Asheville City Council

A community of learning

All three PEG channels in Asheville should be seen “as a whole, for community learning,” Buncombe County resident John Fobes told City Council members at their March 9 formal session.

That’s PEG, as in Public-access, Education and Government — three new cable channels in InterMedia’s lineup, dedicated to those uses and controlled by the city. Council members were poised to create a commission to oversee the education channel, but Fobes proposed creating a broad oversight commission for all three. “I have no intent of blocking the creation of the [education] commission, [but] I know something about education and communication,” said Fobes, a former deputy director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “All three channels [should] be seen as a whole, [for] community learning: There is a common purpose.”

Fobes also pointed out that technology is changing rapidly. One day, City Council meetings and Asheville High programs could be broadcast over the Internet, for example. “I’m looking to the future of a society that is rushing toward digitalization,” he observed.

Council members agreed. “We’re committed to all three of these channels, [which are] ultimately educational in nature,” said Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick.

But the Federal Communications Commission defines each PEG component very differently, reported Professor Alan Hantz of UNCA, passing out an FCC fact sheet. Public-access channels are geared toward providing a “source-oriented” forum “where diverse viewpoints can be expressed” by the general public, Hantz explained. Education channels, on the other hand, are “receiver-oriented,” providing educational programming created by local schools, colleges and universities.

Combining the channels — especially public-access and education — might make it harder to obtain educational-channel grants and sponsorships, argued Hantz.

Asheville resident Rebecca Campbell declared, “All weight should be given to [creating] an autonomous commission for each [PEG] channel.” She also noted that — according to research by city staff — most public-access channels are administered by a separate commission, which creates a nonprofit organization to operate the channel (Asheville has proposed soliciting bids from nonprofits to run the channel, and then subsequently creating a public-access commission).

At that point, Council member O.T. Tomes reminded his colleagues of a recent suggestion by public-access advocates: that Council members and city staff should visit a city which already has a public-access channel up and running, to see — firsthand — how they do it.

“Good idea,” Mayor Sitnick replied, reminding Council members that creating an education commission was the immediate issue at hand. A task force has recommended setting up an 11-member commission consisting of two representatives each from the Asheville City Schools, the Buncombe County schools, UNCA and A-B Tech. The remaining three, at-large members would be drawn from such groups as MAHEC, The Health Adventure, home-schoolers and others in the local educational community.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay observed that there seems to be “some anxiety that what the city is doing now precludes [creating] a countywide [education] channel.” Hay assured everyone that this is not the case, and that the city plans to broaden the channels as the opportunity arises. Charter Communications is in the process of buying out InterMedia’s Asheville operation, meaning that all of Buncombe may soon be served by one cable provider). Asheville just happens to be the first to negotiate PEG channels and get them running, Hay mentioned.

Council member O.T. Tomes joked, “If others want to catch up, we’ll let them.”

On a motion by Earl Cobb, seconded by Tomes, Council voted 5-0 to create the 11-member Education Commission (Council members Barbara Field and Chuck Cloninger were absent).

No election switch for Asheville

The idea of changing City Council elections to a runoff system sank by the slow weight of numbers. One: This system is so complex that it takes a statistician to figure out who wins — and which of the losers gets to request a runoff. Two: Voter turnouts are already low, and moving to an October election might drag those numbers lower still.

That’s the conclusion Asheville City Council members extrapolated during their March 9 formal session. “Leave it alone,” urged Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who had suggested switching from a primary/general-election to an election/runoff system, to begin with. “I’m satisfied that we took a look at it,” he added.

Earlier this year, Council members reviewed how a runoff system works, deciphering detailed voter-turnout charts that looked like multiplication tables. “The more I listened to [Assistant City Attorney] Patsy Meldrum‘s presentation, the more confused I became,” joked O.T. Tomes.

And Asheville resident Laura Whitley remarked, “A change would confuse voters.” Turnouts are already low, even when local elections are held in November, along with national and state contests, she noted.

Brian Peterson, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, mentioned that Council has tinkered with its election system nearly every two years (most recently, switching to staggered terms). Keeping a consistent election system is crucial to raising voter-turnout numbers, he argued. And switching to a runoff system “is an incumbent-protection plan” that would favor better-known candidates, Peterson emphasized.

“If it does favor incumbents, maybe we should think about it!” kidded Council member Earl Cobb. Speaking more seriously, however, he agreed that a runoff system would reduce voter turnouts. In Wilmington, which has used such a system at least since 1981, less than 25 percent of the registered voters took part in the 1997 elections for city offices, according to a another chart prepared by Meldrum.

“People already think politicians are crooked, [and] I can see where this [runoff system] would favor candidates with money,” added Cobb.

Asheville resident David Whitley thanked Hay for bringing the matter up for discussion. “It’s important to have an open mind,” he conceded, before urging Council not to make the switch, for the same reasons already mentioned. On a lighter note, he added, “I’m not sure I understand [the runoff system]: It must be all that modern math.”

Such a change could save candidates and the city money, he reflected (four of the six Wilmington elections since 1987 have required no subsequent runoff). “But the risks outweigh the benefit,” said Whitley.

Cobb added that he’d be more interested in looking for ways to limit campaign spending — but that’s a separate issue. Noting that he would vote against switching election methods, Cobb commented, “I’m just now learning the first system I got elected on. I don’t know if I can learn another one.”

And Council member Tommy Sellers agreed, saying, “I appreciate Patsy Meldrum: I know she understands it. But I will vote against it.”

There was no need for a formal vote, however. Council members consented to making no motion at all on the issue, letting the runoff idea slip peacefully beneath the waves.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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