Meet the new boss… same as the old boss!

While the federal political landscape has been reshaped by an electoral landslide, state and local politics have been solidified under the status quo. Old faces are staying around; even supposedly “new faces” have system roots that run very deep. And arrogant attitudes that were supposedly washed away have re-emerged. At a time when the battle cry is “change,” it’s ironic that for Western North Carolinians, nothing could be further from the truth.

On the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, every incumbent Democrat is returning. David Gantt can finally call himself what he’s been for years anyway: chairman. Bill Stanley might as well change his mailing address to the county courthouse, he’s served there so long. Carol Weir Peterson is the former head of the local Democratic Party and a superdelegate (remember the primaries?). Holly Jones moves over from Asheville City Council. And K. Ray Bailey, “the rookie,” is actually a longtime player with substantial political influence.

On the legislative side, all local incumbent Democrats were also re-elected. The lone open General Assembly seat, vacated when Republican Charles Thomas declined to run again, was narrowly picked up by the former director of the Governor’s Western Office under two-term Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. You can hardly call Jane Whilden a political outsider. Formal complaints have been filed at both the state and federal levels, alleging mail fraud and forgery in connection with a mailer that she and the state Democratic Party sent out shortly before the election. But even if she were found guilty of committing a crime, Democrats would still choose her replacement.

Meanwhile, voters are sending Bev Purdue back to Raleigh as governor for what will bring her to her 26th year in state politics. While she claimed she “was never a part of the inner circle and never wanted to be,” does anyone actually believe that the lieutenant governor, serving as president of the Senate, could be so detached from or blind to the widespread corruption revealed by all the scandals of the last several years?

And even though there was no Asheville City Council election this year, Council members once again find themselves on the hot seat. With Holly Jones’ “promotion” to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the Council majority has decided to abandon precedent and reinvent the process for filling a vacated seat. The main reason: to protect their majority. While no Council member has or would admit it, I think they shiver at the thought of having Bryan Freeborn back on Council. (He finished fourth in the last Council election, which had three seats up for grabs.)

In the recent past, vacated Council seats have been filled by the next-highest vote-getter from the previous election. But this time, Council has put out a call for eligible residents to “apply” for Jones’ seat. Just send in your resumé along with an application that includes questions about your race, age, gender, what side of town you live on and even your place of employment (and what job you do), along with your written responses to five essay questions they’ve selected. One of the questions reads, “Where do you fall on the conservative/liberal spectrum in terms of fiscal and social policy?” Could a business owner even ask for information like this without being sued? Besides, this isn’t about filling an empty staff position: It’s supposed to be an elective office serving the people of Asheville.

Upon receiving the applications, Council members, in private, will narrow down the field to the few people they want to interview. (Remember, we’re talking about a City Council seat here!) But here’s what really gets me: During their Dec. 9 meeting, they plan to interview their finalists at 30-minute intervals—and then vote immediately afterward. Three days later, the person chosen will be sworn in to represent Asheville residents—having been selected by as few as four people and introduced to the public for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Are you kidding me? What happened to all the promises about going to the people first before changing the rules governing city elections? What happened to learning from past mistakes? What didn’t City Council understand about the petition drive during the last election? Council members are basically interviewing for the position of “majority lap dog.”

Putting aside the lunacy of these essay questions, the application itself could be a legal minefield. Every single human-resource executive I’ve talked to has said they’d be fired on the spot if they dared to ask for the information requested by this application, which City Attorney Bob Oast tells me is used for all the city’s boards and commissions. I’ve also been advised that all former applicants to any city board or commission who were denied a position would have a strong case for racial, gender or age discrimination. How much money would that cost taxpayers?

I say follow precedent and appoint the next-highest vote-getter. Whether or not current Council members like the runner-up, they were the voters’ choice. Other appropriate alternatives would be holding a special election or leaving the seat unfilled until next year and then letting Asheville vote—again. Any other path should be rejected as an outrage.

Despite the emphatic rejection of this plan by people across the political spectrum, City Council is about to appoint someone to “serve the public” who may never have appeared before the electorate or been vetted by open dialogue.

Think of the precedent this will set. Beyond establishing bad policy, Council seems willing to risk potential lawsuits and legal challenges against every single city board and commission, which you and I would end up paying for. Why are they being so stubborn about this?

Don’t let this be yet another case of politicians doing whatever they have to do to hold onto power, democracy and the will of the people be damned.

Otherwise, it’ll be “Meet the new boss … same as the old boss.”

[Matt Mittan hosts Take A Stand! on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is www.mattcave.us.]

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