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4 commissioners’ candidates joust during debate
Thursday, 01 November 2018 22:20
By JOHN NORTH
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Four candidates squared off over two seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners during a candidates debate hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners early morning on Oct. 5 in UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center. 

The debate participants include Amanda Edwards, Democrat, vs. Glenda P. Weinert, a Republican, seeking the District 2 seat vacated by Ellen Frost, who is not seeking re-election; and Donna Ensley, a Democrat vs. incumbent commissioner Robert Pressley, a Republican, for the District 3 seat.

In her opening statement, Edwards said she is a first-time candidate, a Weaverville resident, and has had executive careers at the Literacy Council, the Red Cross and now at A-B Tech.

Wineart began her opening statement with a quote from the late President Ronald Reagan, “We can’t spend ourseves rich,” which was from a State of the Union address in which Reagan offered a rousing condemnation of the problem with the federal deficit.

Weinart noted that “I have been a small-business-owner since the early ‘90s” and that that experience will make her a savvy commissioner.

“It’s time for common sense,” she said. “Its time for a practical approach in running our county.”

Weinart added, “If you want different outcomes, you have to make changes.”

Ensley noted that she “has lived here 31 years” and has “worked in the nonprofit sector... My career in nonprofit helped me learn the ropes of community investment.”

She also pointed out that, for the “last part of my career, I spent with MANNA FoodBank.” (MANNA bills itself as a nonprofit that links links the food industry with more than 200 partner agencies in 16 counties of Western North Carolina. 

Edwards said of herself, “So when I retired, I was looking at what to do next. Where to be of service? I believe the skills I bring to strategic development” could help the county.

In his opening statement, Pressley said, “I’ve lived in Buncombe County for 59 years. I have been married to my wife Jeana for 34 years. I have children and grandchildren.

“I feel blessed for what I have and want to bring that blessing to the county....

“What do I want? To bring transparcency back to the county.”

Pressley noted that fellow Republican Commissioner Mike Fryar “was complaining about corruption in the county government (for years), but nobody listened,” referring to the administration of long-time County Manager Wanda Greene.

“When I got in (office), along with (Republican) Commissioner Joe Belcher, she (Greene) was indicted within six months.”

He added, “I’m a business-owner. You’d better know how to work a budget if you’re going to be a county commissioner.”

CIBO chief Buzzy Cannaday asked six or seven prepared questions before the session was opened to a question-and-answer period with the audience in general.

For the first question, he noted, “Recently there’s been a discussion at a county level to investigate the sherriff’s department’s actions.” He then asked each candidate to comment on that statement.

Weinert said, “I think oversight for any department” is important “because with that department. … there are always risk assessments that need to be done. People need to have clarity. We have internal committees within the county.”

However, Weinert added, “I do not think having a citizen group is necessarily thebest way” to proceed.

Ensley said, “I actually don’t believe a citizens group is the best answer… The only way I’d be in favor of a citizens group is if they have been trained… Most people don’t understand.... I’d hope we’d have transparency at all levels within the sheriff’s department. But I’d use that as a last gasp” step.

Pressley responded, “I don’t think we should override them. Citizens outside have no idea, really, as to what’s going on” in the sheriff’s office. “You’re only as good as the team you put around you.”

Edwards said, “My comments have earned me support of police benevolent association.”

Cannaday then asked, “With the recent financial allegations in the county, what areas would you have investigated under a forensic audit?”

Ensley replied, “What we’re seeing is unbelievable. I really think we need to look at forensic auditing in every phase of what’s going on. Look at the nepotism policy. … I’ve just been flabbergasted with the money being spent… So I think we need a forensic audit of every phase….”

Pressley said, “We need a forensic audit. We’re having one done. The FBI is doing one now. The thing is, a forensic audit could cost us millions of dollars. I think once the FBI is done, we will know everything. I’m for a forensic audit, but the FBI     is doing a lot of it themselves.”

Edwards said, “I’d first like to challenge that we assume our problems are with Wanda Greene. .. Her behavior made it possible for her to move ahead…. Let the FBI do their job, before we move forward.”

Weinert said, “Initially, the audit process that we’re under needs to be allowed to be completed. It’s my understanding the field work is being done…. That (the auditor process), and along when the FBI work is done, we’ll know better how to proceed.”

“Would you allow SROs (student resource officers) to be located at all county schools?” Cannaday asked.

Pressley replied, “We’ve got 22 elementary shcools and only four SROs. We already had an SRO at the higher schools.

“I don’t care what the day is, I want my kids and grandkids to be safe in the schools.

“We need to apply for the grants” to finance the hiring of more SROS, he said. “I believe in getting the grant money.”

Edwards said, “At the age of 16, I was held hostage at my school in West Virginia. I support keeping our schools safe. That would include having more mental health counselors.”

Weinert said, “I think the safety of our children should be paramount. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where having SROs are necessary to provide that safety… The unforuntane reality is there’s a limited supply of money… I believe we have to support SROs and that we have to create a long-term sustainable plan.”

Ensley said, “I think it’s not an either/or but a both/and approach — bringing in mental health-providers into our schools, while we also bring in SROs. It’s a problem not just here but a long-term systemic problem across our nation.

“We need to look at how we’re going to improve our schools now,” Ensley noted.

“Do you favor broadening the allowed uses to allow manufactured homes in all districts to help affordable housing?” Cannaday queried.

Edwards said, “I think it’s certainly one way the situation can be addressed. As long as we inform people that they won’t be building equity, as in a traditional home.”

