(Photo: Left to right — Don Guge, Holly Jones, Brownie Newman; photo by Max Cooper)
On one drizzly, first-of-October evening, the three candidates for District 1, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, gathered in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium in downtown Asheville. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County and one of a series, the forum gave Republican Don Guge and Democrats Holly Jones and Brownie Newman a chance to meet voters and answer questions.
Responding to audience questions presented by moderator and Clear Channel News Director Jerri Jameson, the candidates voiced relative agreement on such topics as creating jobs, providing school lunches, combining city and county services and using eminent domain.
When asked about generating business opportunities in the county, former Asheville City Council member Newman, for example, gave a nod to the Canadian manufacturer Linamar’s expansion and New Belgium Brewing Co. locating here as successes to build on. Jones, the incumbent commissioner, noted that part of these recent successes “has been because a lot of our planners have been on the same page.” She praised Advantage West and other economic development organizations in the area.
But Guge, a Woodfin detective and U.S. Army veteran, reminded everyone, “You’ve got to understand: We have certain people in this county [who] do not have the education” for certain jobs. The return of manufacturing, he said, would bring more money to many workers than tourist-industry wages.
Asked about money-saving opportunities for city-county cooperation, Jones saw obvious areas in parks and recreation, and in purchasing. Guge suggested looking at the two school systems, noting there are two administrative staffs, and there are students living in Asheville but attending county schools. Newman suggested looking at more cooperation in education, law enforcement and the planning departments.
But adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s non-discrimination policy drew less unanimity. “I am against discrimination in its entirety,” said Guge, “but when are we going to stop creating these lists?” Jones— who introduced a non-discrimination clause before the commission this year — said plainly that she supports it. “I’m hearing from employees of that community that they want this,” Jones said.
“We owe it to our public employees,” Newman concurred.
As for providing school lunches to those in need and supporting efforts to combat childhood obesity, the candidates agreed again. “I see no better use of public dollars,” said Jones. “I definitely have no problem on that,” said Guge, and Newman made it unanimous: “I think these things are not a frivolous nicety.”
But asked to discuss sustainability, Newman, Jones and Guge came at it from different angles. “I think we need to reduce the debt we have,” said Guge. Newman — vice president for local solar company FLS Energy — took the environmental view, noting that this is something people care about a lot, and said he’d like to focus on energy sustainability. Jones said she’d look at ways to promote local food and build up transportation corridors, plus she’d like to try to find areas that would provide economic savings.
Would these three candidates support a public-access television channel? Guge and Jones agreed that the first step is figuring out where the money would come from. “I would love to have it,” said Guge, “but that would be something we’d have to sit down and look at in totality.”
And is the county going to spend $40,000 just for greenways? Untrue, said Jones. Commissioners adopted a greenway plan but no funding has been set aside. The hope is to bring public and private dollars together at a future date, she explained.
Newman, who lives near greenways along the French Broad River, dubbed himself a “big fan” and said, “It’s amazing how everyone uses these facilities.” Funding greenway projects is a relatively small investment in the big scheme of things, he said.
“I’m all for greenways,” said Guge, but said he feels the money can be better spent on such pressing issues as helping the homeless.
Would any of the candidates support using emiment domain to acquire greenway properties? “No,” said Guge. “That’s not an option,” said Jones. Newman said he would look for strong support and perhaps donations from landowners, but he did note that eminent domain is a legal option for acquiring property for public purpose.
Newman was asked about his involvement with FLS’ solar-panel bid for a Buncombe County Schools project. Newman replied, “We submitted [a bid]. It was very transparent.” He explained that if he were a commissioner, “I am prohibited” from entering such contracts.
For more, a video of the entire evening has been posted on the League’s website. Co-sponsors of the event were 880/The Revolution and 570/WWNC, Mountain Xpress, The Urban News, and Carolina Public.
The next forum — for Commission District 2 and House District 115 — will be held 6:30-8:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 10, at the Black Mountain Library. The following Monday, the League will hold one for Commission District 3 and House District 116 ( 6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 17, at the Skyland Fire Department). All forums are free and open to the public.