Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Who Put That Great Big Target On Councilor Keith Young’s Back?

Reactions to Incognito “tip” make for tantalizing speculation
By Roger McCredie

Somebody really wants Keith Young gone.  Off Asheville City Council.  Now.

Over New Year’s weekend, person or persons unknown (Incognito) sent to the Buncombe County Board of Elections (BOE) a packet of documents that showed alleged discrepancies about his place of residence -- discrepancies that could possibly affect his relationship with his mortgage lender on one hand and his standing as an Asheville City Council member on the other.

And a few weeks later, when the BOE did not respond, Incognito sent duplicate packages to a number of other people, including city officials and an interesting choice of private citizens.

But so far there’s been no official reaction to Incognito’s mailings, Young himself has shrugged the matter off and is quiet, and the only entity to take Incognito’s bait has been the Asheville Citizen-Times, which has run two stories on the subject, drawing fire from critics who are calling the coverage “fake news.”

Meanwhile city watchers and mystery fans are speculating about what they say is the real story:  Who wants Young kicked off the council, why, and why right now?

How It All Began

Incognito’s documents arrived at BOE in a plain white 9” x 12” envelope with a standard computer-fed address label and no return address.  On top was a cover letter addressed to BOE Director Trena Parker and dated December 30, 2016.  The letter reads:

Ms Parker:
Please investigate the validity of William Keith Young’s residency.  Attached you will find Mr Young’s voting record, samples of his signature on various candidate forms and a deed of trust dated July 29, 2016 signed by a William K. Young.  The deed of trust in Section 6 on Page 6 of 16 indicates that the property located in Arden will be the principal residence of the borrower.  The candidate forms and the deed of trust appear to be signed by the same person.
As you may know, William Keith Young currently serves on Asheville City Council.  Obviously a Councilman needs to be able to vote in the voting district in which he serves.  Is he eligible to vote in the City of Asheville?
A Concerned Citizen

The rest of the package consisted of:

  • A copy of Young’s State BOE voter information, showing his address as 18 Martin Luther King Drive, Asheville 28801;
  • A copy of the State BOE Financial Account Information for the Keith Young for City Council Committee, filed May 26, 2015, showing Young’s address as 18 Martin Luther King Dr.;
  • A copy of State BOE Candidate Designation of Committee Funds dated January 30, 2012, the year Young ran for Buncombe County Commission;
  • A copy of the Asheville Citizen-Times’ record of property transfers dated August 7, 2016, showing transfer of a house and lot at 7 Somerset Drive, Arden, from Shannon P. Riley to William K. Young during the week of July 25 – 29, 2016;
  • A copy of a warranty deed executed by Shannon P. Riley and William K. Young on July 29, 2016, giving the property in question as Young’s address;
  • A copy of a deed of trust between William K. Young and State Employees’ Credit Union, also dated July 29, 2016  (The section cited by PPU specifies that the borrower must occupy the named premises for at least a year “unless Lender otherwise agrees in writing” (emphasis added);
  • A sheet showing scans of Young’s signature as both W. K. Young and as William K. Young, taken from the above documents and apparently intended to show that the signer in all cases is the same person.

Keith Young's New Home in Question
The county BOE has said it cannot take any action in matters of this sort unless a formal complaint is lodged, and apparently Incognito packages, no matter how professionally presented, don’t count.  So in late January Incognito decided to cast a wider net.

A new wrinkle

Perhaps frustrated, Incognito on January 24 sent out some more packages.  One of them went to former Asheville Mayor and City Manager Ken Michalove, at his home address.  Another was sent to former city risk management head John Miall, also at home.  

The only known links between Miall and Michalove are their past city employment, runs for City Council and their open criticism, in recent years, of various city operations and policies.

