The fallout from the federal investigation into former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene has shaped the conversation leading up to the Tuesday, Nov. 6, general election.
The issue dominated county news over the last year and jumpstarted a Republican effort to flip the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, which currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority, from blue to red.
Three seats on the Board of Commissioners will be decided by this year’s ballot. Democrat Amanda Edwards and Republican Glenda Weinert, who ran for chair of the Board of Commissioners in 2012, are hoping to fill Commissioner Ellen Frost’s soon-to-be-empty District 2 seat, and District 3 incumbent Robert Pressley, who is a Republican, is fighting a challenge by Democrat Donna Ensley. District 1 Commissioner Al Whitesides is running for re-election unopposed.
During an early-morning debate organized by the Council of Independent Business Owners on Oct. 5, the wide-ranging implications of fraud allegations against former county officials were a recurring topic of discussion for District 2 and District 3 candidates.
The debate also served as an opportunity for the candidates to talk at length about other topics, including school safety and affordable housing.
In her opening remarks, Edwards said she has centered her campaign on restoring trust and accountability in county government — a step she said is vital to enabling the county to address issues like affordable housing and opioid abuse.
Edwards said she has a track record of community service, having worked as the director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County and the Asheville-Mountain Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. She now works as the executive director of the A-B Tech Foundation and believes her background has prepared her to work as a commissioner.
“I believe that serving others and improving lives are also duties of a county commissioner,” she said.
Weinert traces her business experience to the early ’90s, having owned and operated Little Beaver Childcare Centers until 2009. When she sold the business, Weinert said, the centers were caring for 700 children and employed more than 150 teachers and assistants.
“It’s time for common sense,” she said. “It’s time for a practical, business approach to how we operate our county.”
Weinert recalled President Ronald Reagan’s statement during a State of the Union Address many years ago: “We can’t spend ourselves rich.”
“Think about that folks,” Weinert said. “We have to take care of taxpayer money and we have to be efficient with those dollars.”
Ensley, meanwhile, comes from the nonprofit sector, having worked as a board chair for Helpmate, the president of the Rotary Club of Asheville and the chief development officer for MANNA FoodBank, which she said increased food distribution from 6.2 million to 16 million pounds of food over her eight-year tenure.
“I believe that the skills I bring in strategic planning and growth and development and planning for the future is what is needed now,” she said.
When she retired, Ensley said, she was looking for a new place to serve. “And there was a voice in me that kept complaining about what was going on in our county and another voice tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Why don’t you do something about this?’”
Ensley’s District 3 opponent, Pressley, has spent two years on the Board of Commissioners after his successful 2016 campaign to fill the seat vacated by Miranda DeBruhl. “I am wanting us to bring transparency back in here,” he said.
A former NASCAR driver and the owner of Celebrity’s Hotdogs on Brevard Road, Pressley said his experience handling finances for his business earned him a spot on the county’s audit committee alongside Commissioner Whitesides, who has a background in banking.
“We knew banking, we knew finance,” Pressley said. “We knew how to spend money, we wrote checks … I’m a business owner. I have raced for, you know, over 25 years. I know what it’s like. I can’t just keep going and borrowing money week in and week out to keep a business going.”
To audit or not to audit
The Board of Commissioners decided in September to push forward with a forensic audit of county finances, the scope of which commissioners will be able to mold as they see fit. This extra audit, however, won’t start until the federal investigation has come to an end.
Members of CIBO wanted to know what candidates would investigate as part of a forensic audit of the county.
Ensley favors a broad approach to county employment policies to address the challenges of funding employee health care, compensation, hiring and safeguards against nepotism. “I think we need a forensic audit of all of our practices and understand where we’re spending [our money], how we’re spending it, what the long-term effects are and move forward from there,” she said.
Pressley said he favors a thorough evaluation of the county’s finances, but he believes federal investigators are doing that work for the county right now. “A forensic audit could cost millions and millions of dollars and just pinpoint a couple things,” he said. Pressley believes the county will already know everything there is to know by the time the federal investigation is over.
Edwards said the county’s problems with Wanda Greene went beyond accounting procedures. “She was cliquish and had a secretive management style,” Edwards said. “If you weren’t on her team, you knew you weren’t on her team.”
