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Republican Commissioners Seriously Miffed by Emergency Land Deal

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Chair David Gantt explained the deal was a five-way win for the county.(1) By immediately authorizing County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene to approach Henderson County with an offer to purchase, the county remained in contention for a major economic development project. Had they not done this, the amazing offer would have been off the table. (2) If the interested party decided to accept an offer elsewhere, Buncombe County had a backup offer, and, that failing, it would retain a beautiful piece of property. (3) A deed restriction from the water dispute required Henderson County to split the proceeds of any sale with the City of Asheville, which, in turn, would give its portion, $3.4 million, back to the county to help pay for a new law enforcement firing range. (4) The proceeds would allow the county to bring the firing range it had been unable to invest in for fifteen years to fruition. (5) It would resolve a portion of the decades-old water dispute by clearing the title to that parcel. Nobody would touch the property for purchase as long as the deed was encumbered with an onerous reversionary clause.

Speaking only in positives, Greene rehashed the other big economic development agreements the county had had to keep hush-hush at the recipients’ request. Gantt argued the businesses need privacy during negotiations because, “They don’t want people jacking the price up. They don’t want speculation running them off.” Greene said Henderson County would have accepted a counter offer had the county not rushed in to purchase the land that very day. The counter offer promised fewer economic multipliers, and Buncombe County would gain nothing by not inserting itself as middleman. The deal on the table involves a client with whom the county has been working since February 2014. It would set up a lucrative, clean industry with a greenway easement to be held by the City of Asheville. Greene claimed the more industry the county garners, the lighter the per capita tax burden would become.

Commissioner Mike Fryar disapproved of the process or lack thereof. He accused the county of completing thirteen months of negotiations in three days. The deal, he said, was thrown together in fifteen minutes. Worse, since the commissioners can’t vote in closed session, Greene polled them, receiving four nods in favor and three against. That wasn’t considered a vote, but the next thing he knew, he saw Gantt on TV telling everybody the county was going to buy the land. He said a similar poll had been taken to see if Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger should keep his offices open late to issue marriage license to gay couples after North Carolina’s ban was stricken. Although County Attorney Bob Deutsch disagreed, Fryar said in that instance, the nods were considered a vote. He said he wouldn’t bet his job that the business in question would follow through with the offer. He suspected the unnamed interest was only using it as a bargaining chip to leverage more out of other prospective grantors.

The other commissioners weighed in. Miranda DeBruhl asked for specifics about a paper trail as if pursuing a legal matter. Joe Belcher said he would oppose the land deal because he was uncomfortable with the process and the sense of urgency forcing the transaction. He would not enter into a similar arrangement on his own behalf. He was picking up subtle contradictions that indicated the case was not as ironclad as Greene was making it out to be. Ellen Frost said the county was being “bold and progressive.” Holly Jones countered the commissioners had gone into closed session to discuss economic development, not to speculate on property. And Brownie Newman said the deal would be, “one of the most significant economic development projects in Western North Carolina in the last several decades.”

During public comment, Don Yelton said the deal wasn’t fair to Asheville, which would be losing money on the deal. He said it was actions like this that weakened public trust, arguing the commissioners as public servants had an obligation to explain why it was such a good deal. Jerry Rice and Betty Jackson told the commissioners government does not belong in the real estate business and that the boons of their economic development investments are not as rosy as they say. Jackson launched into a lecture on the fallacy of economic multipliers with zero opportunity costs, saying the commissioners had fallen for a debunked myth. She elaborated about how tax dollars are taken out of the economy by government, diluted when the bureaucrats take a rake, and never returned to the productive economy in their full amount. The commissioners, she leveled, were speculating as if clairvoyant and in the best of all possible worlds. Both Mike Bowman and Gail Pernowski indicated the public was being confused and excluded.

Frost’s motion to purchase was seconded by Newman, and the measure passed by the same 4-3, party-line combination that gave Greene the closed-session go-ahead. Republicans Fryar, Belcher, and DeBruhl were opposed.

Another item on the agenda entertained a request that the commissioners videotape their closed sessions. The measure was backlash from the three commissioners who felt slighted at the emergency closed session in which the Ferry Road deal was discussed. They have since told the press they spoke against the deal, but none of their challenges were recorded in the minutes. The minutes, in fact, contained only three sentences. Greene told the commissioners staff had prepared no presentation, and Attorney Mike Frue, who would normally make the presentations was not available. At that, Jones challenged one of the three commissioners backing the resolution to defend it, charging they had put staff in an awkward position. DeBruhl stepped up to wing a presentation, expressing disappointment at Frue’s exceptional absence.

After reading the resolution, DeBruhl said there was a difference between closed sessions and secret sessions. Transparency should be a no-brainer; public business should be public. She reminded the commissioners how seven people can remember seven different eye-witness accounts for a traffic accident. The recordings would remove shades of gray, and they could back the county up if ever a meeting came under investigation. The same requirements for release that exist with paper minutes would apply to the recordings. What’s more, the General Assembly electronically records its closed sessions, and no companies seeking incentives are avoiding the state because of it.

