Who will lead?

Selecting a chairperson may not seem like a big deal — but it will be on July 13, when the Western N.C. Air Pollution Control Agency board takes a vote.

Last year’s election plunged the agency into conflict, when its board re-elected Haywood County appointee Tom Rhodarmer as its chair. As a concession to the opposition, the chair’s term was shortened from two years to one.

Opponents said the chairmanship should rotate, giving a turn to appointees from each of the three local governments represented on the board: the city of Asheville, and Buncombe and Haywood counties.

Asheville appointee Arlis Queen vehemently objected to last year’s vote, maintaining that it was Asheville’s turn to have one of its two representatives at the helm. Buncombe representative Roy “Doc” Roberts concurred.

In an effort to make Rhodarmer more acceptable, Buncombe appointee Ron Boone amended the motion to re-elect Rhodarmer to say the board would “turn the chairmanship over to the City of Asheville” after Rhodarmer’s term expired. The motion passed 3-2.

The original 1970 agreement creating the air-pollution agency states, “The chairmanship shall rotate between the delegations from the city and counties at the expiration of each two year term.”

But last year, agency attorney Keith Snyder (who resigned his duties last month) maintained that a more recent (1995) agreement — which completely replaces the 1970 document — does not call for the chairmanship to rotate.

In any case, the agency appears to have ignored its rotation requirement, even when it was in force. And, to further complicate the picture, the agency’s current rule book says the requirement still stands. When incoming board member Nelda Holder (appointed by Asheville) asked agency Director Jim Cody to send her a copy of the agency’s operating rules, the document she received makes reference only to the 1970 agreement, not the more recent one.

In the past, the board has not made it a policy to rotate the chairmanship, according to Snyder, who had been the board’s attorney since 1982. When asked to name past board chairs, he could remember only three people: Roberts, Bud Holt (whom Rhodarmer replaced), and Rhodarmer.

Last year was the first time, Snyder said, that he has been aware of anyone being upset about the rotation issue.

No list of past chairs of the agency’s board is available, according to Cody.

Mountain Xpress spoke with six of the seven current board members about the upcoming election. Only two of them, both Asheville appointees, said the chairmanship should rotate. Boone was not available for comment.

Queen stresses that he’s not simply pushing himself as the next chair, but that he wants the board to “follow its own rules.”

Queen has served on the board for two years. During that time, he has often been the lone naysayer, pointing out inconsistencies in the agency’s enforcement policy, and insisting that the board scrutinize the agency’s budget, rather than rubber-stamping it. Last year, Queen voted against accepting the agency’s budget — which, he pointed out, allocates more than $2,000 per employee for office supplies, among other concerns.

Queen maintains that the agency is lenient in its treatment of big businesses, such as Champion International and CP&L, but cracks down on individuals for relatively minor infractions, such as illegal burning.

“I think probably the board should look to who they think the most qualified person is for chairman, regardless of where they come from,” said Rhodarmer.

Rhodarmer, Buncombe County appointee Doug Clark, Haywood County appointee Don Randolph and Roberts all said the current board and agency personnel are doing a good job of enforcing air-quality laws.

Whether or not the board chairmanship is required to rotate, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and all five Buncombe County commissioners still believe it should.

“The chairmanship ought to rotate on a regular, fair basis,” asserted Sitnick.

“I would definitely think that you should give others a chance to have leadership positions on that board,” said Commissioner David Young, adding, “Most boards have limits. It’s no reflection on how good a job the present chairman might do.”

Haywood County Commission Chair Ed Russell seemed less certain. He said that he “hadn’t thought much about” the chairmanship rotating, “but it sounds logical that it should.”

Haywood County Manager Jack Horton said, “I don’t have an opinion on that.”

Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene didn’t have an opinion on the issue either, saying only that the board should continue its current practice of electing a chair. Earlier this summer, Greene threw Asheville City Council members a curve when she urged the city to withdraw from the agency. That idea came as a complete surprise to Council members, who declined to take such action. Both the mayor and vice mayor said they failed to see how leaving the agency would benefit the city.

The air-pollution agency enforces local, state and federal air-pollution laws in Buncombe and Haywood counties. Its duties include: issuing permits to facilities emitting air pollutants, regulating asbestos removal, and enforcing open-burning laws.

In March of 1997, the board was at the center of an asphalt-plant-permitting controversy after it approved a permit for a plant on Riverside Drive, next to the French Broad River and adjacent to downtown Asheville. The decision met with substantial public opposition. The board ultimately voted to rescind the plant’s permit, after the city sued the board.

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