oriented. But they also described her as introverted, conflict averse, and slow to act in crises and on festering problems like safety and cleanliness downtown.
Neither Campbell nor Manheimer would agree to be interviewed on the record for this article.
OUR DOWN TOWN SERIES SO FAR:
Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham insisted that all records regarding Campbell’s job performance — for which she is paid $242,694 a year — are confidential. Branham also told The Watchdog that he would advise the city council against holding any public discussion of Campbell’s performance.
State law does, in fact, allow personnel information to be released when it “is essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services or to maintaining the level and quality of city services.”
Campbell’s current contract expires in December. With less than six months to decide whether to renew or terminate her employment, none of the city council members contacted by The Watchdog would agree to voice their opinions about Campbell on the record.
A Band-Aid from City Hall
In mid-April, after several articles in Asheville Watchdog showed that the crime, drugs, and sanitation problems of the kind afflicting the Sycamore Temple were pervasive throughout downtown, Campbell announced via press release a rare partnership. The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, which provides law enforcement to the more rural portions of the county, would assign sheriff’s deputies to begin patrolling downtown streets on weekend nights busy with tourists and restaurant patrons, thereby bolstering the thinly stretched Asheville Police Department.
“We are grateful for our police force and for the Sheriff Office’s willingness to provide additional patrols,” Campbell announced in the press release. “This is a good example of a collaborative approach to a safe downtown.”
The next week the city announced a downtown safety initiative that promised stepped-up attention to “removal of litter, needles and biological waste,” enhanced emergency medical response “to support individuals in crisis,” anti-graffiti measures, and increased towing of illegally parked cars, a practice that had been halted because of the understaffed police department.
Despite the fanfare, the announcements had two obvious shortcomings.
First, every measure promised has been available for use by the city staff for months, even years. No new legal authority was needed. No additional money needed to be allocated.
And the partnership with sheriff’s deputies wasn’t initiated by the city. Rather, the showcased idea of supplementing the Asheville Police Department’s downtown patrols with sheriff’s deputies came pre-packaged from outside City Hall, a lifeline to the city from Buncombe County Commission Chairman Brownie Newman.
In an interview with The Watchdog, Newman acknowledged that he proposed the idea to Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, who devised the plan enabling his deputies to work with Asheville police. Miller and Newman presented the plan at a March 30 meeting with Campbell and Asheville’s elected leadership, and it was quickly accepted.
The second and more serious shortcoming is that, for Pastor and Mother Payne’s Sycamore Temple’s congregation, and for some of the other businesses, employees, and residents in the downtown core, the promised help is too little, too late.
The Asheville Police Department could offer no help to the Paynes as its depleted ranks were concentrating on major crimes. The church hired a security guard and appealed to City Hall for a permit to erect a gated fence around its property in the hope they could control who could enter.
But the permit application became hopelessly entangled in bureaucratic red tape about where the property lines were drawn. Hopes for a security fence were dashed.
One Saturday afternoon, early last year, Pastor and Mother Payne, with their two grandchildren in tow, went to the church to prepare things for the Sunday service. “There was a man in the back of the church, naked and defecating,” Mrs. Payne recalled. “I got sick. Literally sick. I was saddened and angry. That did it for me.”
“We felt we no longer had a choice,” Pastor Payne said. “We had to leave.”
They listed the church property for sale in January 2022. That summer, they accepted a $3 million offer from Asheville-based Milan Hotel Group, which was building a hotel nearby.
Although Payne said in an interview that this was a painful decision, he said he knew that remaining downtown wasn’t possible. Payne and his wife said they felt forced to relocate the congregation far from the city’s core, where it had been for nearly a century.
Sycamore Temple’s new home is the former Biltmore United Methodist Church on Hendersonville Road, purchased for $4.2 million. The property includes a church, a day-care center, and an adjacent administration building. It’s three miles south of downtown.
Promises Made, But Nothing Happens
Many businesses that couldn’t or wouldn’t move have had to adapt in other ways. Barry Bialik, owner of the Thirsty Monk pub on Patton Avenue, had become alarmed about the potential threat to employees and patrons leaving the pub after closing time, as well as to the impact on daily operations.
“When I would go downtown [before opening] I’d find that the door jamb would be filled with hypodermic needles. We had fires set on the porch,” he said, apparently in attempts to break in after the pub closed.
Bialik decided to operate the business “completely cashless,” accepting payment only in credit cards. It seems to have helped, he said.
