Newspaper editors don’t usually attend City Council meetings, much less address Council members. But on Feb. 10, new Asheville Citizen-Times Executive Editor George Benge went after Council like a bulldog.
Thwarted despite repeated requests for access to 30 years’ worth of cable-franchise-fee documents, Benge accused Assistant City Attorney Patsy Meldrum of having a conflict of interest, threatened Council with a lawsuit to force disclosure of the information, and called City Attorney Bob Oast‘s legal opinion on the issue “unsound.”
Benge told Council members, “Our suspicions are raised. … There must be something you don’t want us to know.” He referred to the possibility of legal action as “distasteful” — but indicated that the Citizen-Times is more than willing to sue the city.
The requested documents allegedly show, in detail, how much money current and former cable-franchise holders in Asheville have paid the city — and exactly what revenues were used to calculate those amounts. Under Asheville’s 1967 cable franchise, currently held by InterMedia, cable companies are required to pay the city 6 percent of “gross revenues.”
But the city and cable companies have spent years butting heads over the definition of “gross revenues.” The city’s more-inclusive definition includes pay-per-view, premium-channel and advertising revenues. By that standard, former franchise-holder TCI would owe the city about half a million dollars for the period between 1992 and 1995, according to a consultant’s study.
Benge asserted that the Citizen-Times and the public have a right to the information on which that audit was based, as well as to details about the franchise’s history. And that information is needed soon, he pointed out: Council has scheduled a Feb. 24 public hearing to discuss a proposed new franchise agreement with InterMedia. “These documents are not only relevant but also … necessary for the public to be fully informed and to be able to participate in a meaningful way at the public hearing,” Benge declared.
Oast has repeatedly insisted that, in North Carolina, cable-franchise fees — paid to gain access to a municipality’s public rights-of-way — are a form of taxation. Oast maintains that state statutes prohibit releasing of information about the income from which taxes are derived.
But Benge countered Oast’s argument by citing several U.S. Supreme Court cases, including an 1893 dispute between the city of St. Louis and the Western Union Telegraph Company. “Franchise fees are not taxes, but a form of rent for the use of public right-of-ways,” Benge argued.
He further declared, “Council is losing sight of the duty it owes the public to disclose all information.” Benge mentioned that InterMedia General Manager Joe Haight was quoted in a recent Citizen-Times article as saying that he had no problem with releasing the information.
Council member Chuck Cloninger interrupted, raising his voice as he argued that InterMedia’s attorney “is on record [Feb. 3] as saying we cannot release that information.”
“Let me finish,” Benge said. He then claimed that Meldrum has a possible conflict of interest, because she is both a key negotiator in the franchise talks and the person withholding the requested information. Benge asked, “Whose interests are being served here — the public’s? Or Patsy Meldrum’s?”
Mayor Leni Sitnick countered with a low-key redirection: She calmly reiterated that InterMedia’s attorney had recently told city officials not to release the information. Sitnick also stressed that, even if InterMedia said it was OK, city officials feel releasing the documents would violate the law. “I don’t know that it’s in our power to direct our city attorney to break the law,” she concluded, turning to Oast for further comment.
The usually mild Oast had an edge to his voice when he responded, “I don’t know how much clearer I can make it. … I’ve cited state law [that] clearly defines franchise fees as taxes.”
“I’ve read [that] law myself,” Sitnick said, again calming things down. She told Benge that Council would love to release the information, but that it stands by Oast’s opinion.
Oast holds that, under state statute, he could lose his job — and Council members could be barred from office — if the requested documents were released
Staying on the offensive, Benge asked Oast whether he could cite any case law defining cable-franchise fees as taxes — or, Benge asked, was Oast basing his opinion on material copied from a book by Institute of Government Professor David Lawrence at UNC-Chapel Hill? (Lawrence, who is frequently consulted on government-law issues, refers to cable-franchise fees as taxes.)
“I’m basing [my opinion] on law,” Oast replied.
“Are you suggesting we should go to jail?” interrupted Council member Earl Cobb, who told Benge that his first action as a Council member in December was to swear to uphold the law.
