On second thought

Equal status: Blue Ridge Pride organizer Yvonne Cook-Riley, left, speaks with the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director for the Campaign for Southern Equality. Buncombe commissioners voted 4-3 to add protections for the county’s LGBT employees. photo by Caitlin Byrd
Equal status: Blue Ridge Pride organizer Yvonne Cook-Riley, left, speaks with the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director for the Campaign for Southern Equality. Buncombe commissioners voted 4-3 to add protections for the county’s LGBT employees. photo by Caitlin Byrd

As members of the community stood before Buncombe County commissioners with Bibles in hand, legal statutes in folders and opinions in mind, public comment took a personal turn when it came to adding protections for LGBT employees.

“This is not a civil-rights situation. The Bible is the bottom line,” said the Rev. Wendell Runion.

“This is more than a fairness issue: It is a moral issue,” argued Yvonne Cook-Riley, who spoke on behalf of Blue Ridge Pride.

Swannanoa resident Chris Oaks told commissioners, “If you do [vote for this ordinance], the blood will be on your hands for sending these people to hell.”

In total, 15 people spoke during the public comment session, which took place before county commissioners voted 4-3 to approve the resolution that expands Buncombe’s existing nondiscrimination clause. Currently, county workers are protected from discrimination based on age, color, race, sex and religion. The new resolution adds an extra layer of protection, safeguarding workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Less than a year ago, the proposal came before commissioners but failed with a 3-2 vote.

This time, the final vote split the other way: Democrats David Gantt, Ellen Frost, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman supported the expanded policy, and Republicans Joe Belcher, Mike Fryar and David King voted against it.

“I want to make sure that there’s no question about it,” said Gantt. “There’s absolutely [an] unequivocal policy on who we will not permit discrimination against. We hope it’s against no one.”

But Belcher said he did not know if now was the right time to make a decision on the countywide policy.

County attorney Michael Frue noted that Senate Bill 612, recently introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, could block the county’s efforts. As the “Regulatory Reform Act of 2013,” SB 612 focuses on “fast track permitting for certain environmental permits,” such as natural-gas fracking, but it might extend into other aspects of county ordinances, said Frue.

His concern comes from Part II of the bill, which reads, “A city ordinance shall be consistent with the Constitution and laws of North Carolina and the United States. An ordinance is not consistent with the State or federal law when: The ordinance regulates a field that is also regulated by a State or federal statute or regulation and the ordinance is more stringent than the State or federal statute or regulation.”

Newman remarked, “We can’t control what [the state does], but we can control what we believe in Buncombe County.”

But King said he shared Belcher’s hesitation, and urged the board to wait. He asked that commissioners allow for “a little time to make sure that this [resolution] doesn’t get struck down if this [bill] is enacted.”

Jones said she appreciated their concerns. But, she emphasized, “If Raleigh wants to come in and yank rights away from our people, I say bring it. … I’m going to go on a premise, maybe it’s a naïve premise, that [SB 612] was not written to keep LGBT people from being harassed and fired.”

Still, Belcher then made a motion to table the discussion on the resolution until the June 18 commissioners meeting, but it failed 4-3 on a partisan vote.

Commissioners subsequently voted 4-3 to pass the nondiscrimination resolution. Because the action changes county policy and was not a supermajority, commissioners must vote on this policy again on April 12.

Other business

• Commissioners unanimously approved a budget amendment that gives $40,000 annually for the next five years as part of a larger effort to bring an Ironman competition to the area. Asheville Sports Commission Director Ben VanCamp urged commissioners to consider the economic impact of such an event, which would consist of a 2.4-mile swim, an 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. VanCamp estimated that the event could infuse up to $15 million into the local economy and bring nearly 6,000 people to the Asheville area.

• Commissioners unanimously approved rezoning a 1.78-acre property between Gossett Road and Smokey Park Highway. The request came from The Rev. Scott Rogers of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. He told the board that ABCCM plans to build a crisis ministry and health clinic on the site. Residents in the neighborhood said they were worried about the increase in traffic and a possible spike in drug-related crime. However, Rogers stressed that this would not be the case, saying that the clinical practice would act as a primary-care facility that serves the Enka-Candler area. He estimates that the clinic would have the capacity to see 40 patients daily.

• The board proclaimed April as Child Abuse Prevention month. Last year, the Buncombe County Department of Social Services received reports of child abuse and neglect that involved 3,985 children. Director of Child Abuse Prevention Services Bill McGuire noted, “Abuse literally crosses all lines, and knows no boundaries.”

• The board also proclaimed April as Smart Justice month. As part of the proclamation, residents are encouraged to learn more about the criminal justice and court programs in Buncombe County. Director of Buncombe County Pretrial Services Kim Gordon noted that a Smart Justice fair will take place April 20 in lot one (adjacent to the Buncombe County correctional facilities).

• Commissioners honored Warren Wilson College men’s basketball team members on their U.S. Collegiate Athletics Association national championship for Division II.

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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