Divisiveness and healing around the controversial Montreat town hall and Texas Road bridge dominated comments made by four candidates for Montreat commission at a voter forum Oct. 18.
Organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe, held at Black Mountain Library and moderated by Black Mountain News editor Paul Clark, the forum gave a roomful of listeners a chance to hear from candidates running for three seats on the council that sets policy for the town of some 600 permanent residents.
Alice Boggs Lentz, the first to give three-minute introductory comments, said her candidacy was aligned with the candidacies of Tom Widmer and Kent Otto, appointed to fill the seat vacated by mayor Tim Helms.
"Each of us runs as an individual with our own perspectives and professional experiences," she said. "We also run as three individuals who are aligned in the fundamental position of appreciating the current town council."
Lentz was a member of the Montreat Bridge Committee appointed by Helms in 2016 to determine what to do with an unsafe Texas Road bridge, out of commission since 2008. In 2014 the council voted to apply for federal funding to replace it; many in the community expressed concerns over the size of the proposed bridge. Last year the board voted to suspend the project indefinitely. The committee's final recommendation was to not replace the bridge with a vehicular bridge but instead to use the existing structure as a pedestrian crossing.
Candidate Grace Nichols introduced herself as a "longtime full-time resident" of Montreat with a "depth of experience in community service." Taken together, public health and safety, among her six primary goals in serving, "the number one job of a council member," she said.
Nichols advocated for "re-evaluating and strengthening emergency procedures" in Montreat and improving preparedness for natural disasters like flooding and wildfire. She expressed a desire to build a new town hall and public works facility soon.
Otto, who moved Montreat more than a decade ago, said when he was appointed to the commission, "we had just come through a very divisive period" over the bridge and town hall. "We've spent the last two years unwinding some of that by converting the bridge to a pedestrian bridge and saving the town over $250,000," he said. He touted recent actions by the board to use contracted employees for building inspection and planning and zoning duties - a move that may save the town $22,000 this year, he said.
Widmer, a "relatively new resident" who said his family has been coming to Montreat for years, said he sees his newness as an advantage for the council that will bring "a fresh voice, fresh ears, fresh perspective. ... More than half of my professional career has been in customer service. It's experience that I think would be valuable as this council works to continue the positive changes that were started two years ago."
Candidates were asked how they would "heal the rancor" in town over the location of the proposed town hall and the Texas Road bridge.
"I might take a little issue with the word 'rancor' because in the two years since the new town council has been seated there has been tremendous progress in moving our town forward," Lentz said. She contended that actions taken by the board in recent years "reflect the will of the people as expressed two years ago. I'm very hopeful that at this point in our town's history we'll be able to move forward."
Nichols, a 15-year town resident, had a contrasting opinion. She said residents are upset over the divisiveness the town hall and bridge issues created. "I feel that there were misunderstandings, but I'm a forward-looking, positive person I want to look for ways to heal."
A "business guy" now and when he became a commissioner, Otto said "one thing I decided was that people in Montreat are my neighbors and I want to hear from them. They might not agree on certain things I've done and said, but I think it starts with us communicating."
Widmer said there is Montreat still needs to heal. "We really need to have respectful, transparent communication, and I'm not sure that's happened in the past," he said. "In the last two years, one of the things that I think has happened is, we've built a council that does respect one another."