ASHEVILLE — The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to repeal a power previously held by the chairman during its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7. While commissioners cited the move as a continuance of transparency measures amid the county’s managerial transition, Chair Brownie Newman hinted at another motivation for the move and cast the lone vote against the policy.
Last month, Newman floated proposed changes to the county’s personnel ordinance that would have put a moratorium on cost-of-living increases for senior management and cut commissioners’ salaries, among other amendments. The proposal caused a slight kerfuffle and never made it to the agenda as commissioners publicly sparred over whether it met due process to appear before them.
In the past, either three commissioners or the chair were able to add an item to the agenda as long as it was presented through the proper channels one week before the formal meeting. However, a bipartisan push of Commissioners Joe Belcher, Ellen Frost and Al Whitesides brought forward a new policy of only allowing three commissioners to have that procedural ability.
“There was concern that the chairman was allowed to put items on the agenda by himself. And that creates conflict,” stated Belcher, adding that the chair could face “undue pressure” from individuals or groups to shuttle items onto the agenda.
“I’ll find two more [commissioners] if the idea is good. That keeps things in perspective, in my eyes,” said Commissioner Mike Fryar. “If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth three of us putting it forward.”
Frost stressed that the move didn’t have anything to do with the current chair or other members of the commission. “We’ve seen what happens with unilateral decisions. This gives us protection and transparency moving forward,” she added.
However, after the vote, Xpress asked Newman if he thought the issue was punitive, stemming from last month’s attempt to have his personnel ordinance changes added to the agenda. “That this just coincidentally came up after proposing cutting county commission salaries … it’s funny timing. But I don’t know,” he said.
“The chair doesn’t get any more voting authority than any other commissioners, so the ability to help manage what comes on the agenda is really the only sort of procedural authority that the chair had,” Newman told Xpress. “When there’s been issues I want to have the commission consider, in virtually all cases I do ask other commissioners to join in sponsoring. Because at the end of the day you need four votes to get it passed.”
Newman said there have been very few times that he’s tried to put something on the agenda. “But to say that the chair cannot do that … I just don’t agree with that,” he said, noting that sometimes it’s pragmatic for the chair to be able to fast-track an issue onto the agenda.
Ultimately, the move to negate the chair’s ability to put an item on the agenda in favor of solely having three commissioners have that power was approved by a vote of 6-1.
A recent spate of personnel ordinance changes, transparency initiatives and other county shake-ups comes with the shadow of former County Manager Wanda Greene’s FBI investigation looming over operations. In fact, Newman went so far as to state there is “eroding public trust” as his primary thrust for last month’s attempt to further personnel ordinance changes.
You can view the entire Nov. 7 meeting here.
Commissioners are slated to next meet for a workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 14.