A new head for a new agency

An unexpected change of leadership marked the transition from the old WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency to the new WNC Air Quality Agency at a brief board meeting on July 17. The meeting was specially called to transfer authority to and elect officers for the AQA, following the state Environmental Management Commission’s July 13 approval of the interlocal agreement between Buncombe County and the city of Asheville that re-establishes the air agency.

Buncombe County appointee Doug Clark nominated Alan McKenzie (also a county appointee) to serve as board chair. That was the only nomination for the position, and McKenzie will replace Asheville appointee Nelda Holder. The board also voted to accept applications for the position of board attorney, rather than immediately renewing Jim Siemens‘ contract.

The switch surprised Holder, who had expected to be re-elected as chair.

“I had no reason to think otherwise, since we seemed to be working well together as a board,” Holder told the Xpress.

“Nelda did an incredible job,” said McKenzie. “I hope I can be in her same league.” He confirmed that Clark had asked him before the meeting whether he would be willing to serve, but also said: “I gave three different answers. I was not sure how it was going to go.”

Holder also described herself as “very distressed” by the board’s decision about Siemens.

“Jim has worked extremely hard for us. He worked hard to bring the agency into conformance with the [recommendations of the] state audit.” Both she and McKenzie gave Siemens’ legal presentation much of the credit for the EMC’s unanimous vote to approve the new interlocal agreement. As new chairman, McKenzie didn’t vote on the motion to open up the board attorney’s position, but he “strongly encouraged” Siemens to re-submit his own application.

According to well-informed observers, however, Holder and Siemens raised board members’ hackles two months ago by appearing to carry on behind-the-scenes discussions with Carolina Power & Light over the company’s offer to settle a potentially embarrassing pollution citation before it reached a public hearing. Both deny having conducted any negotiations with CP&L, which is the largest polluter under the agency’s jurisdiction.

Siemens also drew criticism for speaking out passionately — but without board authorization — in defense of the air agency at a public hearing several months ago, when the county commissioners were considering a proposal to place air-pollution control under the authority of Emergency Management Services Director Jerry Vehaun and County Manager Wanda Greene.

Reached by the Xpress, Siemens preferred not to comment on the board’s decision, except to say, “I’m debating about whether or not to re-apply.”

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