Active: Federal lawsuit filed to restore equal treatment on city advisory board

John Miall’s personal and professional background is long, distinguished, and completely rooted in Asheville, North Carolina.

Born, raised, and educated in Asheville, John spent nearly 30 years working for the City of Asheville, including as its Director of Risk Management for several of those years, where he secured many historic firsts for the city’s health and benefit plans. John also co-founded The Asheville Project®, a community-based health care program for the city’s workforce that launched in 1997 and became a national model for improving patient care at lower costs, evolving into what’s known today as value-based insurance design.

Although John retired from city government in 2006 and continued working as a private sector consultant, his passion for public service has never abated. His post-retirement stints have so far included chairman of Asheville’s Civil Service Board, mayoral candidate, and candidate for City Council.

A new opportunity to volunteer for public service arose in 2018, when the City Council established the Human Relations Commission of Asheville (HRCA) to promote human relations throughout the city.

John felt his decades of municipal experience and a boundless desire to serve his community would be a natural fit for the commission. Nevertheless, when John applied for one of the vacant seats in early 2023, the City Council rejected his application—because of his race.

The HRCA initially contained quotas, requiring the City Council to populate the 15-member board with specific numbers of people from specific classifications of people, such as African Americans, Latinx, LGBTQ members, “professionals with influence,” youth members, a representative from each of the city’s geographical areas, public housing residents, and individuals with disabilities.

In 2022, amid struggles to fill vacancies and reach a quorum, the city revamped the HRCA, reducing the number of seats to nine. The city also removed the numeric race quotas from the HRCA’s membership requirements but replaced them with equally discriminatory race-based membership preferences. What remains is a de facto race quota in which the city prefers individuals from certain races.

In addition to John, the city declined to appoint four other Asheville residents who wish to contribute their skills and experiences as HRCA members. The group represents diversity of professions, backgrounds, and interests, but as with John, the city denied them equal consideration to serve the public because of their race.

  • Robyn Hite serves on the North Buncombe Elementary Parent Teacher Organization board and is a past president of the North Windy Ridge Parent Teacher Organization.
  • David Shaw works as a sales manager for a construction company. He earned an MBA from Western Carolina University and is working on a master’s degree in social work. He also interns in the women’s behavioral health unit at a local hospital, where he provides group therapy and support to patients.
  • Willa Grant taught at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Blue Ridge Community College. She currently serves the Western North Carolina Rescue Mission, mentoring homeless citizens and helping them obtain housing.
  • Danie Johnson is an architect who started his own firm in Asheville in 1974. He designs commercial and residential buildings throughout the city and across North Carolina.

No government commission or committee should use an individual’s race or ethnicity to determine who gets the opportunity to serve their public. Treating people according to immutable characteristics like race violates the very notion of equality before the law. People should be treated as individuals, not as members of a group they did not choose.

With free representation by Pacific Legal Foundation, John, Robyn, David, Willa, and Danie are fighting back. Their federal lawsuit challenges the HRCA’s race-based membership criteria as violating the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. Their victory would ensure that the best-qualified candidates can compete equally for any city advisory board, regardless of race.

What’s At Stake?

  • Treating people according to immutable characteristics like race violates the very notion of equality before the law. People should be treated as individuals, not as members of a group they did not choose.
  • The City of Asheville cannot disfavor individuals based on race who want to serve the public. Doing so unfairly discounts people’s experiences and qualifications based on arbitrary and offensive assumptions about race.

Case Timeline