Since the state legislature divided the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners into election districts in the run-up to the 2012 election, races in District 2 have been tight. That first districted year, there were races for both seats, one for a two-year term and one for a four-year term, so the top two finishers in the Democratic primary went on to face the top two vote-getters in the Republican primary. In the Democratic primary, just 510 votes separated Carol Peterson and Ellen Frost — and even fewer votes separated the Republicans. Peterson went on to lose her race narrowly to Mike Fryar, while Frost beat Christina Merrill by just 18 votes to take the seat. In 2014 and 2016, things were tight again.
In the last election Nancy Nehls Nelson, a retired project manager for AT&T Bell Labs, won her primary against three white men (a firefighter, a cop and a builder) handily, by about 800 votes. But then she lost to incumbent Fryar by 317 votes in the general.
Nelson is returning in pursuit of the mark she just missed before. This time out, she faces three new opponents: former local American Red Cross and Literacy Council director and current A-B Tech Foundation executive director Amanda Edwards, Weaverville Town Council member and Mountain BizWorks executive director Patrick Fitzsimmons and emergency medical technician with Mission Health, Dereck Lindsey. The four are competing to replace current commissioner Frost, who isn’t seeking re-election. In the fall, the primary winner will face Republican Glenda P. Weinert. If the seat changes party, and Robert Pressley in District 3 retains his spot, Republicans would gain a majority on the county’s governing body.
Experience: Executive director AB Tech foundation, former executive director of Asheville-Mountain Area Chapter of the American Red Cross
Endorsements: Commission Chair Brownie Newman; Sheriff Van Duncan; Black Mountain Vice Mayor Maggie Tuttle; Black Mountain Alderman Jeremie Konegni
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? Green Ridge in north Buncombe County, where we have a lot of backyard farmers, myself included, and some working farms. Recently, just over 12 acres of land were sold in less than 12 hours of being listed on the market. The uncertainty of what will happen to that land has residents of the area concerned. Will a new housing development be built, or will the land remain as open farmland? This is a concern that I hear from neighbors and throughout District 2.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? The commissioners rejected the option of undertaking a national search for a new county manager. In our council-manager form of government, there is no staff member more crucial to achieving strategic priorities and changing culture than the county manager. I would have opted for a competitive process with an eye on equity and innovation in top candidates.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? My deep roots in education. My husband is an elementary principal, son is in middle school, mom and aunts were teachers. Also, I will serve as a knowledgeable and vigilant commissioner, ready to prevent avoidable crises and to lead change. I have in-depth education in county government management and best practices (master’s of public administration). My years as a CEO and executive director provide me with budget and management skills. I believe that the greatest challenge that our county faces is restoring trust and ensuring fiscal oversight and accountability ― because without trust and oversight, we can’t make progress on community priorities.
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? Until we can ensure that everyone lives in a safe neighborhood and has equal access to public services, educational and employment opportunities, we have unacceptable disparity. Early childhood education, affordable housing, opioids, diverse workforce, law enforcement and criminal justice reform are all equity issues. Policies: Achieve shared understanding of equity via training. Deliver equal access to high-quality early childhood education via fellows program for teachers; two-year to four-year degree transfer program; child care centers with businesses and nonprofits. Partner with Habitat for Humanity, Givens Estates, MHO on affordable housing. Interagency coordination on opioids. Anti-bias hiring practices. De-escalation training, diversion programs.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? The county must do the work that we rely on it to do and do it with equity, fairness and transparency. Regarding the ongoing investigation, we can release all public information that has been withheld. If it is public information, it should be made public. In reforming policies and practices that created the perception that government is self-serving, we can first listen to the public and county employees and use their input to make further changes. We have to both change the perception that county government is self-serving and do the work of providing services that people rely on.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? The greatest challenge that our county currently faces is restoring trust and ensuring fiscal oversight and accountability. Without trust and oversight, we can’t make progress on our priorities. Commissioners are supposed to set policy, supervise the county manager and provide fiscal oversight. Commission had not even been giving the county manager an annual performance review. I prioritize trust and accountability because I want to achieve on all our priorities: protect our community from overdevelopment, fund emergency services, solve the opioid crisis, fund education, grow high-wage jobs, create affordable housing and expand diversity and equity in services and our workforce.
