In its first meeting since Aug. 16, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners considered and then postponed voting on amendments that would increase the number of public-comment sessions scheduled during regular meetings. The matter will be reconsidered during the board’s upcoming retreat in West Asheville’s Kress Conference Center (at press time, the retreat was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 12:30 p.m.).
Meanwhile, the public comment at the Sept. 27 meeting centered principally on public comment, as it often has during the past four years. Frequent speaker Fred English went straight to the point, proclaiming: “Public comment should be televised. You people are thick-skinned enough to take it.”
And Mountain Guardian publisher Peter Dawes reminded the commissioners: “Three years ago, [County Attorney] Joe Connolly made it clear that you can’t deny people the right to speak. You can’t repeal the First Amendment.”
Connolly later explained proposed rule changes that would include tacking on an additional comment period at the end of one meeting per month. But Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Vice Chairman David Gantt remained adamant that the added public comment, like the current pre-meeting sessions, not be televised. The new rules, said Gantt, would offer county residents “three times as much opportunity to speak.” In fact, however, the change appears to represent a 50 percent to 100 percent increase, depending on whether the board meets once or twice in a given month.
Weaverville resident Jerry Rice spoke to that issue, observing: “Televising this is what you should do and you’re failing to do. Public comment helps to drive the understanding of the public out there. When you-uns are on the campaign trail, you talk to the people so they can understand you. But when you get up there (gesturing toward the dais), you-uns speak in tongues. The people need to hear public comment. Another thing,” he continued, “What happens when there is a continuation of the meeting, like there is today?” (Ramsey had announced at the outset of the meeting that it would be continued to Oct. 4).
As Rice left the podium, Ramsey said with a laugh, “We try to keep David from speaking in tongues, Jerry.”
Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny said: “I’ve been asking for four years for you to put public comment in the meeting. People don’t have information about issues until a presentation is made.”
Gantt replied, “You have everything we have before the meeting.”
Gorny answered, “My proposal is that public comment needs to be in the meeting.” He then outlined a specific rule change that would encourage participation. “If you are a concerned citizen, you guys have effectively pushed them out.”
After some discussion with commissioners, Gorny said, “You should continue voting on this rule until the next meeting, so people have a chance to comment on it.”
That didn’t sit well with Commissioner Bill Stanley, who said angrily: “You don’t know that we are going to vote on this today. Contrary to your belief, son, we aren’t a bunch of idiots.”
Gorny rejoined that people feel excluded, specifically mentioning the secret negotiations between the county and city concerning the unresolved dispute over the Water Agreement.
Then it was Gantt’s turn to get heated. “Things were a mess a few years ago,” he declared, pointing out that the public-comment period used to be televised but that people were using it as a forum to run for office and to make personal attacks. “We’re trying to find a compromise,” Gantt explained.
Commissioner David Young said: “At the end of the day, we are very open to the public. But we have to do a job; we’re elected to do a job. If we look for comment on everything we do, we will suffer paralysis.”
Stanley concluded, “I’d like to see these changes written down and continue it until the next meeting.” The board unanimously approved Stanley’s motion.
Fire, taxes, drugs and the environment
During a public hearing on a proposed $2 million fire-district bond issue, Deputy Chief Larry Pearson of the Swannanoa Fire Department explained: “We’re building a substation in our district because there are places … where we are above 10-minute response time. We also plan to build new training facilities.” The substation will be closer to some factories and to Warren Wilson College than the main station. The improvements, said Pearson, would help move areas in his district up to a class IV designation for insurance purposes. “This will hopefully create some fire-insurance savings for citizens in some areas,” he noted.
A second public hearing concerned the county Tax Department’s proposed schedule of values for 2006. The 350-page document, which details how property reassessment will be carried out next year, has been available to the public since early August, Tax Collector Gary Roberts explained.
The board unanimously approved both matters.
Buncombe and Rutherford counties have received grant money to institute a methamphetamine treatment program. “The state asked us to implement the Matrix treatment model, which has been used for 20 years in California,” Leslie McCrory, a consultant to the Western Highland Network, reported. Methamphetamine treatment is more difficult and lengthy than other drug programs, she explained, and Matrix involves 12 months of individual and family counseling. California studies, McCrory noted, show that Matrix has the lowest recidivism rate of all the methods studied and that 50 percent of those who complete the program stay off meth. The local program will have slots for 12 adults in its first year.
Vice Chairman Gantt proposed reviving an Environmental Advisory Board first established by the Board of Commissioners 28 years ago. “I would like to reorganize that panel as an advisory board only,” said Gantt. The EAB, he explained, would take a snapshot of our current environment, survey other N.C. counties to get the best programs or models, and “bring ideas back to us about what we can do, so we can put the policy in motion that the public wants us to do.” The proposal also called for the EAB to produce a biennial report on what the county is doing to address environmental issues.
The commissioners unanimously approved Gantt’s proposal, and Ramsey encouraged interested county residents to apply for a seat on the board.
Vice president Kevin Koon of Smoky Mountain Petroleum was appointed to the WNC Air Quality Control Board.
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Edgar Bulluck and John Ager (Agricultural Advisory Board); Brenda Crisp, Donna Pittman, Lois Thorup and Patricia Trask (Nursing Home Community Advisory Board); Mary Adami, Greta Byrd, Jill Cain, Donald Derbert, Sarah Foster, Tim Laughlin, Robert Phillips, Rhonda Sachais and Sandra Stanford (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Board); Zane Cole, Jim Eaker, Ann Franklin and Wilma Carlisle (Weaverville Planning and Zoning Board); Ron King and Oralene Simmons (Community Action Opportunities).
At that point, the public meeting was continued to Tuesday, Oct. 4; the board went into closed session at 6:15 p.m. to discuss property and employment issues, County Manager Wanda Greene explained.