It was another late night of listening for the Buncombe County commissioners on Oct. 5, as a standing-room-only crowd of citizens packed the county courthouse for the commissioners' regular meeting. Old business filled the agenda, and 30 citizens signed up to speak. Later that evening, the commissioners faced another 50 citizens gathered at the Erwin High School auditorium for a community meeting that lasted until 9 p.m.
Looking somewhat chagrined, Commissioner Bill Stanley opened the meeting by publicly apologizing to Candler resident Jerry Rice and the people of Buncombe County. Stanley admitted to using "some very inappropriate language ... which I regret very much" in a reference to Rice at a Sept. 21 community forum at Enka High School. Stanley's comment, made in an aside to other commissioners at the close of the meeting, was captured on videotape. Rice later explained that, after the televised meeting was aired, a former schoolmate had called him to ask, "Did you hear Mr. Stanley call you an SOB?" Rice subsequently checked out the videotape of the meeting from the public library.
Addressing the commissioners with his customary good manners, Rice said: "Mr. Stanley has apologized. I accept his apology." He then read from their code of ethics, underscoring the statement that "County commissioners shall be honest, patient, dignified and courteous to those with whom they deal in their official capacity ... [and] shall accord to every person who is legally interested in a proceeding before the commission full right to be heard according to law."
The document instructs county commissioners to "take or initiate appropriate disciplinary measures against a county employee for improper conduct," Rice told Chairman Tom Sobol, asking, "Who is going to hold you accountable for the code of ethics?" Rice requested that the "full board initiate appropriate disciplinary measures."
"I think everyone deserves respect," said Commissioner David Gantt in a later interview. "I don't see any move for discipline. In my mind, it is a closed matter. Bill Stanley is a good man, a Christian man. He used language that was inappropriate. He apologized for that, and the apology was accepted. To me, the matter is over."
Animal Services Advisory Board authorized
The continuation of a public hearing on the proposed Animal Services Advisory Board was marked by serious complaints about Friends For Animals Director Marc Paulhus by former employees and other citizens. The nonprofit agency operates the county's animal shelter, under contract with Buncombe County. Commissioners authorized a call for applications from interested organizations and individuals to serve on the nine-member board. The unanimous decision to create the board followed the contentious public hearing, in which supporters and detractors of the agency clashed passionately.
During the initial public hearing (at the commissioners' Sept. 21 meeting), Paulhus had sat alone as he heard scathing public criticism and allegations that both animals and shelter employees were being abused under his management. This time, Paulhus was surrounded by board members and new employees, each wearing a badge reading, "I Support Friends For Animals." But several former board members and employees, as well as numerous other citizens, added their voices to the mounting litany of complaints against the agency and its director.
In reopening public comment on the issue, Sobol asked that "individual charges on personality be left out. We're trying to get at the root of this."
FFA Board President Jim Lee defended Paulhus against what he termed "wildly speculative and unsubstantiated allegations" made at the last meeting. Lee did not attend that meeting, but said he had reviewed it on videotape. His wife, Ida Lee, asked commissioners, "Does this board want to aid and abet the destruction of a person and an organization?" The public forum, she said, "gives people of ill will and malice the opportunity to speak. ... How do we protect ourselves?"
Faith Creason, an animal caretaker at the shelter who also euthanizes animals, told commissioners, "We are being misrepresented." After county resident Pam Wallace complained that her pet dog had been euthanized at the shelter just two hours after being struck by a car, Creason tearfully told commissioners, "She didn't tag her dog. We didn't know who to call."
Bill McKelvy objected to what he called "slanderous remarks and defamation of character." Reading a lengthy essay on leadership, he said the the criticism of Paulhus was motivated by "ignorance and jealousy." And shelter employee Nancie Liles declared: "It's not about Friends For Animals or our director. It's about greed." She told commissioners that animal advocate Dorothy Curtis had named Friends For Animals as a beneficiary in her will.