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? It starts and ends with a budget and priorities. People facing that stress are my priority. I work every day with people choosing between getting to work on time at a low-wage job or finishing up the homework for a class that is required to complete a degree or training program. As a commissioner, I will look at the budget, and then back up and ask the hard questions. Who are we serving? Are we delivering what’s needed? Are we tracking the return on investment? I will apply the inspection and oversight that we should expect, focused on our priorities.
How would you rate the performance of the current county Board of Commissioners? Why? I give the board credit for continuing to address its strategic priorities in spite of the fallout from the Greene investigation. However, many of the policy and budget issues that have come to light are so obviously the opposite of good practice and good ethics. Those issues compelled me to run for office. Those issues could have been avoided if they had at least one vigilant commissioner with training in government best practices, ethics, management and HR. I’m not talking about illegal behavior. Look at the one-year delay in raises for lowest-paid workers and the quiet retention bonuses.
Experience: Executive director of Mountain BizWorks and Weaverville Town Council member; former CEO of Western North Carolina Region of American Red Cross
Endorsements: “While appreciative of the leaders and others in my district who support me, I choose to honor the long tradition of not using endorsements of elected officials or those outside my district during a primary.”
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I have lived in Weaverville for 14 years and was elected to the Town Council in 2015. I have learned from my experience governing and from listening to my neighbors that managing growth and development and preserving the small-town atmosphere of the area is most important to people. Folks are not adverse to new development but don’t want predatory growth that is unexpected or unmanaged. People want to live in a community that is safe, walkable, has amenities for all and preserves our natural environment.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? The commissioners were presented with reasonable recommendations to address the scandal enveloping our county, yet they refused to discuss them. In October, Chairman Newman proposed cutting the salaries of county commissioners, who make some of the highest pay for commissioners in the state, as well as awarding an increase for the lowest-paid county workers and freezing cost-of-living increases for top salaried employees who have been severely overrewarded by the county manager in recent years. Some commissioners said they were waiting for results of a salary study first before acting. Six months later, no changes and no salary study.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? The benefit I have that my opponents lack is experience as an elected official and a career in executive positions. I bring a breadth of knowledge and experience in both business and government. No learning curve necessary here. My opponents in the District 2 race are a credible and diverse set of folks. They are all smart, educated professionals. We have four people running in a district in rural North Carolina with several small towns, and who are they? An African-American man, two women and a gay guy. Who would have thought such a field would have even been possible?
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? The difference in wealth and resources between whites and blacks is great across the country and even more so here. We need to encourage business development in black neighborhoods by incentivizing it. We need to protect black neighborhoods from total gentrification by using zoning ordinances and development incentives. We need to address the achievement gap in our schools by looking to school districts who have effectively reduced theirs and taking bold action. We need to improve public housing such has been proposed for Lee Walker Heights. And we need to make sure law enforcement agencies are well-trained and held accountable.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? To restore an atmosphere of trust, we must be abundantly transparent, with a much greater degree of financial oversight from our commission. We must take action to try and recover the oversized bonuses awarded some staff or remove those staff. If my board of directors offered me a couple hundred thousand dollars as a bonus, of course, I would be excited, but I would also know that it was wrong and unhealthy for my company. Those county staff knew that, too, yet no action has been taken and no contrition has been voiced.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? Municipalities and the county need to collaborate on their land-use planning and management. Right now, we have land-use plans that don’t align between the various towns and the county, resulting in different sets of development rules from one side of the street to the other. The county and towns all need to coordinate land-use plans. We need economically wise and environmentally sustainable development and growth, and we can’t achieve that with competing plans.
