Commissioners to consider pay despite ongoing election dispute

Amid an ongoing dispute over the District 2 election results, the new Buncombe County commissioners from other areas were sworn in today, Dec. 3, and are scheduled to consider the controversial issue of setting their own pay tomorrow.

A Nov. 28 recount of District 2 results continued to show Republican Mike Fryar and Democrat Ellen Frost narrowly winning the area’s two seats. However, a hand-to-eye recount requested by tentative third-place finisher Republican Christina Kelley G. Merrill is in progress and her protest over votes cast by Warren Wilson College residents is scheduled to be heard by the State Board of Elections on Dec. 13. In the meantime, the state has declined to certify the district’s results, effectively banning the county from swearing in any of the district’s candidates.

The District 2 race will determine which party has a majority on the expanded seven-member Board of Commissioners.

Meanwhile, Democrats David Gantt (chair), Holly Jones and Brownie Newman, as well as Republicans David King and Joe Belcher are set to hold their their first regular meeting Tuesday, Dec. 4. The meeting’s agenda calls for them to set their own compensation, which was among the highest in the state under the previous board, even after making significant cuts in February of 2011.

At that time the board voted unanimously to slash every member’s pay by $12,400 per year. Since then, commissioners’ salaries were set at $26,605 per year (including all stipends and allowances). The chair’s and vice-chair’s positions paid $8,514 and $4,257 more per year respectively than the other commissioners received.

Earlier this year, Jones unsuccessfully pushed board members to cut their own pay by another 17 percent. But Fryar has been the most outspoken critic. After first alerting the public and local media outlets that the pay was abnormally high for the state last year, he made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign. Now, he says, he’s not happy that he won’t be sworn in as a commissioner to deal with the issue on Dec. 4, despite the fact that he’s ahead in every District 2 vote count since the Nov. 6 election.

“It doesn’t feel too good,” he says, adding that he hopes the board will make it clear that whatever salary they set will be temporary until the District 2 commissioners take office. “It is totally an issue that’s going to be brought back up,” he says. “I think the number’s going to be bigger than what I’m going to go for. I think they’re just going to kind of lay stuff away.”

Frost also says she’s not pleased with the state’s decision.

“The state board not certifying until everything’s exhausted, I think it does cause harm to the county simply because the whole district, now that we have the district system, doesn’t have representation.”

Gantt hints that he doesn’t expect the board to make any firm decisions until the District 2 representatives are seated, which could be at least a couple of more weeks. “I’m not real comfortable with a third of the county not having a voice on these things,” he says.

On Dec. 3, the five commissioners met briefly after being sworn in and decided to delay appointing a vice chair.

The Dec. 4 meeting agenda, which is set by County Manager Wanda Greene, also includes several rezoning requests. The board will consider:

• A request to rezone 1.58 acres at the intersection of Rowland Road and U.S. 70 in Swannanoa from residential to commercial zoning.

• A request to rezone 3.32 acres near the intersection of Lower Grassy Branch Road and Tunnel Road in Oteen from residential to commercial zoning.

• A request to rezone 5 acres in Leicester along Johnson School and Old Country Home roads in the Mill Creek condominium development higher-density residential development.

• A request to rezone the Asheville Regional Airport and the WNC Agricultural Center as a public-service district

The board will meet at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 4, in the commissioners’ chambers, located at 200 College St., suite 326. A short pre-meeting review of the agenda will begin at 4:15 p.m.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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