By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher observed the board was working at cross-purposes at their April 4 briefing. They were considering again a request from the City of Asheville to commit to paying at least $1 million for enhanced aesthetic treatments as the NC DOT reconstructs local sections of I-26.
The I-26 Connector Project Aesthetics Committee, formed by the City of Asheville, had recommended $6.2 million in critical beautification projects focusing on the Bowen Bridge, the Haywood Road bridge, and east Patton Avenue. Another $3.6 million would make even better improvements to the two bridges and provide treatments for west Patton Avenue, Riverside Drive, and the Amboy Road interchange. They expected the city, county, and the Tourism Development Authority would pick up the tab. The city further wanted the commissioners now serving to commit the commissioners serving three years from now to be the ones to come up with finding the funds.
Belcher said the commissioners would also be considering that evening a “Resolution Declaring Racism a Public Health & Safety Crisis” and a “Resolution to Support Community Reparations for Black People in Buncombe County.”
The I-26 design selected, after decades of stalling, will plow through Hillcrest, which won’t be the first black community in Asheville history to have a highway routed through it. It was as if the commissioners not only wanted to displace the people they say they want to help, they wanted to displace them elegantly. So many programs could do so much with $1 million to help the dispossessed; this was not one of them.
The city had asked the commissioners for a commitment without giving them a deadline. Belcher suspected there was a reason for the urgency implicit in considering the request in back-to-back meetings when the project had not even been on the county’s radar in years. He suggested getting the big picture, seeing what other projects the county was going to have to fund and setting priorities.
He added the TDA’s Tourist Product Development Fund had only $200,000, so it would be a while before they would build up a few million; especially, in light of the damage the COVID shutdown has wrought on the tourist industry. It was suggested that the commissioners vote on their commitment September 1, but Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder said it would be “closer to December” before the county’s financial projections would be complete.
When Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman asked if anybody would oppose asking the TDA to fund the proposal to the fullest extent possible, the commissioners indicated they weren’t sold on the entire project. They agreed the arts were nice, they liked the idea of a good-looking Bowen Bridge, they could take or leave the other improvements, and they weren’t jazzed about the medallions. Most importantly, they needed to look after the needs of the people the highway would be displacing.
In an unrelated highway matter, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of the Blue Ridge Road Interchange. It would become Exit 65 off I-40, directly connecting to US 70 at the Ingles distribution center. Also in the area, Mountain Housing Opportunities’ 95-unit affordable housing complex will begin housing tenants in September; and Avadim Health, the manufacturer of Theraworx, has acquired land for an expanded facility.
Meetings about Meetings –
Staff suggested that the commissioners delegate the authority to appoint new members to some of their over 40 boards and commissions, to the commissions themselves. The change would apply only to advisory boards, the commissioners retaining, as elected officials, the responsibility for governance and quasi-judicial boards. Buncombe County Clerk Lamar Joyner explained staff was acting at the prompting of some of the commissions who were experiencing confusion about the appointment process.
Most of the commissioners were willing to trust the boards to remain beyond reproach, but Commissioner Al Whitesides saw the potential for abuse. Board members who sought their appointments because they were passionate about one side of a controversial issue could make appointments to continue shepherding their agenda. Whitesides even foresaw people alternating appointments, getting around the rules like Medvedev and Putin.
Newman said the commission had been spending as much time interviewing for the boards as it had conducting public business. Commissioner Anthony Penland conceded that, for all the time they spend interviewing, the 10 minutes allotted is insufficient to make a good choice. Commissioner Robert Pressley, however, said he was elected and signed up to do a job. No time limit was put on that job. He was uncomfortable delegating powers people entrusted in an elected official whom they can also un-elect.
At Pressley’s request, the commissioners also discussed changing the way they are handling public comments during shutdown orders. Currently, the comments are printed out and read by public officials, but studies estimate as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. Pressley suggested having people wait in their cars until called to approach, as is done at doctors’ offices.
Newman was uncomfortable getting people to even pass through an enclosed space one at a time, in light of so many increasing COVID-19 indicators. Whitesides added it was important for the commissioners, as leaders, to model safe behavior. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara asked why they couldn’t Zoom speakers in like city council does, and Pinder explained city meetings are entirely virtual, so audio patches are more straightforward. The county, which still convenes together, however, is looking into some software, called Bang the Table, to livestream public comment into the chambers and onto the television.