As the great holiday season water fiasco drains into memory, here’s a question for the ages: Where was City Manager Debra Campbell?

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

I imagine if you polled Asheville residents and asked them who their city manager is, far less than half would be able to come up with a name.

Ask the same question about who the mayor is — or who’s most closely associated with the outage — and I suspect probably 70 to 80 percent would know it’s Esther Manheimer.

Sure, the mayor has to run for office, and Manheimer has done that four times now, including last year against challenger Kim Roney, a City Council member. You see Manheimer’s name on the ballot, on signs, in advertisements.

You probably saw her face when you turned your tap on and nothing came out. On Day Five of the outage.

I jest, but it was Manheimer who was mainly front and center on the holiday season water fiasco that stretched out more than 10 days. You primarily saw Manheimer and Water Department Director David Melton at press conferences and on TV interviews, trying to field questions about the utter failure in public utilities service.

In a nutshell, Manheimer took on the role of de facto leader of the city, as well as prime communicator.

Meanwhile, Campbell hung out behind the scenes, actually running the city, one presumes, and earning nearly 10 times the annual salary of the mayor. 

To be fair, Campbell did attend press conferences, and I assume she was in the thick of things, making or at least helping to make key decisions as the crisis unfolded (although Melton told me last week the decision to cut off the southern end of the city from water was his).

City of Asheville Water Department Director David Melton fields a question at the Jan. 3 press conference. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

Honestly, we don’t really know what Campbell did or didn’t do, as she’s been harder to find than Waldo wearing an invisibility cloak. Here at Asheville Watchdog, we’ve asked for interviews with the city manager and sent her emails, and gotten nothing.

Campbell came here in December 2018 from Charlotte, where she served as assistant city manager. She has an impressive resumé, as you’d expect.

A council-manager form of government

Personally, I’m not looking for a scapegoat in this whole water outage debacle, although it would be nice to know a lot more about exactly what happened. For instance, how infrastructure and upkeep weren’t the culprits here, yet 27 city water lines broke, and an entire water plant froze.

My point is that the mayor of Asheville, no matter who the actual person is, serves mostly as a figurehead, while the manager, whoever that may be, actually runs the show. That is by design.

“The city of Asheville operates under a council-manager form of government, which is prescribed by its charter,” the city website states. “More than 3,400 cities and 371 counties operate under this system, which means more than 89 million American citizens live in communities with this form of government. Since its establishment, the council-manager form has become the most popular form of government in the United States in communities with populations of 5,000 citizens or more.”

The North Carolina School of Government, in a post titled, “Local Government in North Carolina,” notes, “The mayor presides over the governing board and is typically the chief spokesperson for the municipality. In some other states, the mayor is also the chief administrator for the municipality, but this is not the case in North Carolina.”

The city’s website also notes that Council is the city’s legislative body, and the members, the “community’s decision makers.”

“Power is centralized in the elected council, which approves the budget and determines the tax rate, for example. The council also focuses on the community’s goals, major projects and such long‑term considerations as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing and strategic planning. The council hires a professional manager to carry out the administrative responsibilities and supervises the manager’s performance.”

In other words, the council is the big-picture body, shaping policy. The manager has to get the job done.

In the case of the prolonged water outage, the city did not get the job done. Officials can’t just blame it all on harsh weather. Somebody didn’t get the job done.

Some may feel I’m unfairly harping on the city manager, but it’s a job that carries with it enormous power in Asheville — and a damn fine salary. Campbell is paid $242,694 a year, and City Council members from $18,106 to 20,452, according to a city salary database. Manheimer’s salary was not listed, but she generally makes slightly more than Council members. 

Melton, the water director, is paid $135,688.

Sure, the mayorship is a part-time gig, but that’s still a paltry salary, especially when you become the face of a failing water delivery system. OK, Melton probably shares the role, but Manheimer got to wear the mask plenty often, too. 

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, at the podium, has been the city’s main communicator about the prolonged water crisis. At the Jan. 3 press conference, she was flanked by, from left to right, City Council Members Sandra Kilgore, Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

In a nutshell, the city manager is the person dealing with the day-to-day issues that keep a city running, including its water department. The buck stops with the city manager — and the water was out for almost two weeks.

Yet in Asheville, the water department falls under assistant city manager Ben Woody, not Campbell directly. That might be another area for the freshly appointed review committee to look at, as something clearly went awry with the water department in this debacle.

When I asked Manheimer about her being put front and center to take the heat, she noted Campbell had been at the press conferences and said there’s not exactly a playbook on how to handle such a crisis.

