Debra Campbell took the reins on December 3, 2018, and we interviewed her shortly after she settled into her new office—and her new role—at City Hall.
After dismissing former City Manager Gary Jackson last May, Asheville City Council appointed as his replacement Debra Campbell, the former Planning Director and Assistant City Manager of Charlotte, the state’s largest city.
What is that role? The City Manager, in her words, “directs the formulation and enforcement of all city rules, regulations, and procedures in accordance with applicable city polices; handles grievances; maintains discipline and supervises the general conduct of all city employees.”
Vision and views grew out of extensive experience
Campbell began her career in her native Chattanooga, TN, and then spent 30 years in Charlotte. Beginning in 1988, she worked 26 years (including 10 as director) in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, followed by four years as Assistant City Manager. Her responsibilities were in line with her priorities: ensuring “a consistency of policies, plans, and mandates, and consistently trying to develop and create a community—not just from a physical development perspective but in line with broader community needs.”
In addition to administering existing zoning ordinances, Campbell regularly analyzed and renewed specific plans to ensure consistency with city regulations and aspirations.
“One has to ask, as an urban planner, ‘What kind of community do we want to become from a physical perspective?’ You have to not just create ordinances based on stated policy but require action to achieve that vision. Often ordinances don’t have the teeth necessary to enforce them.”
Services, and lack of services
Among the questions any planner or manager must address, she says, is what a city government can (or should) do to provide consistent levels of service for the people and businesses they serve.
“How do you achieve consistency and equality across all platforms and demographics, in very different neighborhoods?” she asks. “I don’t know if there’s a balance to be achieved. All communities are not created equal. In my role, whatever I do has to be in the context, of City Council’s vision. Are we trying to achieve equity, or just deliver services in a cookie-cutter perspective?”
Balancing equity and need in the allocation of resources is a delicate and essential task, and part of her job is to ensure that the public understands why certain things are not doable.
“I want to collaborate with anyone who wants to get things done and have a positive impact on the community.”
“Some communities need a higher level of service to meet a higher level of need. Some communities need a tremendous amount of attention, so staff resources and financial resources have to be directed to those.
“I don’t know that it is totally the responsibility of city government to convey and communicate that message about city services. It is the responsibility of city officials and city staff to communicate what our priorities are.
“No community should be unserved. Unfortunately due to limited resources, our ability to deliver all things equally—that is, everybody gets the same level of service, when the reality is they don’t—is also limited. As city staff we need to explain why, [to] have a rationale for why this community or that one gets X amount of services.”
Given Asheville’s reputation as a liberal, progressive city but its historic reality as a place where tourism and the businesses that cater to it have long wielded outsize power, we wondered how Campbell expects to bring together nonprofits and elected officials, business owners and working people, voting citizens and powerful financial interests—as well as the disenfranchised, low-wealth residents who have long been, and felt, ignored—to achieve a collective vision.
As CEO of city government, she says, “I want to collaborate with anyone who wants to get things done and have a positive impact on the community. I am a strong believer that community-building is just that: the responsibility of the community. Local government has the responsibility to deliver, but it’s our collective responsibility to find agreement on what kind of community we want to become.
“If we don’t have a collective discussion about what we’re trying to achieve in Asheville, we’ll stay in separate silos, and we won’t have the same impact. It is going to take all of us in the community working together and focusing on the community’s needs.”
Campbell also points out that Asheville is “highly engaged, there’s a lot of community activism, lots of groups that advocate along single issues.” Her vision is that her staff can do a better job than in the past to “coordinate and rally those groups into a unified effort.”
“The Police Department has to feel and behave as if they’re part of a larger mission: building a community that people feel safe in, and more importantly that they can trust the officers both in uniforms and those who don’t wear uniforms.”
That work will include going into the many low-wealth areas of the city to try to make a positive impact—including looking into what ordinances might need to be changed to do so. It also requires addressing the existing sense of disenfranchisement and inequity among low-income and minority populations.
What about her position at the head of the city’s operations as the first black manager? Campbell addresses that concern head-on.
“If I were to revel in the fact that some people may not like me because as City Manager I represent the color of 12% of the population of Asheville, I can either make that my battle … or I can make my battle be to help as many people as I can to make Asheville the best place I can for as many people as I can. I believe that’s why I was hired. It’s our collective effort and the incredible talented staff that I have.”
Part of Campbell’s philosophy, and a reason for her success, is to be very supportive of staff whose role is to implement the Council’s vision.
“I want city staff to see me not as the title ‘City Manager,’ but as a fellow city employee who wants to work with a broader community to get things done. We have to figure out what it is we want to do, where our priorities lie. Right now there are a lot or priorities, and I don’t know how effective we can be stretched that thinly.”
To get there, she notes, “We’re having a departmental retreat for city hall staff to discuss what our values are, our goals, our mission. It’s not just transactional—we don’t just deliver services, though we do emphasize inclusion, equity, and customer service. I’ll be out visiting Public Works, Police, Fire Departments, etc. so I can understand what services are being delivered.”
APD: the search for a new Chief of Police
The elephant in the room of Asheville’s city government is the distrust between city officials—especially the Police Department—and the citizens they serve. One of Campbell’s first tasks will be to interview and ultimately hire a new police chief, and rebuild that trust. While proficiency and expertise in policing is essential, she says, she is seeking a chief of police who also knows “how to do community-building.
“The Department has to feel and behave as if they’re part of a larger mission: building a community that people feel safe in, and more importantly that they can trust the officers both in uniforms and those who don’t wear uniforms. Uniforms can become a liability rather than an asset.”
Her process of finding a chief will, “first and foremost,” demand community input.
What are the assets that the community wants to see in a chief? They want the chief to be a member of a team where people work together to build a great place to live, work, and do business.
Clear vision, simple approach
What Campbell brings with her is a skill set that she acquired during her three decades in Charlotte, where she faced many of the same issues that now confront Asheville. In her view, collaboration and coordination have a collective impact. And it starts with the basics.
“My vision is to deliver city services in an exemplary manner,” Campbell says forthrightly. “It has to be oriented and focused around the city’s vision; the community’s vision needs to be centered in a community plan.
“Our approach is to under-promise and over-deliver. Real estate transformation and gentrification impact many, many cities around the country. Capitalism is literally about a competitive edge, but it doesn’t have to be vicious, malicious, or end up where winner takes all.”
She is well aware of the historic lack of wealth in minority communities. We discuss the historic discrimination—which still exists—and the consequences of intergenerational poverty, including that caused by gentrification, red-lining, predatory lending, and other practices designed to keep the poor poor and poor blacks even poorer.
“I think that in most communities we can deal with the dynamics of trying to increase wealth; we just need to get a better understanding of what our low- and moderate-income people face as obstacles to advancement. How do you do that? How much equity do you have in your house? We have to create those opportunities—but we also have to get through the issue of job discrimination and employment.”
Community-building, as she acknowledges, is not easy. It will take time and patience.
“But,” she says once again, “Asheville has the right spirit, has the people who have the right goals and are passionate about our being a very special, unique community in terms of equity and inclusion. I want to be part of helping figure out the city’s role in achieving that vision and goals.
“We should see incremental changes over the next several years. How the city connects with and communicates with the community. I think we can be much more impactful and I hope we can do things that enhance people’s lives.
“Why do we do all this? To have an impact on people. If we’re not helping someone be better than they were yesterday, we’re missing the boat.”