Angry Buncombe Taxpayers, a political action committee formed in August, wants to flip the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners from blue to red in November.
Federal prosecutors have charged four former Buncombe County officials, including former County Manager Wanda Greene, with fraud, a revelation that has fueled the ire of many Buncombe County residents.
These alleged misdeeds, the Angry Buncombe Taxpayers argue, occurred while Democrats controlled the Board of Commissioners. They believe voters should give Republicans the opportunity to patch things up.
“Although that looks very partisan, it’s the corruption that’s the real issue here,” says Mike Summey, the treasurer and one of the cofounders of the new PAC. “If it had been Republicans doing it, we would feel the same way about them.”
The organization, which has registered with the Buncombe County Board of Election Services as an independent expenditure PAC, may not donate directly to a candidate or other political committee, but it can receive unlimited contributions from individuals and businesses.
According to paperwork submitted to the county Board of Election Services, the PAC had raised $4,500 as of Aug. 20. The donor list, which in the PAC’s initial filing lists six contributors, includes prominent local Republicans Chris Peterson and Chad Nesbitt.
So far, Summey says, the organization has been spending its funds on signs, which recently made an appearance at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting on Aug. 21. About a dozen activists attended the meeting and sat in the front few rows, holding the signs high enough for commissioners to see.
“Stop Democrat Corruption,” read one. “Drain the Swamp in Buncombe County.”
Although the organization explicitly calls for residents to vote for Republicans, the PAC has also attempted to temper its message by taking a collaborative tone with Democrats.
“There are many good Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are upset with the corruption that has been exposed by numerous federal indictments of county administrators,” the PAC says on its website. “What makes our anger seem so partisan is the fact that this has all occurred while Democrats controlled the county.”
Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the board, and although three seats are on the ballot this fall, District 1 Commissioner Al Whitesides, a Democrat, is running unopposed. One of the contested seats is held by a Democrat and the other by a Republican. To upset the Democratic majority, Republicans must win both of those races.
Commissioner Robert Pressley, R-District 3, is defending his seat against Democratic challenger Donna Ensley.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Ellen Frost, D-District 2, will vacate her seat at the end of her term. Two newcomers, Democrat Amanda Edwards and Republican Glenda Weinert, will square off in November to replace her.
“If you want to sit there and point fingers at a party, it has been a Democrat majority for many, many years,” Pressley says. “Can it be better with the Republican Party? You know, you’d hope that no matter what it’s a better party, but we need to look back at what brought this on.” Pressley gives Commissioner Mike Fryar credit for calling attention to irregularities in county finances before the federal investigation began — irregularities that Pressley says went deeper than Fryar originally expected.
“I knew things was wrong four years ago,” Fryar said during a Board of Commissioners meeting on Aug. 21, “but I didn’t have a clue that they were stealing money from inside the county or doing what they were doing or going on trips. I knew that money was being moved around. I couldn’t figure out where it went.”
Fryar was re-elected to a four-year term by 307 votes against Democratic challenger Nancy Nehls Nelson in 2016.
Buncombe County Republican Party Chair Carl Mumpower believes “with certainty” that the alleged corruption in county government is a partisan issue.
“The party that’s been in total control blew their fiduciary responsibilities in a major way over a major period of time,” he says. “The long-standing Democratic dominance of our county formed a governance culture ripe for predatory action.”
Buncombe County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rose sees it differently.
“I don’t think that it’s fair to say that it was on any one commissioner or any particular party,” Rose says. “I mean, this is something that was more of a structural issue with the way that oversight of the county manager position was conducted.”
It’s an issue Rose believes would have come up regardless of the party in control of the board.
“When you look at what systems were in place to act as a check on the county manager and on the county officials, I don’t see a different outcome based purely on partisanship,” he says.
The county’s response
Commissioners have been fielding a lot of questions about the federal investigation of Greene during public sessions held to gather input on the county’s search for a new manager.
“We changed and took away a tremendous authority away from the manager so that the manager, whoever they are, will never have that much power,” Frost said during an input session on Aug. 24.
Before Greene’s retirement, Frost said, she and Fryar had been asking hard questions about some county spending choices — questions that Frost said led to attempts by Greene to tarnish their reputations.
“People believed her, people thought she was great and … she was very clever at picking people to help with the cover-up,” Frost said. “She was a Svengali. She could get people to do things.”
Board Chair Brownie Newman said that, among other changes, the county has limited the ability of the manager to transfer money between different county funds, capped manager-initiated employee bonuses at $1,000, and insulated the internal auditor from retaliation by the manager. The county has also set up a whistleblower hotline operated by an outside agency.
Charges that Greene, former County Manager Mandy Stone, and former Planning Director and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton awarded contracts to companies associated with Joseph Wiseman Jr. in exchange for lavish vacations have also raised questions about the county’s purchasing policies.
“You had a process in place where some of the people that were doing the negotiating of contracts … also had the authority to approve them,” said interim County Manager George Wood during the session on Aug. 24. “And that was not a good process.”
Wood said the county is reviewing all purchasing policies.
The initiative to shore up internal controls, however, doesn’t satisfy Angry Taxpayers supporters. Summey believes these changes should have been implemented far sooner. “Why wait until you’re already caught with your hand in the cookie jar before you figure out how to lock the lid on it?” he asks.
Mumpower believes Democratic control of the Board of Commissioners has contributed to the alleged corruption in county government.
“Monopolies are always vulnerable to rust and Brand-X — what we call the Democrats’ liberal-progressive-socialist movement — has been in control of county and city governance for decades,” he says.
“We’re naturally geared to restraint and realism in governance,” he says of the Republican Party. “The opposition is naturally geared to extravagance and opportunism.”
Weinert, the Republican candidate in District 2, says a Republican-controlled board would have done things differently.
“Republicans tend to view taxpayer dollars and budget responsibilities from the perspective of operating like a business,” she says. “As we move forward beyond the corruption, Republicans will manage differently, provide better [oversight] and will always work to protect taxpayer dollars.”
Pressley, meanwhile, points to the value of current commissioners’ knowledge of the investigation and their teamwork in addressing the scandal to this point.
“We all want to make sure that what happens to taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, not sitting here what’s best for one party or the other party,” he says. “We’re all very glad that this has been brought out, and it’s just going to make the county a better county once the investigation is over.”
Pressley, the only board incumbent to face a challenger in this year’s election, doesn’t favor starting over with a clean slate of commissioners. “There is so much information that the commissioners know right now that we have not been able to share that shows that we’re all working toward the same thing,” he says. “We might have different priorities that we look at, but at the end of the day, if new commissioners come in, it’s going to be a new learning experience for them.”
Although he frequently hears concerns about the Greene investigation, Rose doesn’t think it’s the top concern among voters this election cycle.
“Especially with kids going back to school right now, one of the bigger concerns we’ve been hearing about from voters is education funding,” Rose says, “and I think more of that ties to the state level.”
Rose says kitchen table issues, like pay and affordable housing, also top voters’ list of concerns.
That being said, Rose believes the alleged corruption in Buncombe County government does have a direct impact on voters, especially when one considers how the allegedly embezzled money could have been invested in Buncombe County.
“People aren’t just frustrated that it occurred,” he says, “they’re frustrated at what it actually meant in terms of impact to the community.”