Those packages, in addition to the documents, contained a copy of Incognito’s cover letter to Parker and a new item:  a one-page flyer listing the points to which Incognito wanted to call attention.  The flyer reads:

Is it Bank Fraud or Voter Fraud or a City Council Cover-Up?
William KeithYoung, Asheville City Council Member and William K. Young, Owner and Borrower for Property located at 7 Someset Drive in Arden are one in the same person.  Compare the signatures on the Candidate’s Forms in 2015 and 2012 and on the Deed of Trust dated 7/29/16 and the ARM Rider dated 7/29/16.  All of the documents are signed by the same person.
William Keith Young alleges he lives in the City Limits.  William K. Young does not live in the City limits.
Bank Fraud?
On page 6 of the Deed of Trust, the borrower agrees to maintain the property as his principal place of residence.  If Mr. Young does not occupy the property as his principal place of residence, he is defrauding State Employees’ Credit Union.
Voter Fraud?
Mr. Young’s voter record indicates his address as 18 Martin Luther King Drive.  If he does not live there, his voting record is fraudulent.  If he lives in Arden, he is not entitled to vote in the City of Asheville and certainly not entitled to hold public office in the City of Asheville.
City Council Cover-Up?
Does the Council know about this?  What are they doing?  They talk about transparency but where is it?

When and how city council became aware of Incognito’s activity is not known, but it appears that one package recipient was City Attorney Robin Currin, who subsequently discussed its contents with council members.  That happened on or about January 25, when, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times (see below), Mayor Esther Manheimer directed Currin to draft a memorandum of possible legal issues raised by Incognito’s allegations.

But speaking for herself Manheimer was quoted as saying, "The only thing I can work with here is satisfying myself that Keith is a resident of Asheville and I did that by asking him."

To date, however, no official action based on Incognito’s documents has taken place.

The Citizen-Times Factor

Nearly three weeks later, on February 13, Citizen-Times reporter Joel Burgess filed a story titled “Mortgage Raises Questions About Where Asheville Councilman Lives.”  Burgess’ report followed Incognito’s outline in laying out Young’s financial arrangements for purchasing the Arden House as well as details of his city voting record.

The article quoted Young as saying his residence “is and continues to remain” the MLK Drive house, which is owned by his parents.  He said he “might rent” the Arden house.  He has refused further comment.

But on February 18 Burgess filed a second article titled “Did Asheville councilman get a pass on mortgage rules?” in which he explored several what-ifs concerning Young’s banking arrangements, including what it would take to make SECU act on a false residency claim.

Burgess interviewed law professors at Chapel Hill and the University of Alabama, finally eliciting a response that, yes, intentional misrepresentation of occupancy could constitute fraud and result in the calling of the loan.  But he was also told that “No state or federal regulation would compel the credit union to take action.” And a SECU lending officer said it was unlikely his bank would investigate on its own.

The pair of articles generated little public comment though one AC-T reader said Young’s  “equivocation regarding his residency status is not acceptable” and that “. If Mayor Manheimer does not quickly resolve the issue, she risks having her own integrity damaged.”  Another called the coverage “borderline fake news” on social media.

An AU reader asked, “Why is a regional newspaper writing a story that will only serve to raise suspicion about a sitting City Council member when they clearly do not have their full proof?” And another AC-T reader commented that Young was due an apology.

Culling the progressive herd?

City government observers say the real story in all the intrigue is: who would stand to gain by bringing about Young’s ouster?

The most likely beneficiary, some are saying, is the super-progressive wing of city government, who may see Young’s performance on council to date as tepid and may be looking at ways of installing one of their own without having to go through an election.

Asheville’s city charter states that “Any vacancy in the office of Mayor or Council shall be filled by the Council for the remainder of the unexpired term from the qualified electors of the City of Asheville.”

In 2008, when Holly Jones departed council for a seat on county commission, the city advertised for candidate applications.  Council has also filled interim vacancies by appointing the fourth-highest vote getter – the first runner-up -- in the latest council election.  In the present case that would be Rich Lee, who has already announced his 2017 council candidacy and is actively campaigning.

In fact, Lee has already taken notice of the Young situation, coming to Young’s defense while staking out an early campaign position.  “This is the story of the affordability crisis and longtime black families being squeezed out of city limits.  Don’t you think a single father with two government jobs [Young is a deputy clerk of Superior Court] would have bought in Asheville if he could have?  … It breaks my heart … that someone would have the gall to go after him on this of all things.”

