Who’s in charge?

With the Buncombe County commissioners’ recent appointment of a local oil-company executive to the board of the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency, candidates promoted by the Council of Independent Business Owners now hold all three county-appointed seats — a voting majority — on the five-member board. The highly visible and often controversial agency creates and enforces air-pollution regulations in Asheville and Buncombe County. And those regulations can cost local businesses money. (In 2004 alone, the agency levied penalties totaling about $30,000 on local businesses and individuals.)

On Sept. 27, the commissioners chose Karl Koon, vice president in charge of regulatory compliance for Asheville Oil, to serve out the remaining two-and-a-half years of Bill Church‘s term (Church, who is operations manager for American Threshold Healthcare, resigned earlier this year). Koon edged out Bruce O’Connell (who owns the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway) on a 3-2 vote. Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Commissioners Bill Stanley and David Young, who supported Koon, all denied having been pressured by the business-advocacy group to choose the oil executive.

“I voted for Karl Koon because he is a good friend of mine, and I believe [he] will do a good job on the air-quality board,” wrote Young in an e-mail to Xpress. Stanley’s denial was more pointed: “Nobody can pressure me. So take your poison pen and seek another outlet.”

Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman, on the other hand, took issue with the overall thrust of the county’s appointments. “I think it’s reasonable to say that … you would want economic interests to have a voice on that board, but I would think you would want a majority of the members of the board to have expertise and a background in public health and air-quality protection,” he said.

“This is not to slight them — in many ways, I think it’s more of a compliment — but the Council of Independent Business Owners definitely makes a very big point of getting their members to apply for these boards and commissions in the city and the county,” noted Newman. “And they’ve been very successful in getting their members appointed to these boards and commissions.”

CIBO Executive Director Mike Plemmons confirmed that he’d spoken to the commissioners about Koon. Plemmons routinely publishes board vacancies in the nonprofit’s newsletter, which reports on board-and-commission meetings that could affect local businesses and goes out regularly to CIBO members (including Mountain Xpress). The group often actively seeks business-friendly candidates to fill specific positions. Then Plemmons goes to bat for those candidates with city and county leaders, he said.

Hazel Fobes of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air also contacted the commissioners about the air-board appointment, advocating on behalf of Bruce O’Connell. Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman David Gantt and Commissioner Carol Peterson voted for O’Connell.

Asked about the vote, Fobes said, “The only thing I could say to the chair of CIBO is: You got your man this time. Now lay off!”

An effective strategy

CIBO’s lobbying efforts, says Plemmons, are part of the group’s ongoing attempts to recruit local businesspeople to serve on boards and commissions. But CIBO doesn’t target elected officials exclusively.

“We may just talk to staff,” Plemmons told Xpress. “Of course I haven’t talked to air [agency] staff, but I’m talking about the Buncombe County staff, if they were looking for certain people. Like they might have need of a certain expertise on a particular kind of board — [someone] that’s got to be able to read something technical or whatever, you know. If I find out about it, I’ll try to find somebody.”

The business-advocacy group also tries to influence the wording of local ordinances that will affect its members. “We try to work on ordinances in the beginning, when they’re just coming off the drawing board,” says Plemmons, “so that we can get our input in. It’s better at the beginning than at the end … [when] it’s a lot of controversy. Whereas if all the players are working on something — for example, the storm-water regulations [due to take effect in the city this winter], we worked along with other groups for [about] 15 years on that thing.”

In the more than 18 years that CIBO has been active, the group has had a profound but often unrecognized impact on local government. “We’re the ones that worked on MSD so hard,” notes Plemmons. “People forget that, but that’s one of the first things we did was the consolidation of MSD.” In 1990, the Metropolitan Sewerage District consolidated a patchwork of independently owned Buncombe County sewer lines.

“Some people don’t like that now,” Plemmons concedes, “but they’ve got to go back to the way it was, with certain moratoriums on building — couldn’t do this and that, city wouldn’t take care of its lines, and everybody else wouldn’t either. So, you know, a bunch of CIBO guys got together, and we figured the best thing for the community is to consolidate and get all the governments involved.”

