As the great holiday season water fiasco drains into memory, here’s a question for the ages: Where was City Manager Debra Campbell?
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org