The agenda itself was light, but public comment took up over half the Jan. 5 meeting, as the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners got an earful on its pre-meeting prayer.
• Over the holidays, Chair David Gantt called up each commissioner individually and they decided to keep the board’s current pre-meeting prayer until a federal court case against a similar prayer in Forsyth County is decided.
While that meant that the board didn’t discuss the matter at the meeting, the public had plenty to say, both for and against the policy.
“We have lived under the motto ‘one nation under God’ for over 100 years. We became a great nation because we believe in prayer,” West Asheville resident Hope Herrick told the board. “I hope you will not cower down before a group of people that wants to turn our country from a god-fearing, god-loving nation into a dictatorship.”
The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, following “one nation,” in 1954. “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto in 1956.
Alex Cury, chair of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, commended the board for considering a moment of silence instead of prayer.
“The law of the United States has long been clear and is very well established: the only way it’s constitutional to pray in a government session is a non-sectarian prayer,” Cury said. “Allowing a few moments of silence is the perfect solution — because then people think it’s important to pray will have an opportunity to pray, but others who are not part of the same faith tradition will not feel compelled. The government needs to be neutral in matters of religion.”
Jupiter resident Don Yelton criticized the board for deciding the matter by phone instead of in a public meeting.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with the prayer, folks, it has to do with you discussing this behind closed doors,” Yelton said. “I think you owe the citizens of Buncombe County an apology.”
N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych has said that while there is no case law against the commissioners deciding the prayer matter by phone, it violates the intent of state open meetings law.
In other developments at the meeting:
• Also in the public-comment period, residents who live near the abandoned (and contaminated) former CTS of Asheville site once more criticized what they see as lack of action by the commissioners — and demanded that missing video of their comments at a previous meeting be put up on the county’s Web site.
Arden resident Aaron Penland also said he found it suspicious that the public-comment section of the commissioners’ Nov. 17 meeting, in which activists, including Penland, criticize them for their handling of the CTS situation, was mostly missing from the video of the meeting on the Buncombe County Web site. Currently, the video cuts off about 20 seconds into Penland’s remarks, though the printed minutes of the meeting do include their criticisms.
“When we come to you and ask for help, we come in faith that the message we put out is going to be put out and we’re going to continue.”
“We don’t censor or edit anything: that’s not the policy of this board,” Gantt answered, in reply to the criticisms, saying the board’s clerk would look into the matter.
Chapel Hill Church Road resident Patricia Pinner also asked the county to contribute funds to extend municipal water to 14 houses in her area, asserting that contamination is spreading.
• The board unanimously voted to close an unopened right of way in Swannanoa and contribute $40,000 to preserve the Kirstein Farm in Broad River in a conservation easement.
— David Forbes, staff writer