“We haven’t been messed with because we don’t have cash coming in and there’s no cash in the building. We don’t cash out tips to our people, so we don’t have to worry about them becoming targets at night,” Bialik continued.
He said he blames these threats on increasingly aggressive drug users on downtown streets. “We went from more mellow, happy drugs, to a mix of meth and fentanyl,” Bialik said. “So now downtown you’ve got the mad ones on meth and then the zombies on fentanyl, and all mixes in between. It’s just not healthy for anybody.”
Business owners like Jan Davis, who since 1988 has operated his family’s tire store on Patton Avenue adjacent to the now-boarded up Sycamore Temple, have similar stories. In April, two would-be thieves were seen on security cameras setting fire to the store, apparently in an attempt to gain entry. Davis said a fire inspector who had studied the video told him the pair appear to be “transients.”
He has harsh words for AHOPE — not because of its social work, which he said he supports — but for its location near the economic heart of Asheville.
“It’s a cancer on downtown,” Davis, a former city councilman, said. “It’s not a good thing. It creates a lot of the problems on the doorstep of this community.”
Davis said he expressed this opinion at a meeting several months ago with Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Campbell and others, “and there were some promises made” to address the problems. At a follow-up meeting with Campbell shortly afterward, Davis said he found her to be “fairly business minded, business friendly, but I never really saw anything else come from it.”
“Homelessness Is Ugly”
Eleanor Ashton, Senior Resource Development Officer of Homeward Bound, which operates the AHOPE Day Center, said she understands the negative positions expressed by the Paynes, Davis, and other neighbors on North Ann Street.
“Homelessness is ugly; it’s not a pretty situation,” she said. “But what AHOPE does is important because we’re the front door for people looking for housing and we are a place where these people can get mail, take a shower, have a cup of coffee.”
Ashton said she wasn’t aware of a link between AHOPE and the Paynes’ decision to relocate the church, but said she did know about the problems they encountered in recent years.
“Everything they said is true” about the church being victimized by some of the people who may have congregated at AHOPE, Ashton said.
“The population we serve has changed,” she said, citing increased drug abuse and untreated mental illness among the homeless. In mid-2022, Ashton said, the facility brought in a new director who initiated several steps — including “24-7 security” — to address this issue.
“We’ve made every effort to build good relationships” with neighbors, Ashton said.
A City Incapable of Overcoming Challenges?
The decline of Asheville’s core, and the threat it poses to tourism, the city’s economic engine, has revived an Asheville Chamber of Commerce plan to create a so-called Business Investment District (BID). Such districts assess special taxes on properties within its boundaries to be used to supplement the city’s responsibility for public safety and sanitation.
An effort 10 years ago to create a BID was approved by downtown stakeholders and the city council, but the council then failed to approve financing to implement the plan, killing it.
Kit Cramer, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said she believes her members now feel that the city is incapable of overcoming the current challenges without non-governmental help.
“A local hotelier had an employee attacked by a person with a machete and had to be taken to the hospital,” she said, referring to the Hotel Element Downtown. “The police weren’t able to respond.”
The hotelier’s frustration was compounded a couple days later when, after cleaning up from the attack, a worker hung a flag outside the entrance declaring “Now Open.” Within hours, Cramer said, a city code enforcement official ordered the hotel to remove the flag because it didn’t comply with the city’s sign ordinance.
“They were told they’d face a daily fine until the sign came down,” she said. “Here we have cases of law enforcement not being able to respond while other aspects of government, like code enforcement, is fully functioning. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
A System Designed for Gridlock
Asheville, like all municipalities in North Carolina, has what’s commonly called the “strong manager-weak council” form of government. It’s roughly similar to a corporate structure where a controlling board of directors — typically from a variety of backgrounds disconnected from the business — hires a CEO to run the business’s daily operations.
In Asheville, the board of directors is the city council, composed of six individual members and a mayor, each elected to four-year terms. The mayor, though typically better-known by the public, has no more authority than the council members beyond wielding the gavel at meetings and highlighting ceremonial functions.
This seven-member body then hires the city manager, the city attorney, and the city clerk, who collectively carry out such daily operations as policing, sanitation, municipal courts, fire service, parks and recreation, and building and zoning regulation.
The statutory language places strict limits on the powers and responsibilities of the city council and its city manager. “[N]either the council nor any member thereof shall give an order to any city employee in the administrative service of the city, other than the city manager …. [Any violation] shall be a misdemeanor, conviction of which shall immediately forfeit the office of the member so convicted.”