Lee, in other words, appeared to be accepting (some would say reinforcing) the idea that Young’s legal address was now Arden, despite Young’s own declaration to the contrary.

Another unsuccessful candidate, Grant Millin, called on Young to address the controversy.  “It is at the very least unwise for Asheville city council member Keith Young to make no detailed written public statement …” Millin said.

“[It] will be sad if Keith just sits back and stays quiet longer. This makes city council look like a free for all,” he added.

So …who is/are Incognito anyway?

Tied to the question of “Who benefits?” is “Who threw the bomb?”.  Was the gathering and mailing of the documents done alone, or is Incognito a team?

The types of materials used suggest ready access to office supplies and equipment.  (Clerical staff?) The choice of documents shows a grasp of personal finance law and city government, as well as a talent for research.  (A paralegal?  A city employee?)  The cover letter and the flyer are highly articulate and contain flawless grammar and punctuation (An attorney?  A journalist?  A former English major?)

The choice of recipients indicates a familiarity with both city council matters and local politics in general as well as possibly, an internal City employee who doesn’t seem to favor Mr. Young.

It’s a tantalizing puzzle, but only for now.  Unsolved puzzles can grow stale and be forgotten unless someone makes a deliberate effort to keep them fresh.  That’s why, observers say, it will be interesting to see whether anyone, makes an effort to keep the controversy alive.

Or whether Incognito’s bomb will simply fizzle out.
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Friday, February 10, 2017

City backpedals on South Charlotte Street “Brownfield”as affordable housing site

Suddenly adds two new locations as possibilities.  Changes follow AU story.
By Roger McCredie

After months of touting South Charlotte Street as the ideal place to spend $15 million in bond money for development of affordable housing – and getting public approval to do it – the city has announced it is now eyeing property at two other locations.

Following a Feb. 7 planning workshop, Asheville city council members and administrators said they will conduct development feasibility studies at locations on Biltmore Avenue and Riverside Drive, as well as at the Department of Public Works property on South Charlotte Street.

The change of plans occurred following a recent Asheville Unreported article in which a former public works employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, detailed the nature and extent of ground contamination at the South Charlotte Street site. (See “Bond’s Proposed Affordable Housing Site is ‘Toxic Swamp’,” January 28.)

The city now says it’s going to examine the old Matthews Ford property at 391 Biltmore Avenue and the old Asheville Ice House property at 91 Riverside Drive, in addition to the public works land.  And it wants to use proceeds from the recently-approved affordable housing bond to pay for the feasibility studies.

The city owns the Icehouse property, but the Biltmore Avenue property is owned by Duke Power Co.  The city has an option to purchase that site from Duke Power for a stated price of $5.3 million

Changing horses in midstream?

Development of the “South Charlotte Street Corridor,” as the city calls it, was, until the workshop, the only project the city had ever mentioned in its plans for the housing bond money.  (For that matter, no projects at all were identified when the city made the actual bond application.)  But it was the idea of repurposing the public works property for affordable housing that the city sold to Asheville voters in order to get its housing bond passed.    

The city’s vision for South Charlotte Street consists  – or up till now has consisted – of using incentives to entice a private developer to construct approximately 400 low income housing apartments on the public works site, once the existing building is razed and the site remediated.

Under that plan, $10 million of the housing bond’s value would go directly into the city’s housing trust fund; then, virtaully all of the remaining $15 million would be used to raze the existing public works building complex – the “Taj Garage,” which was just built in 1994 – and construct a brand new facility further down South Charlotte Street.

So, given the city’s determined pursuit of that idea, followers of the bond issue are now expressing surprise at the sudden inclusion of the two additional properties in the affordable housing mix, and say they are wondering exactly how the costs of three feasibility studies, as well as a possible land purchase, would impact those spending plans.

