Buncombe County Commission

“A gal is 90 percent psychological, 10 percent biological. We call her a crock pot: You gotta warm her up.”

– pastoral counselor Howard Andrus

Judging by the tenor of the public comments aired at last week’s Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, you’d think advocates of public-access TV had proposed a 24-hour porn channel.

They haven’t — but that didn’t stop a parade of county residents from taking turns blasting the county’s plans to negotiate with a local nonprofit to launch the new cable channel (which will be primarily funded by revenues from cable subscribers).

And though fears about pornography generated the most rhetoric at the Feb. 3 meeting, an unrelated — but highly significant — issue also came to light: the growing local repercussions of state-mandated mental-health reform.

Keeping abreast of public access

At the beginning of the board’s work session, Chairman Nathan Ramsey defused some of the heat about public-access TV by announcing that the commissioners were postponing a vote on launching negotiations with URTV, the nonprofit that would manage the new channel. The delay will give County Attorney Joe Connolly time to talk with the Raleigh city attorney’s office about how officials there deal with potentially offensive content on that city’s public-access channel.

Programming guidelines for the Asheville/Buncombe channel have yet to be finalized, but the draft rules do address potentially objectionable content, URTV interim board President Beth Lazer told Xpress after the meeting. But a number of speakers were riled up at the prospect of offensive content being shown on local TV.

Haw Creek resident Fred English led the charge, mentioning his own military service and Janet Jackson’s recent breast-baring stunt on CBS. English insisted that he doesn’t want a portion of his cable-TV fee used to help fund public-access TV.

“If you think the Super Bowl at halftime yesterday was something, wait till you watch some of this public-access television,” English proclaimed. “We’re not going to lose the war to the communists; we’re gonna destroy this country from within.”

Longtime county watchdog/radio talk-show host Don Yelton then asked the commissioners what the Federal Register has to say about controlling content on public-access TV.

Commissioner David Young replied that the board is consulting with its attorney, allowing that Yelton had a valid question.

“I don’t want to see Janet Jackson on there,” Young concurred.

Seven other speakers also voiced views ranging from trepidation to outright opposition to public-access TV. Howard Andrus, who serves on the board of the Asheville-based Community Council for Biblical Values, said pornography endangers the institution of marriage. But first he took a moment to explain the differences between men and women.

“Part of the difference is, a gal is 90 percent psychological, 10 percent biological. We call her a crock pot: You gotta warm her up,” Andrus advised, eliciting a snicker from the audience. “And a guy is 10 percent psychological and 90 percent biological. That is a whale of a sex drive that the fairer gender just doesn’t understand.”

Andrus, a pastoral counselor with an office in Candler, had just begun discussing men’s particular susceptibility to pornography when he ran out of time.

The torch was later passed to fellow board member Gail Harding, also of the Community Council for Biblical Values, who told the commissioners that pornography threatens families. With a catch in her voice, she also recounted how she once accidentally glimpsed the cover of a porn magazine — an image that still haunts her.

“The picture of that filth is still imprinted today,” she lamented.

“I ask you, and I plead with you, to please keep the negative out for the benefit of the community,” concluded Harding.

County resident Chad Nesbitt declared that no matter how the URTV board is structured, federal law won’t allow the county to discriminate against anyone who wants to air programming of whatever sort on public-access TV. Nesbitt then cited several programs he said had aired on other public-access channels across the country, asking the commissioners whether they would find them offensive: The Atheist Viewpoint, Fantasy Bedtime Hour (which he described as “two lesbians in bed discussing fantasy novels”), and White Revolution, a program broadcasting what he called “white-supremacist crap.” Nesbitt urged the board to pull the plug on public-access TV and, instead, use subscriber pass-through fees to help support the local educational channel (which is financed by Asheville City Schools, A-B Tech and UNCA).

The lone voice in favor of public-access TV came from Media Arts Project Executive Director Greg Lucas, who sees the channel as one component of a proposed media-arts center.

Public-access TV, said Lucas, has a proven track record of fostering economic development. And while conceding that it’s valid to question the content to be aired on the channel, he also suggested that members of the public work with URTV’s board to help develop voluntary program standards.

“Everyone here seems to think that URTV will just be an avenue for pornographers and ne’er-do-wells to display their work,” Lucas observed. “That is not the case in many other communities, where it is an economic-development driver, a form of civic expression, and a form of political discussion. And I think that many of them will want to have their programming on URTV once it gets up and running.”

