It's 7 a.m. at a Council of Independent Business Owners breakfast at Biltmore Square Mall. Candidates, business owners and others watch as Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt faces off against Republican challenger J.B. Howard.
Howard isn’t mincing any words, attacking an incentives package for New Belgium Brewing, the county's current debt level and the recently approved Greenways and Trails Master Plan. If elected, he says, greenways would be his “1,000th priority.”
Gantt, meanwhile, touts the county's AAA bond rating, relatively low taxes (73rd in the state, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners), and the recent arrival of companies like Linamar and New Belgium. The incumbent says that his top priority is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” and the county's commitment to creating the necessary infrastructure has helped generate them.
It's just one skirmish in this highly unusual campaign season. The county's first district elections have spawned more candidates than ever before — and increased controversy concerning the board's policies and conduct.
A new game
In 2008, Buncombe County’s governing body consisted of four commissioners and a chair, all elected at large. This system tended to produce a board dominated by centrist Democrats, with progressives or conservatives from either party occasionally winning seats.
But last year, Rep. Tim Moffitt sponsored a bill that rewrote the way the county does elections. It expanded the board to seven members: two commissioners representing each of three districts, plus a chair elected at large. Local Republicans had long called for district elections, but the unsolicited mandate from Raleigh was an unprecedented step that left many county residents, particularly Democrats, fuming.
Some Democratic candidates say they're still committed to representing the whole county. “I am adamantly opposed to carving our community up along arbitrary political lines,” proclaims Commissioner Holly Jones, who’s seeking a second term. “I don't see any difference in how I do my job.”
Democrat Michelle Pace Wood says, “I have connections throughout my district, but what we do is also going to affect the whole county.”
Not all Democrats dislike the new system, however. “What the state Legislature did, going to district representation, is good,” says Terry Van Duyn. “It can't but bring more voices to the table and give folks in areas who felt they haven't had a voice a stronger voice.”
Still, Republican candidates tend to view the new system more favorably than their opponents.
“I've heard people talk about the frustration that they're not being represented,” notes Republican Christina Kelley G. Merrill, saying she aims to speak for the people outside the city limits. “The spend-more/tax-more/restrict-more mentality doesn't represent a majority of the people that live outside the city of Asheville,” Merrill asserts.
Fellow Republican David King feels each commissioner should stand up for his or her district, bringing those residents’ needs before the full board for consideration when countywide decisions are being made.
And Republican Joe Belcher says, “When the three districts were formed, I saw that as an opportunity to serve the county.
Other candidates emphasize differences even within a single district. “If [opponents Jones and Brownie Newman] win,” quips Republican Don Guge, “that means the whole district is run from Montford.”
Republicans’ first steps
If big change is looming in 2013 as the new board members take their seats, what form might it take? For Republican candidates, the focus seems to be on cutting spending and reducing regulation.
“I think everyone's worried about the debt the county's incurred in just a few short years,” says Merrill, who also pledges to take aim at the current lighting and zoning ordinances, which she feels are too restrictive. For all the GOP candidates, a major priority is repealing zoning and other rules that they say impede business growth.
“I think about the money that's been squandered,” says Howard. “People are going to see a reduction of regulations that restrict positive growth, such as zoning. The present board concentrates its efforts toward the ultraliberal constituency. I think services should be spread across all the citizens in this county.”
In many cases, Howard maintains, schools can be built and other infrastructure provided in simpler form at lower cost.
Mike Fryar, too, says the county needs to spend less and stop taking on debt. He also wants to repeal the quarter-cent sales-tax increase approved by voters last year to fund capital projects at A-B Tech.
“It's like kids,” he observes. “You have to say no when they want candy sometimes.”
Guge says his focus is jobs, specifically manufacturing jobs, though he parts company with some other GOP candidates by supporting the A-B Tech sales tax. But the county's current approach to economic development, he believes, focuses too much on jobs aimed at trained workers.
“What they've been bringing in are real specialized,” Guge points out. “Not everyone has degrees; not everyone can afford to go to college. And even though the tourism industry creates jobs, he maintains, “People can’t ... make a living.”
Both King and Belcher declined to name concrete policies they'd pursue at the beginning of their term, saying they’d mostly devote that time to learning the ropes.
“I think the first six months in leadership are looking at the county and what other people want you to do,” says Belcher, adding that his business experience will give him an edge over his opponents.
“The first six months are going to be a learning process,” King predicts. “I'm not going to make quick judgments without review and getting the facts. One thing I've learned while running is that things are very fluid: The answer I give today may not even be on the agenda.”
