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With nearly 40 people listening, candidates aiming to win votes to serve on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners tackled, on Monday, some of the high-interest concerns for the region’s most populous county.
In the second in a series of candidates’ forums organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville and Buncombe County, the three candidates seeking to represent District 1 – a district that resembles the boundaries of the city of Asheville – answered questions ranging from budget cuts and greenways to education and the anti-discrimination policy for county employees.
Republican Don Guge and Democrats Holly Jones and Brownie Newman led off, though, by taking aim at the county’s economy – particularly the recent spate of job announcements in manufacturing.
“Obviously, our country’s been going through one of the most severe recessions in a long, long time,” said Newman, a former two-term Asheville City Council member who is a partner at the solar energy business FLS Energy. “That’s impacted all communities across the country. Ours is no exception.”
But he said the county’s had “some real success,” noting it boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in North Carolina. He also cited the springtime announcements by internal engine and driveline components-manufacturer Linamar Corp. and New Belgium Brewing of plans to expand in Asheville.
The N.C. Department of Commerce’s most recent county employment data agrees. In August, Buncombe County had the second-lowest unemployment rate among the 18 westernmost counties, at 7.6 percent, just above Henderson County’s rate of 7.4 percent. The county rate is more than two percentage points below the statewide rate of 9.7 percent.
Jones, who is seeking re-election to the Board of Commissioners after serving one term, said the collaboration among economic development officials and local governments led to the companies’ decisions to bring segments of their operations to the area. Jones is the regional manager for the YWCA of the Southeast Region.
“That’s part of what we want to continue to be – a united force,” she said. “Having a strong workforce is something that’s important for the county commissioners to invest in, and that’s part of how we’ve grown jobs here recently.”
Guge agreed, saying, “I definitely believe in industry coming back to the area.”
But, Guge, a detective at the Woodfin Police Department and owner of a small gun business, also suggested there may be an educational gap among some workers.
“We’ve also got to understand that we’ve got a lot of people in this county that do not necessarily have certain educational skills,” he said. “But through an industrial setting, can definitely make living wages far beyond what a tourist-rate wage would be.”
Throughout the nearly 50-minute forum, the candidates appeared to agree on many issues. But two areas – greenways and the county’s anti-discrimination policy – seemed to highlight areas where opinions may diverge.
“I am for greenways, but I do question spending $40 million of taxpayer money when we have much more pressing issues,” Guge said, referencing the Greenways and Trails Master Plan that current commissioners approved in early September.
Mountain Xpress reported that some commissioners have suggested their support for asking voters to decide whether the effort could be funded through a bond referendum.
“There are very few things,” Newman countered, “that will have as high an impact on quality of life and economic development.”
“I think these things are not a frivolous nicety,” he said later. “I think they are core to public health and just having a great community.”
Jones reiterated that the funding for the plan had not been voted on, but, she said, “I do believe that greenways merit public investment.”
And as the candidates moved on to speak about steep-slope regulations, county transit options, school funding, the county budget and more, the three also answered questions about whether they would support offering county employees domestic-partner benefits and adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s anti-discrimination policy.
“I am against discrimination in its entirety,” Guge said. “One problem I have is creating special groups. My question is, ‘Where do we stop with this?’”
Guge continued by saying he is “very devout” in his beliefs and that majority of the state’s voters passed Amendment One.
“That’s basically the role of the Buncombe County Commissioners – to uphold the law of the state of North Carolina,” he said.
Newman said that he believed the commission’s role is to make it clear that the county is safe and inclusive for all citizens and families, adding that Amendment One’s passage “wrote discrimination into our state constitution.”
“I think that makes it all the more important that we ensure equal workplace rights for all of our public employees,” he said. “That’s why I supported a domestic-partnership policy as a City Council member. I will support it as a county commissioner.”
Outspoken in her support of a recent attempt to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the anti-discrimination policy for county employees, Jones said she’d continue that position, particularly because she hears from employees who want the policy change.
“For no other reason than that, we should do it tomorrow,” Jones said, adding she’s also in support of domestic-partnership benefits.
“I would hope we can do that in Buncombe County in the future and treat all our employees the same,” she said.
Monday’s forum will be followed two others scheduled for additional Board of Commissioners districts and N.C. House districts in the county. Carolina Public Press joins Mountain Xpress, The Urban News, News Radio 570 WWNC and 880 The Revolution as a series co-sponsor. The forums have and will be moderated by Jerri Jameson, news director for Clear Channel Asheville.
N.C. House Rep. Susan Fisher, who is running unopposed for District 114, cancelled her scheduled appearance at Monday’s event. That district is also similar to the boundaries of the city of Asheville.
League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County forums
Oct. 8: Districts 2 & 115
6:30 – 8:30 p.m., Black Mountain Library, 105 N. Dougherty St., Black Mountain
- Candidates for Buncombe County Commission, District 2
- N.C. House, District 115
Oct. 15: Districts 3 & 116
6:30 – 8:30 p.m., Skyland Volunteer Fire Department, 9 Miller Road (where Long Shoals meets Hendersonville Road)
- Candidates for Buncombe County Commission, District 3
- N.C. House, District 116
Visit ELECTION 2012 for Carolina Public Press’ election coverage.