CIBO members also raised a lot of hackles during the 1993 City Council election, when they supported four successful candidates whose first act upon taking office was to force the firing of then City Manager Doug Bean. Their controversial, secrecy-shrouded search for a manager they considered more business-friendly eventually settled on Jim Westbrook, who remained in the powerful office till his retirement earlier this year. The city manager oversees the staffers responsible for enforcing most of the city’s regulations concerning business and development.

CIBO’s membership, says Plemmons, is diverse, and debate can get lively at group meetings focused on specific issues. “I’ve got everything from Ted Kennedy-type liberal folk all the way to Jesse Helms conservative folk,” he notes. “When they’re working on business issues, though, there’s not much difference, you know — they’re all together on that kind of thing.”

If specific action needs to be taken after an issue has been hashed over at a meeting, CIBO’s board of directors will meet a week or so later and work up an official position, Plemmons explains. “And then you’ll see us stand up and say something.”

If you can’t beat ’em…

But sometimes, those positions may change. Six years ago, for example, CIBO wanted to disband the independent air agency (one of only three in North Carolina) and let the state Division of Air Quality enforce air-pollution regulations here, as it does in most Tar Heel communities. Beset by allegations of lax enforcement and financial impropriety, the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency was dissolved after Haywood County pulled out at the behest of local businesses. Environmentalists, however, persuaded Asheville and Buncombe County leaders to reconstitute the independent agency and appoint several “reform” candidates to its board.

“The way we saw it, the state probably … could do a better job,” Plemmons explains. “But we’ve seen that situation turn around. … I think it’s an OK agency to have, and I think our group would probably say the same thing.”

Part of that turnaround appears to have been a dramatic change in the air board’s makeup. A mere three years ago, the board roster included a medical-society director, a physician, an environmentalist, a government-accountability activist and one businessperson (who worked for a medical-supply company). Together, they helped put in motion a high-visibility agenda of anti-pollution education, funding and enforcement. Today, however, none of those members remains; most left the volunteer board before completing their six-year terms, because of outside professional commitments.

Now, however, all but one of the board members charged with carrying out that agenda are businesspeople. Chairman Britt Lovin is vice president/general manager of Andy Oxy, a CIBO member that sells pollution-testing gases to Progress Energy’s Arden power plant, the largest point-source polluter under the agency’s jurisdiction. Fellow board member Vonna Cloninger, a longtime CIBO member who owns Biltmore Iron and Metal, is prominently featured in the business group’s recruitment brochure. The two city appointees are Loyd Kirk (who owns the Forest Manor Inn near Biltmore Estate) and Dean Kahl (a chemistry professor at Warren Wilson College who’s a longtime member of the air board’s advisory committee).

Former Engineering Supervisor Melanie Pitrolo — who resigned from the air agency last June and now works for the WNC office of the Division of Air Quality — told Xpress she is “very disappointed” with direction the agency is taking.

“I think it’s completely going to CIBO,” she said. “There seems to be very little balance on the air-quality board now.” (She resigned after being passed over for a promotion and has since filed a lawsuit against the agency alleging gender discrimination.)

Pitrolo pointed to the board’s order to agency staff back in May to review all the agency’s regulations, find where they differed from the state’s, and justify whether the differences should be retained. Pitrolo, who supervised the review, recommended that all the agency’s current rules be kept. But after she’d resigned, the board voted to adopt new state rules covering parking lots, airports and highway projects, while keeping most of the rest, according to meeting minutes. It remains to be seen whether those state regulations prove to be less strict.

Under state law, the independent air agency can choose whether to adopt a given state rule or develop for a stricter one. The move to review the rules was spearheaded by Cloninger, who (together with Kirk) strongly questioned why the agency had different and sometimes more stringent rules than the state. “The main concern [about these differences] is from the business community,” asserted Cloninger.

Conflict of interest?

