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. 

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.

Buncombe County Commission chair Brownie Newman // Photo credit Buncombe County

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.”

The Rev. Samuel L. Payne Jr. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

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.

Thirsty Monk Brewery owner Barry Bialik // Photo courtesy Thirsty Monk

“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.”

Asheville businessman and former City Councilman Jan Davis says he met with the mayor and the city manager to complain about the location of Homeward Bound’s AHOPE Day Center. “There were some promises made” to address the problems, “but I never really saw anything else come from it.” // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

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.

Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“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….”

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. 

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.

Ruth Summers recently completed a six-year term on the Asheville Downtown Commission. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“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.

“[Campbell] 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.’ ”

mary newsom, former charlotte observer reporter

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.

Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell at Jan. 3 press conference // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

“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.

The Rev. Samuel L. Payne Jr. and Janice “Mother” Payne in their new church, three miles south of downtown. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

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

62 replies on “Down Town, Part 8: Who’s In Charge Here?”

  1. Insightful article on City Manager Debra Campbell. And I would say totally correct.

    We lived in Charlotte for many years before moving to Asheville in 2017. As here, I was active in city issues/concerns. For much of her career in Charlotte, Campbell was head of the Planning Deptartment, which of course got lot of attention during the crazy growth of the city. She was pretty much framed as “up and coming” in the early days, but her career seemed to stall after being moved to Assistant City Manager.

    I figured she sought the move to Asheville to finish out here career here and at a final higher salary (important for final pension payout) than she would have achieved in Charlotte. How much the money played into the decision is hard to know, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

    I also worked briefly with Mary Newsom (Charlotte Observer reporter) during a campaign to pass a large bond issue for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) system. Mary is a straight shooter and pretty much knows the score on things. So her views on Campbell I would trust.

    I can’t recall how many years Campbell was Assistant City Manager (she was one of a number in that role, unlike here) but I doubt she gained the breadth of experience needed for the top job here in Asheville. Not that she couldn’t learn; just didn’t bring it to the table from the get go.

    My opinion formed for some time now is that Asheville needs a somewhat younger (NOT at end of career), broadly experienced AND visibly/active City Manager. We need to get someone that knows the nuts and bolts of city infrastructure, public safety and of course development (which Campbell did have) but someone that also brings visible leadership and energy to the job.

    I hold no ill feeling towards Ms. Campbell. She has done a number of good things for the City and in city with a pitiful tax base among other dysfunctions. I think it may be time though for some new leadership.

    1. Thank you for this very informative article. I have an Asheville address but live outside the city limits so was unaware of how it’s governance works. Is there some way this form of government can be changed to something more effective?

  2. Asheville has outgrown the council-manager form of government. It’s fine for small towns, but it is, as this article reveals, woefully inadequate unless there is a forceful manager–and I’m not sure that’s a good thing either.

  3. So, the city council has hired an introvert, non-leader, conflict adverse person in the most important leadership position in the city.

    Well done.

    Please turn out the lights when you leave.

  4. Powerful article. It appears that the NC form of government is part of the problem, unless the city manager is a strong individual who is not Afraid of conflict and willing to take action.

  5. Thank you for this VERY informative article! Many of your readers would appreciate knowing how to get rid of the City Manager, or at least keep her contract from being extended past the end of her contract in a few months.
    Asheville and Buncombe County needs local leadership instead of looking for folks that could care less what direction our county and city moves in the future. The mayor, many council members, and the county manager aren’t from around here and don’t have the citizens best interest at heart.

  6. “She’s an introvert, and there’s nothing wrong with that,…” What a horrible response. There is everything wrong with that. The recent trend of public servants running and hiding from the press at every level of government is troublesome. Why back a leader who is unwilling to lead? Especially given the level of power she has. The simple solution, hire someone who is qualified. (by the way, nicely written article)

  7. Excellent reporting, in light of the fact that the City Council and Manager have so little respect for the citizens they are sworn to represent.

    1. A hostile, incorrect and unhelpful statement not supported by the article or facts.

      1. Clearly you have facts to dispute this in-depth, and thoughtful, article. Do you care to share?

  8. If this city managers contract is renewed, it will tell all of asheville that their elected leaders are more interested in checking certain boxes, ( that apparently do not include good management and communication skills ) than they are in good city management. how will you all respond at election time?

