The forum, held at the Buncombe County Board of Education and sponsored by Leadership Asheville, drew about 100 people, with an admission price of $16 for the general public. Gantt and Ramsey each gave an opening statement before taking questions from the audience and questioning each other.
Ramsey, a Republican who's been chair since 2000, touted his family's connection to the area, described himself as "a straight shooter" and noted that he'd passed up a career as a lawyer to come home and run the family dairy farm in Fairview.
"I really do love this community, and as chairman I've done the best I can to protect your rights and pocketbooks," Ramsey said, adding that he believed in cooperation over "partisan differences," because "the problems our community faces aren't political problems, they're community challenges."
Gantt, a local lawyer who's been on the board since 1996, talked about building his law practice up from scratch. "I started practicing my business out of the back of my Ford Pinto with a typewriter in my trunk," he said. He added: "We're at a crossroads: We have to show some leadership and vision in what goes on from here. I want use the chair's spot, to make sure everyone in the county has the opportunities I've had and my family has had."
Both candidates applauded each other's opening statements, and throughout the forum, praised the other's hard work.
But this is still a political race, and one of the two candidates won't be on the board next year. As the forum continued, both Gantt and Ramsey criticized the other's actions on a number of issues.
Gantt hit first, saying that he felt Ramsey's actions during the controversy over zoning in the county were divisive.
"When I was going to civic clubs talking about land use planning, my opponent was going around putting up angry red signs saying 'no zoning,' and that's the difference in leadership," he said.
Ramsey struck back, noting that Gantt and the other commissioners had ignored the results of a referendum that had come out against zoning.
"I think it was crammed down people's throats — and that was a divisive way to do it," Ramsey said, asserting that "the people should decide the issue" of zoning through a referendum of all county voters after extensive discussion of the issue in all parts of the county. Gantt did say he favored more community input to refine the county's zoning, but added that "the buck stops here — we shouldn't use referendums for everything. California does that for crazy stuff."
Questioned about the Parkside controversy, Gantt joked that "I didn't know that would be an issue," then bluntly said that "we made a horrible mistake selling that property. If I'd known it was in the park, I never would have voted to sell it."
He advocated buying the land back, while Ramsey noted that he agreed with Gantt "that we made some mistakes," including the sale. But Ramsey went on to say that that "the cow is out of the barn" and encouraged the city of Asheville to engage in a land swap to get the parkland back.
Ramsey's campaign has received $600 from Parkside developer Stewart Coleman and his associates.
But Ramsey was later questioned about rhetoric on his Web site where he declared Gantt's claim that he didn't know what he was voting on "disingenuous, delusional or an outright lie."
In response, Ramsey said, "I don't think David is a liar, but he was on the Pack Square Conservancy and should have known what he was voting on."
Currently, Ramsey's site doesn't contain that rhetoric in his statement on Parkside, but it still criticizes Gantt's position as "either a lawyer-like duck and cover scheme — or the shameless political pandering of someone looking for votes. Maybe it's both, I don't know. But it sure looks to me like just another politician trying to have it both ways."
Gantt bought up the issue again, reading from the original statement then addressing the audience, saying: "I'm not going to have a campaign like that, and I'm going to ask Nathan to pledge to you today to not have a campaign like that. Let's talk about the issues."
He followed up his statement by asserting that Ramsey had backed out of a 2001 agreement to calculate the funding for the school system by gross tax revenue instead of net tax revenue. Gantt campaign workers later distributed copies of a letter announcing that agreement, along with several news articles and editorials noting criticism of Ramsey over the matter, to reporters covering the debate.
In reply, Ramsey disagreed about the wording of the letter, stating that though "it was a very tough time for the schools," he hadn't broken a promise. He also challenged Gantt to pledge to meet seven times — once in each school district — before the election. He said the debates could happen "anytime, anyplace, anywhere." Gantt said he was happy to debate, but that "I have to work. I'm the only lawyer in my office. I don't know if I'm going to be able to do seven but I'll try to do as many as I can."
That drew a sharp remark from Ramsey.
"If you're elected as chairman, you better be prepared to spend a lot more time doing this work — so I'd hope we'd have seven evenings we can do community debates."
— David Forbes, staff writer
Read more articles in:News