Democrats’ first steps
Many Democratic candidates, however, feel the county's financial situation is healthy enough to justify spending on what they see as necessary infrastructure and services.
“We're coming out of the greatest downturn since the Great Depression, but I think we're moving in the right direction,” says Gantt, promising “an extensive public discussion” about key issues facing Buncombe County in a series of public meetings after the election.
Jones, meanwhile, promises “an aggressive approach toward affordable housing” during the first six months, saying she wants to find “a predictable stream of revenue to support that goal.”
Newman, a Democrat who served two terms on Asheville City Council, also wants to move ahead with the county's greenway plan and an energy-efficiency program; both, he maintains, will save money.
“I want to commit Buncombe County to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent,” says Newman. “That's a policy commitment Asheville has made and [the city has] made significant strides toward achieving that.”
Wood proposes a loan fund to help small businesses buy or improve their buildings. Such programs, she notes, have typically focused on attracting larger corporations.
“You can't use a ton of money, but right now, small business is having a problem with capital,” she maintains. “We have a lot of vacant commercial space, and subcontractors need work.”
Van Duyn feels the county has managed to improve services by partnering with outside agencies such as the Council on Aging and WNC Community Health Services.
"One of Buncombe County's strengths is that they're very collaborative," she says. "I'm going to continue to emphasize those collaborations. That's been effective for us, and it will continue to be effective in the future.”
For her part, Ellen Frost sharply disagrees with the GOP candidates’ aversion to spending.
“There seems to be a desire to take things away,” she observes. “I frankly think our budget, especially with a triple-A bond rating, is extraordinary. When people start taking about taking away services, my question is who they're going to take it away from? The elderly person? The child?”
Carol Peterson did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. On the campaign trail, however, she’s touted the commissioners’ record, including the A-B Tech sales-tax referendum.
All the Democratic candidates except Peterson said one of their first acts would be specifically banning discrimination against county employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. All the Republicans say they oppose such a move. When the issue came before the commissioners this year, Belcher (who’s touted his conservative Christian credentials throughout the campaign) said that, as a Christian, he is part of a persecuted minority.
A culture of secrecy?
In recent years, the commissioners have been much less prone to publicly debating among themselves than their counterparts at City Hall.
But that's changed, especially in the last six months, as Jones and other board members have clashed over their own pay, staff longevity incentives and other issues.
There have also been calls for increased transparency and more public comment at board meetings; some Republicans and conservatives say the commissioners make important decisions without soliciting sufficient input. Candidates from both parties say some changes are needed, though they may disagree about the details.
At a recent League of Women Voters forum, Jones promised to “keep pushing the envelope” if re-elected.
“There are areas of improvement around transparency and open government,” Jones told Xpress. She thinks the commissioners should take a more active role in framing policy. “We can work in partnership with staff, but let's be a little more at the front of the parade as opposed to the back.” County Manager Wanda Greene sets the commissioners’ agenda, but the board could decide to change that.
Newman, who's running in the same district, says the commisioners have done some good things but that the “culture of secrecy” needs to change.
Republican candidate Fryar, a longtime critic of the commissioners, helped focus attention on their unusually high pay rates in 2011.
“We've got 240,000 people in Buncombe County, and they've got all these perks, but they're turning people down who just want to give a singlewide to their grandchild,” he says. “How's anybody call that working for the people? When I spend 20 hours a week volunteering at the VA, I don't make a dime.”
Howard, too, wants to see increased public comment and a minimum of closed sessions. Guge concurs, though he dismisses Jones' concerns about longevity bonuses for county employees as grandstanding.
Peterson has defended the commissioners' actions in board meetings, where she's clashed sharply with Jones. When Jones raised the issue of changing the discrimination policy, Peterson supported going into closed session; on another occasion, she tearfully objected to questions about the longevity-pay policy.
“We clearly need more public input,” says Belcher. “It opens up the commissioners to some more criticism, but that's part of the job.”
Frost wants the county and the commissioners to rely more on social media and new technology to keep the public informed.
Gantt, the target of some of this criticism, acknowledges that “Any time people feel we're not being open or transparent enough, that's a problem.”
As election season enters its final weeks, things have heated up, with Republicans funding a series of ads mocking Jones and Democrats hitting the ground running in get out the vote and fundraising efforts.
Early voting begins Oct. 18, and though it’s an open question which candidates will win, one thing seems clear: Whatever the outcome, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is facing major change.
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.