ASHEVILLE, N.C.— It’s been a tough week for Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman’s attempts to advance two key initiatives. The first setback came in trying to get a proposal for personnel ordinance changes added to the Oct. 17 agenda, a move a majority other commissioners said they aren’t ready to delve into. A second false start happened during that meeting as Newman’s push for a county commitment to 100 percent renewable energy fizzled.
Ahead of the Oct. 17 meeting, Newman wasn’t able to build consensus among commissioners to discuss pay cuts for themselves and senior staff, among other proposed personnel changes. Aside from Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, none of the other commissioners supported moving forward with the discussion. However, Newman brought up the idea again during the pre-meeting, a time set aside for housekeeping issues ahead of getting down to the brass tacks of the agenda.
Newman detailed what he said was proper protocol in having his personnel ordinance submitted before the deadline for the meeting at hand and continued, “In light of that, I don’t want us to argue about process, but the issues in there are important…”
“Point of order,” exclaimed Commissioner Joe Belcher, cutting off Newman. “We have said this will be looked at next time. We don’t have a consensus involved, and I think we don’t need to initiate discussion.”
County Attorney Michael Frue advised that Newman be allowed to make a few comments.
Newman continued that he will be putting his proposal on an upcoming agenda and then pivoted to talk about reducing compensation for himself. At that point, Belcher again called for a point of order, adding, “That’s beyond a few comments.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar chimed in, saying, “It should not have been brought up. There are five of us saying no.”
With that, Newman started the meeting.
Local environmental groups showed up to support a resolution that would have the county’s portfolio of buildings and vehicles, as well as other operations, run on 100 percent renewable energy. Currently, the county is operating under a resolution pushing it to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent at a suggested clip of 2 percent reduction per year.
“The county has exceeded that goal with a more than 10 percent reduction in the first two years,” touted Newman.
“One hundred percent might seem unrealistic, but it’s worth noting many of our country’s businesses have committed to that and are on the way toward it,” he said, citing Bank of America, BMW and Wal-Mart as examples. “Rest assured, these companies are committed to lowering energy costs while achieving clean energy goals.”
Newman also noted that advances in technology have significantly lowered the cost of implementing renewable energies such as solar and wind.
“An absence of leadership at the national level at the time being makes it important for leadership at business and local levels,” he said. “There are a lot of good reasons for Buncombe County to be a leader on this critical issue and we have tools to tackle it. We need to set ambitious goals and go after them.”
The public comment period saw about 20 people speaking in favor of the proposal.
“One reason 100 percent renewable energy is such a great idea is it’s such a job creator. Now is the time for 100 percent renewables,” implored Asheville resident Cathy Holt.
“I see this opportunity as an investment in our economy. If we are a location for scientists and clean industries, it will be great to boost,” said Robert Lane of Asheville. “Renewable energy is coming whether we believe in climate change or not.”
“It’s always painful to hear about the truth, and we know we have people in denial and kidding themselves,” added Asheville resident Kendall Hale. “It’s not true that every single disaster that happens is caused directly by climate change, but these fires and storms are directly affected by global warming. Don’t sit here and say, ‘If I had only done something.’”
However, not everyone was in favor of the proposal. “I’m probably going to get some boos, but that’s all right,” stated Don Yelton before his remarks. “How are we going to get there when we don’t know where we are going? We don’t know how much energy we need. … It’s not a good thing to pursue.”
Commissioners then discussed the resolution among themselves. “I agree. We are in trouble, we all know it. We can’t deny it,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides. “I want to make sure that when we pass this resolution we know what we are going to have in 2030. My concern is this is too serious to be a window dressing moment. I want to see us put more teeth in this resolution.”
“We all have one goal: We need cleaner energy. Let’s don’t make mistakes and rush into anything too quick,” added Commissioner Robert Pressley. “I support it, but let’s do it wisely,” he said, while also wondering “who is going to pay for it?”
Commissioner Ellen Frost then floated the idea of holding a workshop on specific goals of how the county would get to 100 percent renewable in the next 10 years.
Fryar agreed, adding he’d like to postpone the vote for 90 days.
“I don’t support that. I don’t want to wait 90 days,” shot back Newman. “I’m glad to hear people say they want more teeth, that’s great. It’s not the kind of goal we want to sit on the shelf. … We are giving ourselves 10 years to figure it out. We aren’t going to figure it all out in next few months, it’s too big.
“I don’t think getting an update from staff in a few weeks will change what’s in front of us,” he added.
Commissioner Beach-Ferrara sided with Newman’s sense of urgency, stating, “We can exercise due diligence and move forward with policy priorities.”
Continued conversation didn’t garner more support for Newman’s proposal, and he ultimately favored calling the question instead of rescinding his motion to approve the resolution.
The measure failed to gain approval by a 2-5 vote. Democrats Frost and Whitesides, along with the Republican bloc of Belcher, Fryar and Pressley, voted against it, while Democrats Newman and Beach-Ferrara voted in favor.
“What I’m hearing is several voices saying we’d like to look at it, make it better and get some answers rather than dig in our heels and say, ‘We’ve got to do this tonight,’” Belcher said.
It’s not the first time this year Newman has been dealt a blow on immediately moving forward with his energy agenda. His first attempt to garner support to study the possibility of a solar farm at the old Woodfin landfill was initially denied, only to gain approval after concerns of due diligence were addressed.
And while the resolution met defeat, all commissioners expressed a desire to eventually approve it after taking a deeper look at the moving parts of how it will be accomplished. Commissioners could further explore that during a work session in November.