Weinert said, “One of the situations we are faced with is affordable housing... One thing I can say about manufactured homes is they’ve changed in their quality. And no options should be ignored.”

Enlsey noted, “This is an opportunity to provide something that’s affordable to many. The length of time a mobile home exists now is a lot longer than it used to be. From the situation of providing multiple ways for people to access affordable housing, we need to look at multiple ways.”

Pressley said, “My first home was a mobile home trailer. Back then, it wasn’t called a mobile home. It was a trailer. (The crowd laughed). Today, people can’t afford… This right here, affordable housing. A manufactured home has less than a garbage can of waste in it. The thing is we can do multiple things with mobile homes — and give our young people a chance to own their first home.”

At that point, CIBO asked each candidate to ask his or her opponent one question.

Edwards asked Weinert, “On what do you base your statement that the sheriff is in charge of enforcing immigration?”

Weinert replied, “I stated that based on the sheriff being in charge of law enforcement in the county. … It is the sheriff’s office and the APD’s responsibility to enforce the laws.”

Weinert then said to Edwards: “Recently, (commissioners’) Chairman (Brownie) Newman asked for a vote without a discussion.” She asked what Edwards thought about that way of running board meetings.

Edwards replied, “First, let me say I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. But at the end of the day, it’s about doing the right thing for Buncombe County” — and that she did not feel that was a good way to handle issues.

Next, Ensley asked Pressley, “When (county manager) Wanda Greene decided to retire and everyone decided to just advance Mandy Stone — what was your rationale for advancing Mandy Stone?”

In response, Pressley said, “Uh, that’s good,” apparently meaning Ensley had asked him a good question.

Continuing, Pressley said, “We knew when Wanda Greene had retired, that the ship had to continue to sail. 

“Mandy Stone (the three Republicans all voted for Mandy Stone to come in. It was unanimous” for the board as a while,” he added, as “all seven (commissioners, including the four Democrats) voted for her.... She had been so cooperative.”

At that point, Pressley asserted, “If we’re going to sell facts, let’s finish the story.”

He then asked Ensley, “I represent District. 3. What would you do different from what I’ve done in the last three years to make District 3 a better place?”

Ensley replied, “I believe, as you do, that we are here to serve the entire county. My goal and reason for running is that, as a commission, we’d work together to lay out a strategy as to where we want to be 10 years from now ... 20 years from now. Where we’re equally distributing our resources across the county.”

The meeting concluded with about 15 minutes of questions to the candidates from audience members.

Sidney Bach asked, “Obviously if Ms. Weinert is elected as a Republican candidate, it will shfit the dynamics of the commission” because she is a Republican — and if Pressley is re-elected it would give the Republicans a 4-3 dominance over the Democrats.

To that end, Bach asked, “With a $3 million budget to oversee ... given the mishandling of our taxpayer funds... if you’re in the majority, what specific action would you take to avoid a recurrence of the horrible fraud and stealing that’s gone on, with apparently nobody watching the store?”

Weinert replied, “First and foremost,  I think we need to look at how we establish our internal controls.

“I quite frankly think if we don’t look at how we spend our money. … We can’t continue (to have spending oputpace revenues).

“How do we go back and honor those who have worked hard for the county? But we have to implement a roadplan.”

Ensley said, “I will implement policies to avoid a repetition of Greene situation... I’d change the distribution of authority.... I’d have outsiders looking in to advise our county commission on what’s going on. We need outside oversight... We need to restore oversight in every way, beginning with the budget.”

Pressley said, “Having been a county commissioner, I’ve got an advantage over the other three up here. We’ve already changed 43 or 45 policies. As any business-owner would know, if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on,” big problems will crop up.

“I mean we’ve restored a lot” of confidence in the county government. “We’re getting ready to hire a new finance director... These policies have already been put in place... Can it happen again? Yes. But I guarantee those people in there now will do everything they can from happening again,” Pressley said.

Edwards, “As I stated earlier, 100 percent of this was not about county procedures, it was about transparency — creating oversight.

“Steps have been made in the right direction to ensure an annual review. I think at the end of the day, it boils down to the county manager who is selected. We need to hire someone with high integrity.

“As a commissioner, it’s also about not accepting a three-page budget review. It’s about asking for details and asking lots of qusions.”

A man asked — “Affordable housing… My concern now, is …. it’s taking $6,000 or $7,000 with water and sewer and it takes three or four weeks. What can you do to expedite that?”

Ensley said, “We need to work with the infracstucture, to make sure things are going quickly. But at the same time, we don’t want to cause environment damage. We need to work together with all of our offices, so that the mindset is we’re here to work with all of our citizens.”

Pressley “You know, Bruce, you know this first-hand…. What you’re wanting, when you go through the permitting, the roads you’ve got to go through and the costs... There’s usually several changes in the permit along the way. Whenver you get your permit, you need to know what you’ve got to go through. We’re not going to have affordable housing until permitting is reasonable and land is reasonable.

Edwards, “You have to ask about the lag time, why is that happening?”

She added, “In terms of additional affordable housing…. We must continue to increase our partnerships with those who are getting affordable housing right.”

Weinert said, “There’s a line item in the budget, where fees from permits, is included.

“So first thing, I’d sit down with Realtors, etc. and ask what they’re dealing with and why. Then I’d look at our payroll, office and staff....

“Once you talk to those people who are using those services, you should go back and talk to people in the department and see how you match that up,” Weinert said.

 



 


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