BY TEDDY JORDAN
My trust and confidence level in the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is currently dismal at best. I see two primary drivers for this: the county government corruption scandal itself; and more important, the Board of Commissioners’ response to it.
As the scandal has unfolded, serious issues impacting everyone, financially or otherwise, have surfaced, and new revelations are still emerging. So far, former County Managers Wanda Greene and Mandy Stone, along with former Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton, have been indicted on a long list of charges, including fraud, conspiracy and receipt of bribes and kickbacks. It’s a big deal.
However, in spite of the magnitude of both present concerns and yet-to-be-uncovered items in this situation, the Board of Commissioners’ response and reporting to the public has been lacking and at times has seemed reluctant or unenthusiastic at best. It even appears the Board of Commissioners has outsourced reporting to the local media. This is not a confidence builder.
There is a huge desire to understand what happened, how it happened, why, what has been learned and what’s changed so far. While no one would wish for this chaos, it’s here now, so what’s the plan, where are we, and what’s next? Clarification is also needed as to how the Board of Commissioners defines its reporting responsibility to the public.
In the past few weeks, the board has initiated changes and additional safeguards regarding county management — and those may all be perfect — but it’s hard to tell with comprehensive and detailed reporting lacking or otherwise unavailable. The response to date seems fragmented, not cohesive. It is not clear how those particular items fit into the whole plan. What is the whole picture? What’s the strategic plan?
A routinely updated, full, complete and comprehensive report about the impact of the fraud and mismanagement is needed and should reflect information such as: total to date cross-jurisdictional taxpayer costs (direct and indirect); areas of concern and review by type (salary/wages, benefits by type, travel, kickback, etc.); the financial magnitude of each fraudulent act and the priority assigned to addressing the underlying structural problem that allowed it to occur; time frame reviewed; progress to date; next steps; and a timeline.
Another concern: The main focus of questioning and review by commissioners appears to have been solely directed toward county management and administration without the corresponding and equally (or even more important) focus of reviewing the role of the Board of Commissioners. What changes have been implemented by the board? How does the Board of Commissioners define its role, and what checks and balances can be expected by the public? How, if this exact situation were to present itself again, would the commissioners recognize it?
None of this is about blame. All of this is about accountability, transparency and understanding.
Interesting system dynamic: Top county administrators are employed full time. The three now under indictment had 95 years of collective experience with the county. By comparison, commissioners serve in a part-time capacity, with alternating four-year term limits generating frequent board member turnover. The current board members have an average length of service of four years. Why does this matter? Because one of the board’s responsibilities is to provide oversight of county operations, and if the Board of Commissioners doesn’t provide meaningful oversight, county government gets a free pass — and we’re seeing the consequences of that now.
Questions: What orientation, training and support do commissioners receive in preparation to meet board responsibilities in an independent, strong, objective and effective manner? What is involved? How proficient do commissioners believe they are at understanding the story that the financial reports tell? How is success defined?
I wish I felt the Board of Commissioners was “on it,” owned it, was out front with communication and was proceeding with a strong belief that this situation actually represents a huge opportunity. This is the perfect time to unwind, review, learn and rebuild the structure and environment to epitomize best practices — to create a system that, at its core, honors and promotes an ethical culture and is dedicated to the highest ideals of leadership, integrity, transparency and accountability. Build the best model in the state and country and become an example for others. It’s totally doable. All it takes is making the decision to do so. This is a choice point. What say you?
At a recent meeting, Commissioners’ Chairman Brownie Newman talked about efforts to recoup misappropriated taxpayer funds: “We expect Buncombe County taxpayers to be made fully whole,” he said, according to an Aug. 22 Xpress article “Embattled County, City Officials Struggle to Talk Business.”
How is “to be made fully whole” defined? What items are included? Does the county expect to recoup costs associated with:
• Hiring a tax attorney?
• Legal or other professional costs involved in pursuing this case across state and federal jurisdictional levels?
• Overpayments of inflated invoices from the alleged kickback contractor?
• Additional retirement costs to the state on inflated wages?
• Other ancillary costs?
If all taxpayer costs are not included, then that statement, no matter how well-meaning, is inaccurate and misleading. How are state and federal legal and professional costs being accounted for?
Fellow taxpayers, you may have noticed that tax bills went out recently. Get yours? Ever wonder about how well your taxes are managed? The ongoing scandal is an example. A weak, high-turnover Board of Commissioners versus a strong, established county management structure is a system, by design, that has the highest potential risk to the taxpayer. This should concern us all.
How do you think this should work? What thoughts do you have? Let the Board of Commissioners know. They need our help, and we need to help them.
This is a choice point for us, too. One thing is for sure: If we want something different, we’re going to have to do something different. More voices equal better solutions. Let the Board of Commissioners know. What say you?
Share your thoughts by either calling the Clerk to the Board at 828-250-4105 or by email using the following link and selecting the Commission Chambers menu option: avl.mx/4a8.
Asheville resident, taxpayer and voter Teddy Jordan is a retired businesswoman with an accounting degree and a longtime interest in systems theory.