Doing the county’s business takes longer these days. Meetings of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners now regularly run three hours or more — at least twice what they took before a 2011 state law required Buncombe County to switch to district elections and expanded the board from five to seven members, says Chair David Gantt. The resulting partisan split on the board, he maintains, has led to more time-consuming conflict concerning the county’s overall direction.
“I would estimate the average meeting is two to three times as long,” says Gantt, a Democrat who was first elected in 1996. “I think there’s a desire for each commissioner to publicly express his or her opinion on each issue that comes before the board under the current system. It’s more territorial, and there’s more partisanship than any time since I’ve been on the board.”
But Republican Commissioner Mike Fryar feels there’s an advantage to the longer meetings. “There are two parties sitting up there now,” he points out. “We try to get stuff through, and they try to get stuff through. It’s not a one-way package anymore.”
Bill Sabo, who taught political science at UNC Asheville before retiring last year, sees both advantages and disadvantages. “It’s a basic trade-off between efficiency and an effort to increase legitimacy by ensuring different voices are heard,” he explains. “When you increase one, you’re going to decrease the other.” Elected officials, says Sabo, typically negotiate and work out compromises out of the public view, and “the meetings become forums for each of the commissioners to articulate and defend their positions. I would say the longer meetings are a basic consequence of structural changes in the way things are done. Whether it’s good or bad depends on your perspective.
“As to whether or not that improves transparency,” he continues, “I think it means that all perspectives are more likely to be heard, not that we get greater insight into how the commission really makes its core decisions.”
Fairview resident Nathan Ramsey, a Republican who chaired the Board of Commissioners from 2000 to 2008, says he felt a responsibility to talk with the other commissioners by phone about policy directions. “There’s an argument that all the decisions have been made outside the public meeting and there’s no substantive discussion,” he notes. “There’s a tension between that and having meetings where people are talking too much and not having an efficient governing process. Just because you have a long meeting doesn’t mean you have a better result. There’s a balance there somewhere.”
Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, believes that conversations with constituents, conducting serious research and thoughtfully considering the issues are more likely to benefit the public. “Longer meetings, in and of itself, I don’t think is a good thing or a bad thing,” says Cooper. “I’ve never seen any research on that suggesting it’s a good thing. Longer discussion could mean [commissioners] are really weighing the options. Longer discussion could also mean that they just want to be on the record.”
Commissioner Brownie Newman, who previously served on the Asheville City Council, says he doesn’t mind the longer meetings. “If that’s something you’re not accepting of, you’re probably in the wrong business,” he observes. “Our job is to listen to people. You have to bring a certain amount of patience to the table when you’re in this role.”
Fryar agrees. “I’m a public servant,” he notes. “If [meetings] are long, that’s what I get paid for. I’m not up there to just say, ‘Yes, no and ’bye.’”
Fairness vs. power politics
Then-state Rep. Tim Moffitt’s 2011 bill changed the system for electing the Buncombe County commissioners. Previously, voters throughout the county had elected four members and a chair to four-year terms on the board. The law, which affected only Buncombe County, took effect the next year, dividing the county into three districts corresponding to its three state House districts.
One roughly follows the borders of Asheville; another includes much of eastern Buncombe, from Fairview to Barnardsville; the third lies mostly to the west of the city, stretching from Arden in the south to Sandy Mush in the northwest. Voters in each district elect two commissioners, and the candidates must live in the district they seek to represent. Only the board chair is elected countywide.
Just before the change, all five board members were Democrats. The current board contains four Democrats and three Republicans.
Board Chair David Gantt believes the district election system is flawed. “Any given resident can only vote for a maximum of three commissioners out of seven that make decisions about budgets and taxpayers’ money,” he points out. “I think that’s fundamentally wrong, because each resident should be permitted to vote for or against each commissioner.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar, however, feels district elections are more fair because “The people in different areas have representation. The districts help people in the rural areas.”
When he ran for commissioner before the district system was established, notes Fryar, he finished last among the eight candidates, yet in his next bid for office, under the new arrangement, was able to win a seat. “That tells you something,” the Fairview resident maintains. “Every part of Buncombe County is different. You have your rural part and your downtown part. Everybody has different ideas.”
Commissioner Brownie Newman, meanwhile, says he would favor a system that combined the two approaches. District elections, says Newman, a Democrat, allow more attention to be paid to the concerns of residents in different parts of the county. “But the benefit of at-large elections is the representatives tend to focus on what is the higher good for all the people of Buncombe County, instead of a smaller section of the county.” The current system, he notes, is “pretty heavily weighted toward people who are only accountable to a part of the. That’s the hand we’re dealt: There’s nothing we can do about that. My hope is that members of the commission will do everything they can for the whole county. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore the people who voted for you.”
Gantt says he’d prefer a system that allowed all county voters to turn thumbs up or down on the candidates in each of the districts, which is how county school board elections work. But the Republican-controlled General Assembly didn’t seek the county’s input before reconfiguring the board, and Gantt doesn’t expect that to change.
In April, the Legislature approved a similar measure replacing at-large elections for the Wake County Board of Commissioners with district elections for all members. Backers of the legislation said it would improve voter representation, while critics contend that the real aim is to elect more Republicans.
Moffitt, a two-term Republican who lost his re-election bid last November, “rammed [the election changes] down our throats without any notice, hearings, public comment or discussion,” charges Gantt. “If Rep. Moffitt’s goal was to divide the county into three distinct community-interest areas and to increase the number of Republicans on the board, he was very successful.”
Moffitt declined to comment for this story.