Accusations flew at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 21 meeting. With a community meeting scheduled at Enka High School at 7 p.m. and a request from County Attorney Joe Connolly for a closed session, commissioners were pressed for time, facing a crowded agenda and a packed room.
“Just the tip of the iceberg”
Six citizens challenged the county commissioners and the effectiveness of the director of Friends for Animals, the nonprofit that operates the county shelter, under a contract worth $650,000 this year. The agency has come under intense public scrutiny since the resignation of nine staff and three board members, plus the loss of numerous volunteers since early August. But Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol closed the public-comment period before hearing from everyone present.
Friends for Animals Executive Director Marc Paulhus updated commissioners on his organization and responded to a proposal for the formation of a county Animal Services Advisory Board.
“We are very much in favor of the [advisory] board and add our support,” Paulhus said. He went on to suggest that commissioners appoint to that board representatives from various organizations, including the Asheville Kennel Club, the Asheville Merchants Association, the Humane Society, the county Health Department, the Veterinary Association, the Nature Center, the Chamber of Commerce and the local dog hunters’ group.
Paulhus told commissioners the shelter has hired five new employees: three former police officers, a trilingual person and a former NASA nuclear engineer. He said recent increases in wages have resulted in a “higher-qualified staff” who work with “hundreds of dedicated volunteers.”
Sue Barnett of the Animal Compassion Network described Paulhus’ operation differently.
“He talks a good game,” Barnett said. “In the past year, I have seen animal services go backward. … [There is] a groundswell building, with people disgusted with the lack of services. It’s getting worse, not better,” she insisted.
Judy Crawley of Weaverville brought a petition — which she said carried 3,000 signatures — representing people who have “major concerns about the animal shelter.” She told commissioners, “I absolutely feel Marc Paulhus should have nothing to do with the [proposed] advisory board.”
Commissioner David Young replied, “We [commissioners] will decide, with input from citizens, who will go on that board.”
Virginia Schmidt, who served on the Friends for Animals board for nine years and continues to volunteer at the shelter, said she has problems with Paulhus’ management style, which she believes contributed to the resignation of staff and volunteers. Given the emotional stress of working at a shelter, she said, “If [the employees] are not treated kindly and with dignity, they will not stay.”
Speaking several minutes beyond her time limit, Schmidt warned commissioners, “Animals are paying, and they are paying with their lives.”
“It’s a power struggle,” she said. “The volunteers are not there, they are gone.” In a later interview, Schmidt said she believed Paulhus was hired to write grants and raise funds for a new shelter. “Its not happening,” she said. “If the management doesn’t change, the shelter will not be able to use the money wisely or keep employees.”
Commissioners postponed action on the matter, promising to those still waiting to speak that their comments would be heard at the next regular meeting.
“[It’s] just the tip of the iceberg,” remarked Elaine Lite after the meeting. Last month, in a letter to Sobol and County Manager Wanda Greene, Lite had requested a “thorough investigation of the organization and their policies and practices.”
Taking issue with the critics of Friends for Animals in a later interview, Nancie Liles — an interim manager at the shelter and the former executive director of the Humane Alliance/Spay Neuter Clinic — said, “The hoopla going on is absolutely insane. I don’t understand it.” Liles added that she was “incensed at the [employees] who left without notice. They left animals sitting in cages [to be cared for by] much fewer people, who had to pick up slack.”
“Nobody questions the people who stay here,” said Liles. “They only question those who walked.”
Commissioners amend rules and procedures
Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution making it more difficult to move items from the consent agenda to the regular agenda.
The consent agenda normally consists of items already recommended for approval by staff and considered to be noncontroversial. At the beginning of most meetings, commissioners pass the consent-agenda items as a group, with little comment or question. The consent agenda provides scant information on the individual items, though the media are provided with a press packet of supporting documents.
The procedural change, which was recommended by County Attorney Connolly, allows a consent-agenda item to be moved to “new business for discussion” only if a commissioner requests it.
