As the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners prepared to pass a landmark nondiscrimination ordinance on April 20, news broke of the guilty verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in last year’s killing of George Floyd.
Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara took note of the moment.
“I know that it’s on the hearts and minds of so many in our community and because it is tied in both spirit and substance in history into why we’re discussing a nondiscrimination ordinance tonight,” Beach-Ferrara said.
With Commissioner Robert Pressley absent from the meeting after a minor surgery, the six remaining members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, which bans discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on 16 characteristics and lifestyles. Buncombe County joins seven other North Carolina communities, including Greensboro and Chapel Hill, that have passed similar ordinances.
The agenda item drew more than an hour of public comment, with 20 speakers voicing their support for the law and 11 opposing it. Commission Chair Brownie Newman announced at the beginning of the meeting that speakers would have two minutes to speak, rather than the usual three, to allow more people to weigh in. He also said that public comment would be limited to one hour, which left some who had signed up unable to participate.
Opponents of the law said it would put an unnecessary burden on business owners and questioned the costs to taxpayers of enforcing the ordinance’s provisions. Some speakers also said the law violated their religious freedom and noted fears about transgender people using public facilities aligned with their gender identity.
Several commenters who identified as part of the LGBTQ community urged commissioners to pass the law and described their personal experiences of discrimination. Peyton O’Conner, a lifelong resident of Buncombe County, father of five and trans person, noted that the ordinance represented much-needed support from local officials for historically marginalized groups.
“Not everyone in our community has had the same intersections of privilege that have allowed me to experience the security that I have in my own life,” O’Conner said. “This ordinance reflects the Buncombe County where I have chosen to raise my kids. It represents the values of a country that I have fought to protect, and it shows our children that we care enough about our community to make equity and inclusion something that is meaningful enough for us to have codified into our laws.”
Commissioners Al Whitesides, Amanda Edwards and Parker Sloan also made comments supporting the measure during the meeting. The vote follows a public reading of the ordinance, as well as a community meeting with approximately 40 participants held last week. The law will go into effect Thursday, July 1. In the interim, county staff will develop systems for reporting and enforcement and share information about the law’s implementation with the community.
In other news
After the county board went into closed session during the meeting, commissioners voted to add to the agenda consideration of a $175,000 settlement resulting from a civil suit brought by the county against former Commissioner Ellen Frost.
Attorney Philip Anderson is representing Buncombe County in the 2019 suit, which involves the unauthorized use of public funds for equestrian facilities. He said he and attorney Ron Payne recommended the settlement amount for reasons discussed during the closed session; those reasons were not disclosed in the open session. Anderson also said that the settlement would be limited to the 2019 lawsuit only and would not impact other claims against Frost or former County Manager Wanda Greene.
Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of accepting the settlement.