  9. There are so many issues with NC state government structure. How about home rule for local communities so that some person in Raleigh doesn’t force something down the throats of local communities? This isn’t blue vs red but trusting locals to determine what they need. And I understand there is no way to correct this since ballot initiatives are non-existent in NC. Everything being set by Mother Raleigh is the definition of a nanny state!

    1. Yes. I agree, the problem is Raleigh and the government structure they’ve forced on us. An autonomous power-broker manager is a worse threat than a cautious bureaucrat. We need a paid full-time council with the power to act and be accountable to voters.

  10. Insightful and truthful article. All of which has been existing since the 80s. Absolutely nothing done to move the needle (no pun intended). Can’t tell you when the last time I actually enjoyed downtown and since paid parking, you may as well forget about it. Beginning to resemble the movie “Escape from NY”.

  11. The issue is not that it is a city manager-council government. It is that this particular city manager isn’t a good leader. But the real problem is that the city, and all cities in this state, are hamstrung by NC state laws that don’t allow them to do what they need to do.

    The city doesn’t have the funding resources to pay for a reasonable level of service for any of its basic services, from sanitation, to police, to transit, to paving roads, to water systems, to parks and rec.

    Yet Asheville’s citizens, most of which aren’t from here and came from states that don’t have their thumbs on everything that cities do, want everything under the sun. Plus they want extra toppings free of charge. And while we’re at it, if things could just be the way they did them in X city, that would be great too.

    The TDA and Buncombe County do nothing to support the city or city residents either, even though it is city residents and visitors to the city that bring the bulk of the revenue.

    This means that the private sector unfortunately does need to step up. BIDs are very common in other cities, and are the common mechanism to provide better and higher level services in downtowns. Business owners downtown should be paying more for these services.

    The fact is that downtowns all over the county are experiencing the exact same issues that Asheville is and many of those have strong mayors. The organizational structure is not the issue. It is the state of rising inequality in this city and in this country, the sense of entitlement by many of those with the most resources and political power, and the conservative political BS that these same business owners love to vote for at the federal and state level but don’t realize is what is making things worse here on the local level.

    However, my major criticism of this article is that the only people that they talked to as far as downtown business owners are the same business owners that complain about everything and don’t do anything. They have old school views and old school expectations. They think everything should be handed to them because they’ve been here for 25 years or served on the downtown commission for 7 decades. Or used to be a city council member 100 years ago. These folks are mostly of a certain demographic, are of higher level means, and expect the mayor to listen to them blather on. And God forbid the city manager didn’t meet with you! How dare she ignore your super important needs that are not super important to 90% of the rest of us.

  12. Ms Campbell is described here as an introvert, as if that’s a problem. One person says that she is an introvert, so she refused attend important meetings. Introverts don’t typically refuse to come to meetings. I’ve never been in a professional setting where the extroverts attended the meetings, and the introverts just stayed in their offices. Maybe there was another reason for this. Another person says that she is an introvert, which the person thinks means the same thing as “conflict averse”. Those are not the same thing. It sounds like she’s not willing to face constituents, or to attempt to solve problems for constituent groups or stakeholders. Or she doesn’t see a way to solve these problems. A manager/leader must to be willing to sit down with stakeholders and listen to what is going on, and then try to gather her staff together and come up with solutions. Introverts can do this just as well as extroverts. These people blaming it on introversion are barking up the wrong tree.

    1. Well said. A self-aware introvert can be just as effective (if not more so!) than a self-aware extrovert. While I appreciate the qualifications made by interviewees of the subject, I hope readers won’t equate introversion with conflict aversion or lack of decision making.

  13. Very interesting and compelling article. I had no idea how much power is vested in the city Manager over the Council. From those who seem to know her, Ms. Campbell is reported as an introvert, leaderless and simply a bureaucrat. That’s not what Asheville needs. We need strong leadership to deal with people engaged in open drug abuse, those willing to leave human waste on our streets and else where, and those who harass residents. This is not the same place we moved to 9 years ago. Time for change.

  14. It would be interesting to know why the apparently successful city manager was let go and this other person was put in his place.

    1. Optics and a clean break. Many of the City departments and employees were entrenched with the “good ‘ol boy network” that broke many rules. If Campbell has accomplished anything, she’s made the clan of above-the-law, crony employees get frustrated and quit. In a town where everyone openly complains without comprehending the complexity of the problems, keeping your mouth shut and holding your cards close isn’t a bad strategy for job retention.

