The Buncombe County commissioners decided to move the public comment period to the forefront of their agendas. It had been held at the end of meetings, but concerns were raised that it did not allow citizens to have any input on items not open for public comment until everything was a done-deal. Commissioner Ellen Frost liked the idea of moving the comments to the beginning of the meetings because it would allow people to talk without having to sit through the entire meeting. Mike Fryar, however, argued the decision would result in under-representation of the majority of working-class people who, as a member of the public concurred, would have to get the permission of the boss to take time off, with or without pay, to attend the 4:30 meetings.
County Attorney Mike Frue reminded the commissioners that General Statute 153A-52.1 only requires county commissioners to hold one public comment period each month that the board convenes a regular meeting. The Buncombe County commissioners have been relatively generous. Other boards restrict public comment to thirty minutes and require members of the public to sign up a priori. The Buncombe County commissioners, however, decided there would be no sign-up sheet, public comment could go on until everybody who wishes to speak has been heard, and the chair could impose restrictions in special circumstances. Public comment will still be taken at public hearings and other items open to the public on a case-by-case basis.
Chair David Gantt had taken a straw poll of people in the audience, asking who wanted the meetings before, after, or before and after, and who didn’t care. Later, Jerry Rice argued in favor of the before and after option, noting the staff reports published with the agendas are so “slim” as to leave the public and commissioners clueless until the latter have had a chance to ask questions.
The commissioners twice demonstrated how a proliferation of legislation can be as useful as no legislation at all. One instance pertained to the use of the same phrase in the same document for different purposes. In the “Rules and Procedures,” which the commissioners were reviewing primarily to adjust for considerations of the expansion of the board, the phrase “public comment” is used in Section V and Section XIII with the effect that one interpretation would allow members of the public to speak only once at any given meeting. Whereas this would cut down jibber-jabber, the interpretation is not consistent with the commissioners’ precedent of allowing members of the public to speak on every item opened for comment. Gantt was overly considerate of concerns that a future board may interpret the language differently, so Frue offered to add clarifying language.
Another issue arose as Brownie Newman made an apparently harmless motion to appoint Holly Jones as vice chair for two years. That created some stir among those who have been working with the commission awhile. Precedent dictated vice chairs are appointed afresh every year. Frue hinted that in the future he would prefer a heads-up for matters requiring legal research. He did, however note the “Rules and Procedures” for the commissioners stated the designation should occur “on the first Monday in December following a general election.”
Newman then requested more context, at which point Frue read, “on the first Monday in December following a general election in which County officers are elected, . . . .” With the new staggered terms, this would mean the vice chair would be appointed for a two-year term. Frue requested time to search the statutes.
Following further commissioner deliberations, Frue reported that the statutes multiply insinuate the appointment is to be an annual event. GS 153A-39, for example, stipulated dates for “each odd-numbered” and “each even-numbered” year. It also states the vice chair shall be designated at the same time the chair is, if not elected, only “for the ensuing year.” In Buncombe County, the chair is elected. In this instance, state law trumped the local ordinance, but only if somebody took the time to research and nobody cared to sue.
Other decisions included allowing the chair to cooperate with the county manager in preparing agendas for the regular meetings. The county manager had been executing this responsibility unilaterally. The commissioners also directed Frue to consult with public safety personnel about where photographers may be located. It was proposed that they only be allowed in the back of the room, a vantage point Fryar described as 60-feet away and not worth the effort. He pointed out several areas in the room that would not obstruct escape routes, and added if Rice, who has been filming the meetings for twenty years, was going to do any harm, he would have done it by now. Rice, in turn, pointed out the police officer was also stationed in the back of the room, and he could outrun her.
Toward the end of the meeting, the commissioners considered board appointments. Frost scored four of nine positions, with decisions deferred on who, if anybody, should serve on Asheville’s Business Improvement District and its Riverfront Development Board. Attention then turned to other boards and commissions. County Clerk Kathy Hughes pointed out that most of them had their own bylaws, and Frue counseled the commissioners to refrain from changing rules governing term lengths and limits lest they appear to be targeting current appointees, assumed to hold certain views, just prior to major decisions.