“I mean, I feel like the elected officials and probably the mayor, most of all, are the ones the community will hold accountable for something like this. And that’s who they expect to speak with them,” Manheimer said.

Campbell speaks … on Jan. 10

Fine, but Campbell is really the one running the show. Early on, she should’ve stepped forward and told the public what city officials knew about the outage, what they didn’t know, what preparations were taken, and what they were doing to fix it — and apologized. 

I suspect Campbell, like pretty much anyone affiliated with city government right now, is feeling the heat. She did open the Jan. 10 City Council meeting with some long-overdue comments, stating about the outage, “I personally know how disruptive it was, because I experienced it.”

“But I’m here to talk about how it disrupted the lives of you all — our residential customers, our institutional customers, and our business customers,” Campbell said. “This wasn’t something that was easy to fix. There were a lot of complexities within our water system that contributed to the outages. We regret that this happened, and we are taking immediate and long-term steps to prevent and minimize this event, hopefully, and the impacts of the events from happening again.”

Council members Kim Roney, Antanette Mosley, and Maggie Ullman asked pointed questions about the outage, transparency, communications, operations and more. Frankly, it was encouraging, because something is rotten in Denmark.

Ullman made a point about these types of outages and when the communications surrounding them rise to the council level. Manheimer jumped in.

“I’ve really wondered about this. If we were a really large city — if we were Washington, D.C., or New York City — you would not count on council members pushing out information, right?” Manheimer said. “So, at what point are you a city that’s large enough to have institutionalized methods of communicating with the public?”

Asheville already has a sizable communications department, which is also under Campbell and often insulates her from dealing with the media directly. That department is led by Dawa Hitch, whose annual salary is $126,000, according to a city database. 

On Jan. 10 — 17 days after the water outage that affected tens of thousands of customers began — the city of Asheville released this timeline of events.

Asheville’s population in 2021 was just over 94,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With lingering pandemic popularity as a nice place to live and work from home, I suspect the city is pushing 100,000 now. 

In short, we’re not a backwater. We also shouldn’t be an “outta-water” for long periods of time.

Council Member Mosley made an interesting point at the council meeting.

“This is a personal preference: In my role as a policy maker, I don’t want to be the one communicating an operational issue,” Mosley said. 

“I agree,” Manheimer responded. “You want to know all of the information because people are reaching out to you. But operationally, we have a manager form of government.”

Bingo!

Council went on to establish an independent review committee to assess the incident and offer suggestions to prevent another one. That’s a great idea,  as long as the full report is made available to the public, and key findings are not redacted or otherwise hidden.

I would hope when the full report comes out, Campbell pushes to make it all public, takes a central role in its presentation and grants media interviews.

It’s time for Asheville’s city manager to enjoy a moment in the sunshine.


Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org

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45 Comments

  1. Campbell needs to be replaced! She really is scary as the person running our city! She is the reason our police department is in the sad shape it is in!

    1. The lack of transparency and lack of leadership in our county and city has become a hazard to its citizens. I do hope State and Federal investigations are happening during this latest failure by leadership. The latest debacle placed our citizens in harms way with undrinkable water, if you had any water, and lame excuses that changed every time there was a “news conference”. Poor leadership from the county manager, city manager, mayor, all the way down need to be investigated and the report open to the tax paying citizens.

  2. As someone who enjoys visuals as opposed to lotd and lits of words, some of which are likely to be composed in a confusing manner, purposefully or not, I would like to see a flow (or in this case, a no-flow) chart. Maybe even something a little artsy. This is Asheville after all. Like to start, a big scary grey cloud blowing cold breath on our fair city, cowering below the ominous
    mountains. Then our tiny, but fearless reservoirs with great names – Bee Tree, North Fork, Mills River – with water flowing to various communities. Or not. Then sad- faced broken pipes along the way. Too much verbiage! Show us some artwork! I’m quite serious despite my playful attitude!!

  3. It’d be nice to see some accountability but it seems unlikely. One or more persons totally failed to prepare for totally predictable weather, many suffered for far too long and yet, on we go as if nothing important happened.

  4. Ideally, Campbell would have called an all-hands meetings of department directors and formulated a contingency plan. It was no secret that we were in for days of brutally frigid temps. The ability of the city’s water system to withstand them should have been front and center. So my question is this. What kind of planning did the city do? My guess is none, and therein lies a big part of the problem, the other being Asheville’s longstanding history of failing to replace aging infrastructure. But that’s an issue for another column, John.

