Black Mountain, N.C.— Small-town elections are no small potatoes. The outcomes can drive the political reality in new directions and make or break towns’ abilities to respond to the many pressures they face. Several smaller municipalities in Buncombe County will hold elections on Nov. 7 along with the city of Asheville. As citizens in these small towns decide how to balance quality of life with the cost of that quality, passionate community leaders hope to be a part of achieving that balance.
The candidates in the municipal elections in Black Mountain and Weaverville are all evaluating what they believe voters want and what they personally believe will be the best course for their towns. Xpress contacted the candidates for those races and attended League of Women Voters candidate forums in both towns to find out what’s on the candidates’ minds as the election draws near and how they plan to serve their constituents.
Black Mountain mayor
Michael Sobol, the mayor of Black Mountain, grows a cover crop of greens in the winter between corn crops on about a half-acre on Blue Ridge Road. He says he puts a sign up next to the field announcing “free greens” and claims that “literally hundreds of people” take him up on the offer. That’s just one of the ways he says he’s served his community; he’s also been president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, raised money for the Owen High School band and football programs, and promoted the greenway system and local community garden. Sobol’s heavy involvement as a public servant, however, has not translated into universal popularity.
Sobol faces challengers this year from both the right and the left in the nonpartisan contest. Don Collins, an alderman in his second term, is unaffiliated, but has a history of collaborating with moderates. He reports his work with Ellen Frost and other Buncombe County commissioners to secure funding for town projects, especially the new town square, as a success.
Collins says his top priorities center on guiding the growth of the town and paying attention to finances. “I will strive to continue to keep our town sound,” Collins says. “We have cut in half our debt, $2.7 million, [and] increased the general fund by 27 percent, $1.2 million, while [I’ve been] serving on the board.”
Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Weston Hall is a registered Democrat, like Sobol, but brings his concerns from a more liberal position. Hall is a firefighter with the Asheville Fire Department, a veteran and a reverend who has pastored churches and worked with populations in need.
Hall says he doesn’t feel he has a voice and he was inspired to demand more from his town government by what he sees as the strength of his state representation in Sen. Terry Van Duyn and Rep. John Ager. He is seeking to be the officeholder he wishes to see in the world. “My wife and I tried to get others to run for public office,” he explains. “But mostly people felt the current regime was too ingrained to budge and to do so was tackling the impossible. My bid for office is to break the current regime and give birth to a new voice and one of freedom.”
Hall says he has seen the board fail to stand up for residents when developers’ needs are in the balance and he wants to avoid that tendency. He says he’s running on promoting alternative transportation, increasing affordable housing and preventing sprawling growth.
The last time Collins and Sobol appeared on the same ballot, in 2011, Collins was the top vote-getter, receiving almost twice as many votes as Sobol. Sobol won his mayorship in 2013 in a tight contest with Alderman Larry B. Harris, who is supporting Collins this time around.
All three mayoral candidates list overdevelopment among the most pressing issues confronting Black Mountain. At the same time, all would like to see more affordable housing. Collins and Sobol want developers to reserve a portion of their units for lower-income residents, while Hall emphasizes working with nonprofits to plan affordable housing and neighborhoods.
One source of contention seems to be that Sobol wants to keep more of the town’s debt on the books, which he says is zero percent interest, so that more money can be put into finishing the greenway and improving infrastructure. “We need to be spending some money to address the issues that we’ve got,” he told attendees of a League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 18. Meanwhile, Collins and most of the board want to keep paying it down. At the forum, Vice Mayor Ryan Stone, a candidate for alderman, disputed that the loans they were trying to clear from the books had zero interest.
Black Mountain Board of Aldermen
Five names appear on the ballot for the Black Mountain Board of Aldermen, and voters are asked to choose up to two. One candidate, Jonathan Braden, dropped out of the race almost as soon as he had filed, explaining to the Black Mountain News that he had reconsidered his time constraints and felt he would not be able to campaign. Xpress also reached out to Braden but received no response. His name remains on the ballot because of registration deadlines.
The other four are actively pursuing the two seats. Stone, a registered Democrat, is seeking a second term and is the only incumbent. “Four years ago when I was elected to the Board of Aldermen,” he recalls, “I said that I wanted to serve because I was compelled by a statement from my grandfather that ‘We have an obligation to leave things better than we found them.’” He thinks he is on track to fulfill that promise but acknowledges there is still work to do. The other seat is open, as Carlos Showers decided not to run again after serving two terms.
The top issue Stone sees is dealing with the growth that his native Black Mountain is experiencing and the related problems with congestion, parking and housing. “The only way we can address these issues is through an open and transparent process that listens to citizens, business owners, developers and visitors, and uses their input as a guide for how we grow in the future,” he says. He also wants to increase the resources to the town’s Planning Department, which he says is undersized and overworked.
Stone seems to be on board with Collins’ approach to fiscal responsibility and highlights the progress the town has made in reducing debt and increasing the town’s general fund balance. “These policies will provide future boards with greater discretion to pursue projects and be prepared for unexpected expenses,” he says. “In addition, I would like to make the budget process more inclusionary, including looking into more of a participatory process with citizens to help prioritize long- and short-term goals.”
Candidate Jeremie Konegni, also a registered Democrat, wants to improve infrastructure to ensure that the town can handle coming growth, but he also wants to look at zoning and regulation options to keep the charm of the town. “What I feel are the most pressing issues for Black Mountain are somewhat simple and connected to a much larger picture,” he says. “Those issues are infrastructure, affordable housing and keeping the beauty of our natural landscape intact.”
