It’s not often I look forward to an Asheville City Council meeting — or any official governmental meeting for that matter, as I and my gargantuan prostate have probably sat in on a couple thousand in my years in the business. 

Sorry, totally T.M.I. Let’s get back to council.

On Tuesday, council will get an update from the Independent Review Committee on the water outage debacle that occurred over last holiday season. No, the “water outage debacle” language is my wording and not part of the committee’s official name, although I so badly wish it were.

As you may recall, the city had a little water problem back in December and early January that spanned 11 days total and left many thousands of customers — we still really don’t know exactly how many — without water, mostly in South Asheville and western Buncombe County. It cost businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue, and it upended vacation plans for tourists and those visiting relatives.

Now, nearly four months later, the pain and anger may have eased a little for the Average Citizen out there, although I suspect if Average Citizen hears the phrase, “Water restoration is expected within 24-48 hours,” he or she might just spontaneously explode.

Water Outage Rage Syndrome will do that to a person, you know.

Just to remind everyone, first the water went out on or around Christmas Day, as the Mills River water plant, typically an auxiliary operation to the city’s two other reservoirs, froze up.

Then a whole bunch of pipes froze (initially the city said 11 or 12, then upped that to 27), a pump brought in to help push water wasn’t big enough, and gremlins infiltrated the North Fork Reservoir and mercilessly tickled the operators until they ran from the treatment building screaming.

OK, I made up that last part, but really, we still don’t know exactly what happened to cause this outage. And the city’s communications during and after the event helped very little in clarifying any of this.

So yes, this first report from the IRC, which the city announced in early January and appointed members to in late January (the county added two members in early February), is, shall we say, much anticipated.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, at the podium, talks at a Jan. 3 press conference about the city’s water outage, which lasted more than a week. She’s flanked by Asheville City Council members, from left to right, Sandra Kilgore, Sheneika Smith, and Antanette Mosley. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

Mayor Esther Manheimer, who ended up being the de facto spokesperson for the city during the outage, as City Manager Debra Campbell donned an invisibility cloak, said the IRC’s reports would be forthcoming at 30 days and 90 days.

It appears the committee is on target, as its first meeting was held Feb. 20, and they’ve already created subcommittees and developed a meeting schedule and action items, according to city spokesperson Kim Miller.

Also, a web page for the IRC will be posted Tuesday, to coincide with the update for the council.

I can only hope they deliver some real meat with this report … or some real tofu, this being Asheville. Because I’m still underwhelmed with the city’s openness on all of this.

In fact, the IRC meetings are not open to the public, or the media, which as a reporter irritates my soul. I understand they may have to discuss personnel or decisions that were made, but that’s part of this story, and if human error played a significant role in this mess, we should all know that.

Being a skeptic, I fear a whitewash, a final report that won’t name names or lay blame where it belongs. With Asheville residents already skeptical of the city’s leadership, that would be a real shame.

On a personal/professional level, I can assure you that here at Asheville Watchdog, we’ll keep bird-dogging this issue (pun 100% intended). In fact, I and another colleague are still waiting on a few public records requests we’ve made to the city, including one for a whole bunch of emails and text messages.

On that note, I also asked for consultants’ reports to the city, and I got a note back asking me if I could narrow the scope of that request. I responded by saying, albeit more politely, “how many consultants’ reports on the water system could’ve been done in the last 10 years?”

I realize the city gets a lot of public information requests, but long delays like these don’t help build trust.

And none of this is happening in a vacuum. Whether it’s the water outage, the crime issue downtown, the housing shortage, the runaway hotel building, or the sense that Asheville is sort of slipping into a dark place, people want a more responsive government, more answers, more openness.

And more leadership. 

I asked Manheimer for a phone interview on this, and she asked for written questions. I sent a few, including these: Do you feel these (IRC) meetings should be open to the public? Why or why not? And if they remain closed, does that raise some concerns with you about what will ultimately be presented to the public?

Brad Branham, Asheville City Attorney

She deferred answers to city staff. I’d sent them similar questions last week, and they got back to me via email late Friday afternoon.

