Brownie Newman expected his first months leading Buncombe County government to include plenty of action on greenways and renewable energy. But the universe — not to mention federal investigators — had other plans.
Since the launch of an investigation into alleged misuse of taxpayer funds a year ago, Newman said, “We have all learned in intricate detail, from the federal indictments, the alleged methods that [former County Manager Wanda Greene] used to appropriate taxpayer dollars for personal benefit. And now three other former senior county staff have been indicted as well, along with a private contractor, all under very serious charges.”
Addressing a full house at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s 13th annual Elected Officials Reception on Aug. 16, Newman, who chairs the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and other local politicians acknowledged that the pace of recent events has often pushed other issues to the side.
Asked what business-related concerns he’s addressed since taking his seat on Asheville City Council — which has been dealing with a scandal of its own following the February leak of police video that showed a white former Asheville police officer beating a black city resident — Vijay Kapoor said, “I have not had a conversation once in the eight months I’ve been on Council on business issues, and that’s a problem.”
‘Not on our radar’
“Honestly, my view right now is, there’s a lot of issues we’ve not been focused on,” Kapoor said of the city’s elected leadership. “Things like crime, things like roads, jobs, that because of other things we’ve been dealing with, they’re just not on our radar right now.
“I sort of feel that Council over the last couple of months has had their agenda driven by external events,” he continued, noting that he’s been telling constituents that flooding Council members with emails is the only way to get issues of concern on Council’s to-do list.
Kapoor identified the proposed sale of the nonprofit Mission Health to for-profit HCA Healthcare, increasing rates of violent crime, the city’s River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project and the need for coordination between city and county development standards as critical issues that Council needs to make time to address — but hasn’t.
While the police beating incident and other issues have rightly demanded the Council’s attention, “there are core services that we provide that we need to be paying attention to, and if we don’t do that, we’re falling down on the job,” he said.
Gwen Wisler stuck to themes of unity and collaboration among all members of the community, including the public and private sectors and local, state and federal government. “Now is not the time for a circular firing squad. Now is a time to pull together,” she said, garnering the evening’s biggest round of applause.
Wisler, a member of Asheville’s City Council and its vice mayor, acknowledged the leadership vacuum at the top of both city and county governments. Buncombe County’s most recent county manager, Mandy Stone, resigned after a year in the position and shortly before she became one of the subjects of the latest federal indictment, while Gary Jackson, the city’s former manager, was fired in March in the wake of the police beating scandal.
Referring to the Mission Health sale, Wisler said that transaction and other changes at the top of local institutions offer a chance to “start fresh to make this community as good as it can be.”
‘Made fully whole’
Newman acknowledged the county corruption scandal’s corrosive effect on public confidence: “As a person who has spent the past 15 years involved in Buncombe government in our community, I hate the damage that we know that this is doing to people’s trust in Buncombe government.”
“It’s embarrassing to all of us, even though I wasn’t around,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides, who was appointed to a two-year term in 2016 after Newman assumed the chair, leaving his District 1 spot vacant. Whitesides is unopposed in his 2018 bid for re-election. “But once you sit in the seat, you get the good and the bad.”
Both Newman and Whitesides expressed regret for the impact of the embezzlement and kickback allegations on county staff morale. “I hear [employees] saying they don’t even wear their name badge outside the building where they work, because they don’t want people to know that they work for the county,” Whitesides said.
Commissioners “take responsibility for what’s happened,” Newman said. “We are also very focused on doing everything in our power to recoup taxpayer dollars that have been misappropriated. … We expect Buncombe County taxpayers to be made fully whole.”
At the same time, Newman continued, the county is working to deliver core services and leadership on key issues, including greenways, transportation, renewable energy, affordable housing and support for local small businesses. The opioid abuse crisis, he said, is a challenge that is “ruining thousands of lives and that will overwhelm our social services if unaddressed.”
Though he says the federal investigation and indictments have been “a distraction,” Whitesides pointed to the county’s positive financial condition, noting that it closed the 2018 fiscal year on June 30 with a strong fund balance and has maintained its AAA bond rating with both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.
Good things can come from bad situations, Whitesides continued. To deal with the crisis, commissioners have had to work closely with one another. “Parties don’t come into play,” he said. Efforts to revamp the county’s personnel policies are moving forward, and changes will halt practices like allowing employees to sell unused vacation time back to the county for cash.
Still, Whitesides doubts the county has seen the last of the uncomfortable revelations. “I was hoping it would be over by now, but now that they’re digging, this will be around for a while, I’m afraid,” he said.
‘Asheville is open for business’
Eleventh District U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, was on hand for the reception but had little to say to the group as a whole. Asked by the chamber’s Corey Atkins to address the gathering, Meadows said, “Good evening. I love the chamber. Asheville is open for business. God bless you.”
Meadows did spend over an hour rubbing elbows with attendees and responded to an invitation to tour Asheville’s rooftop bars, offered by tour operator Kaye Bentley, saying, “I will. As long as I don’t have a chilling effect on your business, I’ll be glad to,” an apparent reference to Meadows’ unpopularity with local Democrats.
His focus, Meadows said, is on “trying to make sure there’s no federal barriers so that [local business owners] can make a profit.” Asked whether tariffs are among the federal barriers he’s trying to remove, Meadows said, “We’re working with the president on that. I’m not a big tariff fan, as you know. I think that this is a very short-term pain for something that will ultimately have long-term gain.”
The tariffs with the biggest potential to hurt local businesses, Meadows said, are those on aluminum and steel (see “Call of duties,” Aug. 15, Xpress). He predicted the tariff issue will be resolved in the next 90-120 days.
According to recent local polling undertaken for his 2018 campaign, local constituents aren’t terribly concerned about the region’s economy, said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. Members of the millennial generation are the exception, he said, with more anxiety about careers and livelihoods.
What seems to be on the minds of those on both sides of the political spectrum, McGrady said, is immigration. In the business context, some worry that too much immigration threatens jobs for those already living and working here, while farmers have a “different perspective,” he said. Each growing season, North Carolina is home to an estimated 80,000 migrant farmworkers to address a severe and growing shortage of domestic workers willing to work in the fields, although that number could be much higher. According to Linda Andrews, national legislative director for the N.C. Farm Bureau, farmers would like to see an expansion of guest worker programs to provide the labor needed to power the state’s agriculture industry (see “Field medicine,” July 11, Xpress).
McGrady concluded, “We’re playing with fire when we get into the tariff issues out there. Can I affect that? Not really.”
In addition to those mentioned above, other elected officials in attendance included Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe; Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe; Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe; Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Haywood, Jackson, Swain; Rep. Josh Dobson, R-Avery, McDowell, Mitchell; Julie Mayfield, Asheville City Council; Andrew Nagle, Weaverville Town Council; Mayor Zeb Smathers of Canton; and Mayor Jerry VeHaun of Woodfin.