By Leslee Kulba –
The Buncombe County Commissioners were reluctant to conduct any significant business until the two seats for representatives of District 2 could be filled. As Chair David Gantt pointed out, the vacancies leave over one-third of county residents without a voice.
The seats remain empty because the election was too close to call. Election night, unofficial totals placed Mike Fryar and Christina Kelley G. Merrill as the victors. That changed after the canvass. Mike Fryar had 19,993 votes; Ellen Frost, 19,904; Christina Kelley G. Merrill, 19,891; and incumbent Carol Weir Peterson, 19,870. General statutes allow recounts without further ado if a candidate loses by less than one percent of all votes cast. The first recount consists of running all ballots through the machines again. Following the recount, Fryar had 19,991 votes; Frost, 19,903; Merrill, 19,866; and Peterson, 19,868.
State law also allows candidates who lose a machine recount to request a manual recount of ballots from 3 percent of precincts. If the discrepancy between the automated and manual recounts, extrapolated for the entire district, is sufficient to change the outcome of a race, the local board of elections can appeal to the state for a manual recount of all ballots.
Since there are 53 precincts in District 2, two randomly-selected districts were recounted. In the sample, Merrill gained four votes. Extrapolated, a systematic error could give Merrill an advantage of over 100 votes, so Tuesday, the State Board of Elections instructed the county to begin the comprehensive recount. The tedious process is scheduled to begin Thursday.
While the recounts were underway, Merrill filed a legal protest of the balloting. Forty-four Warren Wilson students presumably voted in the wrong district. Confusion arose as the new district line divided the campus which has a single mailing address. Merrill was concerned that students may not have met the statutory residence requirements to qualify to vote. Furthermore, it was alleged that students frequently change dormatories, and dormitory addresses provided by students were not consistent with registrar records, making it more difficult to verify that the forty-four voted in the correct precinct.
Merrill’s legal challenge was dismissed by the county board of elections, so she appealed to the state, where a hearing has been scheduled for December 13. If neither the recounts nor the legal challenges show a definitive victor, the state may order another election.
Even so, Monday was the day for swearing in the new commissioners. David Gantt was reseated as chair, former Asheville City Council duo Brownie Newman and Holly Jones were seated to represent downtown residents in District 1, Republicans Joe Belcher and David King were seated to represent the western District 3, but two seats remained devoid of representation for the citizens of eastern Buncombe.
In light of the awkward situation, the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting was lightened by the removal of potentially controversial matters, such as board appointments and approval of the county’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. The commissioners also agreed to cancel their next meeting, and not convene again until January 15.
Tuesday’s meeting took place in the new chambers in Suite 300 of the TD Bank building on College Street. The stately quarters and the awe-inspiring music played with the broadcast conjure images of a mighty tribunal from an epic film. Although the commissioners applauded the new setup, they hoped to take their meetings on a traveling show throughout the county, using the fancy digs as a default location.
Citizens, however, complained about the regal splendor. Don Yelton said the lighting was “horrible,” noting the glare off the Republicans’ heads was impossible, and everybody’s faces were in the shadows. The microphones were inadequate as well. Jerry Rice said people who film the meetings were not happy having to be in the back of a long, long chamber that makes the commissioners look like dots.
By way of business, the commissioners revisited their compensation. The cuts they gave themselves amidst public outcry a couple years ago were passed with an ordinance that expired in June. Even if the commissioners wished no compensation, they would have to at least request $1 to populate the cells of the spreadsheet and make the accounting software work correctly.
Gantt said it would be difficult for people who had never served to grasp what should be fair compensation for attending the number of meetings, educational sessions, conferences, guest appearances, and other commitments that lie ahead. Nobody even knew their boards and commissions assignments. Gantt added that the commissioners’ salaries, just slightly below the county’s last reported mean income of $33,777, represent only 0.09 percent of Buncombe County’s $250 million budget.
Holly Jones spoke with intentionally thinly-veiled condemnation of the political stunt that caused the commissioners to reduce their benefits. In the end, the commissioners agreed to continue their compensation as-is unless and until the other commissioners have other ideas.