The newest board appointee, Karl Koon, was introduced to the public at the air agency’s Nov. 7 board meeting. His day job is supervising regulatory compliance for CIBO member Asheville Oil — a distributor of heating oil, gasoline and diesel fuel for ExxonMobil Corp. Exhaust from gasoline- and diesel-burning vehicles and other equipment is one of the principal causes (along with coal-burning power plants) of North Carolina’s air pollution, studies show.

Koon served on the Early Action Compact committee in 2002 and 2003, when Western North Carolina teetered on the brink of being deemed in “nonattainment status” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The committee brainstormed voluntary measures for reducing ozone pollution. Neither Asheville Oil nor its recently acquired subsidiary, Smoky Mountain Petroleum, has been cited for air-quality violations during the last 10 years (which is as far back as the air agency’s records go), according to Administrative Secretary Juanita Shanley. Asheville Oil also has a good record of compliance on water quality, according to state officials who regulate the fuel-storage tanks at the company’s Fairview Road facility.

Plemmons, too, spoke highly of the CIBO-backed appointee, assuring Xpress, “You’re going to like Karl Koon, and you’re going to find he’s pretty well knowledgeable” on air-quality issues.

But the air agency Koon now helps oversee also enforces at least one set of rules that apply to the company he works for: stage I vapor-recovery regulations, which require tanker trucks supplying fuel to service stations to use a system that prevents fumes from escaping into the atmosphere while the fuel is being pumped from the truck. Fuel distributors are subject to a citation if any of their drivers are caught disengaging the system — which is typically done, regulators report, by sticking a screwdriver into the valve to hold it open; this speeds up the pumping rate by allowing the fumes to vent straight into the air.

When Xpress asked Koon by e-mail whether serving on a board that enforces rules his company is subject to poses a conflict of interest for him, Koon replied, “Stage I vapor rules … are EPA-mandated regulations not unique to the local air board … [that] were implemented to address air-pollution issues which might impact all areas of the country, not just something unique to WNC.”

The vapor-recovery rules are intended to reduce volatile organic compounds — the smelly fumes emitted by petroleum fuels. Since VOCs combine with nitrogen oxide and sunlight to produce ozone, they’re a major focus of anti-ozone efforts in urban “nonattainment” areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta.

But here in heavily forested WNC, pine and oak trees, not gas pumps, are the predominant source of VOCs, so this region’s push to avoid ozone nonattainment instead has focused on reducing the other chemical ingredient, nitrogen oxide. Unlike naturally produced VOCs, however, those stemming from human activity are also laden with toxics such as benzene and toluene, and both the regional Division of Air Quality office and the local air agency recommend that WNC drivers filling up at the pump voluntarily take the same VOC-reducing measures that are mandatory in officially designated nonattainment areas. These include waiting till after sundown to refuel on high-ozone days and not topping off the tank after the pump has cut off.

“It can only help; it can’t hurt,” is how regional DAQ Supervisor Paul Muller explained the recommendations to Xpress.

But Koon, in his written response to this reporter’s e-mail, noted “the abundance of forested and bucolic areas” and concluded, “Significantly reducing VOCs in the area to reduce ozone formation is nonsensical.”

An official who worked closely with Koon, Newman and the other Asheville/Buncombe members of the Early Action Compact committee said that Koon had mostly seemed interested in making sure his industry didn’t need to participate in the Early Action efforts. Speaking off the record, the official recalled: “The VOCs aren’t an issue — I do remember him saying that quite a lot. My feeling was that Karl Koon was not necessarily representing any sort of environmental interest whatsoever. … I just remembered him as being definitely pro-business.”

Asked about the air board’s business ties, nationally recognized government-ethics expert Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said: “Yes, there’s a conflict. It may be … perfectly legal … [but] has the conflict been adequately disclosed, or does it so taint the [board’s] decision-making process that the decision isn’t going to be trusted by the public?” That, she noted, “spreads a kind of cynicism that I think is very corrosive of democracy.”

