Buncombe County Commission

“Government is an extension of God,” asserted the Rev. Jimmy Dykes of the North Asheville Baptist Church, at the beginning of the Buncombe County commissioners’ July 6 meeting. All heads were bowed as Dykes prayed, “Our Father … You are Lord over Buncombe County.”

Local clergy are customarily invited to give the invocation before each public meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Leaders and ministers from any of Buncombe County’s increasingly diverse community of religions may lead this opening prayer.

“From time to time, we have a different one,” said Sandra Murphy, an assistant in the commissioners’ office. Murphy is charged with inviting local clergy to participate.

“I just call whomever I can get,” she said. “I get the names out of the phone book, or the religious directory in the Saturday paper,” she added. The commissioners, she explained, like to use local ministers.

Murphy said that representatives of churches and religious groups can call her at 250-4001, if they would like to lead the invocation.

— C.H.

Public-comment grumbles, air-agency reform, and disposing of the old Biltmore School

by Clare Hanrahan

The idea of setting stricter limits on public comment didn’t sit well with some members of that public who were present at the Buncombe County commissioners’ July 6 meeting — even though the idea was just one of several possibilities being informally discussed.

“You might as well cut out the public comment — you don’t listen to us anyway,” asserted Don Yelton, who regularly voices his concerns at commissioners’ meetings. “We need to know where our money goes,” he demanded, pointing out some of his fiscal concerns. “We ask for public information and get treated as if we’d broken wind in church.”

Others spoke about constitutional liberties. Jerry Rice told commissioners, “When you limit public comment, you limit freedom of speech. You ought to soul-search yourself.”

Under the current rules, 20 minutes are set aside at the end of each meeting for public comment. An egg timer is used to signal the end of each speaker’s five-minute comment period.

“We have the same four people speaking at every meeting,” Chairman Tom Sobol complained as the public-comment period began. He maintained that Buncombe County has the most liberal public-comment policy in the state.

County Attorney Joe Connolly offered to give commissioners his recommendations for revising the county’s policy. “You do have a potential [problem] when more than four people have signed up [for public comment],” he told them. “If you’re going to follow the 20-minute rule … [and] if you’re going to stick with some time limits, you may need to modify the procedure,” Connolly suggested.

@commishead:Maas appointed to air-pollution-control agency

Air quality — and not just in church — came up again when commissioners voted 3-1 (Young against; Gantt absent) to appoint UNCA environmental science Professor Richard Maas to the board of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency. Maas — one of the candidates favored by local clean-air advocates — will replace retired physician Roy “Doc” Roberts, who is resigning after 20 years on the board. The agency has been under fire from local residents and the media, and more recently from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“This is a very essential appointment to our county,” remarked Commissioner Bill Stanley. “I don’t think we have anybody more qualified than Rick Maas.”

Zoning-comment line

In the wake of commissioners’ recent decision (at a July 2 special meeting) to seek a nonbinding referendum on the issue of countywide zoning, County Manager Wanda Greene told commissioners that county staff have received a number of e-mails and requests for information about zoning. She said a zoning-comment telephone line (250-4110) and a special e-mail address (BCZoning@co.buncombe.nc.us) have been set up to record citizens’ comments and inquiries. All comments will be acknowledged, according to county staff.

Youth centers

Former Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Gene Rainey gave commissioners a financial report detailing the efforts of the nonprofit group Our Next Generation, Inc. to establish 20 community centers in 17 Western North Carolina counties by the year 2011. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has allocated $25,000 for the centers, which Rainey said could cost from $400,000-$500,000 each to build, depending on size. The centers will provide “prevention, education and training” to solve what Rainey characterized as “a youth crisis.” Rainey predicted that each center would generate income for its own operation, through businesses run by the young people involved, and would offer child care for teen parents, and outreach to latchkey kids.

Rainey, who chairs the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council cited a North Carolina Governors’ Commission report that says violent crime committed by 10 to 15-year-olds increased 172 percent between 1979 and 1996. “Time is running out on us,” he warned, thanking commissioners for their support for the youth centers — which, he noted, were first promised more than 30 years ago.