Especially since those costs would be in addition to the $500,000 that has been mentioned as the cost of cleaning up the site, which, it now appears, contains generations’ worth of solid waste infill as well as pesticide and leaded gasoline absorption.  The site is also bisected underground by an enormous, century-old culvert that, according to Asheville Unreported’s source, has never been upgraded or repaired and is “extremely fragile.”

“A known brownfield:” What does the city know, and how long has it known it?

After the Asheville Unreported toxic waste story appeared Mountain Xpress reporter Virginia Daffron said that Asheville Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball “has pointed out in public meetings that this site is a brownfield and would require remediation prior to public use.”

And a city of Asheville staff report says, in passing, “. "This specific initiative [South Charlotte Street] would also eliminate a known Brownfield’s [sic] site, therefore, eliminating a potential environmental concern."

But the general public, it seems, thinks the term “brownfield” is synonymous with “vacant lot” or at most designates a fallow area that will need some tidying up and preparation before being usable.  In fact, “brownfield” means something much more complicated to developers.  In the words of the State of North Carolina, “A ‘brownfields site’ is an abandoned, idled or underused property where the threat of environmental contamination has hindered its redevelopment.”

Moreover, the state has a program in place for the rehabilitation of such sites:

The North Carolina Brownfields Program, which is administered by the Division of Waste Management, is the state's effort to break this barrier to the redevelopment of these sites. The Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997 [NCGS 130A310.30 et seq.] sets forth the authority for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to work with prospective developers to put these brownfields sites back into reuse. The prospective developer, as defined under the statute, is any person who desires to buy or sell a brownfields property for the purpose of redeveloping it and who did not cause or contribute to the contamination at the property. (Source:  North Carolina Department of Waste Management; emphasis added)

In other words, the state would consider the city fully liable for the cleanup of any brownfield it intended to develop on its own, but would cut some slack to a third-party developer. In fact, the DWM goes on to say:

At the heart of the program is the brownfields agreement -- in effect, a covenant not-to-sue offered to a prospective developer of a brownfields property. Under a brownfields agreement, a prospective developer agrees to perform those actions deemed by the department to be essential to make the property suitable for the proposed reuse.

In return, the department agrees to limit the liability of the prospective developer to those actions described in the agreement. This allows the prospective developer to go to a lending institution with a defined, instead of an open-ended, liability for environmental cleanup. 

And finally:

The Act provides the department with the discretion to enter into brownfields agreements. Furthermore, it specifically states that there must be a 'public benefit commensurate with the liability protection provided' under the brownfields agreement.

“Public benefit” would of course include the construction of affordable housing.

Some have opined that by examining additional properties, the city is trying to hedge its position now that public awareness of the condition of the South Charlotte Street site has increased. Others say the city may have realized, post-referendum, that it was painting itself into a corner with the South Charlotte plan and felt the need to leave itself an out.

No affordable housing anytime soon

Brownfields, the DWM goes on to say, are notoriously expensive and time consuming to clean up, hence the break for developers.  And it is not yet known whether any contamination is present at the Biltmore Avenue and Riverside Drive street sites.

And at Tuesday’s workshop, Planning Director Cathy Ball indicated that studies and assessments of the various sites under consideration could take as much as a year.  Projected costs for them were not forthcoming.

From all this, analysts say, one thing is apparent: bond or no bond, there is no clear pathway at present towards relief of Asheville’s affordable housing crisis, in terms of either homes or rental units.

City's Affordable Housing Options - Pick Your Poison: Toxic Swamp vs. Floodway

In addition to the toxic swamp site the City first picked for its affordable housing location, the other site known as the former Ice House (91 Riverside Drive) is within the floodway.  The City would have to ask FEMA to lift the deed restrictions which currently are only for "open space and flood sensitive construction that supports park operations and/or riverfront recreation."  These deed restrictions are in place because the City purchased the land with FEMA money for $380,000 and because it is in a floodway, parks and recreation are the only allowed use.  Permanent housing for residents is considered hazardous.

The City's original intent was to keep this space as a park as written up in the 2014 Riverfront Redevelopment Plan, page 11.
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