A state law concerning public comment in local-government meetings, enacted last year by the General Assembly, worried the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Aug. 16 formal session like a celery strand snagged between molars. From the beginning of public comment to County Attorney Joe Connolly‘s low-key finale, the issue seemed to hover over the proceedings.
Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny, who has hammered on this issue in his public comments for four years by his reckoning, spoke first. “Since the county attorney seemed to be too busy to address this issue, I called the attorney general. According to his office, North Carolina statute 153A-52.1 went into effect June 30. It says you must have public comment as part of your regular meetings once per month.
County resident Jerry Rice echoed Gorny’s comments, charging, “You shut down public comment because you were afraid.”
In recent years, the commissioners have heard public comment during the untelevised work session that precedes each formal session. Board of Commissioners meetings are broadcast on cable TV, and members of the public have long complained that they don’t get to see and hear what their fellow citizens say to the commissioners.
Grinning and shaking his head, board Chairman Nathan Ramsey explained that the formal session had already begun. But the work session began at 4 p.m., and the meeting agenda listed a 4:30 start time for the formal session — and made no mention of public comment. “Just changing a few words puts things into compliance in this county,” retorted Jupiter resident Don Yelton.
Then Mountain Guardian Publisher Peter Dawes lit into the commissioners. “Is this an official meeting now?” he demanded. “Under North Carolina law, you are supposed to give public notice 48 hours ahead of time for a meeting.” Brandishing a copy of the meeting agenda, Dawes declared: “It’s not on here. The question is, will public comment be part of the official meeting — and will it be televised?”
Connolly responded: “Public comment will be part of the official meeting. State law states that you have to have public comment as part of your regular meeting.”
At that point, Commissioner David Young jumped in, proclaiming, “We take an oath to enforce the law, and the new law will be enforced.”
But the commissioners took no action on the matter and gave no indication that they intended to make changes in their meeting procedures to bring them into compliance. At the tail end of the meeting, however, Connolly announced that he planned to prepare a report on the new law for the commissioners’ Sept. 6 meeting, so the county could be legal as of the Sept. 20 formal session.
Completing the circuit
Environmental Manager Denise Ballew reported on the county’s electronics-recycling program. “We started taking electronics every Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in 2004, and we took in 105,000 pounds of electronics during the first fiscal year. We receive about 3,100 pounds each day,” said Ballew. All of the electronics items turned in at the county landfill are recycled in-state, she noted. “We support the North Carolina economy. It’s all recycled into glass, metal or plastic.” And for every cell phone turned in, a soldier overseas gets 30 minutes of free phone time, added Ballew.
Another anti-drug approach
Two weeks ago, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department gave the commissioners a report on methamphetamines (see “Cheap Drugs,” Aug. 10 Xpress). This week, the board heard about the Asheville Drug Commission. The new group, which had met for the first time earlier that day, was created by Asheville Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower after City Council had declined to fund his anti-drug initiative in this year’s budget. Mumpower, one of several Council members seeking re-election this fall, enlisted numerous local luminaries and plans to hold hourlong monthly meetings that he said will target issues and form subcommittees to address them. Mumpower had made a similar pitch to City Council before leaving in mid-meeting to talk to the commissioners (see “We’ve Got to Do Something” elsewhere in this issue).
Asked later if the drug commission will have any official status, Ramsey told Xpress: “[Department of Social Services Director] Mandy Stone, Sheriff Medford, [Emergency Services Director] Jerry VeHaun and I are members, so the county is certainly going to listen to the commission. I suspect at our next board meeting we will vote to endorse it.”
Ramsey also said, “We didn’t appoint any members — Carl Mumpower appointed them — but the City Council has adopted the commission.” Told that Asheville Mayor Charles Worley had explicitly denied that the group is an official city body, Ramsey said, “I don’t know what action they took, but the sheriff, [District Attorney] Ron Moore, Chief Hogan and others on the commission certainly agree that we have a serious and growing illegal drug problem and believe that something has to be done.”
The devil in the details
For more than a year-and-a-half, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters has been examining the board-appointment procedures of both city and county government. Kathleen Balogh, who chairs the group, presented the first of two reports on the league’s findings. Phase one of the study, said Balogh, focused on how the process is supposed to work. Phase two, which is still in progress, “will report how it actually does or does not work.”
The information made available to members of the public who might be interested in serving on a board or commission is fragmented and incomplete, she reported; descriptions are unclear, and statements are often contradictory. No standardized list of board openings is available to the general public, and the booklet describing county boards does not include meeting dates or locations.
The league, said Balogh, is urging the city and county to follow up on the specific recommendations in the group’s 57-page phase one report. Among other things, the recommendations call for standardizing language (including the names of joint boards), computerizing the tracking of vacancies and appointments, providing more administrative support for the appointment process, making better use of existing Web sites, making information available in county branch libraries, and creating a standardized application that’s posted on the city and county Web sites.
Young thanked Balogh for the time and energy that had gone into the report, and Commissioner Carol Peterson recognized Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes “for the time she takes with boards and commissions.”
In other business, the Bank of America pitched its Neighborhood Champions Mortgage Program, which is aimed at government employees. The commissioners also approved leasing 153 acres of the former county landfill in Woodfin to UNCA, which plans to created a crafts facility powered by methane gas tapped on-site.
Board appointments included: Tami Ruckman and Jeremy Sheridan (Nursing Home Board), Linda Fouts (Mountain Area Workforce Development Board), Kimberly Kirstein (Women’s Commission) and Andy Harper (Land of Sky Advisory Council on Aging).