Koon, however, went on to argue in his e-mail that far from posing a conflict of interest, his occupation might actually be an advantage for the air board. “A diversity of experience and ideas (including individuals familiar with the issues and regulations) from the individuals serving on boards provides for better-thought-out solutions,” he wrote. “I am in a supervisory position for our company’s regulatory compliance — just as, say, the city manager would be in charge of the regulatory compliance for the city of Asheville. I am not actively involved in the day-to-day compliance activities but rely on dedicated individuals and staff to perform these functions.”

Koon also said he’d resigned from the county’s Land Conservation Board to take this position because “I believed that the air board could use my common-sense approach to problem-solving and knowledge of not only air-quality issues but regulatory and corporate responses to improving air quality.”

Familiar faces

Koon, in fact, has served on a string of local regulatory boards, including both the county and city planning boards. And that — not his title or track record — is what concerns Brownie Newman. The Asheville City Council member sees a serious potential for conflict of interest in the board’s current makeup.

Newman, who formerly headed the WNC Alliance (an environmental-advocacy group), worked alongside Koon on the Early Action Compact committee. In an e-mail to Xpress, Newman wrote that Koon “seems like a good guy, and I don’t doubt that he cares about clean air.”

But in a subsequent interview, Newman questioned whether adding yet another businessman to the air board was the right choice.

“If there’s a majority of CIBO members who are on the air board now, or who have real strong industry connections … any one of those individuals there may be a really good person, but then when you have a majority of people who are industry-associated on the air-quality board — I mean, that is a real question.”

Newman also voiced concern about the fact that the same names seem to keep showing up on the rosters of city and county boards and commissions. “There’s just sort of a group of people who are kind of recognized as community leaders. Which is great — I’m not saying this to slight them — but it’s like, if they apply for a board they seem to be almost automatically appointed. Like Karl Koon — it seems like he’s considered for a lot of these kind of things.

“There’s like 20 to 40 people in the community that end up getting appointed to everything,” he said, citing the recent appointment of former Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones and business owner Daryl Hart to the city Planning and Zoning Commission. “And so, it’s just kind of interesting the way that seems to happen.” Newman also mentioned former two-term Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, saying, “If Lou Bissette applies for anything, it just sort of, like, automatically happens. I’m not dissin’ Lou Bissette, but there’s just kind of this little cadre of … people who seem to end up chairing or being appointed to virtually all of these community boards. And in many cases, I’d like to bring in some new faces, some fresh thinking [to] some of these boards and commissions.”

Asked about the matter, Bissette disagreed. “I seem to have noticed in recent years that there have been a lot of new people going through those boards — the Board of Adjustment, the Planning and Zoning Commission, to just name a couple,” he told Xpress. “I think you’d find that there’s a tremendous number of new people involved in local boards and commissions now as compared to [20 years ago].”

And speaking about public boards and commissions, he said, “I’ve never been appointed but to one” — the MSD board. He has served as vice chairman of the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission, a public/private partnership, and on the boards of many local groups, including the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation; and in 2000, City Council appointed him to the I-26 Connector Community Coordinating Committee, which he co-chaired with Newman.

Newman, meanwhile, says he hopes the new City Council will bring more openness to board appointments, reaching beyond the nominees pushed by organized advocacy groups into the general public. And though he notes that a number of self-styled “progressive” advocacy groups are also active locally, Newman says he doesn’t know of any that “really focus on getting people in there to apply for these things. Not in the same way that CIBO does.”

Favoring CIBO?

Hazel Fobes (the mother of Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes) is one well-known local activist who has often lobbied to have environmentalists appointed to the boards that regulate air and water quality. An outspoken regular at City Council and Board of Commissioners meetings for years, she told this reporter that it’s always been “awfully hard to win” against CIBO, and she was none too happy about the commissioners’ rejection of O’Connell (for the second time) in favor of yet another CIBO candidate for the air-pollution agency.

But Fobes, whom both opponents and allies credit with instigating the movement that led to the reform of the air agency, has a message for the Buncombe County commissioners:

“Somewhere along the line, you all are favoring CIBO more than you are the rest of us. I don’t think that’s a good idea. … So get ready to fight if you want to, because I’m coming back!”

[Freelance writer Steve Rasmussen is based in Asheville.]

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