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.
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?
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.
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 email@example.com