“No. I’m saying that [you] have received bad [legal] counsel,” Benge replied.
“I resent the implication that we’re trying to hide something. I’m going to abide by the law,” retorted Cobb.
Council member Barbara Field, noting that Council doesn’t want to go to court with the newspaper, suggested that Oast review the case law Benge referred to — and report back to Council as soon as possible.
“I’d be happy to,” Oast responded. “But it may not change my opinion. …”
“That sounds to me like a qualified maybe,” said Benge — not relenting, but agreeing to wait for Oast’s review.
Then Vice Mayor Ed Hay broke his silence to respond to Benge’s earlier claims, saying, “I can’t stand by while you attack Patsy Meldrum. She’s a fine public servant, a fine lawyer and a fine person.”
The discussion wasn’t quite over. After Benge stepped down from the podium, Sitnick asked for public comment. Douglas Haldane, board chairman of Neighborhood Housing Services, had a different reason for attending the meeting, but said he felt compelled to speak.
Haldane remarked, “Personally, I trust [my] local politicians more than I trust the … foreign ownership of what was once our home newspaper.”
Council backs YMI
Years ago, the city of Asheville backed the YMI Cultural Center on Eagle Street by providing $500,000 loan to renovate the historic building. This year, the city offered a smaller — but no less important — show of support.
On Feb. 10, Council members agreed to shift Stephens-Lee Community Center programming to the YMI for the next few months, and to pay up to $3,000 worth of short-term operating expenses at the financially troubled center.
Council also directed Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson to take steps toward realizing the long-standing goal of letting the YMI host cultural-arts planning for the city.
Hay said that, before local attorney (and former Council member) Gene Ellison began spearheading the effort to get the YMI out of its financial straits, “I wouldn’t have given them a plug-nickel chance.”
The YMI was in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, behind on its mortgage payments with NationsBank, and without an executive director to straighten things out.
But then Ellison, former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, former Mayor Lou Bissette and other volunteers jumped in. The group talked the Buncombe County Commissioners into releasing $25,000 that had been allocated to the YMI last year — but withheld because of serious questions about how the organization was being run. Much of that money was handed over to the IRS, soothing that agency’s demands. And employees at the YMI got paid “for the first time in two years,” Ellison reported.
In addition, despite NationsBank’s recent sale of the center’s mortgage to a development arm of the nearby Mount Zion Baptist Church, Ellison’s crew convinced the Bank of Asheville to grant YMI a second mortgage.
Ellison’s reorganization committee also held a recent benefit for the center, netting nearly $20,000.
Council members were impressed.
As Mayor Leni Sitnick remarked on on Feb. 10, “Any … committee that puts [long-time political rivals] Gene Ellison, Chris Peterson and Lou Bissette together — and makes it work — stands on its own.”
Ellison acknowledged the praise and said, “This issue is beyond politics. … The YMI belongs to everybody.”
To that end, he indicated that the soon-to-be-reorganized YMI board would be integrated — and so would its cultural activities. He also promised to keep the center’s finances and operations accountable to the public, from here on out.
The YMI needs further renovations, such as fourth-floor elevator access and an air conditioner for the auditorium. Ellison said the YMI leaders will research grants and other potential funding sources to help make the organization self-sustaining.
Ellison told Council members, “You’re my partner now. I want to make our investment pay off.”
Council supports CommUNITY Day
Just days after their annual goal-setting retreat, Asheville City Council members took a step toward meeting one of their top-10 priorities for the coming year: celebrating cultural diversity.
During their Feb. 10 formal session, Council members signed a unity proclamation that reads, “Our All-America city will not be affected by efforts to promote divisiveness and hatred.”
The proclamation was offered by a coalition of city groups that countered last fall’s Ku Klux Klan march with a unity celebration.
To reiterate that stance, the 1998 CommUNITY Day will be held May 2 — which is when KKK leaders were planning a second march. However, Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino turned down the Klan’s permit request, citing the group’s threats of carrying concealed weapons and responding to march hecklers with force.