Two Commissioners, Register of Deeds Accused of ‘Self-Dealing’
By Roger McCredie- Barnardsville businessman Eddie Harwood came gunning for Buncombe County administrators at Buncombe County Commission’s June 3 meeting.
When the smoke cleared, Harwood had lodged separate complaints against Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger and county commissioners Holly Jones, plus some jaundiced-eye comments about Commissioner Brownie Newman.
Harwood, speaking early on, during the public comment portion of the meeting’s agenda. said he was making his complaints to call attention to “a pattern of self-dealing” in county government.
Reading from a prepared statement, Harwood first chastised Reisinger for having closed the Register of Deeds office at midday on February 12 and keeping it closed February 13 because of inclement weather (snow).
“What this action did,” Harwood said, “was take away the option of his employees to work and not use valuable vacation time or not get paid. All other County employees did have to work. If the tax office and DSS can open, so can the Register of Deeds,” Harwood said.
“This created an inequity with all 1,400 Buncombe County employees and requires compensation,” Harwood continued. “To right this wrong, it will cost Buncombe County taxpayers between one-half [million] and one million dollars.”
Harwood claimed Reisinger’s closing of the Register of Deeds office for the day and a half in question on his own initiative “violat[es] county policy and break[s] North Carolina General Stature 161-8, ‘Attendance at Office.,’ “ That statute section reads, “The board of county commissioners may fix by order, to be entered on their records, what days of each week, and at what hours of each day, the register of deeds shall attend at his office in person or by deputy, and he shall give his attendance accordingly.”
“You all should be ashamed for not dealing with Mr. Reisinger, who by the way, was posted all over Facebook sledding with his friends while other County employees were working,” Harwood continued.
Harwood next opened fire on Commissioner Holly Jones “for not recusing herself from voting on the County budget that included funds for the YWCA, for which she is a paid employee and has insight into the direction of these funds. This action is in violation of North Carolina General Stature 14-234 and is unethical and self dealing,” he stated. That section provides a long and detailed listing of ways in which public officials, or individuals or entities with which a public official is connected, may not derive “direct benefit” from contracts enacted by the body on which they serve.
“I am not employed by the YWCA of Asheville,” Jones countered.
“I didn’t say she was employed by the YWCA of Asheville,” Harwood told the Tribune later. “I said she was employed by the YWCA, period.”
When Jones was first elected to County Commission, she was serving as Executive Director of the Asheville YWCA, the position she also held during two terms on Asheville City Council. In 2012 she became Regional Manager of the YWCA’s southeast region, which comprises 23 YWCA offices in seven states. Upon being promoted, she moved the district’s office to Asheville.
“This issue has been vetted by two county attorneys and both found no conflict of interest,” Jones told the Tribune. “If Mr. Harwood had contacted me, I would have told him that I am an employee of the YWCA USA that has no business with Buncombe County.”
As for Newman, Harwood’s complaint against him appeared to be based less on his record to date on County Commission and more on what Harwood feared he may do in the future, based on his record as a city councilman.
“During his time on Asheville City Council, Brownie Newman voted for funds for the company he works for, FLS Energy. Even though he hasn’t done this with the County yet, it is an upsetting pattern that must not be tolerated,” Harwood said.
FLS Energy, a solar energy company, was founded in 2006, when Newman was serving his second term on Asheville City Council. Newman joined FLS from serving as Executive Director of WNC Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. He served as a project manager at FLS before forming FLS Finance, described as “the financing arm of FLS solar projects,” which “provides businesses and organizations with a range of financing options to help make solar energy user-friendly and affordable,” according to the FLS company website.
In 2011, as a city councilman, Newman raised eyebrows in some quarters during the controversy over construction of “The Larchmont,” the affordable housing project erected just off busy Merrimon Avenue in the heart of an old, established North Asheville neighborhood. At the time, Stop the Larchmont, a community group formed to defeat the Larchmont project on grounds that it would cause additional traffic problems and was aesthetically out of keeping with the neighborhood, reported:
“Newman not only voted to approve $1.6 million in funding for the development of a multi-use complex, whose developer purchased a solar system from Newman’s FLS Energy for that complex, Newman had also made the motion to approve a waiver from City funding limits for that development, which allowed such an enormous infusion of City-controlled capital — disallowed for any competitors. He later went on to make the motion to approve the Larchmont rezoning for his client, that same developer.”
Harwood told the Tribune he has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for all county e-mails originating from Reisinger, Jones and Newman for the periods from December 6, 2013, to June 2, 2014, and from Tuesday, June 3 through Friday, June 6. He did not indicate the significance of those time frames.
Reisinger and Newman had not responded to e-mails from the Tribune by press time.