The western district of Buncombe County has so far proved difficult for Democrats to grasp. It contains the fewest registered Democrats of the three districts. And although Rep. Brian Turner, whose district shares the same lines, has proved that a Democrat can win there, Republicans have held both seats on the board since election districts were implemented in 2012.
Three hopefuls have emerged to challenge the half-term incumbent Pressley, who was elected to serve the remainder of Miranda DeBruhl’s term after her resignation in 2016. Taylon Breeden, goat yoga developer and Democratic party organizer, says her top priority is mental health and addiction issues. The retired development director for MANNA FoodBank Donna Ensley says she is focused on property tax and senior issues. Meanwhile, Catori Swann, an actor and theater production manager at NC Stage Company, who also runs a business supplying teaching technology, is promoting his platform of efficiency and accountability in government.
Securing a seat for Democrats in the third district would cement Democratic control of the board of commissioners for the coming term.
Experience: Co-founder of Farm Friend Bend and Yoga with Goats
Endorsements: City Councilman Brian Haynes; Renew AVL
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I live off South Turkey Creek Rd in Leicester. A lot of my neighbors are farmers. They struggle with low wages, they have a need for internet infrastructure, they are concerned about higher taxes and unaffordable housing.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? I don’t think the county purchase of land to entice Deschutes Brewery to the area was the most well-thought-out plan. It was purchased for $6.8 million in 2015 and was sold for $5.25 million in 2018. I would have wanted to see a mixed use of residential and industrial zoning on this property. Yes, there is a dire need for housing in Buncombe, but having jobs for the residents moving into these homes is just as important.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? An understanding of issues that young people are facing. Many millennials have checked out of the political process. Many feel like our government is not working and both of the parties are corrupt. They want candidates that will talk about the obstacles they face: college debt, unaffordable housing and health insurance, costly child care, low wages and addiction. I feel like I bring, as a farmer, an understanding of rural Buncombe County that sometimes gets left out of the conversation.
There is a stark difference in outcomes for white and black residents of Buncombe County. The county has taken steps to address this, introducing a new grant program last year that invests in grassroots organizations. What else should the county do (if anything) to narrow the gap between these populations? If nothing, why not? We really need to be taking steps in restoring the minority communities’ trust in our police and holding our officers to the highest standard. Buncombe County should mandate implicit bias training for any law enforcement agency within the county and hire a more diverse police force. When we talk about helping our minority citizens thrive, we should begin to look at our education system. Funding pre-K programs can help minority families get a jumpstart on improving their children’s lives. Providing adequate transit options also helps bridge the gap. Without a way to travel to work, residents won’t have wages to take care of themselves or their family.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? The only silver lining to the debacle is it has caused a necessary shift in transparency. If we want to restore faith in local government, we must allow the public to know how taxpayer money is spent and hold those who feel they are above the law accountable. I agree with the commissioners who voted to strip the county manager’s authority to award bonuses or incentives. Strengthening our internal controls, giving the auditor’s office more independence and ensuring that more staff have eyes on budget tasks are all imperative. It is easier for corruption to occur when fewer people know what is going on with the budget.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? Our No. 1 issue is affordable housing, which really stems from our county’s low wages. People who are working 40 hours a week should not have to stress about affording rent, groceries and gas. There are so many residents in the city who can no longer afford to live there, which creates a funnel of people moving to the surrounding communities. These communities’ infrastructure is not up to snuff, and it is causing a lot of headaches. We must increase access to affordable housing in the county. I support first-time homebuyer incentives and working with local businesses, workers and organizations to push initiatives that will generate broad-based wage growth.
Many candidates have said they want to address the rising cost of living in Buncombe County. What, if anything, would you do to alleviate the stress citizens are feeling from rising costs? If nothing, why? Check out question 6.
