More than three years after former County Manager Wanda Greene was federally indicted, the first charges filed over a wide-reaching scandal of top Buncombe County staffers and elected officials abusing their positions for personal gain, county leaders are floating major revisions to the conflict of interest policy that governs employees. The new language, slated for a vote at the board’s regular meeting of Tuesday, Nov. 2, includes significantly more detail about what public servants are allowed — and not allowed — to do.
The current policy, as included in the county’s personnel ordinance, runs for less than a page and does not specifically define what a conflict of interest entails. In contrast, the new proposal is six pages long and describes a conflict of interest as “when private interests interfere or appear to interfere with the performance of official duties.”
The new document also contains sections on accepting gifts or favors while conducting Buncombe business, holding outside engagements and other employment, managing members of the same family who work for the county, insider trading and limiting romantic relationships between employees.
“Certain items or situations are excluded from the definition of a gift/favor,” the proposed policy notes. Among those exceptions are items worth less than $35, “modest items of food and refreshments not offered as part of a meal” and travel to events where an employee is a speaker or participant.
The move comes as part of a larger personnel ordinance update, which is scheduled to continue in phases through the winter of 2022. At the Nov. 2 meeting, board members will also consider placing county Health and Human Services employees under the ordinance, updating how cost-of-living raises are calculated and changing language regarding on-call compensation.
EMS requests 18 new paramedic positions
After an Oct. 19 presentation to the board outlined slow response times and staffing challenges with the county’s Emergency Medical Services, Van Taylor Jones, Buncombe’s director of emergency services, has submitted a formal request for help. A budget amendment listed on the Nov. 2 agenda seeks to establish positions for 18 new regular paramedics — an increase of more than 26% over the current level of 68 paramedic positions.
Of the new positions, 14 would be full time and four part time. The amendment does not list a cost for the new roles, only noting that “estimated lapse salary in the function will be used to cover new positions and salary changes.” (According to the county’s fiscal transparency dashboard, the average annual pay for a full-time paramedic is about $66,000.)
The amendment also requests $360,000 to purchase two quick response vehicles, SUVs that would give EMS staff greater flexibility in responding to calls, plus equipment for the vehicles and additional equipment to stock spare ambulances. The money for those capital expenses would come from the county’s fund balance.
Consent agenda and public comment
The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains six items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Along with the routine approval of prior meeting minutes and September’s tax collection report, the agenda includes a resolution approving a petition from property owners in Swannanoa to add a 0.14-mile portion of Richmond Avenue to the state highway system.
The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. before the regular meeting to discuss Buncombe’s COVID-19 metrics and other matters. (The county’s indoor mask mandate, which had been scheduled to expire Oct. 29, was extended through November by the Oct. 27 decision of board Chair Brownie Newman.) The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.
In-person public comment will be taken at the start of the regular meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in Room 326 at 200 College St. in Asheville; no voicemail or email comments will be permitted. Both the briefing and regular meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page and will subsequently be available via YouTube.