Something on the wind

“Back-door dealings sicken me and must stop.”

– Asheville Vice Mayor Holly Jones

A surprise last-minute statement by Vice Mayor Holly Jones at the July 25 City Council meeting exposed rifts and alleged dysfunction on the Asheville Regional Airport Authority’s board of directors.

“I don’t feel good about this board and probably never will, knowing how we got to this point,” Jones told her colleagues, referencing an apparent coup d’etat at the airport board’s meeting the previous day.

When the dust had settled on July 24, the board had a new chairman — Council member Bryan Freeborn — and the vice chairmanship had gone to an outgoing board member who’d asked not to be reappointed at all.

City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners each make three appointments to the airport board, and those six select a seventh, at-large member. But Council had not yet made its new appointments, and Republican Rhett Grotzinger, who wound up as the board’s new vice chair, hadn’t even been reappointed yet.

The airport board has been marked by political divisions and has not been short on controversy. In March, mere months after the current City Council was sworn in, board member Joe Dunn — who’d lost his Council seat in making an unsuccessful run for mayor the previous November — was replaced by Freeborn, a political newcomer. At the time, conservative Council member Carl Mumpower saw the move as a political purge. Jones, however, maintained that she merely wanted to have a sitting Council member on the board.

But the current jockeying for the position of board chair left Jones, who chairs the city’s Boards and Commissions Committee, fuming over what she called a “dysfunctional” Airport Authority.

The July 24 airport board meeting began with outgoing chair Albert Anderson unexpectedly nominated Freeborn to succeed him. But with two board members — Rhett Grotzinger and state Rep. Susan Fisher — due to check in via conference call and City Council’s appointments not yet in, confusion soon reigned.

In an interview with Xpress, Jones hinted that Freeborn had been offered the chairmanship in exchange for his support for reappointing Grotzinger, who had declined to seek reappointment in a June 27 letter to the city. In the interim, however, things changed dramatically.

Board Vice Chairman (and former Council member) Jim Ellis told Xpress that the turn of events was a surprise to him. Ellis says he had both Fisher’s and Freeborn’s support, and that Fisher had been planning to nominate him. Freeborn, said Ellis, was in line to become
secretary/treasurer.

“We got kind of blind-sided,” said Ellis. At press time, Fisher had not returned calls.

Grotzinger’s nomination for vice chair also raised some hackles, since it was unclear at the time whether he would even be serving another term on the board. But Ellis said Freeborn had assured the airport board that there were four votes on Council for Grotzinger. That proved to be true, as Freeborn joined Mumpower, Mayor Terry Bellamy and Jan Davis in voting for him the next day.

It all happened so fast, though, that the other three Council members weren’t even aware that Grotzinger’s name was back in the hat, Jones told Xpress. “Back-door dealings sicken me and must stop,” she proclaimed at the City Council meeting.

For his part, Freeborn says his support for Ellis was never a lock. Ellis’ bid for the chairmanship, said Freeborn, came “not because he’s got any great vision for the airport, but because Jim Ellis has been there longer than anyone else, and it’s his turn.”

His backing for Ellis lukewarm at best, Freeborn said a conversation with Mayor Bellamy had changed his mind. “She just said, hey, you’re really good at finding a consensus. Why don’t you go try and take some leadership out there?

“I don’t think she meant for me to do what I did,” Freeborn said with a chuckle, adding, “I don’t want to create a board that is just there to hang out.” At press time, Bellamy had not returned phone calls seeking comment.

Freeborn also told Xpress that his support for Grotzinger was based on the man’s performance — not on politics. “Since I’ve been out there at the airport, he’s done a good job as a board member,” Freeborn said. “Whether or not I agree with his politics is a different thing.”

After some consideration, said Freeborn, he called Grotzinger and told him three Council members wanted to reappoint him and that Freeborn himself was also leaning in that direction. “I felt better about going with him as a board member than not,” Freeborn told Xpress. “And then I asked him if he would support me as chair, and he said he would. … I asked him if he was willing to change the power structure out there, and he was.” Freeborn also said his support for Grotzinger was not contingent on getting the chairmanship.

In her statement to Council, Jones noted: “The airport is critical to our economic future. Board membership is about being instruments of public service — not a place to build resumes.”

But Freeborn insists that his new role on the board is entirely legitimate. “Being on the airport board is not a steppingstone to greatness,” he said. “I work on transportation issues; that’s why I went out there. We need to do a better job of regionalizing transportation.”

Still, the suddenness of Freeborn’s ascent to chairman, and Grotzinger’s reappointment and move to vice chair, leave a cloud over the airport board, Jones maintains. “Sadly, the pattern of odd maneuvers continues,” she told her Council colleagues. “The dysfunction lives on.”

In the following days, Jones’ statement touched off an e-mail exchange between her and Mumpower, who likened the new developments to Dunn’s removal five months before.

“At that time, like this time,” Mumpower wrote, “deals were made and alliances created to produce an outcome you and others desired.”

In her response, Jones disagreed, though she did find at least some common ground. “I appreciate your discouragement of such ‘political’ activities with the Airport Board. That will be my mantra as well.”

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