The air was thick with anger and the sense of double-cross on July 13, when board members of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency elected a new chair — and reneged on their resolution of last year to elect a city appointee in 1998.
Ignoring a written request and an oral demand from Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick that the board honor its commitment to elect a city appointee, the board voted 4-2 — by secret ballot — to elect Buncombe County appointee Doug Clark to a two-year term.
One year ago, in a tense vote to determine the board’s next chair, Buncombe County representative Ron Boone moved to re-elect Haywood County representative Tom Rhodarmer, amid calls to elect a city appointee. As a concession to the opposition, Boone added two provisions: Rhodarmer’s term would be only one year; and, after it ended, the board would “turn the chairmanship over to the City of Asheville if they [sic] will accept.” That motion passed.
A year later, Boone changed his mind. He moved — and the board voted — to rescind its promise to give the chair to a city appointee in 1998. Boone said he’d changed his mind because of statements made to the press by Asheville appointee Arlis Queen, as reported the day before in the Asheville Citizen-Times. In the paper’s July 12 edition, Queen is quoted calling the Air Pollution Control Agency “an absolutely corrupt, crooked outfit.”
Queen, the senior city appointee, would have been the logical choice for chair, had his colleagues elected to rotate the position. (Asheville’s other representative, Nelda Holder, was appointed only two months ago; the July 13 meeting was her first.)
“I have a problem with you and some the actions that you take,” Boone said during a brief exchange with Queen. Boone told Queen that he should not have spoken to the media.
The city’s two appointees made an attempt to win the chair. Holder nominated Queen to the position, but that failed when Boone, Clark, Randolph and Buncombe County representative Roy “Doc” Roberts voted him down.
Then, Queen nominated Holder. Randolph followed that by nominating Clark.
At this point, Rhodarmer closed the nominations. He also called for a vote by secret ballot — a decision that Sitnick later pronounced “absolutely unbelievable and lacking in courage.”
It also prompted immediate grumbling from some in the audience of about 20 people.
“Just admit it, Boone. You’re going to keep the old-boy system,” shouted Mountain Sentinel Editor Clint Parker.
“I’m going to keep the old-boy system,” replied Boone.
Earlier in the meeting, during a public-comment period, Parker had accused an APCA employee, whom he did not identify, of trying to discourage a Sentinel advertiser from advertising in the paper because of its strident coverage of the air-pollution agency and its board. Parker threatened legal action should such an event reoccur.
Holder did her best to convince the board of her qualifications, noting that she has experience running a board.
But when the ballots were counted, Clark had won, 4-2.
Shortly afterward — also by secret ballot — the board unanimously elected Holder vice-chair.
Law and order
The meeting was fraught with tension and controversy, including the board’s choice of a new attorney (to replace former board attorney Keith Snyder, who retired June 30).
When he turned in his notice, Snyder also recommended his replacement: William “Billy” Clarke, an attorney with the firm of Roberts & Stevens.
In the past, Clarke has represented industries and individuals involved in disputes with the board.
During a public-comment period, Taxpayers for Accountable Government Chair Rachel Queen voiced her objection to Billy Clarke, saying he might experience a conflict of interest. At the very least, she said, the board could advertise the position and consider other candidates.
Board members Holder and Queen weren’t ready to hire Clarke so quickly, either. They also called for advertising the position before filling it..
Boone and Doug Clark, however, favored an immediate hire. Billy Clarke “has the best credentials in town,” reasoned Boone. “We did talk to others, didn’t we Doug?” he added.
When Holder questioned whether Doug Clark and Boone could have had time to discuss the position with other prospective candidates, Boone defended himself, saying the discussions had been “informal.”
Holder persisted, urging the board to consider other candidates. “I think we should make it a public, open process,” she said, adding that this wouldn’t exclude Billy Clarke from the running.
Doug Clark wasn’t swayed. The board’s next meeting wouldn’t be until September, he argued, saying “I think we may need an attorney before then” — a comment that drew snickers from all over the room.
Queen suggested holding a special meeting later in the month to select an attorney, but to no avail. In a 4-2 vote, the board hired Billy Clarke, with Queen and Holder opposed.
Who’s to blame?
Sandwiched between these two controversies was the additional issue of determining why Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene had approached Asheville City Council on May 5, asking the city to withdraw from the two-county agency.
In an interview last month, Greene told Xpress that she and APCA Director Jim Cody had been discussing the idea since January. Cody has declined to discuss the matter, or to say whether anyone on the board had asked him to initiate conversations with Greene.
When Greene approached City Council, its members seemed to be taken completely by surprise. Council declined, with Sitnick saying that she failed to see any advantage to the city in withdrawing.
Queen told Xpress in an earlier interview that he had only heard about Greene’s request after the fact.
During the public-comment period at the beginning of the air-pollution board’s July 13 meeting, Sentinel reporter Bob Gettys asked each board member to indicate whether they approved of Cody’s discussions with Greene.
Chairman Rhodarmer handily lobbed this question to Randolph, who responded that he hadn’t been aware of Cody’s discussions with Greene prior to the City Council meeting, and that he didn’t know enough of the details to say whether or not he approved of Cody’s actions.
One by one, the remainder of the board responded in pretty much the same way — except for Rhodarmer and Queen.
Rhodarmer admitted that he had known that Greene was going to make her request, but said, “I was not asked if I approved of it at the time.”
“I certainly would not have a problem with Asheville dropping out,” he continued. Rhodarmer maintained that Buncombe County could “just as easily” represent Asheville.
When it was Queen’s turn to speak, Rhodarmer almost forgot to call on him. But Queen launched into several problems he said he had with Cody’s actions.
“It kind of blows my mind that [Cody] would go behind the backs of the board,” said Queen.
Why had Rhodarmer and Cody never raised the issue of Asheville withdrawing from the board during a meeting, he wondered. “This kind of bothers me. I think the board ought to require [Cody] to say who suggested this,” said Queen.
At this, Roberts (who often appears to doze during meetings and sometimes requires assistance before votes) accused Queen of “making a nuisance of himself.”
Through all this, Cody took no responsibility for putting Greene up to her failed proposal. He said he could not recollect how the idea had developed, and blamed his lack of memory on personal problems. “Part of this is a blur,” he said.
“I didn’t know how far [the discussions had] advanced until I got a call one Monday to appear at City Council on Tuesday,” he said.
The board agreed to invite Greene to its next meeting, on Sept. 14, to help resolve the question.
But the issue still didn’t sit well with Queen. As the meeting wound down, he moved that the board go into closed session to discuss a personnel matter — namely, what had prompted Cody to plot with Greene.
The board did vote to go into closed session, but emerged about 15 minutes later with no resolution of the matter.
By this time, all but three members of the audience had departed. Even so, Rhodarmer read a public statement (his last as chair of the board) in response to attacks on the agency as being easy on industrial polluters.
“I’ve worked in industry for 33 years,” he said, admitting that he has depended on industry to earn his livelihood.
However, he continued, everyone in the room and everyone in western North Carolina and everyone in this country has relied on industry for something. Roads, cars, clothes and paper “all come from industry somewhere,” he said. “We need industry.”
He accused “a lot of the public” of not understanding the duties that the board and agency are charged with, and concluded by saying that the APCA is “good at what it does.”
On the subject of being the board’s chair, Rhodarmer said, “I would say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it — but I really haven’t.”
In other business, the board, in one vote, unanimously renewed 16 companies’ permits to operate, including Champion International Corp., the largest source of industrial pollution in western North Carolina, and APAC Carolina, Inc., a paving contractor.
The board also approved one new permit to operate, and three permits to construct (one of which was for Champion International).