Curtis died July 10, and a tearful Liles pleaded with commissioners to "stop giving these people an audience to degrade," and urging them not to "assist [FFA critics] in picking at the bones of Dorothy Curtis." Friends For Animals has filed suit in Buncombe County Superior Court claiming that the executor of Curtis' will, Florida resident Ben Blakenship, intends to prevent the agency from inheriting Curtis' estate.
Former shelter employee Barbara Bellow told commissioners that she had resigned "as a direct result of the present management -- his verbal abuse and day-to-day policy changes."
Trena Hudson,who resigned Aug. 20 as director of animal control at the shelter, said: "I cannot work with Marc Paulhus. He is verbally abusive." Hudson said she had been "subjected to and witness to verbal abuse and sexual comments."
Millie Mahoney told commissioners, "People did not walk out leaving animals in dirty cages," disputing a charge made by Liles in a Sept. 29 Mountain Xpress article. Mahoney urged commissioners to "keep in mind, first and foremost, the welfare of the animals," and to "choose people [for the advisory board] who are able and willing to come into the shelter and see what is going on."
In the spring and summer months, 30 to 50 animals are euthanized every day, noted Mahoney, adding, "I hope you have one person [on the board] who understands the realities of euthanizing."
Ellen Frost, the public-education coordinator for the Asheville chapter of the American Kennel Club, said, "There are ways to avoid having so many [animals] euthanized." Frost added later that, "Many thousands of dogs are killed every year because they are unwanted. People need to be educated to be responsible dog owners."
Former FFA board treasurer and vice president Stewart David told commissioners, "I was harassed and threatened when I tried to put the animals first. My understanding is that Marc Paulhus is being paid approximately $70,000 per year. ... His compensation is way out of line -- it is obscene. The standard of care at the shelter should begin at the bottom. People are paid pittances to clean cages and euthanize."
David said that, during his tenure on the board, he had told Paulhus that he favored open meetings, public accountability, and forming an advisory board, but that Paulhus had "vehemently" disagreed. "Now that he knows an advisory board is inevitable," continued David, "he wants to make sure it is dysfunctional. If you put on the representatives that he suggests, it will be."
Local resident Elaine Simons stressed the need for financial accountability, urging the commissioners to "make a policy of open books."
And county resident Gerald Dean pressed commissioners, "I want to know what this man makes. Will y'all let me know?" Sobol promised Dean that he would get the information.
But County Personnel Director Robert Thornberry said later that Paulhus is not a county employee, and Assistant Finance Director Martha Zeigler said she does not have a record of Paulhus' salary. She said Friends For Animals has a $657,000 contract with Buncombe County for the 1999-2000 fiscal year. The nonprofit's board decides how much to pay its employees, she said, and private organizations are not subject to the same disclosure regulations as county government.
In the thick of the accusations, Commissioner Gantt interjected:
"These are televised proceedings. ... I don't think you should be talking about these matters that may be part of a pending litigation." County Attorney Connolly agreed.
In a later interview, Gantt said, "We've got to not leave the door cracked for comments put on public record that shouldn't be there." He said he would ask that the [Animal Services] Advisory Board and the Friends For Animals board hold public meetings. "I am certainly going to make it clear to Friends For Animals that we do vote on their funding," he stressed.
Funds available for first-time home buyers
A $50,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce's Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program will help low-income, first-time home buyers in Buncombe County come up with a down payment, reported Beth Maczka of the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville and Buncombe County. With additional matching funds obtained locally from the Board of Realtors, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the Mortgage Bankers Association, eligible families could receive up to $2,000 in matching funds through the Individual Development Account Demonstration Program, which helps people save money for a down payment.
Good neighbor award
Commissioner Sobol presented the Buncombe County Good Neighbor Award to Pastor Ken Lewis of the West Asheville Baptist Church, "for opening the doors of your church building to assist the West Asheville Branch Library with community programs and meetings. Your gracious and helpful spirit is a shining example of neighbor helping neighbor. We appreciate you and commend you."