  15. Introversion was mention quite frequently. But, let’s not equate introversion and poor leadership. Poor leadership exists on both ends of the spectrum perhaps more so in extroverts who rely on charisma to operate. I don’t think this was the intent of the article but a conclusion some readers could draw.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I was thinking the same exact thing. As you state, most likely not the intent of the article. Introverts are not inherently bad leaders and it’s unfortunate that this is the takeaway. The situation with the city manager is much more nuanced than the fact that she might display introverted personality traits.

      1. I didn’t take away, from reading the article, that being introverted correlates with bad leadership. What I took away is that to be an effective leader you have to lead. Which requires one to get out front, and have an strong voice with the people. In this example the people are the residents of the city more than city employees or city council. When you lead effectively people want to follow. As a resident I have not seen effective leadership in the 5 yrs I’ve lived here – not with the Asheville City Manager, nor the Asheville City Council. It’s time for a change.

  16. Outstanding, revealing reporting that now puts the spotlight on City Council to fire Campbell for cause citing the water debacle, or at the very least start the search for a strong, visible replacement for when Campbell’s term expires. The current situation in running Asheville is a disgrace; it can only be fixed if the will is there and is communicated clearly to the public. As to the public, show up at council meetings and demand action on the City Manager position now.

  17. I now understand why when I call the mayor, a clerk with a city staff directory answers and gives me the name and phone number of the staff member who can help with my problem.
    I was unaware that the mayor could not call that staff member.
    I come from an area where you called the person for whom you voted to get something done by government. If they could not get done what their voters wanted done, they were gone.
    In Asheville, the person for whom you voted does not even have to answer their phone and the person who supposedly can get something done is an introvert not responsible to the voters.

  18. Many disastrous decisions have been made of late. Three, in particular, stand out. Reparations. The destruction of the Vance Monument. Reducing Merrimon Avenue to three lanes. All three, as reported by the media, were the result of actions by the City Council. Why did they have to vote if Ms. Campbell, who was in favor of all three, could have accomplished these by herself? At least that is what I take away from this excellent article. The mayor and the council women need to come forward and explain themselves. Are they just window dressing leaving it to Brad Banham to provide covering?

  19. My guess is that Ms. Campbell is in over her head. She doesn’t know what to do, so she avoids dealing with anything.

    At least to some extent, this is the fault of the council that placed her in this position. Of course the lion’s share of the fault is with Ms. Campbell in agreeing to take a job that she was incapable of doing.

  20. All one has to do is attend or watch a city council meeting to see the ineptidue of it all. They just go through the motions with no real effort to do anything about anything. Brave residents speak up about important issues like the water fiasco and violence downtown and they’re met with eye rolls and snickering from council and the mayor. Asheville needs a reboot all the way around. Asheville is not the crunchy folksy little town it used to be and they all have their heads in the sand about how to address the serious issues facing the city.

  21. Great article. I am constantly reminded how little the people of Asheville understand their form of government by blaming the mayor for all our problems. Nevertheless, I’ve long wondered who is really minding the store from the Pink Palace. Whoever it is, they are ineffective with problem-solving.

  22. This was eye-opening and excellent reporting from the WatchDog. I don’t care where you come from and your pedigree; if you can’t or won’t get your hands dirty, don’t try running a city. This is weak, small minded leadership at best, with total incompetence more likely. There isn’t anything wrong with being an introvert, but not in the dynamic face-forward requirement that this job requires. If this is the form of governance that Asheville must have under the state statute, get someone who can balance the checkbook AND act as a real managing partner for the residents and businesses. The city manager isn’t the victim here, we are. Let her go and take her pension with her.

  23. Some of the greatest leaders of all time are/have been introverts. I encourage my fellow citizens to read Susan M. Cain’s great book, “Quiet”. Campbell’s failure stems from the fact that she is not a good leader, was a horrible hire, that she lacks creativity, imagination (thus the need to hire consultants to prop her up), doesn’t appear to have a farmer work-ethic or the guts to stand up and be in charge (the water crisis, etc.). Many introverts have all of these qualities and are often dynamic leaders and public speakers. They just need more time alone to recharge. The world is all the better for having such insightful humans.

