Asheville moves to dismiss white applicants’ lawsuit over advisory commission membership

Plaintiff John Miall stands before Asheville City Hall. (Image submitted by WNC Citizens for Equality)

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  • The city of Asheville has moved to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by five white applicants for the city's Human Relations Commission. The city disputes the plaintiffs' argument that they were rejected because of their race.
  • Asheville's lawyers wrote that all five plaintiffs remain active candidates for the commission. The city council is expected to fill commission vacancies on Oct. 10.
  • The city also disputes the lawsuit's characterization of the rules governing commission membership. Asheville has revised commission membership rules twice since 2022.

The city of Asheville wants a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit from five white applicants for the city’s Human Relations Commission. City officials dispute the plaintiffs’ argument that they were rejected from the group because of their race.

“[A]ll five of the Plaintiffs’ applications for appointment to the Human Relations Commission of Asheville … are still pending with the City,” according to the motion filed Thursday. “Applicants for advisory boards, like HRCA, are expressly told at the time of their applications that they will remain listed as active applicants for consideration for appointment for a period of one year after the date of their application.”

“It is anticipated that the City Council for the City of Asheville will fill the current vacancies on the HRCA at its meeting on October 10, 2023,” the motion continued.

“The City Ordinance pertaining to the composition of the HRCA, Section 2-185.25, was heavily modified on two occasions, first in 2022 to remove any minimum level of diversity among the HRCA’s membership, and again in 2023 to reduce the number of HRCA members from 15 to 9,” the city argued. “None of the Plaintiffs ever applied for appointment to the HRCA prior to the passing of the 2022 and 2023 revisions to Section 2-185.25 of the City Code.”

In a lawsuit filed Sept. 5 in US District Court, the five plaintiffs argued that the city rejected them for the commission because they are white.

Asheville’s Human Relations Commission, created in 2018, is a volunteer group designed to “promote and improve human relations and achieve equity among all citizens in the city by carrying out the city’s human relations program,” according to the complaint.

City rules dictate that eight of the group’s 15 members will be black or “Latinx,” according to the lawsuit. Rules also specify that the board also must include two “members of the LGBTQ community,” two adults from 18-25 years old, two or three people who live in public housing, two people “with a disability,” and three people “recognized as community leaders.”

In June 2022, the commission tabled a recommendation from Asheville’s city attorney to remove the group’s racial qualifications. At the time, commission chair Tanya Rodriguez explained her “concern that ‘our color isn’t diluted out of the Commission,’” according to the complaint.

The commission publicized at least four open positions in February 2023. All five plaintiffs applied.

“Plaintiffs did not meet Defendants’ racial criteria nor the other criteria of being disabled, living in public housing, between the ages of 25 and 18, a member of the LGBTQ community, nor were Plaintiffs ‘recognized community leaders’ as Defendants considered that term,” according to the suit.

Asheville rejected the plaintiffs’ applications in June, plaintiffs argued. “At no time prior to rejecting Plaintiffs’ applications did Defendants communicate with Plaintiffs regarding their interest in the HRCA; nor did they seek any further information from the Plaintiffs regarding their qualifications to serve on the HRCA,” the complaint explained.

“Rather than appoint Plaintiffs to the HRCA, Defendants elected to leave the open positions vacant and re-advertise the openings in the hopes of obtaining applicants who met Defendants’ criteria,” according to the suit.

“At all relevant times, Defendants excluded white persons from serving on the HRCA unless they could qualify under … additional criteria,” the plaintiffs argued. “In effect, white applicants must demonstrate a ‘plus factor’ (age, homosexual/ transgender, disability status, public housing resident, or community leader) before being qualified for service.”

“Defendants conspired with each other to organize and administer the HRCA in a way that was discriminatory on the basis of race and ethnicity,” the complaint argued. “At all relevant times, Defendants were, and continue to be, aware that its organization and administration of the HRCA which discriminated and will continue to discriminate against applicants on the basis of race and ethnicity was and continues to be a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

“They never asked me a thing,” said plaintiff John Miall, in a news release from the Asheville-based group WNC Citizens for Equality. “They just took one look at my skin color and rejected me. I have a lot to offer, but that doesn’t matter, I guess.” 

“The City’s actions here are absolutely unconstitutional,” added attorney Ruth Smith, who represents the five plaintiffs. “The city cannot offer civic opportunities to some persons, and deny it to others, based on race. What’s more, the city is well aware that their actions are illegal. Their own lawyer told them as much last year, but the city ignored her.”

WNC Citizens for Equality also sued Asheville in recent years after the city established “racially discriminatory” scholarships for city high school students and teachers, according to the news release. The city “backtracked and settled” with the group, which bills itself as a local watchdog.