The change did not sit well with Jerry Rice, who has closely followed county government for nearly a decade. “The consent agenda is getting bigger every time,” he complained in a later interview. “As much as I deal with government, it seems the more they become aware of what information people are entitled to, the more they try to keep it from the public.” Rice said the consent agenda is sometimes used as a way to “hide things that are controversial, or to add things to what they have already discussed.”
“I’m opposed [to the change]. It’s not ethical,” Rice told commissioners before they passed Connolly’s recommended amendment to the rules.
Rural transportation program running low on fuel
A shortfall of about $45,000 in Rural Operating Assistance funds will require County/Mountain Mobility to reduce its services by about 40 percent, according to county records.
Service reductions will primarily affect education, shopping, personal and business trips by people who do not have other transportation resources available to them.
“We are receiving significantly less funds this year than we have in the past,” said Denise Braine of the county Planning Department. “We do not plan to ask the Board of Commissioners to replace the money,” she added.
Instead, Mountain Mobility hopes to secure funds through a state Rural Operating Assistance Program grant. At the beginning of the meeting, as part of the consent agenda, commissioners authorized submission of the application.
Commissioners then held a required public hearing on the proposed use of the Rural Operating Assistance Program funds, which, if granted, would total about $138,000.
“Did I hear that this is a public hearing relating back to an item on the consent agenda that has already passed?” asked Commissioners critic Don Yelton, referring to the consent item authorizing submission of the application for state funds.
“Yes, our error,” answered Sobol.
Fair zoning for manufactured homes
Several representatives of the manufactured-home industry lobbied commissioners about the county’s proposed zoning plan.
“Be flexible, be fair, be reasonable” as you make your decisions on zoning,” urged Denny Burgen, director of the WNC Manufactured Home Association. “North Carolina is third in the country” for sales of manufactured homes, he noted.
And Neal Carter of Carter’s Homes reminded commissioners, “Most people in Buncombe County cannot afford a site-built home.”
Asheville City Council candidate Larry Blair, who is sales director at the Clayton manufactured-housing sales center in Candler, agreed. “I see more of the people who make $8 $10, or $12 dollars an hour,” he commented. “If we don’t open our hearts and open our minds, we’re going to have people without affordable housing,” said Blair, adding, “These people that work hard are entitled to provide themselves with the kind of living space they can afford.”
“It is extremely important that we have affordable housing in Buncombe County,” replied Commissioner David Gantt.
“My grandson lives in a manufactured home,” offered Commissioner Bill Stanley, adding, “It’s better than what I grew up in.”
Sobol told the industry representatives, “We can’t promote affordable housing on the one hand and restrict it on the other. We should be able to work out a compromise.”
Hickory Nut Gap Road closure request deferred
A half-dozen citizens were on hand to request the closure to through-traffic of a portion of Old U.S. 74, known as Hickory Nut Gap Road, which dead-ends at the back lot of the Kounty Line Amoco Station on Charlotte Highway.
Residents complained that the old highway, no longer maintained by the state, is dangerous to their children and families. They provided letters of support from Sheriff Bobby Medford and Lt. David Miller of the State Highway Patrol, as well as a list of accidents reported on the road. The property owners have had to pay for the road’s maintenance since 1990.
Paul Young, who owns the Kounty Line convenience store, objected. He told commissioners, “We bought [our property] with the understanding that we would have access. I don’t want the road closed.” This prompted one resident to suggest, “If Mr. Young wants to keep it open, he ought to help [with maintenance]. He has more money than us.”
“Have y’all tried to work this out?” queried Commissioner Patsy Keever. “Don’t you think it’s time for y’all to sit down and see what you can do with this?”
Commissioners decided not to take action on the request, Sobol explained, until all of them have been out to see the road.
