The WNC Regional Air Quality Agency board is stacked with business-friendly appointees who are preventing the agency from protecting the public interest, former staffer Melanie Pitrolo told the Buncombe County commissioners during their Feb. 7 formal session. It wasn't the first time that the public-comment period -- which isn't broadcast on the government channel -- has accounted for the most controversial portion of a Board of Commissioners meeting.
"The majority of the [air] board represents business interests, not public interests," said Pitrolo, who was the air agency's engineering supervisor until last June. Pitrolo, who now works for the state Division of Air Quality, has filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission charging gender discrimination at the air agency.
She also took issue with the agency's new director, David Brigman, appointed by the air board Jan. 9 to replace the retiring Bob Camby. Brigman, who has worked for the agency as an inspector for 16 years, had served as interim director since Camby retired last July. But Pitrolo was concerned about Brigman's lack of academic credentials.
"The new director would not be able to review new regulations," she said, "because he doesn't have the necessary expertise." And taking direct aim at county government, she added, "The hiring ... was done with full knowledge of Buncombe County personnel, because he's been [at the agency] for a long time."
Making it plain that she was "representing myself and the citizens of Buncombe County," Pitrolo said the agency "was reformed in 2000 after a period of lax enforcement and its operation as a good-old-boy network. Then, for a few years, the agency was on a really positive track." But more recently, she charged, "The air-quality board ... has consisted of appointees that are taking the [agency] in a different direction."
"One member of the board is a regulated source in Buncombe County, so he serves on the board that regulates his [employer's] business. The citizens of Buncombe ... deserve an air-quality board that can do its job." (See "Who's in Charge?" Dec. 7, 2005 Xpress.)
Asked about the apparent conflict of interest back in December, air-board member Karl Koon, who is vice president in charge of compliance for Asheville Oil, told Xpress: "I am in a supervisory position for our company's regulatory compliance. ... I am not actively involved in the day-to-day compliance activities but rely on dedicated individuals and staff to perform these functions."
In response to Pitrolo's comments, Commissioner David Young asked County Manager Wanda Greene to prepare a report on the air board's makeup, observing, "We might want to go back to state regulation." Most North Carolina counties leave it to the state Division of Air Quality to enforce air-quality rules, rather than relying on a local agency.
Dropping the ball?
But Pitrolo wasn't the only county resident who lit up the public-comment period. Jerry Rice of Leicester stirred Commissioner Carol Peterson into a heated defense of local schools when he suggested that the county appoint a commission to address the dropout problem in the Asheville and Buncombe County schools.
"I keep bringing this up because I think it's significant," said Rice; "Mr. Young is the only one of you who has given any consideration to this. Certainly it is going to affect Buncombe County seriously in the future. ... If you have 450-500 kids dropping out each year, it's going to have an impact."
Later in the meeting, Rice returned to the topic, urging the commissioners to discuss the economic ramifications of the dropout problem at the Chamber of Commerce's Feb. 22 quarterly meeting.
At that point, Peterson interrupted. "There isn't a day goes by for those of us who have worked in the county and city schools when we didn't work on this problem," she declared, sounding more than a little angry. "Every teacher does that; anyone who is concerned about dropout prevention should know that people work every day to get those children back to school the next day." Citing her own work as a teacher and administrator as well as that of fellow Commissioner (and former county school principal) Bill Stanley, Peterson concluded, "I've listened to this and I've listened to this, but I want you to know that people are working on it every day."
Undaunted, Rice retorted: "I appreciate what you and Mr. Stanley have done, but it's been years since you've been there. I went in to the offices and asked to see the goals concerning dropouts, and they didn't have any goals. We need to have a commission look into this. What is there to be ashamed of to set up a commission and take it to the newspaper, to the public, and decide to do something about it?"
Rice later told Xpress: "Five hundred dropouts a year is going to have a serious economic impact. It can't help but do that."
Black Mountain resident Betty Bates addressed a different issue: the board's recent decision to have paper ballots rather than electronic voting in the May primary election. "I'm here to thank you for deciding to use paper ballots. A ballot is a document as critical as a deed or a will. Who would want a touch-screen deed for their property?"
Bates further urged the commissioners to adopt paper ballots as the county's permanent voting method, citing various other countries where this is the norm and the long-standing use of paper ballots in the U.S. in the past. Buying electronic voting systems also means sending local dollars to distant corporations, she noted, adding, "Hiring local citizens for the count would keep money in the county."
Young asked Bates for contact information, so she could help count ballots in May.
Showtime for homeowners
The tone of the formal session was decidedly more positive. Cooperative Extension Agents Linda Blue and Nancy Ostergaard reported on the success of the county's gardening-and-yard-care television project.
"We try to develop programs that address subjects about which we get a lot of questions or issues that are important to the county," noted Blue. "In 2005, this partnership between the Extension Service and the county has enabled us to provide more than 278 hours of television programming." Recent subjects on the county cable channel have included backyard composting, keeping houseplants healthy, soil testing, lawn care, lowering utility costs and weatherproofing homes.
Ostergaard also noted, "We recently added a trailer to all of the shows to let county residents know all the programs we offer at the center."
And Judy Rhew, who manages county-government cable programming, chimed in: "It has been a pleasure to work with these ladies. They are always willing to appear on camera and always helpful." She continued, "Often we're asked, 'When can I see a particular program?' You can go to the Web site, Buncombecounty.org and search for BCTV to find the schedule. You can also pull up many of the shows we have screened." These shows can be downloaded from the Web site as RealAudio files.
Green and growing...
Director of Research Tom Tveidt of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce delivered an upbeat report on the local economy. About 169,000 people are employed in the four-county Metropolitan Statistical Area, he said, and there have been record increases in the number of new jobs for 26 straight months.
Tveidt also reported that the number of hotel/motel room stays increased by 7 percent last year compared to 2004, and in fact the numbers were up every month of the year for the first time since 1997. Home sales and building permits also increased in 2005, he added.
Chairman Albert Sneed of the Land Conservation Advisory Board reported that the amount of property within the county covered by conservation easements jumped more than 30 percent last year with the addition of almost 5,000 acres. All told, Buncombe County now includes about 57,000 acres of protected land. This figure, which includes national-forest land, amounts to 14 percent of the county's total area.
Sneed recommended reauthorizing the Conservation Board for another year and offered to prepare a proposal for additional funding to buy more easements. The commissioners unanimously reauthorized the program and accepted Sneed's offer of a financial proposal.
In a related action, the commissioners approved a conservation easement for Hominy Creek River Park that RiverLink Director Karen Cragnolin explained will provide a portion of the planned greenway linking The North Carolina Arboretum and the proposed Wilma Dykeman Riverway.
Finance Director Donna Clark presented the county's completely revamped Popular Annual Financial Report.
"In the past, we've issued a booklet you may have looked at a couple of times before throwing it away," she said. "This year we're presenting the info in a practical calendar form that will be with you all year long. The PAFR is prepared to make the report more accessible to average citizens."
The calendar, which is available at county offices, uses bar charts and bright illustrations to make budget matters clear to nonaccountants; it also explains the functions of various county departments.
In a related matter, Chuck Killian of the Gould Killian CPA Group delivered the annual audit report. The firm gave the county's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report an "unqualified" rating, which means everything added up. No adjustments were necessary, Killian reported, though he did make a few minor suggestions for improving the county's handling of financial matters.
Board appointments included Barbara Mayer (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee) and Vice Chairman David Gantt and county staffer Denise Braine (Land-of-Sky Regional Council). The meeting was not adjourned but was continued to the commissioners' Feb. 21 budget retreat.