Reinventing the local air agency

Polite exchanges masked continuing tensions between the old guard and the new, as the recently reconfigured board of directors of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency assembled for two hastily called, back-to-back, special meetings — each demonstrating the agency’s shifting balance of power.

During the Aug. 19 and Aug. 23 meetings, the directors selected a new board chair, approved an interim director, established a Bylaws Committee, revisited and approved Lea Industries’ permit application, and adopted procedures for hiring a new director.

Asheville’s Nelda Holder elected interim chair

At the Aug. 23 meeting — called to elect a new board chair and vice chair and appoint a bylaws committee — Asheville appointee Nelda Holder was elected chair, replacing Doug Clark. No other names were put forward. Haywood County representative Don Randolph was elected vice chair.

Clark had drawn widespread criticism for his defense of the air agency, which has been accused of laxness and negligence. Earlier this summer, Holder also chastised Clark for a two-month disappearance, during which he had no contact with the board.

Clark’s controversial re-appointment to the board last month raised the question of whether his term as chair had ended when his board term expired. Tom Rhodarmer questioned the need for the special meeting, which had been called by Holder and Arlis Queen.

Holder responded that no term of office for the chair is specified in the current inter-local agreement with Buncombe County, although the original 1970 agreement creating the air-pollution agency states, “The chairmanship shall rotate between the delegations from the city and counties at the expiration of each two year term.”

“The meeting was called because there is cloudiness both legally and procedurally” regarding officers of the board, said Holder. “It is expedient to call for election, so we can have a clear chair,” she told Rhodarmer, adding, “I think this is a fair and a clear and open way to handle the situation we are in, so that we are all operating with the same agenda and the same procedures.”

Alan McKenzie, the board’s newest member, turned to board attorney Tom Siemens and asked, “Has this meeting been called properly? Are the agenda items proper?” Siemens answered with a simple, “Yes.”

For several years, the agency chairmanship has been a battleground, contested by both members of the board’s “old guard” and a growing number of new, reform-minded members.

Two years ago, the board’s re-election of longtime Haywood County delegate Rhodarmer to the chairmanship was seen by many observers as an effort to block Asheville’s appointees, Queen and Holder, from influencing the direction of the board. Backed by Mayor Leni Sitnick, Queen and Holder had insisted that the 1970 agreement mandated Asheville’s turn at the chair — but to no avail, when then-board attorney Keith Snyder argued that the 1970 agreement had been replaced by the 1995 agreement, which makes no reference to the rotation of the chair.

This summer, however, the balance of power tipped, after intense state and local pressure for reform of the agency forced one veteran member to resign and two to be replaced — by McKenzie and Dr. Richard Maas, who urged a more aggressive approach to cleaning the air.

The board agreed that, this time, the term for the newly elected officers should extend only until the directors’ first regular meeting in January 2000, or the first regular meeting after new bylaws are approved. At that time, the board indicated it will vote for a chair and vice chair to serve full terms.

After the vote, Clark stood up and walked over to Holder offering to exchange seats, giving her the place at the head of the table. But Holder remained in her place, assuming her new role from where she sat.

Holder immediately brought up the next agenda item: appointing a committee to draft agency bylaws and report back to the board in time for its December meeting. By unanimous vote, Maas, Randolph and Holder were chosen to serve on that committee, with Randolph as chair.

“The ability to operate in a harmonious manner [has been] undermined by [the] lack of clarity of procedures and bylaws,” said Maas, adding that it is “past due for us to put rules of operation into by-laws.”

Camby designated interim staff director

“We need someone to sign papers,” Clark told the board at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Reflecting that he had acted without authority, Clark said, “I took [the] liberty, when Mr. Cody stepped down, to name [agency engineer Bob Camby] as interim director,” in charge of managing the agency’s staff.

At this point, Camby was already seated where former director Jim Cody used to sit. On a motion by Rhodarmer, seconded by Randolph, the board agreed to make the appointment official.

Camby gave board members a copy of staff’s recommendation for what fine should be assessed against International Aggregates, the mobile asphalt plant that Cody had, without board authorization, improperly allowed earlier this year to operate at two sites in Buncombe County. The board took no action on the recommendation.

McKenzie appointed to Personnel Committee

After a round of handshakes and introductions to other board members at the start of the Aug. 19 meeting, new board member McKenzie took the only remeaining seat, flanked by Randolph and Clark. During the discussion on choosing a new staff director, Queen indicated that the board’s Personnel Committee — which is charged with narrowing the field of candidates before presenting final recommendations to the board — had only two board members remaining on it, himself and Randolph.

At that, Clark, who was still chairing the meeting, declared, “Mr. McKenzie, we’re going to give you your first job,” and appointed him to the committee.

