By Leslee Kulba- The dais was graced with a portrait of David Gantt, prompting regular public commentator Jerry Rice to state, facetiously, he wasn’t sure if he weren’t attending a funeral. The portrait would hang, with those of other past commissioners, in the corridor leading to the commission chambers. The meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners began with a tearful prayer from Chair Gantt. The audience was full of local Democrat leaders who had shown up to share gratitude for his twenty years of service on the board and Holly Jones’ fifteen years split between the commission and Asheville City Council. Only left-handed tokens of tolerance were offered to Tim Moffitt. The three are leaving office, having not sought re-election.
Tributes to Jones included praise for her daughter, Gabriella. Accomplishments included work on making living in Buncombe County more affordable, advocating for greater investment in school capital improvement projects, standing against domestic violence with the eNOugh campaign, helping see the Family Justice Center through to completion, advocating for healthcare, and standing for equality through domestic partner benefits and adding gender identity as a protected class at the local level. Jones thanked multitudes, and in her parting remarks said, “At this particular moment in our community, many, many people are hurting and despondent. I understand, and I’m right there with you. But I also wanted to hold up county government as a beacon of hope for how good government can work to promote the common good going forward.”
Gantt was thanked for being a friend to all, always opening meetings with sincere inquiry into the welfare of others’ family members. He was commended for a “legacy of love” that included passing zoning, steep slopes, ridgetop, and stormwater runoff ordinances when they were not popular. Commissioner Ellen Frost praised him for not playing politics, but “doing the right thing” on everything from billboards to domestic partner benefits. Former Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy praised him for the many untold times he reached into his own pocket to help. Gantt’s farewell remarks included advice. “Make sure we treat people the way the Golden Rule says: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” In his years of service, he hoped he had passed a test of three questions, “Did you keep your promises and did you meet the expectations you had for yourself and exceed those? Did you leave the county in a better position than it was when you got there? Were you nice to people and were you honest, were you fair, did you treat people nicely along the way?”
Gantt told how he had spent half his adult life on the board. He spoke in superlatives of county staff, having met many of their peers at conferences, including “one trip too many” to “a place that shall not be named.” He was referring to the backlash received for going to a national commissioners’ conference in Hawaii. With a PowerPoint presentation, he rattled off milestones reached during his tenure, including building twenty-one new schools and renovating all of them, achieving a AAA bond rating, availing free healthcare to everybody in the county, and assuring that one-third of the county would “never, ever be developed.”
“I anger my kids when I give the Republican line in debates we have about politics,” he told the crowd, “and I can do that because I’d talk to my Republican friends and they very clearly told me where they were coming from. And that’s a good thing. We need to hear each other whether we agree or not. We gotta listen more because when you don’t you lose the whole fabric of our society, which is compromise. You kinda give and take on it.”
Both Jones and Gantt received standing ovations for their twenty-minute farewell addresses. November 15 was named Holly Jones Day and David Gantt Day by Asheville City Council. The Family Justice Center would be dedicated to Jones with a plaque so saying, and the plaza outside the commissioners’ chambers would be named the David Gantt Plaza. A reception followed the meeting in the first-floor conference room.
Back to Business –
Rondell Lance, president of the Asheville Fraternal Order of Police, spoke on behalf of the organization’s 270 members in calling out what was deemed an offensive Facebook post by a sitting commissioner, whom he did not name. He quoted the commentary on the November 2 shooting from ambush of Iowa police officers Justin Scott Martin and Anthony David Beminio as saying, “I have been waiting all day for my Facebook feed to begin highlighting this tragedy. Pretty much crickets except for [name deleted]. We all know that if the suspect captured had been an African-American male and not a white guy made mad about his Confederate flag, there would have been outrage. Exhibit A of our collective bias admitted.”
Lance said the post fueled a narrative that was “patently false” and “inflammatory rhetoric that further endangers the lives of officers.” He said he wanted neither apology nor explanation. “I’m here to warn the community not to listen to, nor believe, nor follow such divisive rhetoric that perpetuates pure lies.” Lance said he had attended numerous memorial services for fallen officers and grieved with families in Asheville and in Washington, DC, and he has never heard any of them discuss the race of the shooters. Referring to families and friends who “place their loved ones into the ground and say their last good-byes,” he said, “our pain and suffering is not dependent on the race of the killer.”
Jones took it on the chin. Having been granted special permission to respond during public comment, she claimed ownership of the post. She said she deeply and sincerely apologized, “if it was offensive to a profession that I hold in the highest regard.” She applauded law enforcement officers for the courageous work they do but said “conversations have to happen.” She further was “happy to be a bridge” and an “advocate for law enforcement and communities of color that have legitimate concerns.”
In formal business, the commissioners accepted a wood quilt created by the WNC Carvers. The free-standing piece consists of a grid of twenty-one carvings, framed and capped with a pediment with three more designs. Chair David Gantt praised the artwork and assured the group the work would find a prominent place in the community within a week, hopefully with a little ceremony.
In another artistic consideration, the commissioners voted to approve a $10,000 allocation, which would be equally matched by the City of Asheville, to plan a monument honoring contributions of the African-American community to local history. The commissioners didn’t elaborate, but Sasha Mitchell, chair of the African American Heritage Commission of Asheville & Buncombe County, explained in a letter why the proposition was so expensive.
“A site of particular importance is Pack Square Park, where just a few yards south of the Vance Monument, African Americans were sold into bondage on the steps of the courthouse that once stood there. The obelisk honoring former governor Zebulon B. Vance is the city’s most prominent marker. The placement of any monument to local African American history that would be situated in the shadow of a monument to a noted white supremacist brings with it a need for great sensitivity. The fact that the area is already crowded with several monuments to the Confederacy, in addition to a monument recognizing the road’s historic use as a livestock trail, presents further difficulties.”
In a third artistic matter, the commissioners agreed to allocate $9300 toward the purchase of North Carolina state seals for each of the courthouse’s ten district courtrooms. The request was made by Chief District Court Judge J. Calvin Hill and Clerk of Superior Court Steven Cogburn. They argued the seals are displayed in courtrooms across the state, and that they’re important, “in conveying the dignity and authority of the court.” Gantt, an attorney by profession, made the motion, which passed unanimously, with jocularity and inside court jokes.