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Let Them Eat Cake: 2011

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A disconnection exists between the people and their government these days that only seems to be growing worse at the local level. Many taxpayers wonder, “What do we have to do to get these politicians to wake up?”

Mike Fryer, an Asheville area resident and occasional political activist who has run for office, recently highlighted an alarming fact to the residents of Buncombe County; their commissioners are the best paid of any board’s in North Carolina. In fact, according the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, each part-time Buncombe County Commissioner took home more than $41,000 in average annual compensation — slightly less than the annual median household income for the community they govern.

So what did these “representatives of the people” have to say when confronted? Long-time commissioner and current board Vice Chairman Bill Stanley told the Asheville Citizen-Times, “I wouldn’t work for a penny less.”

Good thing Mr. Stanley doesn’t live in the Queen City. Mecklenburg County, the most populated county in the state, compensates its commissioners a little more than $30,000 — a third less than Buncombe County commissioners are paid.

Does this mean Buncombe County is in sound financial shape? Hardly. The county is considering cutting the budget across the board by as much as 10 percent.

Surely the commissioners are willing to feel the pinch too? Wrong again. Stanley also was quoted as saying, “I don’t think we get paid enough.”

So what are commissioners doing to earn all this money? Members of the commission will tell you they travel a lot and serve on multiple boards. Commissioner Carol Weir Peterson even suggested that their job is harder than most places because “Buncombe County has great diversity,” Jon Ostendorff reported in the Citizen-Times.

Some commissioners point to the harsh demands of understanding agriculture, governing in the mountains, and attracting tourism. Maybe they are right. No other communities deal with such things … (Note sarcasm.) As an aside, though, neighboring counties in the west pay commissioners anywhere from $13,000-$17,000 annually. Yet, those counties have more agriculture, more mountainous terrain, and fewer tourism dollars streaming in than Asheville.

What do the residents of Buncombe County think about this injustice? Some have gone after the reporters and the people who helped bring this information to light. One online post asserted that this was nothing more than “a hatchet-job by the Asheville Citizen-Times, which has become nothing but a mouthpiece for the far-right.”

How far left does one have to be to consider the Gannett owned daily paper far right?

What is on display is the irresponsibility, the apathy, of voters who have let their government run amuck. The string of arrogant abuses of power and the mismanagement of other people’s money in the Tar Heel State is long enough to cross the state three times and back. Whether it’s the corrupt actions of state or federal officials or the ivory-tower attitude of some local politicians, we should no more show outrage toward them than we should cast on ourselves. We, in fact, are the government.

For too long, when it came to holding people accountable, many have allowed themselves to get caught in tribal encampments: Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, rich vs. poor. These labels not only keep people apart, but also lull citizens into a blind sleep where the ineptness and misdeeds of people who belong to the same tribe become immune from redress.

When Buncombe County Commissioner and former president of Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College K. Ray Bailey responded to this controversy by saying, “[The pay] seems to be reasonable based on what I do,” we can assume that he doesn’t know what his constituents do on a daily basis.

It’s little wonder there’s a growing disdain for public office in general when many in office seem unable to understand what everyday citizens value. Their inability to relate and prioritize in a manner reflective of the general population’s expectations is astounding.

Want to cure this destructive disconnection between the people and their government? Get more of “the people” into government. Look at yourself as a manager rather than an employee. Sharpen an assertive tone and demand no less from your elected officials than you apply to your own home and business.

Maybe it’s less about getting politicians to “wake up” than it is about us taking a stand, united in common sense and accountability. After all, professional journalists didn’t bring this issue about exorbitant pay in Buncombe County to the public’s attention; an astute and assertive private citizen did.

Matt Mittan is host of “Take a Stand!”, heard Mon-Fri from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. in Asheville on News Radio 570 WWNC-AM and is a regular fill-in host on News Talk 1110 WBT-AM in Charlotte.

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