“With a meeting that short, I can go vote three or four more times,” quipped Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley, following a brief agenda-review session in the commissioners’ offices. It was election day, and the controversial question before Buncombe County voters was countywide zoning. Later that evening — with about 33 percent of the 114,691 registered voters going to the polls — zoning opponents prevailed in the nonbinding referendum, 20,635 votes to 16,514 votes, according to an unofficial tally. It was the first time in North Carolina history that the question of zoning had been put before voters.
Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol opened the Nov. 2 regular meeting at 4 p.m. No local clergy were present to give the customary invocation, so Commissioner Stanley offered a prayer to the “Heavenly Father … Lord of us all.”
Commissioners commended 22 county employees from the Health Department, Environmental Services, the Department of Social Services, Emergency Medical Services, and other areas for helping citizens in eastern North Carolina counties still recovering from Hurricane Floyd.
EMS employees helped recover 224 caskets unearthed in Tarboro during the flood, and ambulance workers labored 18-20 hours a day for six days to provide relief to local crews who had continued to work, even though their own homes were flooded, employees told commissioners.
Connie McCall, president of the Staff Association of the County Health Department, said the experience was “heart-touching.” She delivered $2,000 donated by Health Department employees and Staff Association members to assist flood victims.
“We tried to help in a small, small way,” she said. “They lost everything. … We shouldn’t stop here — they are still in need.”
County Environmental Services employees helped inspect more than 150 shallow wells, work one spokesman called “a privilege and an honor.”
Nursing Director Nancy Gatewood of the Health Center told commissioners that the nurses had provided hands-on care and “lots of listening” during 16-hour shifts.
“It was difficult to leave, knowing those people will be affected for years and years to come,” she observed.
Commissioner David Gantt urged the employees to step to the front of the room. He instructed the student video-camera operators to pan each of their faces for the televised record. “The county needs to see some heroes and heroines,” said Gantt.
County funds new Animal Services position
Only one item of new business was on the agenda, until county resident Don Yelton asked commissioners to move a $58,750 budget amendment (to fund a new position for Animal Services) from the consent agenda into new business for discussion. Chairman Sobol agreed to Yelton’s request — stipulating, however, that, “We’ll only take one question.” A recent amendment to the county’s Rules and Procedures requires at least one commissioner to support such citizen requests.
Yelton wanted to know where the money was coming from and where it would be going, “in light of what’s going on at the Animal Shelter.”
County Manager Wanda Greene explained that the budget amendment would transfer money from an Economic Development line item for “contracted services” into the Animal Services budget, to fund the salary and benefits for Mike Bradley, who will monitor the county’s contract with Friends For Animals. The position was created in response to citizen inquiries and suggestions for improvements in Animal Services, said Greene. With no further discussion, commissioners unanimously agreed to fund the new position. Commissioner David Young was not present.
The next day, Bradley — a human-resources planning supervisor in the county Planning Department — explained: “Transfers happen quite frequently in the county. That is what has happened to me.” Bradley said he monitors county construction contracts and serves as liaison to the courts on various matters. “At least for now, I will continue to do those things,” he said, even though he’ll now be based in Animal Services. “The other thing I will be doing,” continued Bradley, “is serving as liaison … with [Friends For Animals Director Marc] Paulhus and the people at the shelter, and be the chain of communication so that when there are issues involving contracts, services, calls, complaints, problems, they will come through me … clearing up lines of communication.
“I would not be involved in any complaints, unless there was a problem that didn’t resolve itself,” he added.
When former Friends For Animals board member Terri David learned about Bradley’s appointment the day after the meeting, she was concerned. “They put somebody in charge who has absolutely no experience with animals,” she said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know why they [commissioners] think this is going to fix things. They are just trying to appease everyone who is complaining.”
GDS contract guarantees “stable waste stream”
In other new business, commissioners unanimously approved a contract with GDS Inc. to collect and dispose of residential solid waste in the unincorporated areas of Buncombe County. The GDS bid ($11.34 per customer per month for the year 2000) was the lowest of four received by the county, according to Purchasing Agent Wayne Jacklin. The new franchise agreement will save county residents $1.66 per household per month, according to county documents.
“The bid process helps produce a waste stream we can count on,” Environmental Affairs Board Chair Jan Davis told commissioners, adding, “We do have to have a waste stream in order to operate. We need continued flow to have it work.”