  5. Where has Debra Campbell been since she was hired in 2018?

    The city council acts like they are afraid of her. Will she turn out to be another Wanda Greene?

  6. In a city like Asheville with its increasingly diverse population with an extremely broad range of circumstances, backgrounds and sociopolitical views, communications and transparency are of paramount importance. Given the array of challenges facing our region — inadequate infrastructure, affordability, equity, homelessness, public safety, growth and development to name but a few — trust can only exist if two-way communication is built in to the process of governing. As a former journalist and later crisis communications and crisis response consultant I have been surprised over the years at how preparedness and ongoing training and evaluation in those areas is woefully inadequate in so many matrixed organizations.

  7. I think John hit the nail on the head. In other cities I’ve lived in with city manager forms of government,it was always the city manager addressing the press when a situation like this arose. Naturally, the elected officials also might respond, but the responsibility rests with the City Manager and as a citizen I expect them to act and respond.

    This situation was outrageous. And it’s not like it was unexpected. Weather forecasts had this cold snap predicted for at least 10 days. Other southern cities, such as Memphis, which also had a serious outage with as many residents without water, dealt with it far better, and faster.

    Definitely something is rotten in Asheville.

  8. Really appreciate Boyle’s continuing to dig into this debacle. I had no idea how the manager structure worked, or that mayor was such a figurehead, a part-time job. Which makes me wonder why she thought herself the appropriate person to appear at briefings, since she is so uninvolved in the kinds of decisions that led to to the mess. Had Campbell been up there being questioned, perhaps we wouldn’t have felt so stonewalled by the lack of answers from Manheimer. Melton, however, is just a disaster at communications. The whole presentation was, Who could possibly have foreseen this? …and We did everything right, this has nothing to do with an antiquated and inadequately maintained system.

    Is there any reason the highest paid person in municipal government, who is in charge of all such day-to-day vital operations, should be shielded from the public and the press for so long?

    Campbell should have been the point person from the beginning of the crisis, and the comms dept head should be at least publicly informing us several times a day in an emergency.

    Since Campbell is making the big bucks for running the city, she should be out front taking the hits for epic failures like this one.

    That there is no comms protocol for such emergencies is revealing and concerning.

    As is the fact that Campbell is appointed, not elected, so the voters have no input into who is hired and whether their performance merits continuing in the powerful, lucrative position.

  9. I have emailed Ms. Campbell on several occasions. I either got back an “out of office” auto reply or nothing.

  10. How many assistant city managers are there? The city is way too top heavy and way over paid for what the citizens are getting in service. They allowed the water system to degrade into a mess where a not that unusual temperature drop caused a collapse.

  11. And what was City Manager Campbell doing during the period that the parking garage gate was
    not operational, and we lost over $800,000.00 in city revenue ? That was certainly a situation that needed managing ! You could have hired a group of homeless people to collect the daily garage fees, told them take what they needed, and probably not lost a forth of that amount.

    1. The gate? As if there here is only one. I find it hard to believe that a broken gate could cost the city $800,000. Thank for the chuckle of the day.

  12. Campbell should be held accountable, but for her managerial performance not for the public relations role; I think that belongs with the Mayor. I think it’s the Council’s job to demand an accounting from Campbell, which should be behind closed doors to remove as far as possible the political gamesmanship.

  13. The eternal debate over council-manager vs. strong mayor forms of government turns to a great extent on how the former insulates the administrators from responsibility and accountability. The largest city in my experience that had the council-manager form was St. Petersburg, where the publisher of the St. Petersburg Times was as religiously devoted to council-manager as any priest to any church. That persisted even after the overt racism of one of the managers contributed to a contentious strike by the garbage collectors, who were all Black. The public eventually tired of the system; they wanted the responsible person to be the one for whom they could vote, and approved a charter change replacing council-manager with a strong mayor system. Although I’m at a distance now, it seems to be working just as well if not better than the former model. I don’t think Asheville is necessarily large enough to find and elect a mayor who would also have the public administration skills that a strong-mayor system requires, but it is definitely large enough to make the city manager available to the public and the press.

  14. With the tone of this column, I fear AVL Watchdog is becoming more AVL Attackdog, and that’s a shame. I have to wonder – had it been City Manager Campbell handling all the press conferences, would you asking “where was the Mayor?” A decision was made to have the Mayor be the spokesperson – who made that decision? Was it the Mayor? Someone else?

    1. the city councils of the past 20 years were not that much different…always controlled by evil democrackkks…elected democrackkks DESTROY.

