Outside of the race for Asheville City Council, Buncombe County’s municipal elections are often perfunctory affairs. Longtime incumbents run unopposed cycle after cycle, and shake-ups of power are rare. Woodfin Mayor Jerry Vehaun hasn’t faced a challenger since 2003, while E. Glenn Kelly has been a mayor or town commissioner in Biltmore Forest for all but four years since 1981.
Not so for Black Mountain in 2020.
This year’s contest to fill three seats on the town’s nonpartisan Board of Aldermen initially drew nine candidates, a field that has since dwindled to six. Former Alderman Larry Harris was taken off the ballot after being appointed to replace retiring Mayor Don Collins on Aug. 10; according to Black Mountain News, Mike Sobol, a former alderman and mayor, dropped out on Sept. 18 in response to the resignation of Collins, who had defeated him in the 2017 mayoral race. And candidate Justyn Whitson announced on Sept. 21 via Facebook that he was withdrawing to focus on his professional life.
The remaining candidates can be split into two camps: establishment figures and outsiders. According to The Valley Echo, Harris has endorsed current Aldermen Archie Pertiller Jr. and Jennifer Willet — both of whom were appointed to fill board vacancies and have not previously faced election — as well as Tonia Holderman, a recent chair of the Black Mountain Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce board of directors. The trio has produced joint campaign materials and will host a meet and greet on Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Black Mountain Town Square.
Challenging Harris’ choices are Pam King, development coordinator for Asheville-based nonprofit Helpmate; Doug Hay, owner of the Rock Creek Runner fitness website; and Matthew Turner, assistant manager at Henson’s Building Materials. Those three candidates, along with Pertiller, participated in a Sept. 21 candidate forum hosted through Zoom by Indivisible Black Mountain. Over 100 people watched the livestream, and a recording of the event posted to the Black Mountain Exchange Facebook group had over 1,500 views as of press time.
According to forum moderator Sarah Vekasi, both Willet and Holderman had previously agreed to participate but did not attend. Vekasi said Willet had dropped out of the event on Sept. 18, citing an unforeseen personal conflict, and did not respond to a follow-up email offering an opportunity to send a campaign surrogate. Willet subsequently shared her responses to Indivisible Black Mountain’s questions in a Sept. 21 Facebook post.
Vekasi added that Holderman withdrew on Sept. 15 after disagreeing with Indivisible Black Mountain’s plan to record the forum and stream the proceedings on social media. Holderman did not provide further details about her objections in response to an Xpress request for comment.
All four participating candidates said they would revise the Black Mountain town charter and explore changes to limit the terms of board appointments. Like Asheville, Black Mountain appoints replacements to fill vacancies not just until the next regularly scheduled election, but for the remainder of an unserved term. Also like Asheville, the town moved its municipal elections from odd to even years in 2019, giving the current board an extra unelected year in office — a move the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 4-2 to criticize in a Feb. 18 resolution, with Republican Commissioners Joe Belcher and Robert Pressley opposed.
King said that concerns over a lack of transparency and public input on the board had motivated her own candidacy. She specifically pointed to Harris’ appointment, which took place without prior public notice immediately after Collins resigned, as an example of citizens not having an opportunity to be heard.
“As I understand it, filling a slot the same night it becomes vacant is very unusual, and really the only reason you can do it that way is if it had been pre-orchestrated beforehand,” King said. “I’d love to see a more open process.”
Hay also called transparency and openness “a huge problem for the town right now.” He said board agendas were often confusing, with uncertainty around whether items were merely being discussed or put up for a vote, which made it difficult for residents to engage with local government. Many decisions, he argued, “have already been worked out ahead of time.”
And Turner blasted what he called “the backdoor stuff” he’d observed on the board. “It’s legal, but I think that, as a member of the community, we can’t have it anymore,” he said.
Pertiller did not directly address the recent appointments but committed to making himself fully available to residents for discussions about their needs. “I own my own company, and they’re amazed at, when they message me or call me at 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning, and I answer the phone,” he said. “I would do the same thing for this community.”
Down to business
Beyond their general agreement that the town’s government should be conducted with greater transparency, the candidates also shared many priorities for managing Black Mountain, including recreation facilities like greenways and handling stormwater runoff. The town’s economic health was also a joint focus, although approaches to achieving it differed.
Hay’s main proposal was enacting a Main Street America program for downtown revitalization. Through partnerships with local businesses, promotional events, beautification and other efforts, he said, Black Mountain could ensure a thriving commercial core as a base for its economy.
King emphasized the Black Mountain Commerce Park, a large site adjacent to Interstate 40 in the town’s southwest, as a catalyst for development. She said the board could incentivize “clean manufacturing” companies to create jobs at the park, which would help stem the loss of young people who move elsewhere seeking economic opportunity.
Asked to name three economic or development strategies for the town, both Pertiller and Turner struggled to articulate specifics beyond a general support for downtown businesses. Turner did list affordable housing as important to maintaining Black Mountain’s local workforce; Pertiller identified the conversion of long-term housing into vacation rentals as a threat to affordability but said restricting owners’ use of their properties would be a “sticky situation” for the town.
The complete recording of the forum is available to view on the Black Mountain Exchange Facebook group in two parts at avl.mx/8c7 and avl.mx/8c8. The Valley Echo has also published a Q&A with all of the candidates, available at avl.mx/8c9.