Buzzworm news briefs

CSI: Cullowhee

In the recent CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode “Eleven Angry Jurors,” it’s the forensic experts who discover the murder weapon: peanut butter secretly added to the unsuspecting 12th juror’s chili (he had a fatal allergy).

Meanwhile, in the “Stalkerazzi” episode of the spinoff CSI: Miami, it’s the forensic experts who discover foul play while investigating a car accident. Petechiae (tiny broken capillaries) in the victim’s eyes suggest that he actually died of strangulation — and when a bottle of Amido black (a print-processing dye) is poured on his chin, it reveals a partial palm print.

Television programs like CSI — not to mention such high-profile court cases as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Chandra Levy missing-person case — have sparked increased interest in forensics, some experts say.

“Forensic sciences have become one of the most highly-sought-after degree programs in the past few years, and enrollments are up at forensic programs at colleges and universities across the nation,” notes forensic anthropologist John Williams.

In response to student demand, Western Carolina University plans to tap Williams’ expertise in connection with a new concentration in forensic anthropology — the study of the human skeleton as it pertains to legal matters — the school will offer beginning this fall. There are also plans to develop a master’s degree program in the same subject, starting next year.

Television and film writers, Williams warns, take the same kinds of creative liberties with forensic scientists as they do with police officers, attorneys and emergency-room doctors. “Forensic anthropology is a fascinating field, but we’re not out there every day at crime scenes,” he explains. “Our work is primarily in the lab, running tests or analyzing DNA, and then testifying in court about our findings.”

Williams, one of only 55 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the entire United States, comes to Western after 23 years at the University of North Dakota. A fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he’s also a member of DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), a federal Department of Health and Human Services agency that activates forensic anthropologists, pathologists, fingerprint experts, funeral-home directors and other specialists to deal with mass-fatality disasters.

Shortly after 9/11, Williams spent about two weeks sorting through the debris from Ground Zero. A founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he has also helped identify victims of two airline crashes, and he recently developed a procedure to help cemeteries move graves.

Williams is overseeing the creation of a working forensic-anthropology laboratory in the basement of Western’s recently renovated McKee Building. The new facility will specialize in human identification, the effects of decomposition on the human body, and injuries to the human skeleton.

For more information about Western’s forensic-anthropology programs, contact the department of anthropology and sociology at 227-7268.

— Lisa Watters

Senator Metcalf’s surprise

After representing Buncombe County in Raleigh for five years, state Sen. Steve Metcalf is calling it quits. In December, the Democrat said he won’t be seeking re-election this November. The news surprised many of his supporters. But a few weeks later, Metcalf made an even more stunning announcement: He’s resigning from office, effective Feb. 2.

Metcalf told Xpress that he’s giving up his seat so he can spend more time with his family and focus on his new political-consulting business.

During his three terms in the General Assembly, Metcalf gained a reputation as a skilled legislator capable of building bipartisan coalitions. The passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act (which he co-sponsored) is one example: After lining up votes on both sides of the aisle, Metcalf stood by Gov. Mike Easley‘s side as the bill (praised by environmentalists and health-care workers as a milestone in the fight for clean air) was signed into law.

But while such accomplishments have won him praise, his work outside the legislature has drawn criticism. As a legislator, Metcalf — the former Buncombe County manager — earns a little more than $20,000 per year. Last year, Metcalf resigned from his other job (director of community affairs at Western Carolina University) after critics questioned whether his work for the state university constituted a conflict of interest with his duties in Raleigh. Now, Metcalf’s decision to vacate his Senate seat — and his plans for the future — have also come under scrutiny.

On Dec. 6, shortly before Metcalf’s public announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election, The News & Observer of Raleigh published a story headlined “Lobbying Plans Raise Eyebrows.” The story reported that Metcalf had contacted a lobbyist with Progress Energy to discuss “a possible future in lobbying for the company.” In the article, Metcalf explained that he hadn’t directly solicited work. But Keith Poston, a spokesman for the energy utility, told The News & Observer “that Metcalf might not have directly solicited a job, but did speak about the possibility of working for Progress Energy,” the article reported. It went on to quote Poston as saying, “We told him that we did not think it was appropriate to discuss that with him while he was still a state senator.” The article also reported that Metcalf had held similar discussions with Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians about their legislative goals and the possibility of metcalf’s working with them.

Metcalf told Xpress that the News & Observer article hadn’t influenced his decision to leave office early. He also said the article “didn’t characterize my actions appropriately,” adding: “I did not do what they said I did. It was not my intention to solicit business. They gave the impression that I was trying to get a specific client to lobby for. All I did was talk to a lobbyist friend about what it’s like to lobby in the General Assembly.”

Asked about his new business venture — The Policy Group Inc. — Metcalf called it a “public-policy consulting group” that will work with business interests having dealings with local governments. He also said he hopes to eventually expand his client base to include clients that have issues pending before state agencies.

Reflecting on his years of political service, Metcalf observed: “I’ve never done anything I’ve enjoyed more than the legislative process; I will miss it a great deal. I have the utmost respect for the other members of the delegation — there’s not a finer bunch.” As for future political aspirations, Metcalf said he’s doing what’s best for his family, though he noted with a grin, “Never say never.”

