After a late start (apparently due to an extended consultation involving the Buncombe County commissioners, the county manager and the county attorney), the public-comment period preceding the Board of Commissioners' April 5 meeting took some unaccustomed turns.
Regulars Fred English, Harry Maroni, Don Yelton, Eric Gorny and Jerry Rice each put in an appearance, taking the board to task for a lack of transparency or accountability in county spending and the commissioners' continuing refusal to televise the public-comment period. And Gorny said, as he has at nearly every meeting for more than a year, that placing public comment before the formal session makes it impossible for those in attendance to make cogent comments about matters before the board, because the speakers haven't had a chance to hear the pertinent issues involved. The commissioners, as usual, offered no response.
Maroni, however, was able to draw Chairman Nathan Ramsey into an extended conversation about the water agreement that continued long after Maroni's allotted three minutes had run out. The city has said it will withdraw from the agreement effective June 30.
At that point, Vice Chairman David Gantt jumped in, saying, "We feel the Sullivan Act will be upheld by the courts. ... So city residents are in real danger of having to fund repairs to the system." (The Sullivan Act prohibits Asheville from charging people living outside the city limits more for water -- though which people, exactly, is a matter of debate. See Xpress coverage of this matter in most recent issues.)
Finally, Ramsey noted that public comment had to continue and Maroni took his seat. But the protracted discussion had set a precedent of sorts, and a new visitor to the public-comment session used it to good advantage.
Karen VanEman, who chairs the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke about allegations of overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of medical care and physical abuse at the Buncombe County Detention Center. She cited a list of problems reported to the ACLU and other prisoner-advocate organizations.
The ACLU, said VanEman, has received many reports of prisoners being kept in holding cells for up to 10 days with 25 other inmates before being assigned to regular quarters. In the holding cells, she said, "You'll be sharing one common toilet; one roll of carefully rationed toilet paper; but no soap, no toothbrush, no toothpaste. You have no shower for the duration of your 10 days. You, like everyone else, sleep every night on the concrete floor -- no mattress, no blanket, no pillow, no extra clothing to get you through those nights on the cold concrete." Furthermore, these prisoners are reportedly denied prescribed medications -- even those for psychiatric conditions, diabetes, heart problems and other chronic conditions -- until they are moved to a regular cell. And prisoners who complain too loudly are allegedly held down and kicked or beaten by jail guards, she said.
Marvis Gail Davidson, who died in the Detention Center last July, was diabetic, said VanEman, noting that a jail employee had filed two complaints that Davidson was not receiving proper insulin injections and had not been seen by a doctor, although she complained of abdominal pain for four days before she succumbed.
For more than a year, Xpress has been independently investigating similar allegations of mistreatment reported by former inmates. Xpress obtained Davidson's autopsy report, which notes the cause of death as "small bowel ischemia." This condition, also known as "dead gut," involves the death of a section of the small intestine after the blood supply is cut off. First Principles of Gastroenterology, an online textbook, states: "Ischemic bowel disease occurs most often in the elderly. It may also be seen in young patients suffering from vascular abnormalities -- e.g., collagen diseases, vasculitis, diabetes." Davidson was 42 at the time of her death.
When VanEman's three minutes were up, Ramsey tried to end her presentation. But she tartly replied, "Others have been given more than three minutes."
Undeterred, Ramsey again tried to force her to step down, saying he would be happy to meet her in person to discuss the matter. But VanEman insisted on reading the final two paragraphs of her statement, which detailed further alleged problems at the jail. Prisoners in the regular cells are sometimes beaten by "guards-the ones known as thumpers," she charged, and she noted, "it matters not that many have not yet even been brought to trial ... some will have the charges against them dismissed. Nor does it seem to matter that these inmates are, after all, human beings."
Ramsey, however, said he doesn't believe such things are occurring at the jail, and if they are, "Someone should file suit against the county."
But that didn't deter ACLU board member Alex Cury from continuing the report, urging the commissioners to attend an April 18 forum, co-sponsored by the group, on problems at the jail. (See Buzzworm, "Forum Spotlights Local Jail Conditions," elsewhere in this issue.) The event, she said, will feature a panel discussion including District Court Judge Gary Cash, Buncombe County Jail Administrator William Stafford, attorney Letitia Echols of the Safe and Humane Jails Project, Kim Gordon (who directs the county's pre-trial release program) and Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Tonya Maxwell. Cury emphasized the many allegations of serious problems at the jail that need to be addressed.
How you play the game
The NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament was clearly much on the minds of the commissioners, who inserted references to various alma maters and game scores into virtually every discussion throughout the meeting.
In between sports discussions, the board recognized Mission Hospitals, which was named one of the top 100 hospitals in the U.S. by Solucient for the second straight year. The private company rates health-care facilities in the U.S. based on patient outcome and cost.
The commissioners also heard a report from the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Service about the use of Tobacco Trust Fund grants to help local farmers convert their operations to other crops. In addition, the commissioners proclaimed April Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Prevention Month and named April 17-28 Volunteer Week in Buncombe County.
In a brief public hearing about the Rural Operating Assistance Program, County Planner Denise Braine explained the use of state and federal funds to provide transportation for rural, elderly citizens, chiefly through Mountain Mobility. County residents Rice and Yelton each asked the county to provide more information about ridership and expenditures.
Chairman Ramsey noted that the commissioners would take formal action on the program at their next regular meeting.
As part of the ongoing dissolution of the Blue Ridge Area Authority (which has been superseded by the Western Highlands Area Authority), the board approved sale of two properties to Liberty Corner Enterprises for use as residential treatment homes. LCE, incorporated in 1987, provides support services or housing for more than 100 clients with developmental disabilities.
Commissioners also gave a thumbs-up to leasing a 0.8 acre parcel at the corner of College Street and Woodfin/Oak streets (the site of the new traffic circle in downtown Asheville) to a private developer who wants to build a 95,000 square foot office building. The lease will be for 20 years with an option for renewal, and the rent was set at $81,000 per year (10 percent of the property's appraised value). The building's design will be subject to final approval by county staff and the commissioners.
An extended presentation by David Stancil, director of the Orange County Environment and Resource Conservation Department, offered a look at that county's Lands Legacy Program. The only program of its kind in North Carolina, it seeks to preserve green space and agricultural land.
Between basketball references (Orange County is home to both Duke and N.C. State), Stancil explained that his department has enjoyed great success by soliciting voluntary participation in conservation schemes. These have included both buying land for parks and obtaining conservation easements that preserve the land's current use but prevent future development. The commissioners asked a few questions about costs, funding sources and cooperation between the government agency and private land trusts.
Stancil concluded by observing, "Twenty-five years from now, I don't think we'll be asking ourselves, 'Did we preserve too much?'"
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Elizabeth Jones (Nursing Home Advisory Committee), Spike Gram (Adult Home Community Advisory Committee), Jennifer Thacker (Women's Commission) and Christie Melear (Land Conservation Board). Each of these bodies has additional vacancies, and Ramsey encouraged county residents to embrace the spirit of the just-proclaimed Volunteer Week by signing up to help the community.
The board then went into closed session to discuss legal matters, including one involving Sheriff Bobby Medford, according to County Attorney Joe Connolly. This is permitted under N.C. General Statute S143-318.11 to prevent the disclosure of privileged information.