(The Center Square) – The city of Asheville is facing a federal lawsuit over appointments to its Human Relations Commission that five white residents say discriminate against them because of their race.
In an amended complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, retired Asheville employee John Miall and four others say the city has violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause by applying racial preferences when considering their applications, despite struggles to fill the positions.
“It’s wrong for the government to treat people differently because of the color of their skin,” Jessica Thompson, attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation representing the residents, told The Center Square. “It’s particularly egregious to deny individuals the opportunity to participate in our system of government based on race.”
The city established the voluntary 15-member commission in 2018 to “promote and improve human relations and achieve equity among all citizens in the city by carrying out the city’s human relations program,” initially with racial numerical quotas for membership, according to the lawsuit.
The quotas were later removed at the advice of a city attorney and consultant who explained they violate state and federal law. The numerical quotas were then replaced with racial and demographic categories that effectively exclude white residents that do not fit into one of them.
“Under the HRCA’s membership criteria, the City Council will not endeavor to appoint white residents unless they also satisfy a separate category, such as being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a youth member, disabled, living in public housing, or recognized as a community leader,” the lawsuit reads. “On the other hand, the City Council will automatically prefer minority applicants without requiring those applicants to satisfy a separate category.”
In January, the City Council reduced the number of members on the commission to nine and allowed up to three non-city residents in Buncombe County to participate due to struggles securing a quorum. The city solicited applications for four positions in February that required those who apply to identify their race, as well as backgrounds, education and other factors that demonstrate their interest in human relations.
Miall and the other plaintiffs submitted applications by the April 30 deadline, and all were passed over in June, Thompson said. Two other applicants were selected and the city again advertised for open positions.
Miall, a lifelong Asheville resident, worked for the city for three decades, including a stint as the director of Risk Management, a position he leveraged to boost the city’s health and benefits plans. Other applicant plaintiffs include a past leader of a local parent teacher organization, a graduate student working in behavioral health, a local community college instructor who mentors homeless citizens, and an architect who designs commercial and residential buildings in the city.
“They never asked me a thing,” Miall said in a release. “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.”
Ashville’s motion to dismiss the case, filed on Sept. 14, says the applicants were not rejected because of race and their applications “are still pending with the city.”
“Applicants for advisory boards, like HRCA, are expressly told at the time of the applications that they will remain listed as active applicants for consideration … for a period of one year after the date of their application,” it read.
“The City’s Attorney’s office is currently reviewing the amended complaint but vehemently denies any allegation of discrimination,” Asheville spokeswoman Kim Miller told The Center Square in an email. “It is our intention to defend the City’s interests in the suit vigorously. Beyond this, it is our policy not to comment on active litigation.”
The city is expected to again consider applications at a meeting set for Oct. 10, though Thompson said the lawsuit will continue until the city’s ordinance stipulating the racial preferences is fixed. The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Wednesday to prevent Asheville from making appointments using the racial preferences at the Oct. 10 meeting.
“We are seeking a class action certification for all who have applied and been rejected,” Thompson said. “We will fight to continue the lawsuit until the city of Asheville removes those race-based preferences.”