In another matter, commissioners heard a citizens’ petition to officially rename a section of Case Cove Road, known informally since the ’20s as Lake Drive. Commissioners unanimously approved the change.
County Web site launched
County Web Development Team Supervisor Kim Pruett gave a lengthy presentation on the Buncombe County Web site (www.buncombecounty.org), which provides links to various county documents, including the Code of Ordinances, current job listings, vacancies on county boards and commissions, and information on various departments and services.
Work First report card
Work First was initiated in 1995, with the goal of finding a job or job training by the year 2000 for every adult then on welfare, explained Program Manager Barbara Wall. Since then, more than 500 local businesses have provided jobs to 587 welfare recipients, Wall reported. The program recently received a grade of A from the state “for reducing county welfare rolls by 51 percent.”
Commissioners proclaimed Sept. 26 -Oct. 2 “Enough is Enough Week.” Organizers say this community-based drug-awareness effort is the largest drug-prevention campaign in the county’s history.
In the interest of time, Gantt requested a waiver for the reading of a proclamation declaring Sept. 25 as “Kiser Family Day in Buncombe County.” The family, whose members suffer from a disease known as Friedreich’s ataxia, has been an “inspiration to their community, with their spirit of optimism and strength,” according to the proclamation. Steve Kiser’s classmates at T.C. Roberson are donating the profits from their reunion to the Eblen Foundation’s Kiser Family fund, the proclamation states.
Stanley read a proclamation declaring Sept. 27-Oct. 1 as the 17th annual Minority Enterprise Development Week.
Numerous agenda items, including appointments to the city of Asheville’s Planning & Zoning Board and the Manufactured Home Park Board, were deferred until the next regular meeting, scheduled for Oct. 5.
Dawes, Yelton and Morgan humiliated … and strike back
by Clare Hanrahan
More than a month after a Superior Court judge struck down the county’s “multiple information request policy” — in support of a suit brought by C&T News Service investigative reporters Peter Dawes and Don Yelton, and Emma convenience-store owner Mike Morgan — County Attorney Joe Connolly stood at the podium during the county commissioners’ televised session to read from a long list of complaints and alleged threats, which he told commissioners had been part of the “evidence” he had presented during the court case.
Dawes, who regularly videotapes the commissioners’ meetings, stepped from behind his camera to object vehemently to Connolly’s public reading of the allegations.
“Are we having a retrial here?” asked Dawes. “You’re walking on some very shaky constitutional ground,” he warned.
Chairman Tom Sobol intervened to ask, “Are we within our legal bounds?”
Yes, said Connolly, continuing to read from the list.
An angry Dawes again objected: “These matters were only alleged.”
At that point, Sobol silenced Dawes with the warning, “One more time, and I will ask the deputy to escort you out of the room.”
Before commissioners left for a closed session in their offices to hear Connolly’s recommendation regarding the case, Connolly read excerpts from the court’s Sept. 1 judgment and indicated that both parties have 30 days to appeal.
Morgan, Dawes and Yelton — who, according to Yelton, felt “humiliated in public without a trial” — consulted with their attorney, Tom Roberts, the next day. Roberts represented the plaintiffs in their earlier suit.
“I have complained to Mr. Connolly about his repeated allegations, many of which we believe were false and irrelevant to the case,” Roberts said in a later telephone interview. “I take offense with Mr. Connolly using the circumstance of the county commission meeting to repeat the same false allegations.”
On Sept. 22, the three men filed a second complaint against Buncombe County, its Board of Commissioners and County Manager Wanda Greene, with a request this time for a jury trial. The men are seeking damages “in excess of $10,000″ and asking for “a permanent injunction enjoining defendants from continuing to obstruct the plaintiffs’ legitimate investigative newsgathering efforts in Buncombe County, North Carolina, and enjoining the defendants from continuing to retaliate against the plaintiffs for their investigation and reporting on the defendants’ conduct of the public’s business and affairs.”
– by Clare Hanrahan