“The camera is a deterrent to a lot of unnecessary talking that leads to nothing.”
— local-government watchdog Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice has an unusual collection of videotapes, which he keeps in safe storage somewhere in Western North Carolina. He won’t say where.
The roughly 1,100 tapes, accumulated over the past 15 years, record every single meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Buncombe County school board during that time. Collectively, they archive quite a swath of local history.
And even if you don’t know who Jerry Rice is, if you’ve attended a meeting of either of those governmental bodies since 1988, you must have seen him. He’s the fellow with the salt-and-pepper beard, the twinkle in his eye, and the comfortable mountain drawl who’s standing on the sidelines, armed with his trusty video camera and a supply of pointed comments.
How Rice came to be such a fixture at those governmental gatherings — and why he devotes the lion’s share of his personal time to fiddling with cameras, tape recorders and, lately, a handy laptop at these meetings — is in itself a piece of local history.
It’s a ministry, really. Reared by the Rev. Henry J. Rice, a Baptist preacher, Jerry Rice perhaps inherited the passion, or compassion, that still drives him today.
“Dad was 99 when he died,” Rice reveals, “and he raised 19 children and he pastored 73 years, and he organized eight or nine different churches. … So our whole life has been from a background of giving. It’s not take, it’s giving.”
Born in Madison County, Rice moved to Buncombe when he was 9 years old, and he’s never moved away. He and his wife, Frances — who were married in one of the churches his dad started — have spent their adult lives and raised their own family in Candler.
When their son was in the sixth grade and they worried that he was having learning difficulties, Rice says he asked the school to evaluate the boy. When the results were finally provided months later, they just didn’t seem right to Rice, and he began investigating special-education provisions and procedures required by federal law. Rice became convinced that the wrong testing instruments had been used; he felt he had not been told the truth. Rice spoke out about it strongly, first on his son’s behalf and then as a volunteer advocate for other parents and children.
Thus began Rice’s vocation as an advocate, which has evolved into his personal version of ministry, following his parents’ example of giving but tailoring it to fit himself.
“I figured there was other people needed my help,” Rice says simply. “I’m an advocate … for special-needs children. That means that I am advocating for services in the school; advocating for any kind of help we can get in the community.” So Rice began sharing his newly acquired knowledge — and early on, he discovered the power of the tape recorder.
With other parents’ permission, Rice began taping their meetings with school officials to seek help for their children, just as he’d done for his own son. Rice also filed a federal complaint that kept the pressure on. And then he began seeing changes: Some school personnel got moved, and things started happening on behalf of the children he was trying to help.
“You’ve heard that story — how they was just put in a backroom and forgotten,” Rice says about the way things were before special-education legislation mandated better services, and before schools began heeding the law. “So that’s how I got started taping.”
He was determined to see appropriate accommodations for special-needs children. And almost immediately, that led him into the ins and outs of local school funding.
“They were always bringing up concerns there wasn’t enough funding, and they couldn’t use this pot of money for that purpose, and they wasn’t allowed to do it because the school board wouldn’t let ’em do this or that, or state wouldn’t let ’em do it,” says Rice, recalling some of the excuses he heard for leaving students’ needs unmet.
“And I thought, well, this looks bigger than local, and I started going to school-board meetings on a regular basis and started out audiotaping them and ended up videoing,” says Rice. It didn’t take long to figure out that the money for the services he sought would have to come from the Board of Commissioners, which controlled the purse strings.
“I began going over there when there was nobody in the audience from the public but me,” says Rice, recalling a time well before the commissioners began cablecasting their meetings.
And once he began carrying his video camera into meetings, Rice noticed that the county commissioners grew more circumspect in what they said. “They didn’t just do a political dance in front of you,” he observes. “They tried to be very accountable for what they said. And it did change. I’ve seen a lot of good changes. And I think the consistency with which I did it affected it more than the actual videoing, because they couldn’t throw [an issue] out the window — or put it on the table this week and throw it out the window the next — because I’d be there.”
And so he was — at every meeting, recording thousands of hours of videotapes. Add to that the hundreds of audiotapes he’s made of sessions with parents and school officials, and we’re talking about a serious hobby, paid for out of his own pocket. It also accords him an odd form of seniority.
“I’ve got my doctor’s degree by many times over just [from] these meetings I’ve been in,” Rice says about his volunteer casework. And as for the Board of Commissioners meetings, “I probably know more about how government runs than they do,” he adds without a hint of hubris.
Even after the county began taping its own meetings, Rice kept on running his camera, because “my video and theirs was different,” he asserts. Things were missing, says Rice, on the tapes he first bought from Buncombe County. “So I kept videoing until they cleaned it up and got it right.”
Only recently, in fact, did Rice finally stop taping. But just to be on the safe side, he now takes his laptop computer along and records the audio portion of the meetings. “So I’ve still got my record to make sure that [the county’s videos really show] what they’re doing,” he reveals.
And in his years as a watchdog, Rice says he’s seen Buncombe County come full circle. “The dynamics of opportunities of all kinds have really improved. There’s more awareness; it’s become a more open society for these kids.”
Public schools are responsible for a child’s education — and for a lot of the accompanying supplementary aids and services — until age 21, Rice explains. “So sometimes it becomes [a matter of] what’s in this budget, what’s in my budget, what’s in your budget. And with the knowledge I acquire from being around the commissioners … I know where the pots of money are, and I know what is supposed to happen to have it divvied up. So it gives me an insight to help folks.
“It might be that they need a wheelchair, need an assistant in the classroom, need transportation to school. They might need special books, it might be a blind child [or] a kid that’s got cerebral palsy that has to have one-on-one all the time.” Rice recalls one child with severe asthma who needed to be homebound periodically. He worked to get her home-education services, and he says she was later placed in honors classes.
Gradually, word of Rice’s advocacy work spread. He now works with families in six other counties — Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey — as well as Buncombe. All told, Rice’s mission now consumes up to 70 percent of his work week. The other 30 percent is devoted to his appliance-repair business. There has been no vacation in years. “My pleasure, and my wife’s pleasure,” he calmly states, “is what can we do to help someone. And to us, it’s a joy.”
Thanks to those videotapes, Rice has his share of tales about boom mikes and conversations not meant for public consumption. He can also recall a few particularly insensitive comments that caused a furor — all still enshrined in his archives. Rice has even surprised — and annoyed — some officials by showing up at gatherings held outside official meeting rooms. But mostly, he says, the camera has simply helped keep public conversations more honest and focused.
And that, says Rice, has been the biggest payoff of all: “the self-satisfaction of knowing that the camera is a deterrent to a lot of unnecessary talking that leads to nothing. … It really put a damper on ’em to really just do business and get on with it.”
[Nelda Holder is a freelance writer based in Asheville, and the current president of the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County.]