Twenty years ago, law enforcement in Asheville and Buncombe County was unaccountable, environmental regulations were a joke and local government was a perpetual backroom deal. Mountain Xpress’ investigative reporting and commitment to community involvement helped changed all that in ways that I might not believe possible if I hadn’t seen them myself — from the outside as an activist and from the inside as a journalist.
In August 1998, my mate Dixie Deerman and I were helping lead Community of Compassion for Cannabis, a movement to make marijuana and hemp a low priority for local law enforcement. Supporters of a resolution to that end jammed City Council’s ordinarily near-empty chambers, in an effort to get an unwilling Council to pass it. When one of our group took the podium and pointed out a plainclothes city policeman sitting in front who was videotaping every citizen who spoke in defense of cannabis, only one reporter — Xpress’ Margaret Williams — promptly swiveled in her chair and snapped a photo of the videographer. The sole press report of this crude but then-typical intimidation tactic was in Margaret’s story in the next week’s Xpress.
I started working at Xpress the following year and continued for the next six as the community-calendar editor and as a reporter. My most eye-opening beat, which I inherited from fellow activist/writer Clare Hanrahan: the board meetings of the Western North Carolina Air Quality Agency. That agency had become a rubber stamp for air polluters, and was so slack and corrupt that one industry-installed board member literally slept in his seat through permit hearings until it was time to vote, when someone would wake him up.
But thanks to the insistent outspokenness of a few citizen activists — notably Hazel Fobes (Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes’ mother) and Arlis and Rachel Queen — combined with the vividly written but scrupulously factual reports we Xpress writers learned to file under Peter Gregutt’s editorial tutelage, a fierce spotlight of public scrutiny forced the air agency to reform its board and begin actually enforcing the clean-air laws on its books. The influential Clean Smokestacks Act, which WNC legislators spearheaded in 2002, was a direct outcome of this change.
Xpress‘ in-depth reporting on local politics so angered some powers-that-be that we journalists sometimes experienced threats to our safety. At one meeting of conservative local businessmen that I attended during the time when Xpress reporter Brian Sarzynski was covering the controversies surrounding the approval of the Wal-Mart at the old Sayles Bleachery, my car was vandalized and I nearly got punched out by a furious developer just for being an Xpress reporter. Another time I was menacingly followed home after being what felt like the first reporter to ever cover a meeting of the Woodfin Town Council, at a time when we were receiving frightening allegations about corruption in connection with Woodfin’s mayor.
We heard more allegations of dirty laundry than we could investigate and cover. Once when Cecil Bothwell was my editor, we were meeting in his office when he received a tip by phone that, right at that moment, cops were dealing drugs out of the back door of the Asheville Police Department. If we could have confirmed that long-circulating rumor — the way Cecil’s reporting in Xpress successfully exposed the now-jailed Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford — the APD’s evidence-room scandal would no doubt have broken years before it eventually did.
It’s thanks in no small part to Mountain Xpress that Asheville’s City Hall is nowadays at the forefront of a nationwide movement to open up the backrooms and make government transparent and inclusive. The corruption that once seemed so intractable here has largely moved on to our state capital in Raleigh. And thankfully, its steps are being dogged by Carolina Public Press, the successor to Xpress‘ sister Fund for Investigative Reporting (FIRE), with which I’m proud to say I once shared a cramped office and an overstuffed filing cabinet on the second floor of the Miles Building, which has been home to Mountain Xpress for two decades.
Steve Rasmussen worked at Mountain Xpress from 1999 to 2005. He is the co-author with Dixie Deerman of The Goodly Spellbook: Olde Spells for Modern Problems, which is being re-issued in a 10th-anniversary second edition by Sterling Ethos.