  15. Excellent commentary from John Boyle (as usual): thoughtful, respectful, considers all sides of an issues, articulates the issues and their nuances clearly, draws sensible conclusions, speaks out forcefully.

  16. Great point, John! It would seem that as a city manager (with a 240k salary), you should be able to expect more technical expertise and political wherewithal to step in and up. That Mrs. Campbell has not done so is embarrassing and raises the question whether she is the right person for the job. Kudos to Mayor Mannheimer to step into that gap in front of the public, but why she was not in a position to demand and force better engagement and involvement from the City Manager is unclear to me! Something seems broke here and deserves attention regarding this City Manager function; I, for one, do not feel served well as an Asheville citizen.

  17. Where in Asheville’s long range planning goals does it address specific issues within the infrastructure, like the water issue, the road issue, the additional building without necessary infrastructure, etc? The document is vague and makes it sound as if there aren’t any problems. Maybe the Watchdog could review the document.

  18. The analogy in the corporate world would be the Chairman of the Board of Directors being the spokesperson during:after a crisis rather than the CEO who runs the company. It would never happen!

  19. Wait, what??? I’ve been saying since we moved here that this city needs a professional city manager. Whoocoodanode we already had one? And she makes almost a quarter million a year? Wow. Somebody needs a performance review…

  20. Although the timeline graphic is interesting — What is missing are the actual times when these incidents occurred, along with listing the exact dates and times when there were texts, updates and press conferences, especially reminding residents to NOT wash their cars in freezing weather.

  21. With all the hotels and AIRBNBs being full over the holidays or for seasonal attractions like leaf season, shouldn’t our infrastructure be such as to handle a fluctuating population year around? I would rather have clean drinking water than a bike lane to nowhere.

  22. Thank you John for asking these questions. I wonder why Ms Campbell is so publicly absent as well. It seems we are expected to “tiptoe” around our city manager. As you mentioned, she brought with her a stellar resume, deep experience and professional history. She won this job over hundreds of applicants from all over the country if memory serves. She was highly praised upon being hired. So why haven’t we seen her. It’s her job for crying out loud! I had much rather have heard from her as a professional manager than our elected mayor/attorney. She would / should be able to provide much better information. She doesn’t need the protection of the mayor or anyone else as far as I can tell. I expect she can speak for herself given the chance. I hope she will step up and demonstrate her ability and expertise as a manager, communicator and full grown women. I want to hear her explanations but more importantly her ideas about the whole thing. Given the chance I feel we probably would not be disappointed.

  23. Asheville seems to be in a tailspin of sorts. Inexcusable water fiasco, Deputy Police Chief on trial in Virginia for his alleged role in a sex trafficking ring cover up, NBC and Cythnia McFadden just reported on Mission HCA hospital care in shambles but raking in billions. But there is some good beer made here.

  24. Thank you, John Boyle. As a former turnaround executive, I have been pondering this lack of managerial responsibility almost since it started. It’s quite hard to imagine why Mannheimer takes all the heat when her hired subordinate fumbles the ball repeatedly. In addition to the water outage bumble, the $800,000 loss of parking revenue, our city’s crime up due to police force lack of manpower mentioned already in the comments, I would add the constant city employee turnover, the lost discrimination lawsuits in the Planning and Fire departments, the garage parking spaces app not working in any of the city garages for months and on and on. Surely Asheville can do better. C’mon Mayor — we elected you to get somebody who can do the job and be worth her $240,000.

  25. I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to lay this predominately at Campbell’s feet. Yes we have a strong manager form of government. And yes, she should have been more communicative, but it’s the mayor and council that approve the budget and set the agenda and vision for the City, and btw, who hires the city manager. We’ve had a number of city managers in the last, is it 8 years, that Manheimer has been Mayor, yet the quality of life for the citizens and tax payers of Asheville has declined precipitously and consistently under Manheimer’s tenure. Everything goes for beer, tourists, tourism and new development., or to attract companies like Raytheon or Mission Hospital, god help us. Downtown has been entirely turned over to the Chamber and residents are barely welcome there any more. Our roads are a mess. I was told by W&S dept crew who were repairing the oft broken water line on my street that the infrastructure is so old that they even come across wooden box pipes in places. The departmental budget will not cover all that. I must ask, if the mayor is not truly in charge of anything, and has no larger vision for the city other than beer and over-priced hotels, why do we even have one?

  26. Council could require Campbell to give interviews and respond to emails, but they don’t. Tells you everything you need to know.

