Concessions made on ETJ appointments
by Kellen Short
The Boone Town Council agreed Wednesday to drop its requirement that Watauga County commissioners hold a public hearing before appointing representatives from the extraterritorial jurisdiction to Boone boards and commissions.
It was the defining decision of a heated two-hour meeting marked by hypotheticals, legal disagreements and occasional compromises.
"We're just asking to be able to make our appointments the same way you make yours," Commissioner Perry Yates said, calling the hearing requirement "discriminatory."
All Boone Town Council members except Rennie Brantz and all commissioners were present, plus Mayor Loretta Clawson, the town and county managers and attorneys, and a number of local residents.
The town also agreed to forward applicants to the county individually as they apply, rather than waiting for two names as a previous county board had requested. The county agreed to wait at least 60 days for Boone to forward a recommendation before making an appointment.
The joint meeting was called after the Boone Town Council in September refused to swear in two ETJ appointees and called into question the service of a third who was "inadvertently" seated.
The town said the county had erred because it did not hold public hearings before appointing Dale Greene to the Boone Board of Adjustment and Frank Bolick and Jon Tate to the Boone Planning Commission.
The argument started a firestorm between the town and the county about whether both bodies had agreed to such terms during a 2011 meeting and how the town's Unified Development Ordinance ought to be interpreted.
The county reappointed Greene, Bolick and Tate in October after a public hearing that drew no speakers. All three have been sworn in and are ready to participate in meetings.
The public hearing elimination was perhaps the easiest battle, as Boone Town Council members expressed no opposition to removing it.
"That would be the recommendation, as legal counsel for the county, that that text simply be deleted, and that would bring the procedures into compliance with the applicable law," said county attorney Stacy "Four" Eggers.
Commissioners questioned how the public hearing stipulation had emerged, as they could not remember it being discussed at the 2011 meeting and could not find mention of it in either board's minutes.
"It's not in the minutes, but I remember," said Town Attorney Sam Furgiuele. " ... I wanted to be sure that I didn't draft anything that created some huge controversy."
Furgiuele, Eggers and commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller briefly debated the state statute dealing with ETJ representation and a 2007 Court of Appeals case Furgiuele said was evidence the town's action was just.
The legalese dropped off substantially after Yates snapped at Furgiuele: "This is a meeting between the town council and the commissioners. You are not an elected official. Let us discuss it. We could go on a diatribe all night."
Both boards also discussed their respective procedures for soliciting and vetting applicants, with both agreeing that it was difficult to find people interested in filling ETJ seats.
"We're all having the same problem," County Manager Deron Geouque said. "There's just nobody there coming and wanting to serve on the ETJ boards."
Council members stressed that they wanted the county to try as hard as it could to find an ETJ resident for those ETJ seats. Commissioners are permitted to appoint someone from outside the ETJ for those seats if a qualified applicant cannot be found.
"I just want to make sure that both of us make a good faith effort to find applicants from the ETJ," council member Lynne Mason said.
The boards agreed on an internal procedure that town staff would notify the county of anticipated vacancies 90 days prior to the end of a term, if possible. That would allow both boards to begin advertising the position online and at their meetings.
The lengthiest discussion centered on how long the county would wait for a recommendation from the town before proceeding on its own, particularly in cases of unexpected resignations not occurring at the end of a term.
The county agreed to wait at least 60 days for the town to advertise, gather applications and send recommendations, as staff said that was the quickest the process could go through the council.
The agreements reached Wednesday won't become official until the Town Council amends its Unified Development Ordinance, and council members said they planned to begin the process at their meeting Thursday.
Furgiuele said he expected the UDO alteration process, which requires an advertised public hearing, would take about two months. The town agreed to inform the county directly at every step of the process, including when the revised language was drafted.
Mason reiterated that if the process didn't work as intended it could be amended later. Several expressed optimism at the arrangements reached Wednesday.
"Part of the trouble, I feel like, has been communication, and I feel like this has been good," Yates said. "We need to work together as a county and town ... rather than being always at each other's throats."