After the vote, Yelton asked, “Will a contract be awarded today based on this vote?”
“Yes,” Sobol replied.
County resident Jerry Rice asked if the $11.34 rate is guaranteed through the 10-year contract period. “The contract has an annual option for the hauler to request a rate increase built in,” Jacklin replied, adding, “The Board [of Commissioners] would need to review and approve any increase.”
“It would have to be an awfully good reason before I would vote an increase,” noted Stanley.
Students see government in action
Three Asheville High School students earn $40 per meeting to operate county-owned video equipment and record commissioners’ meetings for later broadcast on cable TV.
Speaking before the meeting began, senior Patrick Hickey said he has learned a lot during the past year. “I know all about zoning … junkyards … all the facts about a lot of stuff,” he said, “and some of the good things commissioners are doing.
“In here, you learn there are a lot more things you have to go through to get a new system in place,” continued Hickey, adding, “These commissioners do a good job of letting citizens speak … and it’s nice that commissioners come and talk with us.”
Camera operator Jared Amos, also a senior, noted that commissioners, “have to know everything about everything that’s going on.” When asked if he would consider running for public office, Amos responded: “I couldn’t take the pressure. They have to deal with a lot.”
Wearing a bright-yellow, smile-face tie, Jerry Rice urged commissioners to listen to the people regarding the zoning vote.
Emma businessman Mike Morgan wanted more information about the newly funded Animal Services position. “What will the job entail?” he asked. Sobol replied, “Put it in writing, and we’ll get back to you.”
Commissioners then made a hasty retreat into their offices for a closed session on a legal matter on which the county attorney said no action would be required. Peter Dawes of C&T News Service, who had taken a place at the press table during the meeting, video-taped the proceedings for later airing on the cable-television program No Holds Barred. After the meeting, Dawes followed commissioners and staff out into the hallway, still filming. “I will film forever in a public meeting room,” he declared.
Morgan and Yelton intercepted County Attorney Joe Connolly as he stood up to leave. Both men were concerned about what they felt were breaches of public policy. Morgan took issue with Sobol’s request that Morgan put his question in writing for later response. He referred to the Rules and Procedures for Buncombe Commissioners, section XII C, which reads, “If an individual’s three minutes expires prior to that individual asking all his or her questions, that person may leave those questions along with his/her name, address and phone number with the County Manager who will determine who needs to respond to the question(s) and call or write that person prior to the next Board meeting.”
“He knew the answer,” Morgan said. “He just didn’t want to answer me. My time limit was not up when I asked the question.”
Yelton charged, “They’ve violated two ordinances tonight.” He had in hand a copy of the General Statutes of North Carolina, section 153A-46, which reads: “No ordinance making a grant, renewal, extension, or amendment of any franchise may be finally adopted until it has been passed at two regular meetings of the board of commissioners. No such grant, renewal, extension, or amendment may be made except by ordinance.” Immediately after the meeting, Yelton tried to contact the office of the state attorney general by cell phone, to complain.
Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes said later that the GDS contract would not take effect until January 2000. “We’ll just put the matter on the consent agenda for a second vote at the next meeting,” she said, after hearing about the state statute.
Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Mike Bradley of Madison County to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. “He should have been on there from the very beginning,” said Co-Chair Patsy Keever. Earlier in the meeting, Bradley had been tapped to fill the new Animal Services position.
The consent agenda passed unanimously. It included:
• A budget amendment appropriating $10,250 from the 911 fund balance to buy a generator for the communications room of the Sheriff’s Department.
• A $1.46 million budget amendment for Child Care Services, reflecting state grant funds that will be used to pay staff salaries, cover administrative costs, and help working families pay for child care. During the agenda-review session, Sobol had assured Jerry Rice that there was “no county money built in [the Smart Start program] at all, nowhere down the road.”
• A budget amendment transferring $55,448 from the County Schools to the Sheriff’s Department to fund salary, benefits and other expenditures for two school resource officers.
• Approval of the minutes of the Oct. 19 commissioners’ meeting.
• Grants to 30 community organizations to provide recreational opportunities for county residents, as recommended by the Buncombe County Recreation Services Advisory Committee and Recreation Services staff. The grants, which total $62,450, range from $500 to $3,500 each.