He also said it’s important for government appointees not to dominate the new URTV board.

That issue also promises to be contentious. The Asheville City Council had decided that it wanted two city appointees on the URTV board (rather than the single rep URTV advocates had proposed). But by the time the issue got to the commissioners, they had upped the ante still further, considering whether they ought to have three representatives on the URTV board.

Although Lazer watched the commissioners meeting from the audience, she didn’t weigh in.

Lazer later told Xpress that if the city and county insist on each appointing three members to URTV’s 11-member board, there’s hardly any point in having a board run the station, since it would essentially become a government commission. URTV advocates believe a proposed management agreement between URTV, the city and county would provide sufficient accountability, she noted.

“That’s why we’re encouraging them to vote for two,” said Lazer.

URTV advocates, she explained, envision several possible ways to regulate program content, such as:

• the station would abide by all federal and state obscenity laws — and North Carolina’s laws are much more detailed than the federal government’s. North Carolina defines obscene material as content that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards would find … appeals to the prurient interest”; it also defines as obscene specific sex acts, excretory functions and lewd exhibition of the genitals;

• programming with violent content, harsh language or other material not appropriate for children would be aired at times when young viewers are least likely to see it;

• “potentially offensive” programming would be aired late at night and identified as such by a banner crawling across the bottom of the screen;

• only locally produced programming will air; and

• the person submitting the programming will be held responsible for its content.

Lazer did concede, however, that because public-access TV is considered a public forum, programming that some people might find objectionable will likely end up on the air.

“We have to abide by First Amendment rights,” Lazer explained. “Therefore, if a program is not obscene or libelous or contains slander, we must air it. That’s the guidelines.”

During a break in the meeting, Commissioner Patsy Keever spoke with Harding in the hallway, observing, “I agree with you entirely on the pornography thing, but I don’t think that’s what public access is about.”

Mental-health-reform fallout

After hearing so much concern about things that haven’t happened yet, the commissioners shifted their attention to things that are already going on. Because of the uncertainties caused by state-mandated mental health reform, many local people are unsure where to go for services, County Manager Wanda Greene told the commissioners. As a result, they’re showing up at the Buncombe County Health Center, local emergency rooms and the county jail.

“People just don’t know where to go right now,” reported Greene.

In fact, Buncombe County residents in need of adult or child mental-health services can still call or visit the Blue Ridge Center — even after March 1, when the next phase of reform kicks in — since new providers will operate out of the same Biltmore Avenue building where services have traditionally been offered, Western Highlands Network Director Larry Thompson told Xpress in an earlier interview.

But to deal with the rising tide of people needing care, Greene asked the commissioners for authorization to ask the Western Highlands Network whether Buncombe County can divert a portion of the money it has traditionally allocated to the Blue Ridge Center without violating the state mandate that counties not cut their mental-health spending.

Specifically, Greene wants to give the county Health Center and Detention Center $100,000 of the $465,000 mental-health-services allotment.

Greene also predicted that mental-health reform will end up tripling the county’s annual costs, due to the way the state revamped the rules that determine who is eligible for state-financed care.

The board unanimously authorized Greene to proceed with the request.

In a related item, Buncombe County Mental Health Advisory Task Force Chairwoman Linda Poss asked the commissioners to consider taking steps to provide a better picture of how public mental-health assets have been allocated by the now-defunct board that once controlled the Blue Ridge Center and its many subsidiaries. The task force specifically asked the commissioners to obtain:

• independent, comprehensive financial and performance audits of the Blue Ridge Area Authority and its subsidiaries for the past 10 years;

• an independent review of those audits; and

• an independent legal opinion on both the legality of the financial transactions and on Buncombe County’s potential liability.

Several board members said they favor the idea, but they took no immediate action on the task force’s request.

Ramsey (a former Blue Ridge Area Authority board member) had this to say about the county’s ultimate liability for mental-health services under reform: “It’s tremendous, large and unfunded.”

Historic golf courses & more

The commissioners also heard about several other issues, including:

• Efforts to get the Buncombe County Golf Course placed on the National Register of Historic Places (which could help protect it from a future road-widening project);

• The Asheville City Schools’ success in closing the “achievement gap” between majority and minority students; and

• RiverLink’s evolving proposal for the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay, a plan to revitalize the Swannanoa River corridor.

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