Republicans and Democrats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners again sparred over the county’s COVID-19 response at the board’s May 5 meeting. As they also had argued during an April 16 special meeting, Republicans Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley said they continued to be left out of key decisions about how to restrict business and social activity in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Vice Chair Pressley — who is also running to unseat Democrat Brownie Newman as the board’s chair in November — pointed to a May 3 email from Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, herself a Democrat, addressed to the commission’s four Democratic members and County Manager Avril Pinder. While he did not explain the subject of the message, he objected to being excluded from a discussion of business concerning the whole county.
“Inside of it, it said, ‘You can let the other three commissioners know,’” Pressley said. After Newman countered that he had promptly forwarded the message, Pressley responded, “Oh boy, I’m so glad! I know she’s got our email [addresses].”
In response to an Xpress request for comment, Manheimer forwarded the email, which concerned the distribution of federal COVID-19 relief funds to counties and cities. The mayor had omitted the county board’s three Republicans from the message’s address line. “I didn’t mean to leave anyone out and asked that it be forwarded to all commissioners,” Manheimer said.
Meanwhile, Penland said he was particularly concerned by the way the county had issued restrictions exceeding state guidance on businesses and funerals. He acknowledged Newman’s authority as board chair to issue emergency orders unilaterally but said the commissioners should have had a chance to debate.
“Folks, 28 years I’ve coached sports, and I can take a defeat,” Penland said. “What I can’t take is the citizens that I serve didn’t get to hear me say anything else about these orders, knowing that businesses are putting boards on their windows. They are not coming back.”
Newman responded that any commissioner could have requested a discussion of the orders at previous board meetings. He also defended the county’s stricter actions, saying they were necessary given Buncombe’s role as a tourism hot spot and regional economic hub.
“I think the additional protections we put here have been great. I think they have saved lives and will help bring this economy back,” Newman said. “I do not regret any of it.”
Following their debate, the commissioners did reach an agreement to lift the county’s restriction on funeral sizes, voting 5-2 to raise the limit on attendance from 10 to 50 people in line with state guidance. Opposing the move were Democrats Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards, both of whom said restrictions shouldn’t be lifted without input from Buncombe public health staff. (The two were also the only commissioners to wear face coverings at the meeting, attended in person by all board members and county staff.)
“The process that has worked very well from a public safety perspective in Buncombe County is giving public health experts and staff time to think and digest and come back with localized recommendations that make sense,” Beach-Ferrara explained.