Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey and Vice Chair David Gantt, who’s challenging Ramsey for the chairman’s seat, kept the tone mostly civil during an Aug. 27 lunchtime forum, but the two exchanged barbs about each other’s records on the Parkside controversy, zoning and taxes.
Held at the Buncombe County Board of Education and sponsored by Leadership Asheville, the event drew about 100 people, who paid $14 to $16 to attend (the money will be used to underwrite more such forums). Gantt and Ramsey each made an opening statement and then took questions from the audience, questioning each other in the process.
Ramsey, a Republican who’s chaired the board since 2000, touted his family’s connection to the area. Describing himself as “a straight shooter to our citizens: I’ll never say one thing and do another,” he noted that he’d passed up a career as a lawyer to come home and run the family dairy farm in Fairview.
“I really do love this community, and as chairman I’ve done the best I can to protect your rights and pocketbooks,” said Ramsey, adding that he believes in cooperation despite “partisan differences,” because “the problems our community faces aren’t political problems—they’re community challenges, and we’ve got to work together.”
Ramsey said he’s tackled those problems effectively, contributing to the county’s becoming “a statewide leader in land conservation. Our schools are some of the best in the state and are getting better, we’re a national leader in health care, and I’ve been recognized statewide for my leadership on affordable housing.”
Looking ahead, Ramsey promised to keep taxes low during the current tough economic times.
Gantt, a Democrat who’s served on the Board of Commissioners since 1996, talked about having built up his law practice from scratch. “I started practicing my business out of the back of my Ford Pinto, with a typewriter in my trunk,” he said. Gantt added: “We’re at a crossroads: We have to show some leadership and vision in what goes on from here. I want use the chair’s spot as a bully pulpit, to make sure everyone in the county has the opportunities I’ve had and my family has had.”
With times changing, Gantt said he’d like to see the county pursue more partnerships with municipalities.
Each candidate applauded the other’s opening statement and, throughout the forum, praised his opponent’s hard work. But this is still a political race, and one of these two candidates won’t be serving on the board next year.
As the forum continued, each man criticized the other’s actions on a number of issues.
Gantt hit first, right out of the gate, saying in his opening statement that he felt Ramsey’s behavior during the debate over countywide zoning had been divisive.
“When I was going to civic clubs talking about land-use planning, my opponent was going around putting up angry red signs saying ‘No Zoning’—and that’s the difference in leadership,” asserted Gantt.
Ramsey struck back, charging that Gantt and the other commissioners had ignored the results of a nonbinding referendum that rejected zoning. Countering Gantt’s assertion that he doesn’t “cram things down people’s throats” to resolve problems, Ramsey said, “I think [zoning] was crammed down people’s throats—and that was a divisive way to do it.” The people, he said, should decide the question of zoning through a referendum of all county voters after extensive discussion of the issue in all parts of the county. Gantt did say he favored more community input to refine the county’s zoning ordinance, but he added: “The buck stops here—we shouldn’t use referendums for everything. California does that for crazy stuff.”
Asked about the Parkside controversy, Gantt joked, “I didn’t know that would be an issue,” before bluntly stating: “We made a horrible mistake selling that property. If I’d known it was in the park, I never would have voted to sell it.” He also advocated buying back the land from developer Stewart Coleman.
Ramsey, while agreeing “that we made some mistakes” in connection with the property, including the sale of public parkland to a private developer, went on to observe that “the cow is out of the barn.” He encouraged the city of Asheville to retrieve the parcel via a land swap.
“I know the city didn’t get us into this problem; I know they have other problems to deal with; but I’m hoping they’ll help bail us out,” said Ramsey.
The biggest mistake the commissioners made, he asserted, was turning down an offer (in closed session several years ago) to buy the neighboring Hayes & Hopson Building, which would have headed off the whole Parkside controversy. (Coleman subsequently purchased the building, which makes up part of the Parkside site.) Among other objections, Ramsey has said he refuses to pay Coleman more than the $2.8 million the county had previously offered for both parcels (Coleman turned it down).
Ramsey’s campaign has received $600 from Coleman and his associates, according to official campaign-finance reports.
In a rare moment of agreement, both Gantt and Ramsey said they favored holding more community meetings.
Later, however, Ramsey was questioned about a statement on his Web site branding Gantt’s claim that he hadn’t known what he was voting on “disingenuous, delusional or an outright lie.” In response, Ramsey said, “I don’t think David is a liar, but he was on the Pack Square Conservancy [board] and should have known what he was voting on.”
And though the statement in question has since been removed from Ramsey’s Web site, he calls Gantt’s position on Parkside “either a lawyerlike duck-and-cover scheme or the shameless political pandering of someone looking for votes. Maybe it’s both; I don’t know. But it sure looks to me like just another politician trying to have it both ways.”
Undeterred, Gantt bought up the issue again, reading from Ramsey’s original statement and then telling the audience: “I’m not going to have a campaign like that, and I’m going to ask Nathan to pledge to you today to not have a campaign like that. Let’s talk about the issues.”
Gantt followed that up by asserting that Ramsey had backed out of a 2001 agreement to use gross tax revenue instead of net revenue when calculating funding for the county schools. Later, campaign workers for Gantt distributed copies of a letter announcing that agreement, along with several news articles and editorials critical of Ramsey, to reporters covering the debate. Gantt subsequently sent Xpress copies of the Parkside page from Ramsey’s Web site before the wording was changed.
While conceding that “it was a very tough time for the schools,” Ramsey maintained that he hadn’t broken a promise. He also challenged Gantt to pledge to hold seven debates—one in each school district—before the Nov. 4 election. The debates, he said, could happen “anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”
Gantt responded that he was happy to debate, but added: “I have to work—I’m the only lawyer in my office. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do seven, but I’ll try to do as many as I can.”
That drew a sharp remark from Ramsey, who retorted, “If you’re elected as chairman, you better be prepared to spend a lot more time doing this work—so I’d hope we’d have seven evenings we can do community debates.”