County matters

by Aaron Sarver December 20, 2016

This election season saw plenty of changes among the Buncombe commissioners. A look at what happened, what changed and the issues — from green spaces to transparency — facing the county leaders in the coming years.

Democrats dominated up and down the ticket in Buncombe County during the 2016 election cycle. Whether it was Governor-elect Roy Cooper winning by 22 points countywide or Deborah Ross, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, prevailing by 14 points, despite losing decisively statewide. John Ager’s win in state House seat 115 by an 11-point margin in a sharply competitive district was probably the most impressive win for local Democrats.

These victories show Buncombe continues to solidify as a Democratic stronghold, but losses at the county commission level show that not every part of the county has embraced the new progressive version of the local Democratic party. Nancy Nehls Nelson narrowly lost the District 2 county commission race in a seat that Democrats were hopeful to capture and both District 3 seats remained in Republican control.

The District 2 seat has been very close race each time since the commissioners moved to a new system of district elections in 2012. Nelson fought hard despite the sad circumstances of her husband’s passing during the campaign. Fryar knows a lot of people across the county from his long time as a small-business owner and his ties to the racing industry.

District 3 is a Republican leaning district and will remain the backbone for Buncombe County Republicans with Commissioner Joe Belcher and first-term Commissioner Robert Pressley the de facto leaders of the party moving forward. This district’s demographics are rapidly changing as the Asheville real estate market continues to push folks into the county, but for now, or until an early redistricting of the districts from the General Assembly takes place, Democrats will have to find a new set of strategies to make inroads in this district.

With three new members joining the county commission and Brownie Newman moving up in the ranks to chair a lot of institutional knowledge about the way things are done has been lost. Outgoing member David Gantt has been on the commission since 1996 and has provided a steady hand as chair of the commission since 2008. Despite all that shake-up the 4-3 Democratic majority remains unchanged, and as we’ve seen the past few years with any contentious matters of policy party lines votes are likely to remain the norm.

First African-American commissioner

With Newman moving up after defeating Republican Chuck Archerd in the November election, a vacancy occurred for his District 1 commission seat. Buncombe County Democratic Party members met on Dec. 5 for a special “basement” election to fill the seat for the remaining two years of Newman’s term. Among the crowd of more than 100 folks gathered at Democratic headquarters, 59 members of the Democratic Party had a vote in the special election.

Who were these privileged few? Asheville City Council members had a vote, and so did county commissioners and any other elected officials who live in District 1. But the vast majority of people eligible to cast a vote by the party’s rules were precinct chairs and vice-chairs – in other words the rank and file of the local Democratic Party. (I cast a vote as a proxy for state Rep. Susan Fisher, who was in D.C. for a previously scheduled conference.) The folks who show up for the boring, procedural meetings and keep the party running behind the scenes; those were the folks firmly in control of who would serve out Newman’s term.

Prior to Dec. 5, four notable candidates announced they would vie for the vacant seat, with former Asheville mayor Terry Bellamy and current Asheville City Council member Keith Young the most well-known candidates to the general public. But the race came down to Jacquelyn Hallum, a former Asheville city school board member, and retired banker and civil rights activist Al Whitesides. Both Hallum and Whitesides boast impressive resumes, hold deep ties to the African-American community and are well-respected by the Democratic Party’s activist base.

After a two-hours of meeting and three rounds of balloting, Alfred J. Whitesides, Jr. prevailed with a majority of the vote and in doing so became the first African-American commissioner in the history of Buncombe County. All four of the candidates who vied for the seat are African-American, which speaks to the deep Democratic bench in District 1, which more or less consists of the city of Asheville.

Al Whitesides, Buncombe’s first African-American commissioner, applauded by local Democrats at his Dec. 5 election. Photo by Max Cooper.

Whitesides graduated from Stephens-Lee High School in 1962, when public schools across North Carolina remained segregated. As a teenager, Whitesides was active in the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, as he recounts in this Asheville Citizen-Times video that reflects back on a local grocery store boycott. Whitesides, now 71, has deep connections to many Asheville institutions having served on the UNCA Board of Trustees for eight years, (Whitesides Hall on campus now bears his name), and he also served on the Asheville City Schools Board of Education for eight years.

Local Democrats added another first this year by electing Jasmine Beach-Ferrara to the other District 1 seat on county commission. Beach-Ferrara becomes the first openly LGBT member of the commission. Whitesides and Beach-Ferrara represent a broadening of the Democratic coalition in Buncombe, which not that many years ago remained a good ‘ol boys network dominated by white elected officials who had long held power. Both bring a lived experience to the job that will make debates on the commission about diversity, discrimination and equity less abstract moving forward.

