Like a powerful earthquake, the shocks of September’s General Assembly redistricting have reconfigured the fault lines of Buncombe County politics. Due to a 2011 state law, districts for the county Board of Commissioners must match those of Buncombe’s House districts, meaning that all candidates for the board are running with entirely new boundaries.
The new District 1 shifted from its previous Asheville-centric incarnation to cover the northwest corner of the county — leaving incumbent Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara outside the lines. Retired project manager Nancy Nehls Nelson and Terri Wells, director of community and agricultural programs for WNC Communities, are now competing for the Democratic nomination to run in the general election against Republican Glenda Weinert.
Beach-Ferrara is still running for reelection, but now in her new home of District 2, which encompasses most of the county’s eastern half. She will face Republican Anthony Penland, chief of the Swannanoa Fire Department, in the general election; Penland’s erstwhile primary opponent, Commissioner Mike Fryar, died on Feb. 2.
Incumbent Joe Belcher remains in the new District 3 that incorporates Buncombe’s southwest, where he stands unopposed in the Republican primary. On the Democratic side, Donna Ensley is taking another run at the board after losing her 2018 bid against Republican Robert Pressley in the previous District 3 by fewer than 700 votes. Her primary opponent is renewable energy professional Parker Sloan, who has not previously run for elected office but has the backing of local leaders such as Sheriff Quentin Miller, Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger and Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman.
The name of each candidate is linked to their responses in the post:
Occupation: Retired project manager
Previous candidacy or offices held: 2016 and 2018 candidate for Buncombe County Commission District 2
Key endorsements: Karen Cragnolin, founder of RiverLink; Equality NC; WNC Sierra Club
Amount of money raised: Approximately $10,000
Top three donors: Available after YE2019 filing due Jan. 31
What makes Buncombe County home to you? The vitality and energy of our people who bring their perspectives and passions to every day. The beauty of the mountains and rivers and creeks. The silence of the dark night sky. I chose to move here and feel compelled to protect this fascinating place. Our very existence depends on wise use of our land and water. Our economic well-being depends on our ability to preserve our treasured way of life and continue to grow in the 21st century.
What do you bring to the Board of Commissioners that other candidates don’t? I have extensive project management experience from my past work at AT&T Bell Labs. I am ready to serve the community. I will continue working with the VA Hospital’s IRB; teaching at UNCA OLLI College for Seniors; serving on the county Land Conservation Advisory Board (14 years) and advocating for our people and our environment. I know the challenges faced by our local government. I know where to go for answers on the first day.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of Buncombe County, and how would you propose meeting it? I believe the most pressing issue is the lack of consistent, reliable digital infrastructure throughout the county. Emergency personnel have difficulty reaching each other, School Resource Officers (SROs) have varying degrees of success establishing contact from inside schools, and residents can’t always reach 911 in remote parts of the county. This affects commercial and residential growth remote from Asheville. This affects the safety and well-being of all citizens, especially our children and our elders.
How will you maintain Buncombe County’s quality of life as the region’s population continues to grow? Work hard to establish a single partnership among government, private companies, nonprofits and the TDA. To maintain our quality of life, we need to agree on what we want Buncombe County to look like in 25 years. I believe that overwhelming challenge has not been adequately addressed by those who have the power and the money to conserve what is needed to keep and to change what needs change.
In the wake of the continuing federal corruption investigation, what steps will you take to ensure that county government spending is handled fairly and transparently? Crisis precipitates change. Trust among county staff, the Board of Commissioners and the public was undermined. The current board has taken bold steps to ensure new checks and balances are robust and that auditing is truly independent. Our new county manager was an excellent first step. I would continue the path they are on.
What actions would you undertake to fight climate change and support the county’s goal of powering all government operations with renewable energy by 2030? See my response to the quality of life question above. I also would explore partnerships between government and builders, including incentives, in anticipation of new and unique materials and processes being made available to build smarter buildings and homes that could lower the need for more power. Ideally, work from the other end of the issue too, by using federal and state grants to investigate and implement renewable energy sources compatible with our mountainous terrain.