The library sought the church's help after losing its public-meeting space, which was reclaimed by the city of Asheville for use as a police resource station.
Road-closure decision deferred again
Commissioners again postponed a decision on citizen requests to close part of Old U.S. Hwy. 74 for 45 days, asking citizens to try medation first.
"We've got a Mediation Center begging for business," Gantt said during the pre-meeting agenda review. "This is a hot one to give them. Everybody is weighed in on this -- the [Reynolds] Fire Department, neighbors, the Highway Patrol and business." The Mediation Center, a nonprofit agency partly funded by the county, helps citizens resolve disputes. Commissioners will "make a call" on the road closure if the property owners and other interested parties can't reach agreement within 45 days, Sobol said.
Behind closed doors
"This board has been sued again," County Attorney Joe Connolly told commissioners in requesting a closed session. Investigative reporters Don Yelton, Peter Dawes and Mike Morgan -- who successfully sued the commissioners and the county manager in August over the county's multiple-information-request policy -- have initiated another suit in connection with some of the same concerns, Connolly reported.
County Manager Wanda Greene said she had a personnel matter to discuss, and the board went into closed session to consider both items. A workers' compensation matter raised by Associate County Attorney Stan Clontz was put on the consent agenda for the next regular meeting. No action was taken on the other two items, according to Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes.
Community meeting in Leicester
"These Florida Yankees -- if they had a flower garden in heaven, they'd want a potato patch in hell," proclaimed Leicester resident Donald Plemmons, addressing commissioners at Erwin High School Oct. 5. More than 50 citizens, many in blue jeans and overalls, raised questions and concerns about the proposed zoning ordinance. With no time limits, people spoke at length. It was the second largest in the series of countywide forums that have kept commissioners up late listening to constituents.
"The county commission was elected to represent us. Instead, you are representing those Florida Yankees," Plemmons complained. "Some of this bunch coming in here from out of state, they want to change it to how it was where they came from. Leave me alone!" he pleaded.
Peggy Bennett of Leicester said she was "scared to death at a smart-growth meeting" she had recently attended. "If zoning doesn't pass," she asked, "are we going to have to fight smart growth? We're weary."
"Yes," Sobol answered frankly. "Within the next three to five years, you're going to see some land-use restrictions.
Commissioner David Young urged citizens to get out the vote for the nonbinding referendum. "We need to have a good turnout,' he said. When Kent Sexton, 47th precinct chair for the Republican Party, asked, "If we vote no, does it stop?" Young said, "To me and Commissioner Stanley, it stops."
"Is there another unseen force pushing zoning?" Sexton asked.
"If you're asking what motivates me," Commissioner Patsy Keever said: "I'll tell you what motivates me: children -- my children, your children. I'm a teacher; I want to maintain and protect the rural nature of this county. People are coming in. Things are going to change. We want to plan that change."
"We pride ourselves on being a gay city, a queer city," Roy D. Thomas said. "That's not the kind of place we want to raise our children. Mr. Gantt is for diversity," Thomas charged. "How about being for the native people?"
"I am in favor of tolerance," Gantt responded, to scattered applause. "We need to represent all people."
"There's plenty of tourism, plenty of Floridians," Thomas continued. We need industry and good-paying jobs. Why encourage growth when we're having such trouble with getting water?" he asked.
"People are going to move here -- we can't shut the doors," Sobol said. "In the next 20 years," he predicted, "40-50,000 more people will be coming to this county. Yet we have only 646 square miles of land." Sobol also noted a net gain of 500 jobs in the county, but that didn't ease Thomas' concerns.
"You've lost jobs at $14 to $16 to $18 an hour," he complained. "But what is coming back are the $6-, $8- and $10-an-hour ones. Tourism is costing us money."
"If we get businesses in here that want zoning," countered Gantt, "they will pay your children higher wages."
Phyllis Hudgins of Big Sandy Mush expressed a frequently voiced concern -- that zoning would mean higher taxes.
"Where I come from, people are poor. We have to save all year to pay the taxes, and they keep going up."