As far as a forensic audit is concerned, Edwards said the county should hold off on any further investigations until after the completion of the federal investigation. “Let them do their job,” she said.
Weinert said the FBI has the authority to request documents, such as Wanda Greene’s personal financial statements and tax returns, that wouldn’t be part of a forensic audit. “It’s imperative that we allow the [external] audit process to be completed,” she said. Once the FBI investigation and the external audit by CliftonLarsonAllen are done, then the county can evaluate whether it needs to conduct a forensic audit, Weinert said.
Twenty one school resource officers serve Buncombe County’s 44 schools, a ratio commissioners voted to shift by adding six new SRO positions in early September.
The need, interim County Manager George Wood told commissioners, is especially prevalent in the system’s elementary schools. The school system said it would be able to offset the cost of these officers in the first two years with a $333,333 grant it had received from the state.
With annual salary and benefits for each new officer estimated at $68,929, the expansion would mean a recurring cost of about $400,000 per year.
While some commissioners favored taking more time to study the decision to add the new officers, the board ultimately decided to fund the new positions by a 4-3 vote. Members of CIBO wanted to know if the candidates would commit funds to put SROs in all county schools.
Pressley was one of the commissioners who voted in favor of the SRO funding and believes the additional funding doesn’t go far enough.
“I have family members — daughter-in-laws and sister-in-laws — that teach school,” Pressley said, “and when a police officer is there for three hours and then gone on to another school, that is not keeping our kids safe right there.”
Pressley dismissed concerns from some commissioners about how the county would pay for the positions once the state grant dries up. “That’s when we go after another grant to keep our kids safe,” he said.
Edwards felt a personal connection to this issue, revealing that she had been held hostage by a classmate at her high school in West Virginia when she was 16.
“No 16-year-old or any student in our school system should ever have a sawed-off shotgun held to their back at that age,” Edwards said.
She pointed to the need for more mental health professionals and counselors in schools to “ward off these situations before we have to call in law enforcement because someone is in our schools with a gun.”
Weinert said teachers and students live in an unprecedented era of risk when they go to school. “Unfortunately, we have reached a place in time where having school resources officers present has become a necessity to provide that protection,” she said.
Weinert acknowledged, however, that there will be some “tough conversations” down the road about the sustainability of the grant funding. “The unfortunate reality is there is a limited pool of money and we must be good stewards of that money, because if you take from one side of the budget to affect one issue, it affects the other side.” Weinert called for a long-term, sustainable plan for providing SROs to local schools.
Ensley believed the answer involves a combination of SROs and mental health funding. “We definitely need to focus on bringing more mental health providers into our schools while we’re also adding resource officers to protect them,” she said.
The problem, she said, is systemic. “We need to address the long-term issues that are really causing our problems with kids and their disenfranchisement in the schools at these young ages,” she said.
The Buncombe County zoning ordinance does not allow HUD-labeled manufactured homes and manufactured home parks in certain zoning designations.
With affordable housing being a major issue for many local residents, members of CIBO wanted to know whether candidates would be in favor of changing the ordinance to permit manufactured homes in more zoning designations.
“It’s certainly one way that the situation could be addressed as long as we’re working with those folks to help them understand that they’re not going to be building equity as they would in a traditionally built home,” Edwards said.
She also pointed to the need to partner with local agencies like Mountain Housing Opportunities and Habitat for Humanity on long-term plans.
Weinert said changes have occurred over the years in how manufactured homes are built and how they’re placed on property. “If we really want to address the affordable housing issues, then we need to consider those options.”
Ensley agreed that manufactured homes need to remain on the table. “The length of time that a mobile home lasts now is longer than I assumed, and I do think we need consider all options for affordable housing,” she said.
Pressley said his first house was a mobile home. “I think a lot of us growed up in the era where that was your first affordability,” he said. “Well, it’s back today. Our kids cannot afford with our property taxes where they are.”
He also noted that manufactured homes produce much less waste than a traditionally built house. “We can do multiple things with affordable housing,” he said. “Our landfill, our economy, our cost and getting our kids and the young people affordability to have their first home.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 12:20 p.m. Oct. 10 to indicate that District 2 candidate Glenda Weinert previously ran for chair of the Board of Commissioners in 2012.