Buncombe County commissioners spar over perceived transparency issue

Nonprofit agencies will make their case for funding from Buncombe County's upcoming budget for Fiscal Year 2018. A total of 46 nonprofits are asking for an aggregate of almost $11 million.

In addition to their division over HB2, Buncombe County commissioners sparred at their April 5 meeting over a resolution concerning the creation of a Utility Energy Innovation Task Force. The venture is to be a partnership with Duke Energy, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County aimed at, “working to delay or avoid the construction of an additional fossil fuel powered combustion turbine electricity generating facility at the Asheville Plant site in 2023.”

The language of the resolution, along with its seemingly pre-arranged county representative, became a point of contention.

Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl expressed concern about how the task force was formed, saying she had not heard about it until she read the commissioners’ April 5 agenda. “I think this is the wrong execution of the right idea. I have a serious issue with the process.”

DeBruhl criticized those who formed the task force for having already appointed someone to serve on it. “The application process that we normally go through did not occur. The public was not involved with creation or appointment. They weren’t allowed to apply. If it will be advisory, then the process matters and the public should be able to apply.”

DeBruhl also argued that the language in the resolution fosters the idea that the desired outcomes are already determined and therefore limits the potential outcomes the task force might be able to generate.

Commissioner Holly Jones countered that members of county staff and other commissioners have known about the process. “These people are not in conspiracy … I didn’t know about it, but I didn’t wake up thinking something bad had transpired. Good grief,” Jones said.

In addition to these criticisms, Commissioner Mike Fryar brought up concerns that Vice Chair Brownie Newman could potentially profit from his appointment to the task force because he is founder of Headwaters Solar. Newman has been involved with creation of the task force and is the presumed county appointee.

Newman countered saying that he had sent an email to his fellow commissioners addressing the potential conflict of interest and that he has specifically asked Duke Energy not to do business with his company in regard to any task force outcomes. Newman said, via email, “Since the Energy Innovation Task Force is a purely advisory board with no direct decision-making authority itself, I do no believe there is any conflict of interest in my serving on the task force. Although my experience in the clean energy and renewable energy sector can hopefully be useful, my role on the task force is to represent my constituents in Buncombe County, not my business.”

Newman Email
Commissioner Newman sent an email to the Board of Commissioners concerning a potential conflict of interest regarding his appointment to the Utility Energy Innovation Task Force.

Fryar also contended that the appointment to the task force should have been open to all county residents. Addressing Newman, Fryar said, “I guess our side is out of the picture, but your side is in. … That’s where we’re at. I’m sorry, but this has just gone a little bit past reality.”

Commission Chair David Gantt said there is precedent for manner in which the task force has developed, noting that if it were a Buncombe County Commissioner board, then appointment would absolutely require an application and interview process.

DeBruhl reiterated that, “This is a terrible way to conduct business.”

The commissioners approved creation of the task force and Newman’s appointment by a vote of 4-3, with DeBruhl, Fryar and Belcher opposed.

Real estate revaluation, selling the Deschutes-targeted land and public hearings

At the request of county staff, commissioners approved a resolution giving the county the go-ahead to revaluate real estate property. County staff have told the commissioners that the move will reduce the inequality of property values, citing that tax values currently vary from 50-85 percent of market values for the 2,600 neighborhoods the county assesses and create an unfair burden on residents outside of Asheville city limits.

Reassessed real estate property values are slated to be sent out mid-January 2017. Buncombe County last assessed real estate property in 2013. The measure was approved by a 4-3 vote with Commissioners Belcher, Fryar and DeBruhl voting against it.

The Board unanimously approved a resolution to solicit bids for the sale of a 137-acre property located on Ferry Road — land the county had acquired as part of the confidential and potential expansion location for Deschutes Brewery.

Buncombe County purchased the land for $6.8 million in April 2015 as a means to encourage the Oregon-based brewery to build its East Coast operation there. However, Roanoke, Va., eventually beat Buncombe’s bid for the brewery’s expansion.

Commissioners also unanimously agreed to rezone an unincorporated parcel at 441 Windsor R0ad, to Residential District R-2 and to amend the Subdivision Ordinance to bring the county into compliance with HB 721 by modifying its roadbed and utility improvements and erosion-control measures.

A public hearing concerning zoning ordinance text amendments drew some comments from the public, both in favor and against. Some residents expressed fear that the amendments would create a loophole allowing the proliferation of short-term rentals and potentially have a negative effect on slope development. Others argued the amendment would champion affordable housing in areas contiguous to transportation corridors.

County staff assured commissioners the amendments would not degrade steep slope protection measures that are currently in place.

The amendments gained approval by a vote of 4-3 with Commissioners Fryar, DeBruhl and Belcher voting against.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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2 thoughts on “Buncombe County commissioners spar over perceived transparency issue

  1. Lulz

    LOL, get ready for huge tax increases inside the city limits. What does the county actually do for the city residents? Nada, nothing, zip lulz.

  2. Yep

    Brownie Newman is just way too involved professionally in too many things that are in county conflict! Do NOT vote for him
    for Chairman of Buncombe Co. Commission! This race to elect Miranda DeBruhl is the most important local race that is happening! WAKE UP sheeple and Vote Miranda in and the devious democrackkk OUT!

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