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? Buncombe County has a higher cost of living than most comparable counties in the Southeast region. The main factor contributing to this problem is the cost of property and housing. Buying or renting a home is out of reach for many working families. We are a desirable area, and that demand drives up costs. That demand is not likely to be reduced, so we have to devise ways to ensure affordable housing is integrated into the inventory, including fighting for federal funds that have been cut. We also need plans that limit and manage what kind of growth we experience.
How would you rate the performance of the current county board of commissioners? Why? I think the current commissioners are good people who were overconfident in their manager and were misled by her. They became complacent and accepted whatever she told them. These are good folks who find themselves in a whirlwind of controversy and have become immobilized. Emergencies require leaders to be communicative, to be totally transparent, and to take bold action. That has not happened. We are several months into this mess, and there have been some positive but minor changes made to personnel policies, but boldness has evaded our commission.
Experience: Emergency medical technician Regional Transport Service at Mission Health System
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I was born and raised in Black Mountain. I now live in Riceville with my wife and two younger children. People in my community are concerned with growth. They want to know how Riceville is going to grow in the future. They are keeping an eye on what is going on around them. They also want to know how new development would affect them.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? I don’t necessarily have a disagreement with any decisions that the county commissioners have made in the recent past, but I think for everyone’s sake, it would have been a lot better if they had always been as transparent and open with the public as we are striving to be both now and moving forward in the future.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? I bring a blue-collar attitude and perspective to the community. I work hard to provide for my own family. I have experience and firsthand knowledge of the opioid crisis, not only from my professional perspective as an EMT but also from the perspective of health care providers because I work closely with them. I also bring a moderate stance on most issues and feel that I can help bridge the gap on most issues and topics. I also have support from voters that span all political and religious views.
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 agree. There is still a gap between certain communities, unfortunately. We have seen some of this displayed lately within our county. It is our duty to not only acknowledge, but to also assist in healing these wounds. We can engage with problem-solving topics and issues that are important to our citizens. We should always be promoting unity. Our goal as commissioners should be to help people regain their trust in their community and with their leaders. I feel these are some of the skills and attributes that I possess and, hopefully, I’ll have a chance to share them.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? Transparency. We need to be accessible, be forthright, answer their questions and manage our community with an open-door, open-book policy. Our citizens need to know they can depend and trust us ― their elected officials ― to do the right thing. We need to produce pro-growth policies that adhere to the true needs of our communities that influence education, housing costs and our critical infrastructure needs. Local leaders and agencies should be engaging in open communication. We need to set the example in being unified, especially when it comes to supporting the citizens of Western North Carolina.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? Making sure that service workers, young people in the community and everyone else working in these industries that support tourism have affordable places to live ― that is definitely one of the current most pressing issues. We need to recruit contractors who will make a commitment to supply so many units on an affordable income-type basis and not just create affordable housing for rich people. We need affordable housing for hardworking people earning middle-class pay (people who work in our tourism industry, restaurants, hotels, breweries and other service-related jobs).
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? It is imperative that we provide water and sewer for our more rural parts of Buncombe County. We can drive down some of the rising cost. We need to improve negotiations with potential contractors. Let’s recruit developers who will also contribute to our schools. Our communities could benefit from developing greenways, bike lanes and more sidewalks. We need to be more strategic to make sure developers are dedicated to supplying affordable housing for middle-class and lower-middle-class residents. We also need to encourage the expansion of public transportation and/or their hours of operation for our county residents.
How would you rate the performance of the current county Board of Commissioners? Why? Even though there’s been some trials and tribulations here as of late, I feel the current commission is doing a good job at putting in some fail-safe policies and some other efforts to make citizens of the county more trusting in them, the process and what they are doing. Right now, citizens are not able to see exactly what is going on because we are still going through the process of investigations. I believe the commission is dedicated and working to be more transparent and have information easily accessible for citizens of Buncombe County.
