Black Mountain mayoral race set

Incumbent faces challenge from current alderman and political newcomer

Fred McCormick

A three-way race for Black Mountain mayor pits members of the town board of aldermen against the incumbent and brings a face new to local politics.

Mayor Michael Sobol, seeking another term, is being challenged by alderman Don Collins and Black Mountain resident Weston Hall.

Collins, first elected as alderman in 2011 and re-elected in 2015, received support in his bid for the mayor's office from fellow aldermen Maggie Tuttle and Larry Harris. They showed up at the Buncombe County Elections Services building July 21 to support Collins as he filed to run in the Nov. 7 election.

“I didn’t run (for mayor) four years ago because I knew I had more to do on the board and didn’t want to lose my vote,” Collins said (in Black Mountain's form of government, the five alderman may vote, and the mayor votes only if there's a tie because one alderman is absent). “I’ve always thought of myself as not a leader, but someone who includes the rest of the board and values their opinions.”

Sobol served as an alderman for a decade before being elected to mayor in 2013. He called the decision by Collins to seek the office a “total surprise.”

“I thought we had a pretty good working relationship where we could be open with one another,” he said. “Apparently that’s not the case.”

As in many small municipalities, the mayor in Black Mountain acts as the town’s chief elected official, but does not have executive authority, such as veto power or the ability to hire or fire town employees and administrators. The mayor, elected to a four-year term, presides over board of aldermen meetings.

Collins' announcing his candidacy with the support of two board members makes Sobol think he may have misinterpreted his relationship with the aldermen.

“I’ve tried to run the meeting professionally and had hoped that I had a good relationship with the board,” he said. “As I look back now on certain things that have transpired, I realize that I was naive.”

Collins, who served as the town's vice mayor from 2013-2015, said he has been considering whether to enter the mayoral race for the past year. He believes his relationship with fellow members of the board is strong.

“I don’t want to criticize Sobol in any way, shape or form,” he said. “There is a connection between myself and the rest of the board, and I feel I can do a good job (as mayor).”

In 2011, while running for aldermen seats, Collins and Sobol pledged to restore civility to a board that had become known for fiery meetings and contentious exchanges between officials. Both believe they have fulfilled those promises.

Sobol, however, believes the current board has drifted from the town's comprehensive plan, which acts as a road map for how the town will adapt to growth over time. The plan was adopted in 2004, Sobol’s first year on the board, and updated in 2014.

“The public is the real architect of the plan,” Sobol said. “We passed it back then as a guiding vision for the future. This board has kind of used it but also gotten away with it. We’re not dealing with the issues we should, like storm water, roads, traffic congestion, water lines and density.”

Sobol's decision to seek a second term was influenced by his long-term vision for the town, he said.

"There are things we can do now to help retain the character of the town while giving it leeway to grow," he said.

All three candidates for mayor agree that growth is a key issue for Black Mountain. Hall, an Asheville firefighter who has lived in Black Mountain for 10 years, would like the town to place a moratorium on new construction and consider ways to urge potential developers to invest in the community.

"Once developments are completed, (developers) leave with their money," he said. "They leave us with the problems. They don't stick around and say 'well, here's how to solve the issues created by what I just built.'"

In addition to increased accountability for developers, Hall would like to see more town oversight of construction. Those concerns are shared by others in the community, he said.

"I attend the local government meetings, I spend time walking with my kids and talking to people at the local parks and schools," he said. "I'm involved in the community."

Growth is unavoidable, Collins said, but it is the duty of the elected officials to help guide it.

"We have to be involved in the growth of the town without saying 'stop, you can't do that,'" he said. "You have to be wise enough to understand that the town will continue to grow in the future."

Harris believes Collins is "the forward-thinking candidate when it comes to supporting reasonable growth in our business districts and sound transportation infrastructure for the future," he said.

"Don supports our working with transportation officials for improvements on Blue Ridge Road that will support the coming residential development that has already started and will continue along the Blue Ridge Road corridor," Harris said in an email. "I support Don because he supports these projects that I think very important to the future of Black Mountain."

Two aldermen seats are also up for grabs in November. Vice mayor Ryan Stone, appointed in September 2013 to fill the unexpired term of Tim Rayburn and elected to a full term two months later, is seeking re-election.

Also running are Jonathan Braden, Jeremie Konegni, Bob Pauly and Matt Robinson. Stepping down is Carlos Showers, who announced he would not seek another term.