The Buncombe County Democratic Party will nominate someone to fill the vacated Senate seat, subject to final approval by Gov. Easley.

— Brian Sarzynski

Get in the loop

Want to be kept up to date with the doings of the Pack Square Conservancy? Well, send them an e-mail and join their electronic mailing list.

Conservancy Director Carol King told Xpress that the group wants to keep the public informed about the redesign of the park, public meetings and design forums.

To be added to the list, send an e-mail to marilyng@packsquare.com. You can also visit the Conservancy’s website at www.packsquare.com.

— Brian Sarzynski

Xpress wants blood

Mountain Xpress will host the American Red Cross bloodmobile, Feb. 11, noon – 4:30 p.m. outside the newspaper office at the intersection of Battery Park and Wall Street. The Red Cross is currently experiencing a serious shortage of all blood types. Please join the Xpress team for this event: Area restaurants will supply snacks and beverages. Phone 251-1333 to schedule your appointment.

— Cecil Bothwell

Speak up about mental-health reform

Mental-health reform is well under way in Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties. But how well is it going? What kinds of problems have come up?

In order to find out, the Western Highlands Network local management entity has scheduled three “listening sessions” to elicit public feedback:

• Monday, Feb. 2 at Mitchell County High School;

• Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Yancey County Courthouse;

• and Thursday, Feb. 12 at A-B Tech’s Madison County campus.

All three sessions will begin at 5:30 p.m.

For more info, call the Western Highlands Network at (800) 951-3792.

— Tracy Rose

Bizworm

Asheville at work

There’s been a lot of talk lately about our nation’s “jobless recovery.” How has Asheville fared compared to other communities across the country?

“Very well,” says Tom Tveidt, director of the Chamber of Commerce’s Asheville Metro Business Research Center. “This is best reflected in unemployment rates. … Asheville has held 20 straight months with the lowest unemployment rate [3.5 percent as of November] among all 11 metros in the state. The local rates are also well below national [rates].”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the last five years the Asheville metro (which includes Buncombe and Madison counties) added 7,594 net new jobs — including 1,867 last year. During this same five-year period, Asheville’s labor force grew by 8,921 people — including 1,315 this last year.

“You can see that in the last year there were more jobs created than people added to the labor force, yet looking over the last five years, jobs didn’t quite keep up with the growth of the labor force,” notes Tveidt. “Generally, the period between early 2001 and the first few months of [last] year were marked by job growth below labor-force growth. Since April 2003, however, the average 12-month change in employment growth has outpaced labor-force growth 1.4 percent to 0.8 percent.”

The biggest job losses during this five-year period have been in manufacturing (-4,200), financial activities (-1,400) and wholesale trade (-300). The biggest gains have come in health services/private education (+4,000), professional/business services (+1,000), leisure/hospitality (+500) and retail trade (+400).

Tveidt admits to being somewhat mystified by the losses in financial activities. “It shows up in this database (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) but not in the N.C. State numbers,” he explains. “I suspect it might have something to do with the banking mergers. I don’t know of any large layoffs in this sector locally.”

Tveidt also notes that the data on job losses and gains, which comes from existing businesses, inevitably misses some of the growth in small- and new-business employment.

Traditionally, manufacturing jobs have offered employees a relatively high wage. How do these other areas compare?

It’s not easy to compare wages, because within each sector there can be a wide range of salaries paid for different kinds of jobs, Tveidt explains. Professional/business services, for example, includes jobs as diverse as building maintenance, landscaping and computer design. And health services lumps together nursing-home attendants and tech specialists in medical laboratories.

That said, there is data on the average wage within each sector. Here are the average weekly wages for some of the sectors that have seen the most activity locally:

Manufacturing (textile mills) $533.31; manufacturing (electrical equipment and appliances) $682.63; financial activities (credit intermediation and related activity) $915.50; health services (ambulatory health-care services) $780.56; health services (hospitals) $781.24; health services (nursing and residential-care facilities) $432.64; professional/business services (professional and technical services) $735.91; professional/business services (administrative and support services) $352.83; and leisure/hospitality (accommodations) $339.39.

— Lisa Watters

From Mount Rushmore to Cesar Chavez

Home-school parents and students, take note: Free computer classes will be offered during the first week of February at nine computer labs around Western North Carolina.

The 19 lessons (aimed at both beginning and advanced computer users) cover topics ranging from presidential elections to Thomas Edison and from Mount Rushmore to Cesar Chavez. Each lesson includes hands-on computer activities and a chance to learn about the primary sources available online from the Library of Congress — whose Web site contains an amazing 8 million items aimed at educators and students.

The free lessons can be taken online or at any of the following colleges: A-B Tech (main and Enka campuses), Blue Ridge Community College, Brevard College, Haywood Community College, Isothermal Community College, Mars Hill College, Mayland Community College (Burnsville campus) and Montreat College.

The lessons — aimed at home-school parents and students in grades three through 12 — were created through a program called An Adventure of the American Mind. Funded by a grant from the Library of Congress, the program was made possible through the efforts of Rep. Charles Taylor and the Education and Research Consortium of Western Carolina, an Asheville nonprofit Taylor founded in 1997, according to the AAM Web site.

To register for lessons, call (828) 670-8585 or visit aamhomeschool.org.

— Tracy Rose

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