By Lisa Baldwin- Everyone is curious. Curious about the FBI investigation into Buncombe County government officials. At the November 7th county commission meeting, many wondered about the vote to re-organize the Tax Office and the commissioner’s change to their own rules and procedures. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Commissioner Mike Fryar asked permission to respond to a citizen’s questions regarding County Manager Mandy Stone’s past alliance with Wanda Greene. Commissioner Fryar said, “We have to defend the people who work for us.” Has this attitude contributed to the corruption now being exposed?
Over the years there has been very little coverage of Buncombe County citizens as they have sounded the alarm. From the podium, public commenters have asked for better budgetary oversight. Citizens have tried to help commissioners by researching and questioning specific expenditures in open meetings and via email.
Under the commission’s watch, top employees received questionable raises and 6 figure bonuses. But the citizens, who elected commissioners to perform due diligence, have been ignored. The public has watched helplessly as the commission continues to give away millions of taxpayer dollars that don’t support true needs. Most recently, the commission unanimously approved grants to individuals, one of whom who had been charged with vandalizing the confederate memorial at Pack Square.
Case in point, this reporter, along with others, have repeatedly asked for an investigation into former County Manager Wanda Greene’s right-hand woman, Mandy Stone. Recently promoted to County Manager, Ms. Stone previously wore two hats and received 2 salaries, along with a 6 figure “retention incentive”, to total $307,943 for 2017. She was simultaneously the Assistant County Manager and Director of the Department of Health and Human Services. Citizens expressed concern with her pet project – the $50 million DHHS building expansion and parking garage. Stone convinced the commissioners to unanimously approve the project. Citizens opposed it.
Even more importantly, child advocates and a former DSS social worker have expressed concern over Mandy Stone’s Dept. of Social Services’ practices and the families being torn apart. The mandate to reunify families fell by the wayside as the temptation to accept perverse financial incentives won out. These incentives reward DSS with $4,000-6,000 for removing a child from their family. In addition, the incentives to adopt these children, rather than reunite them with their families, pay out as much as $85,000 – $100,000. In Buncombe, 125 foster children have adoption as their permanent placement plan. Not to mention that just one year ago a child in Mandy Stone’s DSS care, Lila Pickering, was murdered. Many questioned why Lila wasn’t placed with family members who could have protected her.
But instead of investigating these concerns, the commission promoted Mandy Stone to county manager.
Is Ms. Stone capable of doing the job? On October 10th, nearly a month ago, this reporter sent a public records request to Ms. Stone. A simple request for the budget ordinance that created the 6 figure bonuses.
However, the October 10th public records request went unanswered by Mandy Stone. According to General Statute, Stone is the rightful keeper of the public records but she referred the request to Attorney Michael Frue. This is an expensive alternative. As an attorney, he likely makes at least $200 per hour. Neither Ms. Stone or Attorney Frue responded to the request made almost one month ago. This could have been a violation of the public records law. When reminded of the unfilled request during public comment, it was received the next day.
Mandy Stone, Wanda Greene’s right hand woman, was promoted to county manager even when citizens asked the commission to launch an investigation into Stone’s questionable DSS practices.
Once again citizens went to the podium, asking the commission to be pro-active. Investigate DSS practices. Get rid of the Old Guard and do a transparent state or nationwide search for a new county manager. At the November 7th meeting, the commission was forced to re-act by changing the rules and procedures put into place with a rubber stamp, a day late and more than a dollar short. Tomorrow the commission has a choice – will they be pro-active? Will those top officials receiving the unethical 6 figure retention bonuses be dismissed? Will there be a transparent search for highly qualified individuals to replace them?