Buncombe County Commission

With just a few weeks remaining until the Nov. 7 election, last week’s Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting sailed along on a sea of calm. That was at least until an opposition candidate tried to rock the boat at meeting’s end.

The commissioners — all of whom are running for re-election on the Democratic ticket– largely steered clear of controversial topics, listening to a handful of reports at the board’s Oct. 3 meeting.

Beth Lazer, who chairs the city of Asheville’s Public Access Channel Commission, suggested that the city and county team up to create a public-access cable channel serving both city and county residents.

Lazer suggested that by working together (and sharing costs), county residents could get public-access programming more quickly, and program offerings could be richer. She went on to encourage the board to include funding for public-access programming when the county renegotiates its franchise agreement with Charter Communications.

Commissioner David Young asked how much input county appointees could have, since the commission has already been meeting for six months. Lazer replied that the board hasn’t yet decided on policy or operating procedures for the channel.

So far, the Public Access Channel Commission has spent its time researching the issue, Lazer explained after the meeting. The next step is to develop a plan and submit it to City Council, which she hopes may happen by the end of the year.

And if the county wants to be involved, Lazer thinks it’s the “perfect time” to do so, she said later.

Currently, the city and county each have their own government channels; a local educational channel also is up and running, Lazer explained after the meeting.

What’s missing, however, is an opportunity for members of the public to produce or submit programming. Charter does offer a cable-sponsored “local-origination channel,” but Lazer doesn’t consider that true public-access programming, since it’s not about community empowerment.

The commissioners took no action on Lazer’s proposal.

Medical waste misstep

Bill Myers, director of materials management at Mission St. Joseph’s Health System, told the board about an incident in which medical waste accidentally made its way into the county landfill on Oct. 2 — the first day of the health system’s dumping contract with the county.

“It’s not the way to start the week out,” conceded Myers.

How did the biohazardous waste get mixed in with the regular trash the county had contracted to dispose of? Myers blamed it on employee error.

He described it as a small amount — one bag’s worth of medical waste in a 6-foot-high stack of trash. The medical waste included blood, tubing, a “sharps” container for needles, and a chest-drainage device.

“It was just an unfortunate situation that it did find its way into regular trash,” Myers said.

The hospital system is investigating the incident to figure out how it happened, Myers told the board.

Project Access honored

Buncombe County Medical Society Project Access — a public/private partnership providing health care to those who can’t afford it — won kudos from a federal official.

Alan McKenzie, executive director of the medical society, told commissioners that, last fiscal year, Project Access had leveraged $5.5 million in medical care — $3.5 million in private physician-donated care and $2 million in services donated by the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System and Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital. Buncombe County’s participation last year included $350,000 for medication and core administrative costs, McKenzie said later.

At the meeting, he cited a host of statistics, including figures showing that five years ago (before Project Access began), less than 80 percent of Buncombe County residents had a regular source of health care; today, that figure is 93 percent.

Dr. Eric Baumgartner, director of community access and state planning at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, presented both Buncombe County and Project Access with an award recognizing the project’s leadership, innovation and the access to care it provides.

“You are the envy of other communities,” Baumgartner told the board. “You’re actually influencing the federal government.”

In accepting the award, board Chair Tom Sobol gave a nod to the many local physicians who donate their services to Project Access.

“Practically every doctor in the county participates,” noted Sobol.

Public-comment salvos

What turned into a fiery public-comment session started off calmly enough, with a question from county resident Hope Herrick about the status of the noise ordinance.

County Attorney Joe Connolly replied that a committee is working on a proposal to bring before the board, including whether violators should face criminal or civil penalties.

Candler resident Jerry Rice then asked — observing that the county is supposedly in great financial shape — whether the commissioners would promise not to raise taxes for the next two years.

Board Chair Sobol, after noting that the public-comment part of the meeting isn’t supposed to be a question-and-answer session, said he didn’t think anybody could predict what would happen years down the road.

If that’s so, Rice replied, the county needs a new set of commissioners.

“You’ve thought that for some time,” offered Commissioner Bill Stanley.

“And I won’t disagree with you,” said Rice with a chuckle.

But the meeting grew heated when Reform Party candidate Gerald Dean, who is seeking a seat on the Board of Commissioners, said he’d read something in the daily paper about the chairman of the Democratic Party having stated that the public has the right to know about the background of candidates running for public office.

At this point, Sobol warned Dean to be careful not to exceed the limits of what’s proper during public comment. But Dean went on to air snippets of vague rumors he’d heard about the personal conduct of a couple of the commissioners and a staff member.

“He’s out of order,” Stanley said. “Sit him down.”

“This is county business,” Dean replied.

At this point, Connolly stood up and announced, “These kind of personal attacks are absolutely out of order and not to be allowed by this board.”

Dean left the lectern.

On a less-contentious note, Hazel Fobes said she wanted to encourage county residents to let the state know, by fax or letter, that they want an 80-percent reduction in nitrogen-oxide emissions. The Environmental Management Commission meets Oct. 12-13 to consider which of the various proposed air-emissions standards to recommend to the governor, she noted, so now is the time to let state officials know what people want them to do.

Epilogue: Fighting on TV?

After the meeting, Stanley and Dean had an exchange that sent Dean to the magistrate’s office in search of a warrant.

While Stanley headed out the door, the two men traded words.

Dean said later that he’d asked Stanley to debate him on TV.

Stanley — by his own account — admitted that he replied: “I won’t debate you on TV. I’ll fight you on TV, and I’ll whip your a–.” (“I was upset,” Stanley said after the meeting, adding the next day, “It’s just the kind of people running against us.”

In the commissioners’ chambers, Dean repeated Stanley’s words to those leaving the meeting, before walking over to the magistrate’s office to try to take out a warrant against Stanley, on a charge of communicating threats. He wasn’t successful.

The next day, Dean said he met with Sheriff Bobby Medford about the incident.

Dean said he had simply wanted to find out whether the rumors he repeated in the meeting were true.

“I’m tired of the average citizen not getting answers in this county,” Dean declared.

The board’s next meeting, an information session on mental-health issues, will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

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