As for the city manager, the law states: “It shall be the duty of the city manager to act as chief conservator of the peace within the city; to supervise the administration of the affairs of the city; to see that the ordinances of the city and the law of the state are enforced therein….”
It’s a structure designed for gridlock, and intentionally so. University of North Carolina Professor Kimberly Nelson, a widely published expert on the structures of local government, traces this to the earliest years of the nation when memories of a king were fresh.
“North Carolina didn’t want strong executives at the local level so it created a form of government that fixed that,” she said. Most people presume that the politicians they elect — and particularly the mayor — have the power to run the city; they are “strong mayors.”
“Everyone knows who the mayor is [because] they think of the mayors they see on TV,” Nelson said. “But most local governments are run by managers, not mayors.”
So where does the proverbial buck stop? “The buck stops with your elected officials collectively. It’s the entire body, not one person. I understand that it seems no one is in charge.”
Even many heavily engaged Asheville residents are frustrated by this structure because the “buck” is so widely spread it doesn’t appear to stop anywhere. Many citizens expect the mayor and council to respond to their problems, but the elected leaders cannot execute the laws they pass or the policies they direct. And the city manager they hire, who has that power, is not accountable to voters.
Supporters of the “strong manager” form of government contend that it keeps politics from influencing a city’s day-to-day operations. Critics contend that it can lead some city managers to work timidly to avoid being fired by a council majority.
Drift, Helplessness, Bureaucracy
The result in Asheville, according to numerous interviews with business leaders and residents, is a pervasive sense of drift and helplessness.
“We don’t have anybody [on City Council] who, in my opinion, has the work experience to run a city with complex issues,” said Ruth Summers, a 27-year resident who recently completed a six-year term on the Asheville Downtown Commission, which provides the city council with recommendations on downtown policies and programs.
“Then we hired Debra Campbell as city manager five years ago, who’s an introvert, so severely an introvert that we have had important meetings where she has refused to come. I mean she refused,” Summers continued in an interview with The Watchdog.
Bialik, the Thirsty Monk pub owner, shares that frustration. “Maybe I’m used to seeing a powerful city leader rather than a bureaucrat,” he said, referring to the city manager. “A bureaucrat is going to run things like a bureaucrat, and that is kind of like our city is now.”
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and the six council members declined The Watchdog’s request to discuss City Manager Campbell’s performance prior to the expiration of her five-year contract on Dec. 2, which will automatically renew for another two years without council action.
Campbell, through city spokeswoman Kim Miller, declined a request for an interview to discuss her interest in continuing beyond that date, adding that she had no communication from council members on that subject.
Nelson, who teaches at the UNC School of Government, said Campbell’s low-profile style is characteristic of professional city managers. Managers, she said, “are trained not to be in the public spotlight … They work in partnership with the elected officials and want to shine a spotlight on them. That’s how they get re-elected, right?”
Campbell was unanimously selected to be Asheville’s manager in December 2018 at a time when the city police department faced criticism for its lack of diversity and the beating of a Black man, Johnnie Rush, by a white police officer.
The previous city manager, Gary Jackson, a white man who had held the job for 13 years, was fired in a unanimous vote by the city council, which did not cite a reason for the firing. “We appreciate the many successes Gary has brought Asheville in his 13 years here; however, we believe that making this change now is in the City and his best interests.”
Campbell came with a solid resume built as an assistant city manager in Charlotte.
A “Bureaucrat’s Bureaucrat”
An admiring profile in Governing magazine in 2007 described Campbell as a “behind-the-scenes player” and quoted the Charlotte Observer calling her “the most powerful person in local government you’ve never heard of.”
In accepting the Asheville post, according to the minutes of the meeting, Campbell told the council “she hoped they will never have to question her competency, her character and her commitment to this position, to this organization and this community … She will not let Asheville down.”
Whether she has fully met the council’s expectations can’t be known because the mandated annual performance evaluations have been conducted in private sessions. The city clerk, citing state law, denied The Watchdog’s request for copies of the performance reports.
Interviews with former colleagues in Charlotte and with others who interacted with her during her time there told The Watchdog that her “behind-the-scenes” reputation was true — and not always intended as a compliment.
Mary Newsom, a former Charlotte Observer reporter who wrote extensively on urban affairs, recalled Campbell as “a master of bureaucratic delay. I think she desperately avoids controversy,” Newsom told The Watchdog.
