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Opponents pan term limits as committee-packing effort

FLAT ROCK — In the once tranquil village of Flat Rock, the Highland Lake Road project is an infinite accelerant for an ongoing political fire.

The new council majority propelled into office last November by Flat Rock residents opposed to the $5.5 million road widening project has sought to reverse the council’s 2018 vote endorsing the project, resolved not to negotiate with the NCDOT for sale of right of way — a stand later reversed — and pulled the plug on a comprehensive greenway plan.
Last week, the majority, led by Anne Coletta, proposed term limits and a conflict-of-interest policy that would oust some members from village advisory boards when their current terms expire.
Under the proposal, members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Park Commission and Historic Landmarks Commission would be eligible to serve two three-year terms. After a two-year hiatus, they would be eligible to return. The village has no term limits for the volunteer board positions now.
Term limits would provide “a natural turnover so that other people who may be interested in serving have that opportunity,” Coletta said. “As we currently operate now, if someone wants to continue on the board they can continue. It means as long as someone is willing to serve it could potentially block other people who would like to serve. Six years is a pretty significant length of time — then they could be off and come back on.”
When the village first incorporated, she said, it may have been harder to recruit volunteers.
“But I think we’re kind of grown up enough now. It’s nice to have a regular turnover, staggered of course, so you keep the institutional memory. But it just provides that flexibility for people who want to volunteer that might have different perspectives or experiences.”
Paige Posey strongly objected to the change, pointing out that turnover happens now. In the past 10 months, the council had appointed “10-plus, new-to-service residents on committees and boards,” she said. “You say you want to have different perspectives. We currently have got different perspectives. We’ve got term limits in place just like we do with mayor and council. You come to the end of your time and you’re either voted in or you’re not. If we’re going to start setting these kind of policies for the village we need more input instead of just making policies for the sake of making policies.”

Committee term limits rare

Posey asked whether other local government bodies had term limits for advisory board seats. Village Administrator Pat Christy responded that she had checked with Henderson County, Hendersonville, Fletcher, Mills River and Laurel Park.
“The only entity that has responded with any term limits was a couple of boards in the county but as a rule” the county and cities have no term limits for advisory board appointees, Christy said.
“I feel like we’ve got some really great people that represent great cross sections and there’s always going to be changeover,” Posey said. “I feel like it’s targeted at certain people. I feel like it’s very transparent.”
“It’s not targeted at certain people,” Coletta responded.
Posey cited the example of Michael Thompson, an attorney who serves on the Planning Board.
“I’m very thankful we have somebody as longstanding as Michael Thompson on the Planning Board,” she said. “That kind of professional experience and expertise is exactly what helps shape that conversation. And to just say, ‘Sorry, we don’t need you anymore,’ seems wrong.”
Tom Carpenter said his attempts to place new people on the Park Commission and Planning Board highlighted the problem.
“A motion was made to appoint the three incumbents (to the Planning Board) without meeting with the new people (he wanted to nominate) … and the door was slammed in my face and incumbents were reappointed with no consideration for the three people who had expressed an interest in serving,” he said. “I think this motion to force term limits would be very good for the village and for people who want to serve.”

‘Extremely political’

Sheryl Jamerson also opposed Coletta’s motion.
“I was very concerned about this. I saw it as extremely political and we have not until this past election had a political council but now we do,” she said.
When she requested the views of former Mayor Bob Staton and former council members Jimmy Chandler, Don Farr and Jim Wert, all four wrote back and said term limits were unnecessary.
“To my knowledge, the volunteer system has worked well all these years and I have not witnessed anything that would necessitate changing the system with term limits,” Chandler said. “If people want to continue to serve … let them serve. Having Council members loading committees with their favored citizens is not the way to go and I think it will make people reluctant to serve.”

“The village council has traditionally avoided packing the Planning Board and Board of Adjustment with the particular view of the Village Council members, let alone a few of them,” Farr said.
“I’m saddened to hear that the Council has become more politicized,” Wert said. “From the establishment of the Village of Flat Rock, Council members have always worked together for the common good. Party affiliation or personal preferences had no part in how business was conducted.”
Carpenter, an activist against the Highland Lake Road project, bristled at the comments suggesting the council had not been political in the past.
“I am only familiar with the past council (since September 2017) and I’ll tell you that council was politicized and they did have an agenda and it is called the North Highland Lake Road and to ignore of the outcry of the citizens of Flat Rock the way they did and to abuse them in public meetings, which I attended — that was a politicized council and that was a council with an agenda,” he said. “So people saying there’s never been an agenda or politicized council are absolutely wrong or blind or trying to deliberately deceive. We are just trying to give the residents the chance to serve on committees.”
Since the uproar over the Highland Lake Road project in 2017, “Yes a lot more people are interested in their local government than have ever been before because they were given a reason to be interested,” he added.
In an interview Monday, Coletta responded to the suggestion that she, Carpenter and David Dethero are trying to stack the advisory board members with like-minded supporters.
“This is not about individuals,” she said. “This is about setting a general village policy as a way of having orderly turnover to allow those who are interested in serving an opportunity and give boards different experiences and different perspectives.”
Although she acknowledged that term limits for advisory board appointments are “not standard practice, I would say that part of our job as council members is to know the people and get out in the community and find people that we think would be good on our various boards and to volunteer. And that kind of falls on us and it does take work and it does take getting the word out there. You tend to go back to the same group over and over again. Getting more people involved was one of the things Tom and David and I ran on.”
At the urging of Mayor Nick Weedman, the council agreed to delay consideration of term limits and Coletta dropped for now discussion of the conflict-of-interest policy.
“I don’t know what practical impact this (term limit policy) would have on the (planning) committee,” Weedman said. “I would like to see that so we understand clearly if we’re going to wipe out a board, unintentionally, we need to understand because, particularly on the Planning Board, continuity is of great importance. … I’ve been to several Planning Board members and to be honest with you I’m very impressed. The makeup of the group is excellent.”