Occupation: Director of community and agricultural programs for WNC Communities
Previous candidacy or offices held: First-time candidate
Key endorsements: Sierra Club, Equality NC, farmers, educators and community leaders
Amount of money raised: Over $15,000
Top three donors: Sandra Finley, Bruce Snelson, Keith Wells
What makes Buncombe County home to you? As a ninth-generation Buncombe County farmer who has an abiding love for this community, its people, its farms and mountains, my roots are deep. After a little over a decade of living and traveling elsewhere, I was drawn back to these mountains, as so many people are, to make a home and serve our community. I care deeply about this place and want to ensure that it continues to be the place we all want to call home.
What do you bring to the Board of Commissioners that other candidates don’t? As a farmer and teacher, I bring values and experience to the commission that no other candidate does. I understand how hardworking and passionate both teachers and farmers are and how committed they are in contributing to our community, despite the challenging economic situations they face. I bring a unique combination of strong work ethic, passion for service, honesty and a track record of responsible stewardship of resources to work on behalf of the people of Buncombe County.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of Buncombe County, and how would you propose meeting it? High-quality, high-speed, affordable broadband. This is an economic, education, public safety and health care issue. And we want our younger generations to stay in our communities and thrive; they demand better internet service. I was aware of the need in our rural communities (Sandy Mush, Ox Creek, Barnardsville), and knew that Leicester needs much better service. However, constituents in Weaverville and Asheville also report inadequate service. We must do better. In 2020, broadband is a basic utility necessity.
How will you maintain Buncombe County’s quality of life as the region’s population continues to grow? I am known for being a good steward and I will implement careful planning and resource management to protect what we love and improve our quality of life. By permitting only the sustainable growth we want and need and conserving our natural assets, we can maintain our character. We must bring people together and have a broad vision that includes strong schools, economic opportunity, improved transportation, high-quality broadband internet, affordable housing, recreational opportunities and conservation of our natural resources.
In the wake of the continuing federal corruption investigation, what steps will you take to ensure that county government spending is handled fairly and transparently? As a commissioner, I would ensure that we provide transparency with our decision-making process, budgets and spending. The county conducted nationwide searches and hired a new county manager and assistant county managers who are experienced and expecting to be held to high standards. I will use my oversight and budget management experience, my stewardship and integrity to ensure that our county commission and our county management are accountable to the people we serve — which is everyone in Buncombe County.
What actions would you undertake to fight climate change and support the county’s goal of powering all government operations with renewable energy by 2030? I will bring people together to ensure that we proactively work as a community to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We must have a broad vision. In addition to investing in renewable energy, we need to be good stewards of natural resources that help with carbon sequestration by conserving large intact forests and by using soil conservation practices. We must assess best management practices in transportation and planning and provide staff with the tools needed to meet our goals.
Mike Fryar will appear on the ballot but died on Feb. 2.
Occupation: Swannanoa fire chief
Previous candidacy or offices held: N/A
Key endorsements: Jerry VeHaun, Woodfin mayor and retired Buncombe County emergency services director
Amount of money raised: $1,850
Top three donors: Edward Harwood, Jerry VeHaun, David Billstrom
What makes Buncombe County home to you? Buncombe County is my lifelong home. As a public servant for 30 years, I have taken risks for others and dedicated my life to the safety of our community. This type of service builds a special bond with people during their time of crisis. Home is that place where we should feel safe and well protected, and I am sure what makes this home to me is what makes it home to most citizens.