And they lawyered up. Sure, Manheimer is a lawyer, too, but in this case they deferred to City Attorney Brad Branham, who first noted the IRC was “specifically designed to operate as an analytical task force.” 

“As is commonly the case with such bodies, it does not serve an advisory or other statutory purpose for the City Council,” Branham said. “Therefore, it is not a public body. Moreover, the function of the IRC requires a greater degree of confidentiality during their review process.”

You know you’re getting the good stuff from a city when it includes not only a “Therefore” but also a “Moreover.” But I digress.

Branham said confidentiality is needed because of state law provisions “which exclude information dealing with sensitive public infrastructure from public records.”

“Therefore, documents and information about the city’s water system cannot be shared publicly due to security concerns,” he continued. “However, it is imperative that the IRC has access to these materials in order to effectively and conclusively accomplish their task. The only way to balance these concerns is to maintain a confidential environment for this group to do its work.”

Hey, I understand the city doesn’t want a terrorist blowing up some main water lines and creating a long water outage. That’s the city’s job, after all.

I jest.

But really, this whole “homeland security” thing is a bit over the top. I mean, during the crisis they kept referring to the city’s Mills River Water Treatment Plant as “the South Asheville plant,” even though it’s in northern Henderson County and everybody knows where it is — seriously, you can Google it and pictures and the exact location come up.

At The Watchdog, we wanted to map where the city’s oldest pipes are (i.e., the most vulnerable to breakage), but that also got kiboshed on as a homeland security issue. That would be a pretty strong public service to give to residents and potential homeowners, by the way.

At least this part of Branham’s statements was reassuring: “In the end, all reports and findings will be made public and presented in an open meeting.”

That’s great, but the real key is just exactly what will make it into those “reports and findings” that the public needs to know.

Let’s hope the Tuesday update offers some glimmers of transparency. When it comes to water, clarity is essential.

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

36 replies on “Opinion: Let’s hope the water outage Independent Review Committee delivers the goods”

  1. John Boyle is a good investigative journalist but his bad jokes do not belong in real reporting and make him hard to take seriously.

    1. Well said, Susan. I find no humor in John Boyle’s attempts, only misplaced barbs to diminish the importance of the issues being addressed. Yes, Boyle is a good investigative reporter, but his contrived humor is totally out of line. I didn’t subscribe to be entertained, but to be informed on critical issues.

    2. As this is an opinion piece, it is not unusual for a journalist to include bad jokes or sarcasm in their commentary. Boyle does not include those kinds of quips in his straight-up news reporting.

    3. In JB’s original (and current) Answer Man columns, the “My Answer” introduction to his remarks functions as “Humor Warnings.” I found the multiple injections of humor, without warning, diminished an important discussion.

    4. I’m quite fond of his bad jokes. This reference in particular cracked me up: “….. as City Manager Debra Campbell donned an invisibility cloak,…”

    5. Call them “bad jokes” or call it “matching the level of competence” Asheville leadership sometimes displays, especially in regard to this entire matter.

      1. totally agree scott. Asheville leadership is a joke, and should be treated as such. Thanks john for your story/opinion.

  2. Debra Campbell must indeed have an invisible cloak she wears except during city council meetings. Have she ever answered her phone? Answered an email? Made an appointment with anyone over an issue? Made a speech? Gave an interview? Been on tv? Where does she hide? What does she do? Why do we pay her a quarter of a million dollars a year to hide?

  3. I hope all of those who voted the rascals back in last November are satisfied.
    I didn’t, and I am happy to say “I told you so.” The Asheville City Council is a disgrace.

  4. In 1955, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins asked the Legislature to enact a meaningful open government law. The people, he said, “have yielded to us no right to decide what is good for them to know or for what is bad for them to know.” The Legislature did not pass the bill. It took until 1967, after court-ordered reapportionment, for there to be an open-minded Legislature. Is there anything on earth that would give Asheville an open-minded Council?

  5. Bravo! John is doing a much better job of investigative reporting with the Asheville Watchdog than when he was with corporate media. Well done!

