Town candidates look for edge in forum

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

On Oct. 18 the meeting room in the Black Mountain Public Library was filled to capacity as the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe gave voters a chance to see and hear candidates from both municipalities in the Swannanoa Valley seeking office in the Nov. 7 election. 

Moderated by Paul Clark, news editor of The Black Mountain News, the forum attracted two of three candidates in the Black Mountain mayoral race, three of the town's candidates for aldermen and four candidates vying for spots on the Montreat Board of Commissioners. 

A large crowd attended a forum at the Black Mountain Public Library on Oct. 18 when candidates from Black Mountain and Montreat answered questions from the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe.

Present at the gathering was Black Mountain's incumbent mayor Mike Sobol and political newcomer Weston Hall, who is also running for the office. Current alderman Don Collins, also running for mayor, was out of town on a pre-planned trip. 

Two of four Black Mountain aldermen candidates were there - incumbent Ryan Stone and challenger Jeremie Konegni. Bob Pauly and Matt Robinson were absent. 

Each candidate had three minutes for an opening statement. Black Mountain Savings Bank president Wendell Begley read a statement on behalf of Collins. 

"The commitments I made in 2011," Begley read for Collins, "was to restore civility to the board of aldermen, and we accomplished that. Debt reduction of $2.7 million, rounded off, is a 51 percent decrease, and we accomplished that. We took 14 debts down to four debts."

Collins also pointed to an increase in the town's fund balance, the repeal of a garbage tax and his work on the town square project as accomplishments during his tenure as alderman. 

"I have a great working relationship with the Black Mountain Board of Aldermen, town staff, Buncombe County commissioners and government," Collins' letter stated, as read by Begley. 

Hall introduced himself as a military veteran, a demographic he believes is underrepresented at the government level. 

Weston Hall, running against incumbent Mike Sobol and sitting alderman Don Collins for mayor of Black Mountain, introduces himself Oct. 18.

"That's a minority in our legislature," he said. "If you go all the way up to Donald Trump there are no veterans, and if you're here in Black Mountain you don't have a veteran representing you. And I'd like to change that."

Hall described himself as "an advocate for people" who hopes to be "a voice for the people" if elected. 

"I saw that a lot of people were getting run over roughshod by developers," he said. "I went to the town and nothing happened."

Sobol, elected mayor in 2013 after 10 years as alderman, opened his comments with why he became involved in local politics. 

Black Mountain mayor Mike Sobol tells the audience what made him decide to get involved in local politics during a forum held at the Black Mountain Public Library on Oct. 18.

"I did that for one major reason, and that was because I wanted to get a greenway established through Black Mountain," Sobol said. 

Sobol noted that the current board is "100 percent" behind Collins. But he said he believes his services are still needed as mayor.

"If everyone is walking in lockstep, then who is going to talk about the elephant in the room?" Sobol said. "I want to finish the greenway, and I also want to slow down over-development."

Black Mountain resident Elaine Loutzenheiser read a statement from Pauly to open the forum. 

"I'm a 29-year resident of Black Mountain. I worked in the food service business for 32 years," Loutzeneiser said from Pauly's statement. 

After retiring in 2010, Pauly, who missed the forum to attend his 50th high school reunion, according to Loutzenheiser, said in his statement that he dedicated himself to community service.

"I've volunteered on Black Mountain town boards such as the housing commission and the zoning board of adjustment," the statement said. "I have gotten to be familiar with some of the inner workings of town hall and the different departments."

Konegni, a native of Ohio who moved to the area with his wife in 2008, said he "knows what small town living is."

Jeremie Konegni introduces himself during a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe on Oct. 18.

"I'm a blue collar worker who simply wants to leave the world a better place than I found it," he said. "I want this not only for my family but for your family as well."

Stone, who was appointed to the board in 2013 to fill a vacancy and elected later that year, said it was an "honor and privilege" to serve the community in that capacity.

"I've been fortunate enough to call Black Mountain home my entire life," he said. "Four years ago I told everyone I was inspired to run by something my grandfather (Richard B. Stone, Black Mountain mayor 1957-1975) said to me, which was that we have an obligation to leave things better than we found them. Ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that we've done better things in Black Mountain over these last four years, but there's still more to do."

Each candidate was given a minute to respond to questions from the moderator. The first questions asked of candidates was how they would deal with growth while helping the town maintain its "small town feel."

Hall advocated for increased restrictions on developers. "In Black Mountain we need to work on affordable housing," he said. "Developers are not held accountable for mitigating storm-water hazards." He added that roads in Black Mountain were unsafe to walk or bike on. 

Sobol echoed some of Hall's sentiments. "Again, I've used the word many times and I'll use it several more times, we have to stop over-development," he said. "We're not dealing with it."

Three-story buildings in downtown should not be allowed, Sobol said, suggesting the town invest in a parking garage in the district to keep the area viable. "It's not that expensive, but we've got to address that," he said

Konegni expressed a need to preserve the central business district. "We need to protect our shops downtown," he said. "That's why people come here, the look and feel of downtown."

Stone said growth was the "number one issue" in the election, and suggested expanding the existing planning and development department. He said the board's effort to reduce debt in recent years will allow the town to address those needs.

Alderman Ryan Stone addresses the crowd at the Black Mountain Public Library on Oct. 18 during a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe.

"We have three individuals in our planning department in a town of almost 9,000 people," he said. "We need to give them the resources to do their job."