How would you rate the performance of the current county Board of Commissioners? Why? I would rate the Board of Commissioners a 7. I think that Brownie Newman is a good leader for implementing renewable energy standards for the county. The commissioners are working hard toward funding pre-K programs, drug court programs and building the Family Justice Center. I think the need and push for transparency in county spending happened a day late and a dollar short.
Experience: Former chief development officer at MANNA FoodBank
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I live off of Avery’s Creek in Arden. Recent conversations with many different residents from various nearby neighborhoods all expressed the same major concern: traffic and the need for infrastructure and planning before allowing further development. Route 191 and Hendersonville Road are all major concerns, as are the roads feeding into them.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? I don’t think there is a recent decision I would disagree with, however, it is the lack of oversight and a clear vision for our county that I disagree with. For instance, Candler residents have requested money for water and sewer feasibility studies, and this has been ignored. School projects were postponed beyond the promised timeframe while other parts of the county had projects completed on time. It’s time for a comprehensive plan to identify, prioritize and meet the current and emerging needs in our community. This will entail coordinating with Asheville in certain areas and meeting with local residents to plan for future growth, transportation and employment opportunities.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? I bring vast experience in board leadership, strategic planning, consensus building and determining measurable outcomes. I have lived here for 31 years and have served on many nonprofit boards and as president of Helpmate, the YWCA, Rotary Club of Asheville, and I recently retired from an executive role at MANNA FoodBank. At MANNA, we expanded food distribution and capacity by nearly 300 percent. I also worked on expansion and functional transformation projects with the Daniel Boone Council, Habitat for Humanity, First Presbyterian Church and in the planning stages of Pack Square Park. My experience in organizational development will benefit our community at a time when we are experiencing exponential growth.
There is a stark difference in outcomes for white and black residents of Buncombe County. The county has taken steps to address this, introducing a new grant program last year that invests in grassroots organizations. What else should the county do (if anything) to narrow the gap between these populations? If nothing, why not? I believe funding grassroots organizations is a good first step in reaching minority populations to provide job training skills. GO Green Opportunities is a great example of success. However, my experience working with the Asheville Buncombe Education Coalition taught me that investing in mentoring and tutoring programs and reaching youths before middle school provides a lifelong impact for greater success. Minority youths need a vision for a brighter future and a clear path for success in order to narrow the graduation and success gap. In addition to what is already being done, I would propose investing in early childhood development, after-school and mentoring programs for our most at-risk populations.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? I think the steps the County Commission has taken toward transparency and accountability are well-designed. It will take time and due diligence at every turn to rebuild the trust of our citizens. The only additional step I would recommend would be to create a Finance Committee of qualified citizens to meet monthly and review the county finances. The purpose of the committee would be to provide regular oversight of county finances and to advise the commission of any irregularities.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? I believe the single most pressing issues facing our county is the lack of coordination and planning for infrastructure needs across the county. Now is the time to create a comprehensive strategic growth and development plan that will address current needs and support projected infrastructure needs for 10 years or more. Without such a plan, we are at risk of losing the very assets that make our county so desirable. At a minimum, this plan needs to encompass schools, police, fire, health and human services, water and sewer, green space, roads, transportation and housing.
Many candidates have said they want to address the rising cost of living in Buncombe County. What, if anything, would you do to alleviate the stress citizens are feeling from rising costs? If nothing, why? The cost of housing has been an issue since I moved here 31 years ago. I would propose a three-prong approach as a long-term solution: 1) provide a living wage for our workforce; 2) require a percentage of large housing complexes be dedicated to affordable housing; 3) build public transportation infrastructure so residents can live where housing costs are lower and still have transportation to their jobs.
How would you rate the performance of the current county board of commissioners? Why? I would give our current board of commissioners a B. The current board has been on the job less than two years. I believe they have worked hard to rectify the financial conundrum in the wake of Wanda Greene. However, had the checks and balances been in place and at the bare minimum an annual employee evaluation been done, this scandal might have been mitigated at inception. Additionally, because of the heavy focus on this issue, many other concerns that need immediate attention (such as infrastructure) have not even surfaced as an issue to be addressed.
