According to the results of an open records request from Xpress, Marsha Stickford, the city of Asheville’s neighborhood coordinator, only received one email about the state of newspaper boxes during the past year, and that wasn’t a complaint. At a Feb. 2 meeting with newspaper publishers discussing possible restrictions on the boxes, Stickford claimed that she received numerous complaints, but couldn’t produce them because she deleted the emails.
The Downtown Commission is currently looking at the state of the area’s streetscape, and staff laid out a number of possible restrictions, ranging from permits to an approved “palette” of colors for newspaper boxes to common, city-owned boxes only in specified locations.
At the Feb. 2 meeting, representatives of newspapers asked for copies of the complaints the city claimed that it was receiving, complaints that, according to some city staffers and commission members, constituted one of the main reasons for the push to restrict the paper boxes.
“I’ll be honest with you: I delete them,” Stickford said when asked about the email complaints by newspaper representatives. “I write them back and say the city doesn’t regulate, that you need to communicate with the owner.”
Under the state’s open records law, municipal staffers are not allowed to delete emails pertaining to public business. After the meeting, Xpress made an open records request for all complaints about newspaper boxes received by Stickford during the last year, and for the retrieval of any deleted emails that fit that criteria.
“I’ve searched the archives and no emailed complaints were received by Ms. Stickford by email between Feb. 2 2010 – Feb. 2 2011 regarding newspaper boxes (with the exception of one email about graffiti which I’ve attached),” city spokesperson Dawa Hitch wrote in an e-mail to Xpress yesterday evening. “When an employee deletes an email, it can be retrieved from the server the city uses to archive emails.”
The one exception Hitch mentions — a Jan. 31 email about graffiti from APD Community Resource Officer Evan Coward — notes that police arrested two suspects for painting newspaper boxes and sidewalk grates.
“I am aware of the issue of graffiti on paper boxes downtown and met with Jeff Tallman with Mountain Xpress this afternoon,” Coward wrote. “We have a close working relationship and will be sharing as much information as possible in order to help reduce graffiti incidents and aid in charging.”
On the absence of email complaints, Stickford says “I honestly didn’t remember if I’d gotten emails.”
But Stickford did say at the meeting that she deleted email complaints. When asked about this, she tells Xpress “no, what I said is that if I got any, what I know really well is what things I can help with and what things I can’t. I get a lot of complaints about a lot of different things. Newspaper boxes were a policy issue and that it really wasn’t for me to address.”
“If I got any emails — and clearly I didn’t get any, because Dawa did a search — the main issue for me is that it’s a policy issue, it’s not something I address,” Stickford continues. “My comment was really more that if I got any I probably sent a nice reply telling them I couldn’t address that and then deleted it, because I get such a high volume of complaint emails that the ones I keep are the ones I end up following up on.”
Now, Stickford claims that complaints aren’t the issue.
“This current look [at restricting newspaper boxes] wasn’t motivated by citizen complaints: this came out of the Downtown Commission.”
The Downtown Commission will take up the topic at its meeting Friday, Feb. 10, at 8:30 a.m. on the first floor of City Hall.
Photo by Bill Rhodes