What do you bring to the Board of Commissioners that other candidates don’t? My career has been a mix of personnel management, budget planning, labor law, nonprofit operations and even serving on legislative committees. While other candidates may have similar aspects, none have been putting those skills to use every day while responding to emergencies in our community. Commissioners should be managers first and foremost to serve the people and to be a leader who responds well during crisis and a leader who keeps us out of crisis.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of Buncombe County, and how would you propose meeting it? Look left, look right, look ahead, and we see change all over Buncombe County. Barnardsville, East Asheville, Oakley, Reynolds, Fairview, Swannanoa, Black Mountain — all changing. Some change brings concerns that we will lose the home feel we have grown to love. A building comes down, a field disappears, and something else rises up. While Swannanoa is excited to see changes coming to the Beacon lot, every community has this constant sway of worry and excitement.
How will you maintain Buncombe County’s quality of life as the region’s population continues to grow? What keeps our citizens in Buncombe County is the same thing that will entice others to come: the beauty of our mountains. We know that growth is going to occur and we have to be prepared. Making sure that the infrastructure is in place to accommodate the growth and that we protect what has been given us. We need to be proactive, not reactive, while maintaining those special items that make us proud to call Buncombe County home.
In the wake of the continuing federal corruption investigation, what steps will you take to ensure that county government spending is handled fairly and transparently? North Carolina General Statute 143 Article 33C sets the rules for public body meetings. All business and expenditures coming before the commission should and will be conducted out in the open, unless said business is bound under GS 143-318.11 that permits a closed session. Transparency is a must.
What actions would you undertake to fight climate change and support the county’s goal of powering all government operations with renewable energy by 2030? I think we should be careful on any label attached to a project. Advertisers and marketers have learned that labeling a product “environmentally friendly” sells. I want to examine every possibility so that we may have a positive impact on protecting our environment while also remaining cost-effective. Powering our county buildings should bring a cost savings to our citizens, not a burden. My platform of “Focus on our Future” is inclusive of applying commonsense protection to our environment.
Occupation: Fundraising consultant
Previous candidacy or offices held: 2018 candidate for Buncombe County Commission District 3
Key endorsements: WNC Sierra Club; Jennie Eblen, vice president at Eblen Short Stop Stores; Lynn Kieffer; Kitty Schaller, former executive director of MANNA FoodBank; Bill Sederburg
Amount of money raised: Over $19,000
Top three donors: Prefer to not name.
What makes Buncombe County home to you? I have lived in Buncombe County for 32 years and raised my family here. We are a community that pulls together, donates time and resources to help each other, and we are welcoming. I love our mountains, our great outdoors, our diverse community and our arts and restaurant cuisine. But what makes Buncombe County home to me is the people who live here and the relationships that I have made and hold dear.
What do you bring to the Board of Commissioners that other candidates don’t? What sets me apart from my primary opponent is my background spanning over 32 years in Buncombe County in successful strategic planning for growth and budget management. My many decades of community experience have brought residents from various sectors together to problem solve, collaborate and produce positive, successful outcomes. I bring volunteer and professional experience tackling issues related to racism, domestic violence and poverty. I bring to our commission Rotary values of truth, fairness and goodwill.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of Buncombe County, and how would you propose meeting it? Areas in District 3 that formerly were considered rural are experiencing record growth in small housing tracts and apartments in a very concentrated area with no infrastructure in place to support the increase in people and vehicles. We are straining our schools, emergency services and citizens. I-26 construction will make crowded roads even more impassable. I would propose immediate changes in land use plans requiring new development be considered as part of the whole picture and not as stand-alone projects.
How will you maintain Buncombe County’s quality of life as the region’s population continues to grow? We need to prepare now by investing in the infrastructure to support the anticipated growth. Now is a perfect time to engage neighborhoods, municipalities and our rural communities. We should first ask them how they would like to grow and what they would like to look like in 20 years. We should then develop land use plans and infrastructure to support that vision. We must be proactive rather than continue to allow outside developers to shape our future.
