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In advance of a crucial up-and-down vote, Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk and Councilman Ron Stephens urged Henderson County School Board members to vote no on the construction plan for Hendersonville High School that the Board of Commissioners had approved.
The calls came in the days before the School Board voted, under pressure from the commissioners, to endorse the $53 million construction plan that abandons the historic core classroom building and auditorium as a part of the county’s oldest high school.
School Board members said in interviews this week that they had received calls from both Volk and Stephens. Two members who spoke with the Hendersonville Lightning, Rick Wood and Michael Absher, voted in favor of the county-endorsed construction plan. Chair Amy Lynn Holt, the most outspoken advocate for continued use of the old Stillwell-designed classroom, said she was aware of the calls but had not received one herself. She assumed that may have been because “they figured they had my no vote.”
“They basically were encouraging us to not go to forward — to vote no,” said School Board member Michael Absher, who voted with the 4-2 majority for the HHS plan the commissioners first OK’d last spring. “They just felt like they didn’t want to be put in an awkward positon.”
Absher wasn’t happy with the communication from Volk and Stephens.
“It kind of really irritated me,” he said, “…based on public officials shouldn’t be calling another public official trying to sway their vote. I didn’t think it was right. You didn’t hear the county commissioners calling me and saying, ‘Hey, you got to vote this way.’”
(Commissioners had made their position known publicly by demanding the School Board take an up or down vote on the HHS plan and pledging shelve the plans of the School Board voted no.)
“Yes, she did give me a call,” Wood said. “I don’t remember the particulars so I’d rather not quote her. If I remember correctly the overall tone I got was that she would prefer we voted to stop it so that the city didn’t have to make a decision on it. I don’t remember if she said she was speaking as an individual. When Ron Stephens called me he did make it clear like he did in the School Board meeting that he was speaking as an individual and not as a member of the City Council. She didn’t put bigtime pressure. I just got the feeling she would prefer that if we voted to stop it the city wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
In one call, Volk suggested that the will of city voters is against the county’s HHS plans.
“I just for very selfish reasons hope that you would vote against the proposal for Hendersonville High School Monday night,” she said in a voice mail she left with one School Board member. “That throws it into the City Council’s lap and I know it would be very defensive for us and (it) very well might get turned down for problems with the parking and what our voters want. I know it’s a difficult situation for you and I wish you the very best at that meeting and thank you for your consideration.”
In an interview on Monday, Volk confirmed she had made the calls to School Board members.
“I called some of them just explaining (that) I hoped they would turn it down because it was going to put the City Council in such an awkward position,” she said. “It was so controversial and they were putting the decision off on the council. It was putting us between our citizens and the voters. I hoped they would just wait until the strong feelings calmed down and it would be discussed in a less emotional fashion.”
Stephens defended his public statement at the Dec. 12 School Board meeting in which he accused the Board of Commissioners of bullying the School Board into accepting the all-new HHS plan.
Both Stephens and Volk say they saw nothing in their efforts that would disqualify them from hearing and voting on an expected zoning request for the new school.
“No, I am not” disqualified, Stephens said. “Before I did that I met with our city attorney and he agreed that if I stated at the beginning that I’m not there as a representative of the city but as a taxpayer and a concerned citizen it would not be (a conflict). I never mentioned the zoning. The only way I ever mentioned the high school is that I asked them to postpone that and my main reason was to to ask them to do the (Edneyville) grammar school first. And I am convinced that they are violating the law and I think that’s very disturbing. I feel like the Board of Education let the county commissioners bully them and I think they joined the county commissioners in violating the law. I wasn’t even thinking about the zoning. That’s not the reason I was there.”
Stephens acknowledged that the zoning applicants may object to his comments and to Volk’s behind-the-scenes lobbying.
“They may try to make an issue out of it but the city attorney strongly feels like I am not disqualified,” he said.
City Attorney Sam Fritschner said attorney-client privilege barred him from answering a reporter’s questions about the matter.
“I can’t answer that for you,” he said when asked if their comments would disqualify Stephens and Volk. “I can only give legal advice to my clients.” Nor could he confirm, he said, whether he had spoken with Stephens and/or Volk about their right to express an opinion about the HHS project in advance of a council decision on the matter.
Mayor Volk said she has not made up her mind about the project and emphasized that in the quasi-judicial setting of a special-use permit her opinion doesn’t matter.
“It’s not something that I can really talk about one way or the other because it is quasi-judicial,” she said. “We have to consider what is presented to us at the meeting. We have to go by what the ordinances say. If they can prove that they have abided by all the requirements it would get approved. If they can’t prove it, they would have to go back and make some modifications before we could approve it.”
In fact, she predicted that HHS supporters may be frustrated that the council won’t be able to vote no just because some members disagree with the decision not to use the historic building.
“In a quasi-judicial hearing we really have to look at the law and whether they have proved that they have fulfilled” what the city ordinance requires. “It’s not just our opinion (or the council’s view that) I don’t like this,” she said. “It’s kind of like a court case. It has to be legally binding. You can’t consider what people would like to see. It has to be what the law will allow. That’s why we have to be very careful. We’ll just wait and see what happens.”
Absher also said the city had sent a letter on city letterhead expressing opposition to the county commission-approved plan. The Lightning obtained a copy of the letter. The undated letter was on plain paper and sent to the School Board in a city of Hendersonville envelope. The letter heading said it was from “A Taxpayer and Voter in Henderson County” and was intended for School Board members. “Please vote against the plan the Henderson County commissioners are trying to force upon the taxpayers and HHS,” it said.