The Buncombe County Commissioners recognized the contributions of four outstanding community leaders in their retirement.
The Buncombe County Commissioners recognized four retiring pillars of the community. The first, Mike Plemmons, has been serving as executive director of the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO) for three decades, almost the entire life of that organization. The organization served as a liaison between businesses and local government, sharing knowledge about existing and proposed ordinances, relaying concerns of business owners to government, lobbying for business-friendly policies, and encouraging business owners to be more involved in government.
Plemmons had served as a correspondent for CIBO on the workings of the commissioners and, pre-pandemic, could always be seen in the front row at commissioners’ meetings. He often took the microphone to represent CIBO’s stance on big issues. Afterward, as members of the press left, he would often speak frankly, without malice or political slant, about implications of what just happened. His speech was brief, and Chair Brownie Newman thanked him for walking the talk and doing his part to keep the meeting efficient. Plemmons will continue working as executive director for First Step Farm, an addiction recovery program.
The next retiring person to be recognized was Gene Bell. NC Senator Chuck Edwards had the honor of thanking Bell for decades of service. Edwards pulled only a few highlights from Bell’s impressive resume, which includes twenty-five years at the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, beginning as the director of maintenance and construction and moving into fourteen years as the executive director. Bell also served on the Asheville City Schools board for eight years and as its chair for six, on the Buncombe County Planning Board, and on the board of trustees for A-B Tech.
After college, Bell began his career with IBM, where he worked for twenty years, mostly in upper management. He moved around a lot until, out of deference to his daughter in high school, he declined another transfer and purchased a construction business. Edwards praised Bell for his stellar professionalism and great people skills and then presented him with a flag that had flown a day over the state capitol in his name.
Bell brought pragmatism and competence to organizations often stereotyped as bureaucracies. He had a talent for calling out absurdity. At one meeting, he told a high-ranking local politician he wasn’t interested in “shenanigans,” and another time, he criticized the emphasis on “job” creation for cultivating “just that,” signaling an absence of meaningful employment. Bell could find common ground for constructive conversation with anybody, and he was always the first to say hello, whether in a crowded meeting or stopped on his motorcycle at an intersection.
The commissioners next recognized their outgoing members. First up was Anthony Penland, who was seated to complete the term of Mike Fryar, who died in office. Former Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun, also a long-time pillar of the community, had the honor of singing Penland’s praises. Still serving as chief of the Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department, Penland’s career is marked by several distinctions from, and distinguished appointments of responsibility in, local, regional, and state firefighters’ associations.
After his appointment as a commissioner, Penland wasted no time reading between the lines, asking questions, and calling foul in the line of duty. He was a natural at navigating legislation and public speaking. Penland was defeated in a bid for re-election by incumbent Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who, first elected in District 1, was redistricted into District 2. With acclamation for Penland’s earned and widespread respect for community service, Vehaun said he hoped Penland would get back in the game.
In his farewell remarks, Penland didn’t talk about himself. Instead, he said it had been an honor to serve and that he treasured the friendships he formed among the commissioners. Forward looking, he encouraged those remaining to continue to pursue a path of service, keeping citizens, especially those most in need, first and foremost.
Lastly, Edwards returned to send off Commissioner Joe Belcher, whom Newman had already honored by inviting him to open the meeting with a heartfelt Christian prayer, in lieu of the more-inclusive socio-political statements substituted following a rash of lawsuits in the state. Edwards characterized Belcher as committed to faith and family and praised him for “staying above the fray of politics” to listen to people with their best interests at heart. Belcher was the kind of representative who would converse with constituents when they spotted him in the grocery store, and Belcher would often relay their comments and concerns to Edwards. Edwards said he considered Belcher “a friend of myself and the people of Buncombe County.”
Edwards thanked Belcher for his support for the tourist industry in the face of one-sided political pressure, and Belcher’s farewell proclamation listed as accomplishments capital improvements made for children and young adults, including a new roof at Asheville High, the Enka Sports Complex, and playgrounds for intermediate schools. Commissioner Robert Pressley gave Belcher an envelope, explaining that the commissioners had contributed “a little token … to get out on the green and play a little bit.”
Belcher described his terms of service as just extending the Second Great Commandment in a different seat. He said it was possible to “love thy neighbor,” to be a friend, and still make the right decisions. As tips for future leaders, he recommended serving with purpose, direction, and discretion, as well as making use of the expertise at the School of Government. He added he hoped he had served as a good example for his family members.