Experience: Technical director and production manager at North Carolina Stage Company, founder of production company Deus Ex Machina Corp
Endorsements: AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of Western North Carolina
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I live in Royal Pines, just across Mills Gap Road from Glen Arden Elementary. Of principal concern to my community are water quality and infrastructure. With the Duke Energy power plant a stone’s throw away, as well as the CTX Superfund site only half a mile up the road from us, it is a constant concern that our water sources remain pure and potable. Despite the availability of municipal water, the cost of access is prohibitive, and most in my community rely on private wells, which are growing more and more contaminated. We are also quite painfully aware of the congestion that is ever present in south Buncombe.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? Prior to Wanda Greene’s resignation and subsequent investigation, I would say there was much I would have challenged if given the chance. Since Mandy Stone’s assumption of this weighty mantle, I can honestly not find any decision made by the board that does not align with my own positions. I even support the recent rate increase in emergency services and applaud the board for having maintained such a relatively low cost up to this point. Their new early childhood development program is among the best in the country. If anything, I would push the current programs more aggressively.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? As a veteran of the theater community, I bring a unique perspective and skill set. As a production manager and operations manager of two nonprofit arts organizations, I am practiced in guiding the collaborative process. My strengths lie in problem-solving and negotiation, with a strict eye to resource allocation. My history as a craftsman (carpenter, welder, electrician, auto mechanic), as well as my artist income, lend me a particular understanding of the challenges facing the working class in Buncombe County.
There is a stark difference in outcomes for white and black residents of Buncombe County. The county has taken steps to address this, introducing a new grant program last year that invests in grassroots organizations. What else should the county do (if anything) to narrow the gap between these populations? If nothing, why not? A leading cause of the mistreatment of minority communities is gentrification. We need to put safeguards in zoning laws that prevent overdevelopment of historical minority communities that result in families being priced out of their own neighborhoods. We also need to address issues of access to public resources in minority communities by investing further in community centers and health clinics in these underserved neighborhoods. A greater focus on food distribution in the form of farmers markets and CSA subsidies would alleviate health and nutrition concerns.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? I will propose the forming of a digital database of citizens who would like more detailed access to Board of Commissioner meetings, programs and plans. Any citizen could sign up to receive reports of meeting minutes, plan and proposal details, and updates of current programs without having to attend the meetings in person. I will advocate a more proactive approach to transparency. Rather than simply opening the process to public scrutiny, I will seek to actively engage the citizens with the process on a community-by-community level.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? The single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County is infrastructure. As Asheville experiences explosive growth and tourism, our roads and energy grids are failing to keep up. I will actively lobby the NCDOT to explore modernization projects to update our roads, bridges and traffic signals with smart and green technology. I have developed a budget-friendly plan to address the broadband gap in the rural sections of the county using existing infrastructure and innovative signal bundling, using methods developed successfully in other Appalachian communities. In these ways, I plan to bring Buncombe County into the 21st century.
Many candidates have said they want to address the rising cost of living in Buncombe County. What, if anything, would you do to alleviate the stress citizens are feeling from rising costs? If nothing, why? This is a difficult issue to manage while allowing natural growth. I would propose an extension of the recent Artist Housing Initiative put forward by the board to push housing subsidies into more communities. I would favor grant programs targeting first-time homeowners. I would explore expanding the affordable housing requirements already in zoning laws. I would invest in community gardens, tailgate and farmers markets and CSAs to help tackle food and nutrition deserts. I would lobby the General Assembly to enact policies that protect small family farms.
How would you rate the performance of the current county board of commissioners? Why? I applaud the efforts of the Board of Commissioners in recent months. The Wanda Greene scandal has left our county with a black eye, and their tireless work is beginning to address this issue. Their social welfare and education programs are exemplary, and if anything, I would fight aggressively to promote them further. Given very public scrutiny, I feel they have performed quite admirably in striving to right this wrong and regain the trust of our constituents.