  27. The responsibilities of city government in services such as public safety, utilities, and roads have been superseded by glorified virtue signaling and spending. This is a problem in both elected and appointed positions in Asheville. It has roots in powerful political trends, and is not likely to change.

  28. Great column John.
    Lots of confusion on social media about the form of government we have. People are just misinformed.
    Why was Esther “taking the spear?”
    John noted that the City has a large PR shop. Most of the time, I’ve wondered where it is. They should be more out front on most things. Lots of leadership and management problems. Lots of really nice people, but results lacking.

  29. A terrific column – good research and exposition. I find myself wondering after reading about the local government’s handling of various problems, how much money is spent by the City (who authorized?) and by David Zack for outside consultants to learn how to sugarcoat and sidestep in giving their responses to the public on these issues? At least David Melton took responsibility for making the decisions he made. That was welcome honesty.

  30. From CITY MANAGEMENT: KEYS TO SUCCESS, by Orville Powell. the distinguished former CM of Durham, Winston-Salem, and Gainesville FL, and public affairs prof at Indiana University, advice to CM’s:
    “Take responsibility for dealing with the news media when the news is bad and let others handle the good news announcements. You should never leave it to someone else to face the news media when something has been handled poorly….These are the times you earn your pay.”

  31. 242K for a city manager of a city around 100k population seems very high based on national averages. We seem to pay our police and fire personnel less than area averages, but some city civilian personnel make 100 to 242k? Seems our priorities may be a bit skewed.

  32. Asheville has been dealing with water issues longer than I’ve been alive and I’m almost 77. I grew up there. Thankfully I now live in Mills River, not far from the water plant in question.
    I had several friends affected by the outage but I forgot to ask them if the city did anything about supplying bottled water to all affected by the outage? Yes? No? If no, then why not?

  33. It would seem that a place to look, for actions of past actors, in their in/ability to “see the big water delivery picture” for what obviously is a history of rapid growth for Asheville. I worked in Asheville 1986-89 when the population was 66,184 ,according to the census data I found (https://www.biggestuscities.com/city/asheville-north-carolina) to a population of 94,067, today or at least as of the 2020 census. The $64K question would be what investment in the water system(s) were made to accommodate that growth. Forecasting that Asheville population will only increase, a crystal ball would be nice to forecast the load and consequences of an extreme weather event in the future. Is having complexities in the water system something that is self-inflicted or just a result of poor planning? Recruiting businesses is an important long-term goal, sufficient infrastructure is required to help lure those companies to Asheville. Also, the affordable housing issues that face the city are also contributors to proper water planning. Asheville is a cool town that offer a lot to support your tourism efforts. I wish all involved the best of luck, a first-class city doesn’t deserve a second-class water system. Don’t feel badly, as the entire country will be encountering infrastructure failures for the foreseeable future as such improvements, like climate change have been kicked down the road for a long time.

  34. When I first moved to NC in 1980, I lived in Southern Pines. That city is in Moore County, the location where vandalism to two power stations caused lost electricity to thousands of residents during extreme cold weather. Moore County has about 100-thousand residents. The response to the electric power grid loss by the county, as well as the municipalities of Southern Pines, Pinehurst, Aberdeen and other towns was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Information was shared through regular updates with citizens and the media. Departments of those municipal governments all got into the game with everything from offering library meeting rooms for daytime warming locations and phone charging, shelters, check-ins with elderly and shut-in residents, etc. The Pilot, the local newspaper even dropped it’s paywall to open up information for anyone wanting to get updates. This was in conjunction with the efforts by Duke Energy to get the power grid restored to the residents of Moore County. All local governments were involved, the county was involved, police, fire and EMS and the Hospital were all involved. If a county of 100-thousand residents can pull this off, I think a city of 94,000 can as well.

  35. How does the Global warming hypothesis enter into this water problem? The forecast that I got from non-local weather sources stated that those dates were an “artic freeze” and forewarned to make sure we had extra blankets, alternative sources for heat, on and on. IF you expect global warming, why bother to examine infrastructure to see if it would hold up under acute low temperature conditions? Somehow, it looks like computer weather models are falsifying true global climate change. Remember, the jet stream is NOT at this point straight like it used to be, but meridional, or wavy and dippy, creating freeze in the middle, and warmer or hotter on the sides. We also have some volcanoes that erupted and sent ash way high. Do some research, and figure warming just might not be the case any more especially since it looks like the earth actually is cooling. Thanks. Just start thinking about what is REALLY going on with global climate change.

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