  24. Let’s give credit where it’s due. 1) Getting rid of that Confederate monument in Pack Square was a bold and necessary move for the city. 2) The modernization of Merrimon Avenue was long overdue. It’s gone from a scary and dangerous speedway to a much, much safer albeit slower moving city street. I say, thank you to the Mayor and City Council.

    1. Merrimon is a terrible example of leadership. Based on the public comment meetings, the written comments on the city/DOT public comment section, and the many complaints I hear from fellow residents and businesses along a Merimon the I frequent, the city and DOT failed to listen. That failure has led to bottlenecks on two streets now – Merrimon and Charlotte streets. That doesn’t seem like effective leadership.

  25. 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.”

    THIS WAS A RED FLAG! Only someone who knows they’re going to let you down would say such an idiotic thing…She’s been in over her head from day one and it’s the fault of the council that hired her. Nothing at all to do with being an introvert.

  26. i would like to throw my hat into the ring to be the next city manager. I have no experience running a city and I do not answer e-mails or phone calls. I also do not do interviews with the local media. i promise to hire enough consultants to get to the “root cause” of all of Ashevilles woes and then I will hire more to look at the work the other consultants have done. I will do all of this for 1/2 the pay of the current manager. please contact me if you are interested.

  27. To have a mayor and council hamstrung makes no sense. We weren’t affected by the December water debacle, but I was hunting for any info on what was going on at the time. City response, which we learned was on the city manager, was terrible

  28. seems pretty clear.
    § 160A-168. Privacy of employee personnel records.
    …concerning access to public records, personnel files of employees, former employees, or applicants for employment… …are subject to inspection and may be disclosed only as provided by this section… …but not limitation, relating to his application, selection or nonselection, performance, promotions, demotions, transfers, suspension and other disciplinary actions, evaluation forms, leave, salary, and termination of employment. As used in this section, “employee” includes former employees of the city.
    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.

  29. The city “Manager’s” absence during the initial stage of the water crisis was understandable. However, the absence of public availability upon return after the 25th is not. As the head of government she had and has an obligation to let the public know that their needs are being attended to and to face the public through the media.
    She is over her head and after this term should retire or move on to another assistant position if she wants to continue to serve in government.
    Her reliance on consultants demonstrates a reluctance to make a decision only reenforces the need to look for a more competent person for this position.
    Finally it is refreshing that a news source still is available in Asheville to provide insightful information about local affairs.

  30. A good leader can be either an extrovert or an introvert BUT cannot be conflict-averse, particularly for a city facing lots of changes because change means conflict over how to deal with those changes. That should be a primary focus in any executive search — to find out how a prospective leader deals with conflict, coming from inside and outside the organization. If being conflict averse was a known attribute of Deborah Campbell when she was a manager in Charlotte, then the Members of the executive search team who screened her failed at their jobs and those who approved her also failed.

    1. Agreed. It’s also offensive to a great many introverts who are great leaders (and not conflict-averse) to suggest that introversion is a liability bordering on mental illness.

  31. I think this analysis misses the point that the major impetus for the strong manager form of government was the rampant corruption found in the machine politics of the strong mayor form. Under the strong manager form, the mayor and council can easily influence and lead the manager if they wish to do so. A five-year contract cuts down on this, but still we saw Mayor Mannheimer stepping in and doing so back in January. I would look at the political climate in Asheville, not the strong manager form of government.

  32. I’m rather simple-minded, so this is my take on this situation. The mayor/city council are elected officials that, in turn, appoint the city manager. The city manager has all of the power and authority to “manage” the city, yet is only accountable to the elected officials. So, if the city manager is deemed incompetent that could lead many citizens to assign blame to our elected mayor and city council for this appointment, which could result in their removal from office after the next election. This presents quite a dilemma for the elected officials, who must decide between doing their jobs and acting in the best interests of the citizens who elected them, or cover the incompetence of their appointee so they can continue pursuing their political ambitions. Meanwhile, city streets and sidewalks continue to crumble, crime runs rampant, the homeless have staked their claim on downtown, drug abuse is on public display, asheville is now known as trashville, etc. Not to worry. I’m sure the city manager is recommending that a consulting firm be contracted to help with the next major move by the city… lanes on I-240? Domed stadium to replace McCormick Field?