The Personnel Committee has narrowed down the list of 26 applications that had been forwarded to the committee by the Buncombe County Personnel Office, Queen explained. (At least one application submitted to the county, however — that of former county employee Don Yelton — never reached the committee. See “The missing application,” below.)

After briefly looking over the eight remaining applications, both Holder and Rhodarmer added two more names to the list, for consideration.

A lengthy discussion ensued about what procedures to follow, what questions to ask, and whom to include in the interviewing process. On a motion by Maas, seconded by Holder, the board agreed to include two members of the agency’s Advisory Board — to be selected by its chair, Grant Goodge — to serve in an “ex-officio” advisory capacity during the selection process.

“This would be a good way to show [the Advisory Board] that we value their participation,” stated Maas.

The board also unanimously agreed to contact the 10 finalists and ask them to articulate in writing their philosophy of air-pollution control.

“I’m assuming everything is confidential, as far as names?” Holder queried. Attorney Siemens answered affirmatively.

“We can’t just look for a technical person — we need a manager,” noted Holder.

Asking about the selection timetable, McKenzie stated, “[This is a] very important decision, and not one I want to feel rushed through.”

After further discussion, board members agreed to meet on Sept. 13 to discuss the finalists and further narrow the field, with an eye toward making a final decision at their Oct. 11 meeting.

More personnel changes

At the Aug. 23 meeting, Camby asked the board’s approval to advertise to fill a staff position.

“I don’t think we can discuss this; it’s not on the agenda,” said.Holder.

“Is this a staff person?” Maas asked.

“Our Haywood County [inspector] has resigned,” Camby replied.

According to agency staff, Glenn Ottinger, employed by the agency since Jan. 18, has resigned “to go back to his own business with his father.”

Permits to operate

On motion by Rhodarmer, seconded by Maas, the board re-opened its discussion on Lea Industries’ application for a Title V permit. Agency engineer Chuck Sams gave the board additional information about the Waynesville wood-furniture manufacturer’s emissions.

The “critical issue at the last meeting was North Carolina air-toxics [regulations],” Sams said, adding that the results of the agency’s computer modeling showed the company’s recent emissions to be well below the legal limits..

On Queen’s motion, seconded by Rhodarmer, the board approved the renewal of Lea Industries’ five-year permit to operate.

The missing application

Present at the Aug. 23 meeting were Mike Morgan, Don Yelton and Peter Dawes, who regularly attend various county board meetings. The three, who have been critical of the county commissioners, recently successfully sued the county for denying them access to public records.

Yelton said after the meeting that he had submitted an application to the county Personnel Office, in a bid for employment as staff director of the air agency. Queen, who serves on the committee charged with narrowing the list of candidates, says he never received Yelton’s application.

County Personnel Director Rob Thornberry, reached later by telephone, said tersely, “I cannot speak to that issue” and asserted that county “[personnel] applications are not open records.”

In a subsequent telephone interview, County Manager Wanda Greene acknowledged that Yelton’s application had been “withheld for personnel reasons.”

“We’re just following personnel policy,” she said. “We did not screen [the applicants] at all, in terms of qualifications for the job.”

Greene denied having had anything to do with pulling the document.

“The matter was “handled entirely by the county Personnel Department,” she insisted, “entirely in accordance with the Personnel Ordinance.”

Because the air-agency board is vested by state law with full responsibility for its own operations — including, presumably, choosing its staff director — Queen said after the Aug. 23 meeting, “I called Wanda Greene about [Yelton’s application]. She said if [Yelton] would come down and sign a release, she would send me a letter telling me why the application was withheld.”

“I don’t know why they are barring [Yelton] from the job. From what he tells me, he is qualified,” Queen said. “It seems to me they would have sent the application. … We pay the county of Buncombe $53,000 a year to maintain our records,” he added.

Attorney Siemens said, “I know of no reason why Wanda Greene should withhold an application. The custodian of the record would be the [air] agency.”

“They are trying to defame me,” Yelton charged. “Who gave [Greene] authority to determine who is fit for work in the county?”

Previously, Yelton was employed by the county for three years as a waste-reduction specialist. He was dismissed from his job after he attempted to file a grievance with the county against his supervisor, General Services Department Director Bob Hunter. The official reason for dismissal was listed as the county’s ongoing work-force-reduction program.

Public Information Committee forming

Members of the public are invited to participate in the newly formed Air Pollution Control Agency Public Information Committee. The group will meet on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 9 a.m. at the air-agency headquarters, 49 Mt. Carmel Road. (a block off Leicester Highway). The committee, which includes four citizen representatives, one board member and one staff member, is planning an Air Fair on Oct. 23 to educate the public about air pollution, alternative-energy sources, and the agency. For more information, call Susan Carlyle at 626-2572.

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