“She was the type who would say, ‘We have to hire a consultant to tell us if we should do this.’ And if the answer to that was yes, she’d say, ‘We have to hire a consultant to tell us how to do it,’” Newsom said.
Bill McCoy, director of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Urban Institute, served on the city’s planning board during Campbell’s tenure as planning director. He described Campbell as an introvert. “She doesn’t like conflict, or to be in conflict,” McCoy said.
Although McCoy conceded he had little knowledge of the challenges Asheville is experiencing, he questioned Campbell’s abilities to play a leadership role. “I would in no way expect to see Debra grab hold of this situation and change it without strong direction from the city council. And you never see a council with vision.”
“She Was AWOL”
Campbell’s leadership style came in for criticism beginning Christmas Eve last year when a severe freeze hit the city and a section of the city’s water-delivery system serving south Asheville was shut down. About a third of the residences and businesses in that section were without water, forcing many to close during a financially important week. Other parts of the city were on reduced service for several days.
While citizens and businesses impacted by the disruption demanded answers from the city, Campbell was out of town.
“She was on a pre-planned trip which included Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” city spokesperson Kim Miller told Asheville Watchdog. “As it became clear the system was not recovering as Water Resources staff had hoped, Ms. Campbell returned to Asheville, being physically in town and in the office the morning of Monday, December 26. From that moment she was an active participant in all calls, briefings, and press conferences.”
However, it was Manheimer who took the lead in notifying council members and staff, including presiding over news conferences. Campbell did not make any public comments on the crisis until Jan. 3, more than 10 days after the South Asheville water plant failed.
“Debra was totally non-existent, she was AWOL,” said Summers, former head of the Downtown Commission. Manheimer sought to quell the outrage by meeting with business owners and residents, but admitted she could do little other than listen to the complaints and promise a postmortem review of what went wrong. That was little solace to some.
“The mayor did a great job in stepping up and leading in the way that I would have liked to have seen the city manager step up and lead,” said Bialik, the pub owner. Missing from Campbell’s skill set, he said, is “leadership presence.”
“She’s an introvert, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Bialik continued. “But how does that look to the public? When you think of a strong city leader — and especially in a city as charismatic as Asheville — you expect someone who fits the personality of the city. With Debra, that doesn’t jibe.”
Campbell has some defenders on the council, though none was willing to speak publicly for this story. They describe her as professional, well organized, detail oriented, and attentive to council members’ needs. One said she can be eloquent in speaking about such issues as racial justice, police reform (but without “defunding” police), and reparations for the historic discrimination affecting Asheville’s Black community.
One council member, also speaking without attribution, said Campbell has also encountered resistance to her leadership from high-ranking city staff because of who she is — a Black woman — rather than what she does. Since she took over there has been an exodus of senior staff and mass departures of sworn police officers, leaving more than a third of the budgeted police force’s positions vacant.
“I feel Debra hasn’t done anything consequential in the five years since she has been here,” Summers said. “Maybe she has done things behind the scenes. But what I’ve seen is senior staff leaving. We’ve lost years of historic memory in this city. Clearly there is something wrong here.”
Yet Patrick Conant, an open-government advocate who follows the city government closely, said Campbell is well-regarded by staffers that he speaks with. “They like her style of management, which doesn’t raise conflicts among departments,” he said. “And she lets the police department operate in their own silo, which also reduces conflict.”
“Nobody Ever Returned The Call”
Whether Campbell can do anything more to reverse downtown’s decline is unlikely despite pressure from the mayor and council members. They sidestepped a question from The Watchdog about scheduling a public review of Campbell’s performance, referring to City Attorney Brad Branham’s advice that such reviews, if held at all, must be in secret session.
The fact remains that no matter what the council and manager do, Asheville will remain trapped in a governing structure inclined more toward gridlock than change.
The Sycamore Temple bears witness to this. The church building is boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Signs warn trespassers to keep away, but a portion of the fence has been pulled down and discarded drug syringes can be found on the overgrown grass.
But for Pastor and Mother Payne, there is renewed hope. With money from the property sale, the Sycamore Temple congregation bought a larger church building on South Hendersonville Road, far away from the downtown troubles. Congregants have returned. Children play inside and outside.
Still, bitter memories simmer of their unsuccessful appeals to Asheville’s governmental leaders. “I called the city manager’s office,” Janice Payne said in recalling her final attempt to save the historic church on North Ann Street. “Nobody ever returned the call.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org