Interview #11: Asheville, NC Mayor Esther Manheimer

Watching the Asheville city council meeting last month, I noticed the particularly steady guidance of Mayor Esther Manheimer. What was her deal? How does a first-term mayor run such smooth meetings?

In this interview, Her Honor told me about gaining confidence, her fascination with tribal customs, and when she ejected a troublemaker.

Q: Before you were mayor, you were a regular council member. How are council meetings different now that you’re in charge?

A: You’re of more of a facilitator. You’re making sure everyone has their voice heard. You can’t just space out. If you’re a council member, you can choose to just not know any of that.

Q: When you were a council member, did you avoid knowing the rules?

A: No, no, no. I love all things Roberts Rules. Especially with my anthropology major as an undergrad–tribal customs.

Q: What’s the most well-run city council meeting you’ve seen besides, obviously, the ones you run?

A: As a lawyer, I have appeared before many county commissions and city council meetings. I like a well-run meeting where the chair keeps the questions focused. Sometimes you can watch it unfold in front of you and they’re veering off into territory that’s not even in front of them and the chair is not controlling that.

Q: When you were just a council member, how did the mayor run meetings compared to your style?

A: She did not corral the troops ahead of the meetings, so it was a little more chaotic. I try to make sure we’re prepared.

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Asheville, NC Mayor Esther Manheimer

Q: Your previous mayor was a city council member, then mayor. You were a city council member, now mayor. Do you ever look from side to side at a meeting and think, “which one of these people is coming for my job?”

A: Not DURING the meeting but…[laughs] I definitely wonder, are there other folks who want to become the next mayor of Asheville? And then I think, do I wanna run for mayor again?

Q: …

A: …

Q: …DO you wanna run for mayor again?

A: I don’t know. I have three young kids. Politician, mommy–plus I’m a full-time working lawyer.

Q: It’s hard to have it all. Speaking of the other council members, do they act differently in private than they do on camera?

A: Oh yeah. Very different. I have the newer council members that are learning more about getting their voice and saying their opinion loud and clear in public. That’s a process every newly-elected person has to go through. And it’s a little scary.

Q: It’s also scary during public comment when people are calling you liars and con artists. How do you decide when to say something and when to just sit there?

A: We have gotten to know who is going to be constantly disappointed with us no matter what. To respond every time almost elevates the comment. I don’t think when we’re being told we’re liars, to say, “oh, I’m not a liar” is helpful. I won’t respond in those situations. Now, if someone is providing incorrect information, I will clarify it. Because there might be three people watching and so–apparently you’re watching, too. So, four people.

Q: Darn right.

A: The first time I had to throw somebody out of the meeting, I had him removed because he was directing his comments at staff and not at us. He was staring at the staff and I warned him several times that’s not appropriate.


Follow Mayor Esther Manheimer on Twitter: @EstherManheimer

Month in Review: August 2016

During this Labor Day weekend, it’s a good time to remember all of the people who labor hard every week at city council meetings for hours and hours–or, sometimes, for 19 minutes. Catch up on where City Council Chronicles visited in the month of August.

P.S. If you didn’t see our appearance in last week’s Baltimore Sun, don’t worry–my intern spends 23 hours every day reading each newspaper in the country to see who mentions The Chronicles. And he finally found one!

#41: Asheville, NC 8/9/16

Anger.

Suspense.

Hemp?

These words barely scratch the surface of the cauldron of civic engagement that was the Asheville city council meeting.

It was a big day, with bonds galore! Transportation bond! Housing bond! Parks and rec bond! But first, the council needed a public hearing. Let’s roll the dice and see what the Good People have to say.

“I rise to state that there is an inconvenient truth about this so-called ‘public hearing,'” a man in a dapper white suit read from his notes. (Whenever someone labels something “so-called,” you know you’re in for a treat.)

“All this, I believe, is merely window dressing on the city council to foist a poorly-planned, unnecessary, pie-in-the-sky, $110 million financial burden upon the city,” he drawled, before socking Asheville’s bureaucrats right in the kisser. “This can become a slush fund to use as they please.”

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For someone who’s against spending money, that’s an awfully fancy pocket square.

He shuffled back to his seat. “Is there anyone else wishing to speak?” Mayor Esther Manheimer asked warily. No one in the crowded room hopped up.

“You all do know that we’re just doing bonds pretty much tonight?” she laughed nervously.

It was do-or-die time. Put-up-or-shut-up time. The vote: all three bonds passed. Easily. Like, really easily.

“Congratulations, we did our first bond package,” announced the mayor with the best poker face this side of Vegas.

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield briefly golf-clapped. “Are we allowed to clap?” she inquired after no one followed suit.

“We can look enthusiastic,” the mayor responded.

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The mayor is at peak enthusiasm.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler then kicked off what must have been an uncomfortable moment for three particular Ashevillians.  “We interviewed three candidates for the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment just before the city council meeting.”

She whipped out a pen. “Each council member, tell me who you vote for.”

Oh, wow. This is happening now. In public.

Councilman Keith Young jumped in without hesitation. “I’m going with Emily” Boyd.

Councilwoman Mayfield agonized over her options. “These are all great candidates….It’s amazing….Tough choice.” She paused. “I am gonna go with Bridget” Herring.

“I’m gonna vote for Brad” Rouse, retorted Councilman Cecil Bothwell.

A three-way tie. What a nail-biter. I can’t watch!

“Bridget Herring,” Her Honor the mayor said without comment.

“Bridget Herring,” the vice mayor and Councilman Gordon Smith dittoed. It was a lock.

“I counted Bridget Herring,” triumphantly declared Vice Mayor Wisler. “We’ll get ahold of the candidates tomorrow and tell them.”

Uh…no offense Madam Vice Mayor, but you do realize you’re on TV, right?

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Vice Mayor: If only there were some way for people to know what’s happening at the city council…

As the meeting drew to a close, the mayor opened up public comment. And the public included a bearded man wearing shorts who talked about, well, what you would expect a bearded man in shorts to talk about.

“Hemp X Asheville is happening,” he grinned. “I hope a few or many of y’all can make it, and certainly those watching on TV as well.”

Sorry, bud. I’ll be busy watching city council meetings.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to runners-up Emily Boyd and Brad Rouse, who came so close to getting the job but got, arguably, something better: a shout-out on City Council Chronicles.