Konegni also says that as a retail worker with a small child, he is particularly interested in “the quality of life for new, young families that work paycheck to paycheck, sometimes multiple jobs just to make ends meet.” He laments that many homes are being swallowed up for short-term rentals like Airbnbs, which he says adds stress to an already-tight market. “We need to think about families and not profits in this regard,” he says.
Konegni acknowledges that he is inexperienced in government but says he’s learning and is committed to contributing to the betterment of Black Mountain. He says he is running because of the controversial Trestle building project, which Sobol and Stone also mentioned unfavorably. “I heard a lot of people … huffing and puffing, but nobody really came up with a real solution. And I felt it was a good time for me to step up and try to at least throw my hat in the ring and give my own opinions and see if I can’t help find that solution to problems that face the town,” he says.
Matt Robinson seems to be running a sort of absentee campaign; he did not respond to questions from Xpress and was a no-show for the League of Women Voters forum. He is a registered Republican who, according to state records, has never voted in a Black Mountain municipal election before. He does have yard signs out in Black Mountain, but campaign positions and other information about the candidate could be difficult for voters to find.
The other registered Republican in the race, Bob Pauly, also did not make it to the forum but sent a surrogate to read a letter for him, in which he wrote about his interests and experience, from keeping bees to mission trip work to volunteering with local students. “I am a listener and a doer,” he wrote. “I stick with a task until it’s done.”
Pauly is retired from the food service industry and says the most pressing issues for the town include “managing growth and maintaining the charm of Black Mountain.” He underlines the basic services (housing, water, public safety and recreation) as being the most important. He also hopes to work on traffic problems and pursue a more walkable community.
Weaverville Town Council
Of the four names on the Weaverville Town Council ballot, voters will be asked to vote for up to two. Squaring off in Weaverville are a set of candidates the likes of which the town has often seen.
Weaverville native Dottie Sherrill, a registered Democrat, currently serves as mayor, having been on Town Council since 1989. This year, she chose not to run for mayor again, instead ceding the position to former Mayor Al Root, the self-described “bad penny that keeps turning up,” who is running unopposed.
At the League of Women Voters forum for Weaverville candidates on Oct. 17, Sherrill said she had to weigh the responsibility of returning even to Council with the personal strains she feels in becoming a caretaker for her husband. Sherrill thinks Council is a better fit for her now than the mayor position, and she’s not ready to give up local office altogether. “It’s written all over me that I love Weaverville, and I always have,” she said.
Sherrill maintains that she has a great rapport with staff and has much to contribute to what she calls the “feel-good things” that give Weaverville its character — separate from simply being in the orbit of Asheville — such as parades and festivals. She says she brings the “woman’s touch” to civic festivities planning. Beyond that, she says her top goals if she were elected would be to keep taxes at a minimum, ensure appropriate employee compensation and represent all communities within the town “by studying and listening to the choices of our citizens.”
Also standing for re-election is Doug Jackson, unaffiliated, a retired market research consultant for the textile industry. Jackson says in his two nonconsecutive terms, he has guided Weaverville through the great recession with strong involvement and hard work while maintaining a healthy financial condition and quality of services. He also highlights his work to qualify Weaverville to become the second certified wildlife habitat town in North Carolina.
Among other accomplishments from his time on Council, Jackson lists initiating an action plan for a new community center and placing the Eller Cove watershed in land conservation, with a benefit of over $500,000 to the town. “I believe I have the experience,” he says. “I have the time and the dedication. And I love this town. … I’m very dedicated to the work and think I can make a good impact.”
Retired New Orleans fire chief Earl Valois, a recently registered (in Buncombe County) Democrat, hopes to contribute his experience to Town Council. As a newcomer to Weaverville, he didn’t have many specific solutions to current town issues, such as traffic, at a recent forum, and he was unaware of the Buncombe County salary scandal involving former County Manager Wanda Greene. But he says he has always been very civically engaged and wants to take on a leadership role in his new town.
Valois says his first priority in office would be planning, because working through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he saw the impact of poor planning and decision-making. He says he can be valuable to the town as a person with experience in management in the public sector and as an outsider. “Because of my exposure to … multiple and diverse groups, I am not aligned with the ‘groupthink’ phenomenon. I am not an obstructionist,” he says. “However, if matters need to be verbalized, I will speak up. I am vested in Weaverville, and will actively work with everyone to address and resolve issues that can drive positive influence.”
Running against the local status quo in Weaverville is Thomas Veasey, a longtime resident and registered Republican. His background includes time in the U.S. Coast Guard and in sales. He touts being part of the group that organized the successful opposition to what he calls a development “fiasco” that had been planned near his home around Lake Louise and led to “improvements to Weaverville’s residential zoning code.” He wishes to control growth at a nice pace, he says, so as to not let it interfere with the community lifestyle. He wants to put more focus on parks and recreation efforts to establish multifunctional sports fields. He’s currently involved with completing the expansion of the community center at Lake Louise.
At the candidate forum, Veasey attacked the current Council members for not planning quickly enough to expand water treatment capacity. He claims that as soon as the current round of developments is completed, the town’s treatment facility on the Ivy River will be running at maximum capacity, and that puts the town “behind the curve” for satisfying water needs and being able to serve coming development.
Sherrill, Jackson and Valois all said that while it is time to look at how best to expand the facility, they have to follow regulations and proceed carefully. The three candidates agreed that it is wasteful to overbuild too early and that while the water situation does need attention, it is not as critical as Veasey makes it out to be. Jackson, in particular, cautions the people of Weaverville against misinformation about the water system.
For more information on Buncombe County elections, including how, where and when to vote, see avl.mx/44w