What do the Navy SEALs and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners have in common? Both hired Madison, Wis.-based futurist Rebecca Ryan to guide them through strategic planning in the wake of major upheaval — fatalities for the military, an ongoing federal corruption investigation for the board.
“We may not train like the Navy SEALs, we may not be in the same condition as the Navy SEALs, but in having a heart for service, a sense that the moment is now and knowledge that things are changing and we’ve got to change — those things feel common to the SEALs,” Ryan said. On July 29-30 at downtown Asheville’s First Baptist Church, the commissioners began working to create a plan for Buncombe County’s changes through 2040.
Ryan, for whose services the government is paying $40,000, led the board through an exercise she called “The Big Sort,” in which the commissioners classified over 30 trends by their likelihood and potential impact for Buncombe County. Items ranged from demographic changes, such as a growing Hispanic population and rising median age, to technological shifts, including more frequent cybersecurity attacks on local government and increasing demand for digital government services.
The board designated a higher overall population, greater burdens associated with chronic health conditions and obesity, growing racial gaps in academic achievement, a rising jail population, loss of farmland, higher housing costs and increased public health care spending as high-certainty, high-impact trends. The majority of senior county staff, who were also asked to complete the exercise, agreed with those assessments.
The commissioners did not prioritize the county’s predicted higher frequencies of heavy rains and droughts — the only trend to directly mention climate change — while five of six staff groups noted it as critical to Buncombe’s future. Asked about this discrepancy after the sessions, board Chair Brownie Newman said the scale of the problem was outside the typical scope of local government planning.
“In a really practical way, you can’t fix it,” Newman said. However, he did acknowledge the community’s desire for Buncombe to address climate issues. “There’s a lot of support in this community for [us] to do some things, both to be a leader [and] lower some power bills. Let’s try to make a mark on it.”
After the board identified its topical concerns, Ryan’s colleague and UNC School of Government consultant Donna Warner helped commissioners think through the culture and values they bring to governance. She emphasized the need for collaboration between elected officials and staff in Buncombe’s commission-manager system.
“The power here in this county is split between you all as the board and [County Manager] Avril [Pinder] as your manager. Unlike other places, you don’t run the county,” Warner said. “One of the temptations that you have as elected officials is to sometimes dig down and try to make decisions for your management because it feels good. What we’re asking you to do in this model is to think long term and strategically.”
Commissioners and staff agreed on the need to restore public trust in government following the indictments of former County Manager Wanda Greene, former Commissioner Ellen Frost and other high-level county officials on corruption charges. Commissioner Al Whitesides said it was crucial for his colleagues to accept personal responsibility for their failure of oversight.
“We can’t blame the staff. Let’s face it: It goes right to the top with the board,” Whitesides said. “If we had been doing our job the way we should’ve, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Warner asked when the county would feel it had succeeded in regaining the trust of its constituents. “When the media stops writing about it,” responded Pinder and Commissioner Joe Belcher in unison.
Ryan and Warner plan to review the results of the planning sessions with county Intergovernmental Relations Director Tim Love, Strategic Partnerships Director Rachel Nygaard and Performance Manager Director Eric Hardy and develop a draft strategic plan by Monday, Aug. 12. The board is expected to approve the final plan by the end of September.