Newman was opposed to the idea. Though he didn’t say as much, something in his voice hinted the Republicans were playing the old game wherein the minority party sets the majority up to vote against a bad idea that sounds good to the uninformed. He discussed reasons for confidentiality. The commissioners may go into closed session to discuss personnel, to engage the attorney-client privilege during a lawsuit, or to discuss economic development incentives. Dirty laundry from personnel issues need not be aired, and negotiations for incentives often involve proprietary corporate information. No set delay would ever be appropriate for turning this kind of information over to the public. “This could be one of the worst decisions we could make as a county,” he said. As for incentives negotiations, Newman couldn’t help but see the recordings having a “chilling effect.”

The county was large, and with the world as it is, it wouldn’t be able to avoid lawsuits. Deutsch elaborated. He reminded the commissioners of a recent closed session wherein he made a detailed presentation, discussing how evidence could work for or against the county. He said he could not have been as candid with the recorder rolling. He cautioned about publicizing the county’s weaknesses. Trailing off, he said, “You don’t put your cards on the table when a case is settled. You don’t say what you know about your own evidence.”

Anticipating the discussion, Gantt had invited Ben Teague, director of the Economic Development Commission to comment on the impact the recordings would have on negotiations with corporations. Gantt noted seventeen of the twenty-three closed session the county had conducted in the past five years were called to discuss economic development incentives. Teague said corporations seek business-friendly benefactors, and trust is key to relationship-building.

Jones said the recording process, “in and of itself denotes distrust.” In response to commentary by Belcher, she insisted, “You can do whatever mental gyrations you want to do in your head to justify your vote.” She was indignant that the commissioners would have to entertain such a nonsensical proposition because, “Three people don’t trust the process. They don’t trust staff.” She said the process currently allows minutes to be amended if they’re incorrect. And when the minutes from the closed session were up for approval, she asked Fryar if he didn’t want to amend them.

“There’s so much there to fix, why should I vote for them?” he replied. “They’re far too brief. They paint a false picture of what happened.” As for trust, Fryar said, “I totally trust Wanda Greene.” The problem was the board was polled, the minutes were “very small,” and the next thing he knew, WLOS was telling him the county was buying the property. He said he called Gantt, and said, “Dude! I’m seeing all this stuff coming out and we’re buying property and all this!” Fryar complained it is not uncommon to hear from the mass media that something on the commissioners’ plate is a done-deal beforehand.

Gantt described two extremes. He said there were the smoke-filled rooms that accurately described government negotiations until about fifty years ago, and there was 100 percent transparency for the public. The existing system was the best of both worlds. It has worked and helped the county partner for 6000 jobs and $1 million in local investment in the past five years. The resolution, he said, was a solution in search of a problem. Taking charge of the meeting he then ruled that DeBruhl had made a motion to approve the resolution with Belcher seconding. When he called for public comment, Yelton advocated for complete and accurate recordings of the meetings; and Jackson said the “condescension and arrogance” the commissioners were showing were what leads the public to believe, “They’re going to do whatever the #&!^ they want no matter what we say.” The votes on the recording of meetings and disapproval of the minutes took the same 3-4 alignment.

In an unrelated matter, the commissioners were slated to vote on a resolution opposing Senate Bill 369, which would change the state’s system for redistributing sales tax revenues. The bill was crafted to transfer wealth to low-wealth rural areas, ignoring the fact that most recipients of welfare are in the ten most urbanized counties. With much lobbying, Senate Bill 608 was drafted, proposing to cushion the blow before enacting the transfer. Greene therefore recommended holding off on the resolution, but Jones offered a substitute resolution stating, “This board strongly opposes any state legislation that negatively impacts the current and projected amount of total sales tax collected by Buncombe County.” The Republicans didn’t want to jump the gun without due diligence, but before that 4-3 vote could be taken, Gantt decisively ruled the discussion out of order, promising to properly pick it up at the next meeting.

During the general public comment period, a number of citizens protested the county’s attempt to allow mobile homes in more zoning districts. A number also advocated for outside agency funding for their organizations. Jackson asked if the taxpayers would be held liable for the $4.25 million in bonds the county was approving for Plasticard-Locktech. Greene said not at all, and the consent agenda item pertained only to housekeeping for a deal done in December. Christina Merrill objected to the county constructing a firing range for $7 million when funds were available from the NRA and the Wildlife Resources Commission and Shelby just built a range for $1.7 million that will be collecting revenue via public user fees. John Haas, on behalf of the Friends of Town Mountain, wished to thank the sheriff’s department for bringing a rash of residential breakings to a swift conclusion. Rice countered the arguments against mobile homes, saying in his childhood home, “there were nineteen of us [and] we got snowed on.”

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