  33. Excellent and informative article! I am so appreciative of AVL Watchdog. I agree with most of the insightful comments people shared. So, without being repetitive, let me just warn y’all about the alternative to our NC form of government. We are a State, and the only other form is Commonwealth. It would be lovely to have some alterations of either, but that will not be an easy process. After 30 years of dealing with the Commonwealth of PA and governing from the local level, what I experienced was the “good old boy system” or the big fish in the little pond. Township supervisors run your life, everything from zoning, permits, hiring and firing to awarding contracts. And the are almost impossible to vote out of office, and when they retire or move up the beaurocratic ladder, they have groomed a family member or friend to take their place. They have learned to buy their offices just like the big guys. Be careful what you wish for!

    1. Thank you for your insite regarding the Commonwealth form of government.
      Indeed, be careful what you wish for!

  34. There are municipalities who deploy homeless workers out of their Housing, Mental Health and SA divisions. But I’ve often contemplated hiring plain clothes officers through the Police Department specifically charged to engage folks at congregation points and on the streets. Officers with the experience and education to deal with this population, promoting stabilizing services, but able to provide intervention, supported by the resources of the Police to guarantee safety and order. (I think this could be a very attractive position to applicants.)

  35. “The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, which provides law enforcement to the more rural portions of the county…” This is a perfect example of the real problem. All municipalities in Buncombe County should operate under one government. People who live in Buncombe’s towns and cities (and primarily Asheville residents since it’s the largest) subsidize so many services for everyone else.

    Let’s discuss a BID for downtown, but ignore that those who live in Asheville aren’t getting the baseline services that those who live in unincorporated Buncombe County receive — Asheville is just subsidizing them!

    1. asheville does not subsidize anything for us outside city limits ,dylan . we do not have greenways, bike lanes, or venues to see music. we pay for our garbage separately and receive no city services at all. we pay for our fire depts. separately. we do not have public housing complexes that cost tons of money to run. Asheville does not do anything for us out here dylan, believe me. we are the ones subsidizing Asheville with our taxes going to support consultants and initiatives.

  36. This is a fantastic article, both for educating residents on our city political and governance structure, and factually reporting the issues we residents face with the decline in services, safety, and support. Your reporting, as usual, is spot on. You are such an improvement over the Citizen Times. I’m a fan. Thank you.

  37. Yes, it’s a terrible system, but I can see why the council might have gone for a more bureaucratic personality after Gary Jackson. Many thought he operated as an unchecked arch conservative with autocratic tendencies who coalesced his own powerful constituency behind the scenes, under-cutting the council at every turn. That so much is done in secret here and that a strong manager is so unanswerable to the voters shockingly undemocratic. So what can be done?

    1. Yes, secrecy is the true problem in city and county governing. Ban secret deals throughout. No nondisclosure agreements. Open records so taxpayers can see what’s being hidden from us.

  38. Wouldn’t it be special to have a mayor, city council and city manager that actually want to cater to the wants and needs of the residents who pay for the city’s operations and amenities? Asheville’s leaders do almost the exact opposite in every instance. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?

  39. Excellent and informative article on how the city government of Asheville operates and the vital role that the city manager plays with emergent issues. I hope the city council reviews carefully the upcoming renewal of our current city manager and assures that we have an individual in that role that is proactive and engaged. Asheville requires a city government that is willing to tackle our current problems with clear and timely responses. It is clear that the city manager serves a vital role in this regard and I hope the city council will move quickly to address this in their upcoming deliberations about the position. Thank you again AVL Watchdog for your informative and essential reporting!

  40. Lot of focus on the city manager, as there should be. But the problem source is the council and mayor. To say they can’t do anything for our residents is not exactly correct. They are the ones who direct the city manager. They need to give her very explicit instructions to act and then monitor her adherence to those instructions. She needs goals to meet for various projects and needs to have periodic reviews on her progress. That is what the council and mayor should do…daily.
    Clearly the city manager is not a self-starter and action person. She is more a procrastinator which is why problems in the city keep getting bigger and bigger.

  41. I agree wholeheartedly with Ruth Summers’ assessment of Debra Campbell’s performance as City Manager. Please do not renew her contract. Do the hard work of finding the dynamic leader we need to get this city back on track. It didn’t have to fall this far to begin with and I lay a lot of that squarely at her feet. Enough!

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