Amid tense deliberations on Oct. 1, the Board of Commissioners named three of its own members and four other prominent community members to oversee a powerful new government entity that will manage the county's libraries, parks and other recreational facilities.
When it was over, Vice Chair Holly Jones said she was "incensed" about losing her seat on the new Culture and Recreation Authority’s seven-member board. That leaves the CRA board with no commissioner from District 1, which encompasses most of Asheville. None of the other appointees lives in District 1 either, noted Jones.
The commissioners created the new Authority Aug. 6, after state legislators had passed a law paving the way for the change. Initially, the commissioners appointed themselves to serve as the CRA’s interim board while the county sought other applicants. And on Oct. 1, as commissioners tried to figure out the best procedure for appointing members to full terms, Jones suggested that everyone except Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt resign from their interim positions so that none would be put in the awkward position of getting kicked off.
She then proposed having the commissioners vote for their colleagues (including Jones herself) who wanted to continue serving on the CRA board.
But after they’d resigned one by one, the last remaining commissioner, Ellen Frost, refused to cede her seat. The District 2 representative gave no explanation other than "I want to stay on." That effectively left one seat up for grabs, since (as District 1 Commissioner Brownie Newman made clear later in the meeting) the commissioners were reluctant to give themselves a voting majority on the new board.
Newman nominated Jones for the seat, and Commissioner David King proposed fellow District 3 representative Joe Belcher. The two nominees then proceeded to make their respective cases to their colleagues.
Jones pointed out that the original idea for the Authority was to consolidate county parks and recreation facilities with those of Asheville and other neighboring municipalities. Although state legislators later revised the law to ban cities from joining, Jones argued that it would be good to have someone from Asheville on the board to represent the city's interests and help bring the local governments together.
"We know that the community is hungry for collaboration," she maintained, adding, "It's important that city residents are represented."
Jones also noted that the commissioners have appointed her to serve on only one other board — the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, which deals with transportation issues. Belcher, on the other hand, already serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Sewerage District, the Tourism Development Authority and the Economic Development Coalition.
"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 wanted to serve on the CRA board "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."
The commissioners then appointed Belcher, a Republican, over Jones, a Democrat, on a 4-3 vote. With no explanation, Gantt split with his own party, joining Republicans Mike Fryar and King in supporting Belcher. Democrats Frost and Newman voted for Jones, who looked dismayed at the outcome, though she made no immediate comment.
Newman, hinting that backroom negotiations had taken place before the meeting, said, "There seems to be a lot of agreement that we don't want to have more than three [commissioners] serve, because that would be a majority." In effect, he asserted, it would make the new body "a subcommittee of the board [of commissioners].”
King, meanwhile, said, "Commissioners are a little bit nervous" about creating the Authority to begin with, adding that he hopes "it meets the needs of all the citizens."
If not, he cautioned, "This board also has the power to pull the plug on [the CRA]," disbanding it outright.
At their July 18 meeting, the commissioners had approved a special 3.5-cent property tax to fund the new Authority’s operations, as part of the overall county budget.
Belcher, Gantt and Frost will serve three-year terms, with Gantt now chairing both the Board of Commissioners and the CRA board.
Four citizen appointees complete board
The commissioners also chose four community members from a field of 26 applicants. Eleanor Johnson and Karen Tessier were given two-year terms.
Johnson, a retired librarian and former member of the library system’s board of trustees, was the only one to win the support of all seven commissioners.
In her application for the volunteer position, Johnson said she's "especially concerned with preserving our public library system’s crucial services to the community."
During the months leading up to the new Authority’s creation, members of the library board had raised concerns that it could lead to reduced pay and benefits for library employees and reduced services for county residents. The commissioners, however, have been adamant that no such changes will take place, frequently expressing support for local libraries.
Tessier, who founded an Asheville-based marketing firm, has previously served on the boards of the Pack Square Conservancy and the Asheville Downtown Association, among many others.
"I understand how critically important our libraries, parks and cultural amenities are to our way of life. These valuable assets define us and offer the opportunities for each child, each adult and each family to realize enlightenment and wellness on an individual and community level," she wrote in her application.
The other two appointees will serve one-year terms.
George Briggs has been executive director of The North Carolina Arboretum in south Asheville since 1987, guiding it through $35 million in capital development. The facility now receives nearly 400,000 visitors annually.
"My hope would be to assist in growing our cultural and recreational entities as a unified 'collective' of quality assets that, through diverse but complementary missions, brings diverse health-and-wellness opportunities for the citizens of our community," he wrote in his application.
Matthew Kern, who owns a local contracting business, previously served on the Asheville Greenway Commission, is now on the Asheville Parks and Greenways Foundation board, and is vice president of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center. In his interview with the commissioners, Kern stressed the need for more greenways; his application expressed a desire to "earn the trust of current county employees affected by the creation of the CRA."
Taxation without representation?
The day after the Board of Commissioners meeting, Jones wrote the new appointees a letter, congratulating them for "bringing your unique gifts and talents to the table to develop the county's new Culture and Recreation Authority board." But she also expressed "deep concerns about the absence of a District 1 taxpayer voice at the table."
District 1, the letter noted, has the largest population of any of the three districts and is projected to bring in roughly $132,000 more in annual tax revenue for the CRA than the next highest district, District 3. A map attached to the letter showed that District 1 contains only one county-operated park facility (Charles D. Owen Park in Swannanoa), compared with seven in District 2 and nine in District 3.
"I think you will agree that the disparity is striking," wrote Jones. "It's up to you to be fair. Equally important, you must build trust with those not represented."
In the days ahead, Jones plans to meet with the new board members to discuss the matter further.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.