Buncombe Commissioners split over powerful new board appointees

Over the course of tense Oct. 1 deliberations, the board of commissioners named three of its own members and four additional community leaders to oversee a powerful new government entity that will manage the county’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities.

Vice Chair Holly Jones was incensed at the conclusion of the proceedings, which resulted in her losing a seat on the new seven-member board of the Culture and Recreation Authority (CRA). With Commissioner Brownie Newman electing to step down, Jones’ denial means that the new board won’t include any commissioners from District 1, which encompasses Asheville.

Commissioners created the new authority Aug. 6, initially appointing themselves to serve as its interim board while the county sought out other applicants. On Oct. 1, as commissioners wrestled with the proper procedural way to appoint members to full terms, Jones suggested that all commissioners except for Chairman David Gantt resign from their interim positions so that none of them would be put in the awkward position of being kicked-off. Then, Jones suggested, they could hold votes to elect those commissioners interested in continuing to serve – including herself – through a separate voting process.

However, after resigning one by one, from left to right from where they sat, the final commissioner in line, Ellen Frost, refused to cede her seat. She provided no explanation other than saying, “I want to stay on.”

Commissioner Newman proceeded to nominate Jones for a seat on the board. In turn, Commissioner David King nominated fellow District 3 Commissioner Joe Belcher for a seat.

Jones and Belcher then proceeded to make their case to their colleagues.

Jones noted that the original purpose of creating the authority was to consolidate county parks and recreation facilities with those of Asheville and other local municipalities. Although state legislators later revised the law to disallow cities from joining, Jones argued that it would be good to have someone from Asheville on the board to help represent the city’s interests and bring the governments together.

“We know that the community is hungry for collaboration,” she maintained. “It’s important that city residents are represented.” 

She also noted that commissioners have only appointed her to serve on one other board – the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, which deals with transportation planning issues. In comparison, Belcher already serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Sewage District, Tourism Development Authority and the Economic Development Commission.

“I’ve got a lot of room and interest in my schedule for this,” said Jones. “I would do a really good job.”

Belcher countered that he wants to serve on the CRA board in order “to make sure we’re being good stewards of the county’s money” and to take “care of the county’s needs in a way that’s visionary.”

Commissioners then voted 4-3 to appoint Belcher, a Republican, over Jones, a Democrat. With no explanation, Gantt split with his own Democratic party to join Republican Commissioners Mike Fryar and King in voting for Belcher. Democrats Frost and Newman voted for Jones.

Jones looked dismayed at the results, although she offered no comment.

Meanwhile, Newman hinted at back room negotiations that took place before the meeting, noting: “I think there seems to be a lot of agreement that we don’t want to have more than three members of the board serve, because that would be a majority.” If commissioners appointed four or more of themselves to serve on the new authority, it would amount to “a subcommittee of the board,” he asserted.

King revealed that “commissioners are a little bit nervous” about creating the authority in the first place, saying he hopes “that it meets the needs of all the citizens.”

If not, he cautioned, “This board also has the power to pull the plug on this,” disbanding the entity completely.

On July 18, as part of the county’s overall budget, commissioners approved a special 3.5 cent property tax to fund its operations.

Belcher was appointed to a three year term on the CRA. By declining to step down from their initial interim positions, Gantt and Frost are also scheduled to serve for three years each, with Gantt now serving in a dual role as chair of both the commissioners and the new authority.

In addition, commissioners selected four appointees out of 26 applicants to join them on the CRA: Eleanor Johnson and Karen Tessier were appointed to two-year terms; George Briggs and Matthew Kern were appointed to one-year terms. Commissioners conducted interviews with those four successful applicants as well as Leslie Anderson and Bill Russell earlier that day. None of them spoke during the meeting.

None of the four citizen appointees live in District 1, according to Newman.

This post will be updated soon with more information about each of the four successful appointees.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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