Policing and other issues in front of county commission in next two years

So moving forward, what are the most important policy issues facing Buncombe County? The good news is that Buncombe County has a growing tax base due to the explosive growth is tourism and a influx of wealthy residents. With a AAA bond rating and a growing county budget due to property tax revenue, the new set of commissioners inherit a county on very solid financial footing. Buncombe County’s operating budget for the 2017 fiscal year is $413 million.

Newman campaigned on a desire to keep making gains in reducing the county’s carbon footprint and wants to fund greenways and open space projects. There should be enough in the coffers to fund these targeted investments and the Democratic majority will likely be on board to back measures along those lines.

Education and public safety make up nearly half the budget expenditures and Buncombe County will likely continue to offer teachers supplemental pay beyond the pay rates set by the state. In the past few years, Buncombe County has invested heavily in school buildings with three new buildings opening in 2016 alone. Isaac Dickson Elementary and Asheville Middle School saw their old buildings demolished and new buildings constructed on site and Enka Intermediate school added to the county’s 45 schools.

The downside of that growth is a lack of living wage jobs and a crisis around affordable housing especially within Asheville. Economic development and job recruitment have been the hallmark of the commission in recent years with New Belgium, Linamar and GE Aviation all bringing news jobs in exchange for economic incentives granted by the county.

An issue fresh in the mind of local residents is use of force guidelines and de-escalation training for local law enforcement. The Asheville Police Department is working on revised policies on those fronts in the aftermath of the death of Jerry Williams. Todd Williams, the Buncombe County District Attorney, who is elected separately from the commissioners, recently announced that his office believed Asheville Police Sergeant Tyler Radford was justified in the use of deadly force in the shooting of Williams, based on witness testimony and findings from the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) report. Sheriff Van Duncan, probably the most popular elected official in Buncombe County, has addressed use of force policies in the past, but changes at the sheriff’s office have not been discussed publicly. It remains to be seen how the overall push for more scrutiny and transparency from local police will impact county law enforcement.

Transparency moving forward?

By and large, Buncombe county government is seen as competent as evidenced by the election of Newman to county chair despite unprecedented spending by his opponent Chuck Archerd. The Republican opposition simply wasn’t able to gain traction with their attacks on how the Democratic majority has governed over the past four years. Archerd threw a bunch of stuff against the wall, but only minimally ate into the Democrat’s voting advantage countywide. Playing up traffic congestion and hand-wringing about too much spending by the county didn’t speak to the concerns of voters and also weren’t grounded in policy proposals.

There is, however, an undercurrent in county government that could spell trouble for Newman and the Democratic majority if not addressed. Republican members have questioned at times the process of going into “closed session” to address economic development deals and how notes are kept on those sessions. That’s been a minor squabble in the public eye, but a lack of transparency surrounding county government became a flashpoint this summer with questions and criticism over a $34,000 compensation bonus for county manager Wanda Greene. (Greene’s base salary is $241,791 after a two-percent raise was granted to all county employees by the board last summer.)

After additional reporting from the Citizen-Times on this matter, Greene ultimately returned the bonus, which had been approved by the Democratic commissioners on a party line vote. It’s worth your time to revisit the Citizen-Times reporting and the information that surfaced about tensions and discord between Greene and Commissioner Mike Fryar.

This wasn’t the first time disagreements over pay and policy between Greene and commissioners have spilled out into the public. In 2012, Commissioner Holly Jones clashed with Greene over county employees health care benefits and longevity pay. Jones said the following during the commissioners’ meeting on January 10th of 2012: “ It makes me so irritated to feel like asking questions somehow means I’m going to try to destroy a system, or undermine employees. I’m asking questions, and I’m going to keep on asking questions. That’s what I was elected to do, in my humble opinion.”

In his speech to Democrats during the special election, Whitesides mentioned his experience with budgets and financial matters, saying he knows how to make budgets clear and understandable to people. That’s a skill set that will greatly benefit the Democratic commissioners moving forward.

The Democratic party base is already demanding transparency and accountability from the Trump administration and I’m guessing a large bloc of voters will join in those calls. Commissioners in Buncombe County would be wise to realize those standards will apply to them — and to county staff — as well.

Aaron Sarver has played many roles in local politics from campaign manager to Communications Director for the Buncombe County Democratic Party. He lives in Asheville.

The Asheville Blade is entirely funded by our readers. If you like what we do, donate directly to us on Patreon or make a one-time gift to support our work. Questions? Comments? Email us.