Buncombe County Commission

A recent Asheville Citizen-Times article reporting that county staff are weighing the pros and cons of the county’s owning a minor-league baseball team prompted a candid and revealing discussion at the Nov. 3 county commissioners’ meeting about how county staff operates.

The article detailed potential strategies for making the county-owned McCormick Field self-sustaining, in the wake of nearly half a million dollars’ worth of county-funded repairs to the facility, which was extensively renovated about six years ago.

This was the first most people had heard of any such plans, causing some citizens to wonder if important decisions were being brokered behind closed doors, rather than in open session at commissioners’ meetings. During the public-comment portion of the meeting, longtime county observer Jerry Rice said he was alarmed to learn about the county’s strategy this way. “I’d like to see it discussed in the meeting … and have people discussing both sides, rather than the newspaper doing the mediation,” he observed. “We need to hear about it as a public body: I don’t think it ought to be done in the corner.”

Commissioner David Gantt, however, was quick to dispel any tone of mystery or back-room dealings. County staff, he asserted, were simply doing their job by trying to look ahead. “We cut a bad deal [on the county’s lease with the Asheville Tourists],” he declared, adding, “We don’t want to cut another bad deal. We want to see what the possibilities are, early on.” Since the current lease runs for three more years, there will be plenty of time for public comment about McCormick Field later on, he noted, saying that nothing has been decided.

Rice, however, stuck to his guns, maintaining that the Citizen-Times shouldn’t be the one bringing this topic to the public forum.

Commissioner Bill Stanley agreed, but said that, ” … our staff work on things constantly. But the newspaper was doing [its] job: They found out about this, they put it in the paper. They hadn’t talked to us about it.”

County Attorney Joe Connolly went further in explaining the way county staff develops strategy. “[County] staff is going to be discussing a lot of different matters … before they’re going to come before the board; there’ve been discussions with the staff trying to think through various possibilities. This board — and the one previous — has provided an absolute first-class baseball park to western North Carolina, and it’s our belief that that operation is now generating some substantial profits for different individuals and different entities. … I would think that the citizens of Buncombe County would be disappointed if the [staff] didn’t take a look at what options were available, now that we’ve put all this money [into] the field. So yes, staff has had [preliminary] discussions, but I would think that this board and the citizens would want staff to be exploring possibilities.”

Board Chair Tom Sobol explained that when County Manager Wanda Greene was hired, the commissioners unanimously gave her a broad mandate “to throw back to us any ideas that may better work, as far as efficiency is concerned, as far as taxation is concerned.

“So,” he continued, “there will be a lot of things Ms. Greene will be looking into with her staff, prior to the board receiving it. But before any decision or in-depth discussion will be made on it, of course it will be done in open session. We encourage [Greene] to look at any number of things that can end up with a better way to do things.”

A better cable deal?

Also during the public-comment period, board critic Don Yelton thanked the commissioners for postponing a vote on a proposed cable-franchise amendment at their Oct. 20 meeting. But Yelton also expressed concern that the deal might still go through. He said it might be premature to pass the amendment, which would allow the three cable companies now serving Buncombe — Charter, Marcus and Intermedia — to extend their franchises throughout the unincorporated areas of the county. Noting that Marcus and Charter are in the midst of a merger, Yelton asked: “Would it not be better to wait until Charter and Marcus have merged? Just maybe, we could get as good a deal as the city of Asheville.”

He also expressed doubts that negotiators for the county had been as aggressive as they should have been in hammering out the cable deal, which would allow only one government-controlled access channel. At least one public-access channel should also be included in the deal, he asserted. As it stands now, Yelton said, ” … the channel will only carry government-produced programs and programs for the local schools.”

Saying that commissioners Sobol and Gantt had both told him they supported a public-access channel, Yelton asked commissioners Patsy Keever and Stanley if they would like to have a public-controlled access channel as part of the new cable franchise. (Commissioner David Young, a candidate for Congress, was absent.)

“We need a little of both,” Stanley replied. And Keever said that she had no problem with such a channel, ” … and if we need to bring other negotiators in, that’s fine, too. You bring up some interesting points, Mr. Yelton.”

Other matters

The county’s Employee Suggestion Program was amended, based on the state’s program. County Public Relations Coordinator Jill Thompson explained the changes: (1) Increasing the amount of money an employee can receive for making a money-saving suggestion, from 5 percent of the tangible savings to 20 percent (with a $20,000 cap on awards for individuals, and a $100,000 cap for groups); (2) Letting a committee review suggestions, rather than the affected department head; and (3) Making all payments due within a year after the suggested program is put in place.

Mamie Scott, director of the county’s Minority Business Commission, recommended that the Asheville-Buncombe Minority Business Plan be amended to include the use of minority firms as mentors in the Protege Program. Before, only nonminority firms had provided such assistance to minority firms. The amendment was unanimously approved.

Health Center Director George Bond proudly presented Buncombe County with its Innovations in American Government award. The prestigious national award, given to the Buncombe County Medical Society’s Project Access, recognized the program for providing low-income county residents with full access to health care. Twenty-five of the program’s 1,500 participants went to Washington, D.C. to collect the $100,000 award.

Commissioner Bill Stanley was appointed as the county board’s voting delegate to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ Legislative Goals Conference.

Appointments: Maurice Brank will fill the uncompleted term of his son Charles Brank, and Edgar Bulluck was appointed to the Farmland Preservation Board; Betty Williams was appointed to the Asheville-Buncombe Fair Housing Commission; and Vonna Cloninger, Gary Semlak and Mike Travenor were chosen to be interviewed for seats on the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson.

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