Commissioner Patsy Keever, who was listed with her husband, John, as a $100 contributor to Our Next Generation, agreed to serve as an ex-officio member of that organization’s board.

Rainey announced that a meeting of representatives of all school districts has been scheduled for Aug. 29 at UNCA, to determine the depth of support for the community centers.

Asheville community activist H.K. Edgerton, wearing a Friends For Animals T-shirt, took the podium beside Rainey, to ask if Our Next Generation Inc. had been in communication with Dr. Charles E. Blair, Medical Director of the New Hope Community Center. “The Rites of Passage Committee [at New Hope] has in its plans a youth center,” Edgerton said. “I hope you can work it out so we don’t have to compete [for funds].”

“I’ve already talked with Dr. Blair,” Rainey replied. “I know what he is trying to do. We will see if we can partner with [him].”

Before moving to other business, Commissioner Sobol called for public comment on the youth center. Don Yelton expressed his continuing concern that there be “full accountability” when public funds are to be expended. “I have no problem with helping youth,” he said, but stressed, “If you give money, the books should be open to the public.”

@commishhead:Biltmore School building

Ed Metz, a member of the board of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, spoke on behalf of those who want to rescue the grand old Biltmore School building on Hendersonville Road, whose fate commissioners must decide when the building’s current tenant, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, moves out. Metz spoke in support of a plan to create a Western North Carolina historical and cultural museum. “Make sure you give your best attention to the proposal to make the Biltmore School property a museum site,” he counseled the commissioners.

Buncombe native Kevin Westmoreland told commissioners, “This is a wonderful chance for the county to get money through the Historical Association, to save the building and the land.” He asked commissioners not to sell to the highest bidder but, rather, to the Historical Association. “There is more to this than money,” he declared. “We don’t need another strip mall. That building is a viable building: Let’s not make a mistake.”

@commishead:Other actions

Responding to a petition from property owners in the Grovemont section of Swannanoa, commissioners voted unanimously to close a portion of State Road 2459. No one was present to speak at a required public hearing held prior to the vote.

Assistant County Attorney Stan Klontz presented commissioners with a request to transfer the county’s cable-TV franchise from Intermedia to Charter Communications. “Charter has a very good track record,” Klontz told the commissioners. “They will assume the franchise under the [existing] conditions,” he said, adding that this “does not preclude the county from giving the franchise to another competitor [at the end of the contract period].” Intermedia Area General Manager Joe Haight spoke on behalf of the transfer and thanked the county staff for a “wonderful working relationship.”

“Charter is the other half of Microsoft,” he said, referring to the telecommunications company’s intention to combine Internet and cable-TV technology. “Digital is the wave of the future,” he declared.

Commissioners unanimously approved the franchise transfer.

In other business, Deborah Compton, promotions and marketing librarian for the Asheville/Buncombe Library System,. read from a collection of responses by 120 patrons who were asked why the library is valuable — a survey she conducted in all 10 county branch libraries.

“Literature and ideas are useless if they cannot be freely shared,” wrote one patron. “The library is the greatest weapon against ignorance and illiteracy,” wrote another.

County Finance Director Nancy Brooks gave the first public reading of an order authorizing an Oct. 5 referendum on a proposed $45 million bond issue for Buncombe County Schools. Commissioners scheduled a public hearing and second reading for July 27 at 4 p.m.

Sobol, Keever and Young elected Stanley to serve as voting delegate to the 92nd annual conference of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, to be held in Asheville Aug. 19-22.

Commissioners also unanimously appointed Jerome Jones to serve on the Social Services Board, replacing Vera Guise, and approved a second term for Michael Ogleman on the Board of Health.

Don Yelton expressed his concerned about the number of animals killed at the Buncombe County shelter. He spoke when the commissioners were considering upcoming appointments of animal-cruelty investigators to work with Friends For Animals. Yelton suggested that the media should print the number, age and type of animals killed by Friends For Animals each week. “Until [the citizens] know how bad it is, nothing can be done,” he said.

The next meeting of the commissioners’ meeting has been postponed until July 27 at 4 p.m. in the County Courthouse. Commissioners will be in St. Louis July 16-20, to participate in the annual gathering of the National Association of County Commissioners.

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