In the wake of the continuing federal corruption investigation, what steps will you take to ensure that county government spending is handled fairly and transparently? Nonprofit organizations usually have a CFO that reports to a finance committee that provides monthly oversight of the daily financial activities of the organization. One of the members is the treasurer and is responsible for reporting to the board. In order to ensure our government spending is fair, transparent and regularly observed, I recommend we form a finance committee of financially literate community volunteers to serve our county commission in this advisory, oversight capacity.
What actions would you undertake to fight climate change and support the county’s goal of powering all government operations with renewable energy by 2030? Incentivize homeowners, businesses and developers to collaborate and to participate in this overarching endeavor. I advocate looking at our transportation networks and ways to help the majority of our citizens reduce their personal carbon footprint. Investing in renewable energy is cost prohibitive for many residents and business owners. I support an aggressive educational effort about reducing and reusing on an individual and collective (schools, churches, businesses) basis. We should continue to fund the county’s renewable energy by 2030 goal.
Occupation: Senior community and economic development manager, Cypress Creek Renewables
Previous candidacy or offices held: Buncombe County Democratic Party vice chair, Buncombe County Planning Board member
Key endorsements: Sheriff Quentin Miller; Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger; Commission Chair Brownie Newman; Gene Bell, former director of Asheville Housing Authority; WNC Sierra Club
Amount of money raised: $13,500
Top three donors: Mack Pearsall, Brownie Newman, Jess Ingram
What makes Buncombe County home to you? Being embraced by the Democratic Party here, earning leadership roles through hard work, meeting my wife, having our son, and with our second child on the way, all these experiences have made Buncombe County my home. It’s also the place of my hopes and dreams for my family’s future. Serving as commissioner is a way for me to work to ensure this community is the place where not just my family but all people can feel at home and thrive.
What do you bring to the Board of Commissioners that other candidates don’t? Our greatest need is to plan for responsible growth that provides the affordable housing, climate resiliency, infrastructure and community-building we need while protecting farms, forests and rivers. This need is urgent. I am the candidate who has direct training, skills and experience in county government through my Master’s in Public Administration, which is a degree in county government management, 5+ years on our county Planning Board and as a senior community and economic development manager specializing in renewable energy policy.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of Buncombe County, and how would you propose meeting it? Well-considered, well-crafted policies that permit only responsible growth that meets our needs and creates housing connected to recreation connected to jobs, schools and other essentials, all serviced by good infrastructure. We can increase quality of life, protect this environment that we cherish and reduce the impacts of poverty on daily life. I am a policymaker, ready to meet this countywide challenge. We must also end the culture of city-county division. We’re all in this together and will accomplish more together.
How will you maintain Buncombe County’s quality of life as the region’s population continues to grow? I think we need to recognize not just the need to maintain quality of life, but also the need to improve quality of life for the many children and adults living in poverty and facing food insecurity, as well as people above poverty but financially and emotionally stretched by the high cost of living, which includes people of all ages and backgrounds. Sound, innovative planning can be the foundation of maintaining and improving quality of life for everyone in Buncombe.
In the wake of the continuing federal corruption investigation, what steps will you take to ensure that county government spending is handled fairly and transparently? Every commissioner must demonstrate integrity, transparency and an ability to provide professional oversight of budgets and staff. I will apply my training and experience in managing county government spending, including a Master’s in Public Administration from WCU, the degree we typically require of people we hire to manage and lead our counties. Personally, I will work to restore the integrity of our commission and our government through fair and transparent dealings as a commissioner and while supervising our county manager.
What actions would you undertake to fight climate change and support the county’s goal of powering all government operations with renewable energy by 2030? Redirect the millions per year our county government spends annually on fossil fuel electricity into installing solar for our city and county schools and A-B Tech and investing in energy efficiency improvements; promote the county to take a leadership role in helping transition other public sector organizations (city of Asheville, MSD, Asheville Airport, volunteer fire districts, other municipalities); bring people together to plan and launch a specific community-wide 100% renewable plan. Please see my website for more details.