Experience: Former project manager at AT&T Bell Labs; member of the Buncombe County Conservation Advisory Board
What neighborhood/area do you live in? What are those residents’ concerns? I live in the Reems Creek Valley. The most pressing issue is unwise land use. Growth has to take into consideration why people visit here and live here in the first place. We don’t have an unlimited water supply, especially here in an area rightly named “Dry Ridge.” Careful consideration is needed for what we do with bottomland farms and ridgetops that entice visitors and are treasured by residents. That issue is followed closely by the quality of education, especially in early grades and why the county has to buoy up what the state has cut.
What’s one recent Board of Commissioners decision you disagree with? How would you have handled it differently? In October 2017, a measure failed to move the county forward toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. I would have supported this initial measure with the understanding it was broad enough to act as a catalyst to get county staff exploring how this can be done. I agree that details are needed as to the costs and responsibilities, and it is my understanding many of these issues were cleared up and the measure was eventually passed. Like master land-use measures, direction toward what looks today like an unattainable goal pushes us into uncharted waters for the common good.
What do you bring to the table that your opponents can’t? I am the singular District 2 candidate with extensive project management experience, who has also spent countless hours in County Commission and planning meetings and who has ample time to dedicate to the issues because I am retired. My work at ATT Bell Labs put me in contact with engineers and scientists from all over the world, and I participated in business in many cultures and settings. I am also the singular candidate that is IN the community in a wide variety of ways – from serving on the IRB at the VA hospital to teaching at UNCA OLLI College for Seniors.
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 key component to balancing inequality is ensuring equal educational outcomes while addressing historic policies that have not treated people of color equally. Quality education is the key to raising self-actualized, empowered kids and allowing children of all races to expand their worlds to include a vision of their most actualized selves is a primary step toward opportunity AND understanding. The differences in outcomes in Buncombe County come a great deal from wealth disparity, too. Programs in the community and in the schools, especially early education, that build a safe, warm, learning environment and devote funds to building resiliency in all kids will mold strong, resilient adults.
How can the county rebuild trust in the wake of the Wanda Greene scandal and ongoing investigation? Buncombe County needs commissioners who have the time for the oversight needed to ensure public funds are used appropriately. Despite everything, the Buncombe County government is still functioning well and delivering services. Buncombe County still has its AAA bond rating and has recently passed an outside audit, and county services continue to be performed by good, hardworking county employees. Checks and balances are crucial, and I would support additional changes to tighten up oversight and continue to move ahead in parallel with the ongoing investigation.
What’s the single most pressing issue facing Buncombe County now, and how would you address it? Personally, I believe the most pressing issue is a lack of consistent, reliable digital infrastructure throughout the county. Emergency personnel have difficulty reaching each other in different parts of the county, school resource officers have varying degrees of success establishing contact from inside school facilities, and residents cannot always reach 911 in remote parts of the county. This also affects commercial and residential growth far from Asheville. Businesses wanting to locate in other parts of the county face this lack of consistent communications networks. Yancy County has the fastest internet in the state, brought to them with federal grants and loans totaling over $20 million.
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? We need to continue to strive to bring more good-paying jobs to the county municipalities outside of Asheville for those residents. We need to make sure that every tax dollar is used wisely. We need to make sure unnecessary expenditures are not using taxpayer money and that every project that does is known and approved by the commissioners. In terms of value of county services to cost of living, it needs to remain the same.
How would you rate the performance of the current county board of commissioners? Why? Crisis precipitates change. Trust between county staff and the Board of Commissioners was undermined. In spite of this or because of this, the current board is moving in the right direction.
This article was updated on April 27 at 9:40 a.m. to add an endorsement for Patrick Fitzsimmons.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 9:30 a.m. April 30 to reflect a change to Patrick Fitzsimmons’ endorsements as requested by the candidate.