Pushing for change

Last fall, the political action committee Citizens for Change campaigned to oust — or, in their words, “dump” — the incumbent Buncombe County commissioners.

Now, with the election behind them (and only one of the group’s favored candidates, Nathan Ramsey, elected to the board), Citizens for Change has been reborn as a citizens’ action group that plans to stick around.

Highly critical of how county government operates, group members plan to focus on many of the same concerns that drove them last year, albeit in a more respectful tone than some members’ pre-election rhetoric.

“There are a lot of things that we’d like to see changed,” said Citizens for Change founder Peggy Bennett. “We aren’t going away.”

Bennett and other members of the group — including former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners candidate Don Yelton and Fairview resident Stuart Reems — appeared before the commissioners last month to update the board on the group’s new status. In its literature, Citizens for Change identifies itself as citizen-driven, nonpartisan, grassroots organization.

“We will work closely with you, and we will place before you the needs, wants, wishes and concerns of the people,” Bennett told the board at its Dec. 19 meeting. “We will attend your meetings and treat you with courtesy and respect. We ask the same treatment in return. It does not matter to us who is chairman of this board. We will be asking questions and harder questions, and we will expect honest answers within a reasonable time. It is important that you remember that we are taxpayers, and we elected you to represent us. The election is over, and now it’s time to govern.”

Bennett then invited the commissioners to attend a Citizens for Change meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 at the Skyland Fire Department. (In addition to regular meetings, the group gets its message out through a weekly cable-TV show that airs at 7 p.m. on Friday and 9 p.m. on Saturday on cable channel 10.)

Bennett (who thinks the board has lost touch with the people) noted after the meeting that Citizens for Change can act as the commissioners’ “eyes and ears” by listening to the concerns of county residents and bringing those issues to the board’s attention.

Reaction from the commissioners after the meeting was mixed.

Commissioner David Young said he was willing to give Citizens for Change a chance.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m always open to new ideas and good ideas,” Young said. “I think the key to it is presentation, but if Tuesday is an example of what’s going to happen … I think it’ll be a great relationship and a good give and take.”

Young also noted, however, that the group’s vocal opposition to the incumbents “doesn’t go away. … But if they’re willing to work and try, I’m willing to listen.” Nonetheless, Young wasn’t sure he would attend the group’s meeting.

“I don’t know if I’m that far along yet,” he said. “I’m open to hearing their ideas. I go to a lot of meetings, [but] I try to go home to my family as much as I can.”

At the Board of Commissioners meeting, Young even complimented Yelton on his suggestion that the Chamber of Commerce move its Visitor Information Center to the old Biltmore School, declaring it to be a “great idea.” But Young also noted that the Chamber has already bought property for that purpose.

Commissioner Bill Stanley seemed less receptive to the group, describing his reaction as a “wait-and-see attitude.”

“I think they’ll be campaigning against the four [Democratic] incumbents for the next four years, personally,” Stanley offered after the meeting. “They want to make policy for Buncombe County; they need to get themselves elected.”

And as for Bennett’s pledge that the group would treat the commissioners with respect, Stanley had his doubts. “They weren’t very nasty when they were up here [at the meeting], but I imagine they’ll be that way before the next election,” he predicted.

Stanley said he knows that group members dislike him, and he questioned group members’ sincerity about wanting to work with the commissioners.

“I think they want to make trouble,” concluded Stanley.

Ramsey said he thinks the other commissioners would be receptive to good ideas, no matter where they came from.

“A lot of those people were my supporters and I appreciate that,” noted Ramsey. “I’ve got to work with our other commissioners as well, and one thing that there’s always a shortage of is good ideas.” Ramsey went on to point out that if someone can offer an idea that’s a good use of taxpayer money and solves problems, “there’s always a place for that.”

“I think the commissioners ought to treat them with respect and listen to what they have to say and they’ll do the same to us,” Ramsey continued. “It’s like any other group of folks that come up here that have a position on different issues. We should listen to them.”

Citizens for Change’s offer to act as a liaison between county residents and the Board of Commissioners bothered Commissioner Patsy Keever and Vice Chair David Gantt.

“My reaction is that any citizen, as an individual, who wants to get in touch with the commissioners or have any input doesn’t have to go through any kind of group,” Keever said. “They can go through department heads; they can go through us.”

And frankly, she added, she doesn’t see the need for such an organization as Citizens for Change. County residents “don’t have to go through any group,” Keever emphasized. “We’re the group. We’re elected.”

Gantt agreed.

“I view this as an attempt to take away people’s rights to deal with us directly,” Gantt asserted. “We’ll deal with any individuals from Citizens for Change or anybody else, but if the idea is to create a barrier between me and the public, or any of the other commissioners and the public, I think all of us would be against that.”

He encouraged county residents to call or write him directly.

“I certainly will work with anybody,” Gantt said. “The election’s over. I don’t hold grudges, but I don’t want to see a group that tries to put themselves between us and the public, and that’s just not going to happen on my watch.”

And Keever admits that she’s somewhat wary of the group’s intentions.

“In all honesty, if you have a group made up of people whose major interest was to throw you out of office, you sort of wonder, watch and wait,” Keever admitted.

Although Bennett didn’t spell out the group’s key concerns at the Dec. 19 Board of Commissioners meeting. The Citizens for Change political action committee (formed in May 2000) broke off from Citizens for Property Rights, a now-defunct anti-zoning group led by Ramsey.

Bennett said Citizens for Change wants to: reduce the amount of money the commissioners spend on studies; improve the county’s bidding process; reduce the number of commissioners who attend out-of-town functions; change the way the county handles contracts; rethink the way the commissioners spend money; and get the commissioners to listen to them.

Bennett reported that Citizens for Change has members in every township and hopes to have several thousand members by the end of 2001. The group now has 147 members, she said.

The group’s motto (“Any question deserves an honest answer”) and its organizational chart also hint that the group will question the status quo. The chart is topped by the saying “Without friction, you have no traction — without traction there is no action.” And their members include former Board of Commissioners candidates Vernon Sharp and Gerald Dean, the latter a frequent critic of the commissioners.

Bennett emphasized that she’s serious about the pledge to treat board members with respect. Any Citizens for Change member who is rude to the commissioners will be suspended from the group’s meetings for 30 days, she revealed. People who persist will forfeit their group membership.

Bennett admitted that she doesn’t know whether this exercise in democracy will work, but said the group is willing to give it a shot.

“We’re serious,” Bennett said. “It’s time that the people made a joint effort to get the commissioners’ attention and let them know what we want and what we can live with.”

For more information on Citizens for Change, contact Bennett at 683-3701.

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