  6. The People’s Republic of Asheville’s government really let us down —- With out-of-state family members visiting over the holiday things got a little gross in our home, even for Texans, so they had to fork out over $1,000 for hotel rooms for their stay. On the bright side, my ten-year old grandson and I bonded when we drove to a nearby creek several times to scoop water into a large cooler for flushing purposes. That part is sort of a fond memory. And the beat goes on.

  7. The City’s actions to evade transparency and accountability continue unabated. The notion that this task force is serving no advisory role is laughable on its face.

    And as Mr. Boyle points out, the “homeland security” concerns are equally preposterous. An evildoer intent on messing up our water infrastructure could learn everything they need to know from publicly available GIS info.

    The City has routinely a mockery of the spirit and the text of Open Meetings law, as well as stalling on making city data and documents available. The default is secrecy. Why do we accept this version of “business as usual?”

  8. The Homeland Security aspect of our water system is truly fascinating. Should we be asking plumbers for their security clearances? Seriously, you should also be checking about the many burst pipes that homeowners have had to deal with due to increased pressure from the city system, at least that’s what my plumber said the problem was. (If it’s on the homeowners side of the meter it’s their problem)

  9. It’s been said “a fish rots from the head down…”. Asheville needs to rid itself of Mayor Manheimer and it will start to breathe some fresh air!

    1. Yep. Smug. Dismissive. Average. Hypocritical. Untrustworthy. Political Platitudes galore. No leadership skills or imagination whatsoever. The Sierra Club should have to answer for her. Never again trust any Sierra Club endorsements without doing your own homework.

  10. I agree with Susan. Mr Boyle is performing a valuable service but the jokes undermine his writing. I, for one, do not need to hear anything about his prostate.

  11. Sadly, I did votefor them. As a new resident, I did not know of the past problems and read nothing to give me pause about their competency. Now, though, I am older and wiser. I will not vote for these non-performers in the future. And Deborah Campbell is the worst. All she does is suckle off the public trough. One of the criteria I’ll be looking for in City Council candidates is a promise to replace her.

  12. I’m not hopeful that we will see substantive information out of this committee. I envision a cartoon of a meeting room with coffee, bottled water, cookies or banana nut muffins, and a consulting “facilitator” who has written “INFRASTRUCTURE” on a dry erase board.

  13. I’m a retired reporter and editor from Raleigh. The city’s rationale for secrecy do not jibe with my (imperfect!) recall of public records and open meetings case law. I hope you Watchdogs are consulting press lawyers like Amanda Martin. Lee up your good work.

    1. I am a lawyer who has had some litigation experience with open meeting laws. The claim that this committee is not at least an advisory committee is ludicrous. If it is not an advisory committee, what kind of committee is it?

      The hell of it is that whatever the final conclusion is, no one with the brain of a guppy will believe it.

  14. I’ll follow John Boyle wherever he lands. He tells it like it is. So thankful for serious issues with just the right amount of humor thrown in.

  15. During one of the few public statements made by our “mayor”, she did actually call the water outage a “debacle”. The inept oversight of our non-existant governing leaders sunk to it’s lowest level in handling this crisis. It wasn’t a crisis for any of the city or county governing leaders as their homes and office did have running drinkable water during this time while almost half the city’s population had a “Grinch stolen Christmas” and could only bathe in pots full of boiled water, when we finally got water. Thank goodness for the fire department who actually delivered drinkable water to many city residents.
    Folks need to remember all the names of who NOT to re-elect, both city and county. My neighbors certainly won’t be forgetting.

  16. Well, no surprise here. I saved all the reports of the sections of south water coming back online, so we can reverse engineer most of the south section from that. Guess I’ll put that together now that the full denial is oncoming. Then we just crowd source leaks over time and the entire system is easily mapped.
    This may be the incident that changes Asheville politics. Don’t forget. This should have never happened.

  17. I agree with Robert above, Asheville is getting what they voted for. I certainly hope there are much better choices for leaders in the future. As a lifelong resident of Buncombe County, I have seen things deteriorate significantly over the past 25 years. The current city council is anything but “diverse” or competent. Nonetheless, there are several problems with obtaining competent/effective leadership. Who would want to run for such a position in this city? Who would be willing make unpopular decisions (and then be “canceled”) that upset those who voted for the existing crowd of “leaders?”

