- County approves freeze on creating new staff positions
A referendum on electing Buncombe County commissioners by district will not be on the ballot come November. A motion by Chair Nathan Ramsey calling for a referendum on both district elections and expanding the board to seven members failed when no one would second it during the commissioners’ Aug. 5 meeting.
After briefly outlining some arguments for district elections, such as greater local representation, Ramsey urged his colleagues to let voters decide the matter.
“Currently, there has not been a commissioner who has lived west of the French Broad River for 20 years,” he said. “There hasn’t been a commissioner who’s lived north of the city limits in 16 years. It has been over 30 years since we changed the method of electing commissioners. Our population has grown significantly: Today, there’s almost 45,000 people for each commissioner. We should give our citizens the chance to decide whether they think this is a good idea or a bad idea.”
Ramsey, whose re-election bid is being challenged by Vice Chair David Gantt, denied having political reasons for his proposal.
“Perhaps I should have done it earlier,” he said. “Maybe we should have done it a long time ago, but we need to go forward with it sometime.” Ramsey said the districts could be roughly based on the county’s school districts, though by law they would have to have approximately equal populations at the time they were drawn.
None of the other commissioners indicated their reasons for declining to second Ramsey’s motion.
Asked about it later, Gantt said he felt Ramsey’s move was “political posturing” and that he’d refused to second the motion because there wasn’t time to discuss the matter.
“We would need to have public hearings before we even discussed putting this on the ballot,” said Gantt. “It’s a big deal to change the way we’ve elected commissioners for over 100 years, and the worst time to do that is right before election time.”
Ten years ago, he noted, a committee headed by former Commissioner John Daniel had concluded that there was no need to switch to district elections.
“In those 10 years, I’ve heard about it from two people,” said Gantt. “At conventions, when you talk to people from places that have district elections, they say that the best people don’t win—that it’s a quota system. In this increasingly global time, I don’t see much point in splitting the county up into different neighborhoods. Now, reasonable people can differ on this, but the way to bring it up is not out of left field like this.”
Gantt also said that Ramsey had broken a tradition among the commissioners of not putting an item on the agenda unless it was sure of a second.
Earlier in the meeting, several county residents emphatically endorsed district elections—or at least putting the matter on the ballot.
“We need this,” Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny told the board. “I believe you know it’s the right thing to do. Swannanoa’s trying to incorporate, and one of the arguments [proponents] bring up constantly is that there hasn’t been a commissioner from there since 1956. It is an underrepresented area; it is not perceived that you are representing us,” the longtime political activist asserted. “Look at the floods of 2004: There’s still buildings in wreckage in 2008. This is a way we can address that. It’s not a partisan issue—it’s about right and wrong. What we have now is wrong.”
Leicester resident Peggy Bennett of Citizens for Change brandished bumper stickers proclaiming, “Erwin-Leicester needs a commissioner.”
“This has been an issue for us for several years, and we have hopes for getting it on the ballot,” said Bennett. “This is not an election-year ploy by Chairman Ramsey; it’s an election-year campaign by the people you’re supposed to represent. For years, the majority of commissioners have lived within the city. We feel the county is not well served when the commissioners come from just a few neighborhoods. Put it on the ballot: Let the people vote.”
Bennett also maintained that district elections would cut down “on the obscene costs of running a campaign.”
Candler resident Kathy Rhodarmer said she doesn’t “understand why it’s so hard to let people vote. It seems very paternalistic. … It’s sort of looking down on folks when you tell them they can’t vote on it.”
Enka resident Jerry Rice, another regular at Board of Commissioners meetings, said the commissioners have a better chance of understanding local issues when at least one of them comes from the area in question. Rice also issued a warning to the board, declaring: “You didn’t even know about the Enka smokestacks until they were gone. I hope we see this on the ballot—and, God help us, I’d like to see all of you out of here.”
No new staff positions
The commissioners also unanimously endorsed a freeze on adding new staff positions for the remainder of the fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2009. Currently vacant existing positions can still be filled, however.
Tough economic times make the measure a necessity, said County Manager Wanda Greene. “We’re seeing a lot of citizens in pain, and increasing workloads in a number of departments,” she told the board. “We’re tightening our belts to make sure we can manage anything that comes with a further downturn in the economy.”
The resolution, noted Greene, also allows vacancies to be reclassified as a different job or moved to a different department “to meet expanded or changing needs.”
“Why are we not placing a freeze on all positions—including the vacant ones?” wondered Ramsey.
That, Greene replied, would be going too far. “There aren’t that many, for one thing, and some we have to fill,” she explained. “We’re down to thin staffing in all of our departments. We’re looking very closely at doing hiring delays in noncore services. But to do a hard hiring freeze … when we’ve worked as hard as we can to make sure we’re appropriately staffed—it’s just not the right time.”
Praising Greene and the staff for “doing a great job,” Commissioner David Young made a motion to institute the freeze.