  18. Infrastructure security is important but can be taken to the extreme and used as a block for reasonable public access/knowledge/participation.

    So for example, one of the commenters is correct that a satellite view of Asheville can reveal the location of the water treatment plants. Likwise, you’d be able to readily ID the numerous larger water storage tanks with a little bit of research. Those water tanks are protected with high fencing and video surveillance, as well they should be.

    What you can’t find (and shouldn’t be available) is the location of the very large underground water mains that exit the water treatment plants and feed into the overall system. Sabotage of those pipes would obviously disrupt the water supply for some time.

    And those main large lines would also be the most effective locations for maximizing the effects of introducing a pathogen into the water system since the water treatment facilities are relatively secure with staff, fence control and surveillance.

    But in nothing in the events of X-mas 2022 would require knowledge of the large main locations. And the City’s refusal to provide “location” information on the 27 leaks that occurred should be judged by the fact that the location of 8″ and 6″ diameter piping (which comprises the vast majority of the piping system) downstream of the large water mains are readily “determinable” since all the thousands of fire hydrants are attached to those lines.

    So blocking public access on location information (say for leak information) on these 6 and 8″ lines is largely a superfluous endeavor.

    I guess the selected Independent Review Team members will have to be taken out back and shot, once their review is complete because they may know too much.

  19. Hilarious. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about terrorists blowing up the F-35 component manufacturing factory subsidized with county funds?

  20. “The Way We Do Business In Asheville.” That’s based on the following management axions: 1 Don’t rock the boat; 2. Good enough is OK, and 3. We don’t have the money anyway (despite high property taxes).

    As I read John Boyle’s column, I had the TV on and the PBS Newshour did a segment on Trump supporters. The True Believers hate government and feel it doesn’t work. Hmmm.

    Asheville is millions behind on maintenance. So are the city schools. We weren’t creative enough to turn the Vance monument into a reminder of the sin of slavery and a memorial to those human beings Vance owned. Instead, we are entangled in an expensive court case. We weren’t perceptive enough to anticipate what a problem homelessness would become. Instead, we shelled out tax money for a study which mostly told us what we already knew. The police force has been eviscerated. And then, there is the water system. To some extent, the Trumpeters are right. So much, for “Progressive” government, or at least, Asheville’s. It just ain’t working. How about just “effective” government?

  21. Of course it’s going to be whitewashed over, move along citizens nothing to see.
    We fixed it and it won’t happen again.
    Citizens: what’s it?
    Sorry, it’s a small club and you ain’t in it.

  22. when one party rules the local gov., these things should be expected. their is no checks and balance system in place and no great need to tell the public anything they do not want us to hear. choose better leaders asheville or this will repeat itself over and over and……….

  23. John notes “during the crisis they kept referring to the city’s Mills River Water Treatment Plant as ‘the South Asheville plant,’ even though it’s in northern Henderson County and everybody knows where it is — seriously, you can Google it and pictures and the exact location come up,” and “we wanted to map where the city’s oldest pipes are (i.e., the most vulnerable to breakage), but that also got kiboshed on as a homeland security issue.”
    There is a lot of history here, but suffice it to say that Asheville politicians and administrators are treating the public with great disdain by doing the public’s business in secret.
    On a related issue, I’ve often wondered why the people of Asheville and Buncombe County have put up with the city locking away 22,000 acres of the city’s watershed, preventing the public from accessing the property (except for some good ole boys who had special visiting rights, as was revealed in a minor controversy years ago).
    In contrast, the City of Hendersonville’s watershed in Pisgah National Forest has always been open to the public who use the land for hiking, fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, backpacking and other non-motorized uses. I thought about this when I was mountain biking there last fall and gave directions to some folks from Asheville who were visiting the area because (I guess) Bent Creek has gotten too crowded.
    I am not advocating for allowing motorized recreation in the Asheville watershed, but it is ridiculous that this 2 square mile area below the Blue Ridge Parkway is off limits to humans. I am all for preserving wilderness “where man is but a visitor.” However by locking out even visitors, the city shows the same sort of secrecy and contempt for public access to land as they do for open meetings.

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