Keep an eye on us — but make sure you’re accurate, Asheville City Council members told reporters on April 8.
“Negatively impressed” by recent Asheville Citizen-Times coverage of their trip to a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference near Charleston, S.C., frustrated Council members let reporters have it, right between their notebooks.
Citizen-Times articles about the trip alleged that it violated the state’s open-meeting law: Six of the seven Council members went, but their attendance at the conference was not formally announced beforehand. All five Buncombe County Commissioners also attended.
State law mandates that whenever a majority of a government’s voting officers meet, they must announce it — if the meeting will be held to conduct official business.
Council members, said Mayor Leni Sitnick were invited by the Chamber of Commerce to attend a Chamber goal-setting retreat. And the trip was adequately announced, she argued, when Council members agreed, during March meetings, to reschedule their regular April 7 work session to April 8, when Council members would be back from the trip. She maintained that this trip was typical of conference-type meetings that Council members regularly attend each year, and she argued that it was not a formal meeting.
But Sitnick said it was inaccuracy in the Citizen-Times coverage that really got her riled. An April 8 article about the Seabrook Isle trip reported that Sitnick’s husband is a psychiatrist. “If you were going to invade my privacy, I’d appreciate it if you’d do it accurately,” she told the daily’s three reporters who attended the April 8 session.
Her husband, Joe Sitnick, is a radiologist.
She added that, if she were a man, no reference to her spouse’s occupation would have been made in that section of the article, which was explaining why Sitnick had elected to pay her own way to the $775-per-person trip. The other five Council members attended courtesy of city taxpayers. Council member Tommy Sellers stayed home.
Sitnick also questioned the three Citizen-Times reporters as to why they weren’t tracking the county commissioners as closely. “Why is the Citizen-Times taking on the city?” she asked.
Explaining his attendance at Council’s April 8 session, reporter Jason Sanford replied only that the commissioners weren’t meeting that day. He asked Council members whether they would now offer to pay for the trip out of their own pockets, as two commissioners — Tom Sobol and David Young — had just done.
“We haven’t had a clandestine meeting to discuss that,” joked Council member Barbara Field. An architect who works part-time and gets paid by the hour, Field replied that she couldn’t afford to pay for the trip herself after missing two work days to go.
Council member O.T. Tomes explained that he paid for his wife to accompany him to the posh resort. But personally, he said, “I don’t plan on paying for any trip [taken] on behalf of Council.”
“I was on city business,” Vice Mayor Ed Hay said curtly. He mentioned that the Citizen-Times’ editorial board was well-informed of the trip: He had met with them the Thursday before the trip, and they discussed it.
Council member Chuck Cloninger said he wasn’t planning to pay for his part of the trip, either.
This year’s city travel budget is $27,000, a $500 decrease from the previous year, according to Asheville Audit and Budget Director Ben Durant. In a typical year, Council members take ##### such trips, including League of Municipality conferences, Chamber trips and others.
“We [were] well within that budget,” Cloninger stressed.
Pointing his finger at the Citizen-Times reporters, Cloninger declared, “As far as I was concerned, this conference could have been held at the Moose lodge in Shelby.” Like his fellow Council members, he insisted that the trip was not a pleasure outing. He urged reporters to look at the retreat agenda, which was packed with meetings, work-group sessions and more.
“Notice the lack of tans,” Sitnick interjected.
Council member Earl Cobb also argued that no city- or county-government business was discussed at the retreat, which was aimed at helping the Chamber set overall strategic goals for the coming year. He objected to the daily’s “sensationalism in headlines,” complaining that it implied Council members had something to hide and were unaccountable to city taxpayers.
“People take press reports as gospel. [You’ve] got the responsibility of reporting it accurately,” asserted Cobb. He wondered aloud who holds the press accountable.
Sitnick also noted that the Citizen-Times inaccurately reported that there were five City Council members on the trip, including Charles Worley. Actually, Worley hasn’t been on Council since last fall. And “last time I counted, there were seven of us,” Sitnick remarked. “Be fair. Be accurate,” she urged reporters.
Sitnick asked City Attorney Bob Oast to look into ways Council could better inform the public of the meetings its members attend.
Oast replied that it is “fine” to notify the public of trips, ceremonies and other outings. However, he cautioned that, “whatever you decide, [those notices will] have to distinguish between what’s a legal meeting and what’s not.” Oast contended that the Chamber trip was not a formal Council session, at which city business would be discussed or acted upon and, therefore, did not require public notice.
The Hillcrest walkway:
Not an open-and-shut issue
Don’t reopen the pedestrian bridge out of Hillcrest, several residents of the housing complex told Council members on April 8.
Ever since WE NEED A NAME was killed this past February, as he attempted to cross I-240 near Hillcrest, Council members have been considering whether the walkway should be put back in service.
It was closed in 1994, when a newly formed coalition of Hillcrest residents figured that would reduce drug-trafficking problems in the low-income housing complex.
Drug dealers had such a hold on Hillcrest at the time that “young boys were paid to holler, ‘Man down!’ when they’d see the police coming,” according to Asheville Housing Authority Director David Jones. “And families were paid to let drug traffickers hide in their apartments while police cars cruised by.”
The walkway, located at the rather remote western edge of Hillcrest, was often used as an escape route and a place for drug dealers and users to hang out, Police Chief Will Annarino added. He referred to the walkway as “an uncontrollable checkpoint that we couldn’t monitor.”
Then, residents of the 234-unit community banded together with police, city officials and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to close the bridge and step up police patrols. They even created their own citizens’ patrol. “These people are a courageous group,” said Jones.
He said the Housing Authority, which manages the complex, will stand by whatever those residents want now — whether it’s to reopen that foot bridge, or to keep it closed.
But residents are split on what to do. Newcomers — who may not know how bad things were before — tend to favor reopening it, at least temporarily. Long-term residents, such as Melissa Lynch, say keep the bridge closed, Annarino reported.
Lynch took a petition around to residents, who voted 100-79 to reopen the bridge on a temporary basis. That’s a close vote, and, as Lynch observed, “If [WE NEED HIS NAME] hadn’t been killed [in February], we wouldn’t be talking about this now. All this talk came about because of his death.” Closing or opening the walkway, she said, “is not a transportation issue.”
What Lynch didn’t say is that HIS NAME — and another, NAME, in 1996 — both had bloodstream alcohol levels well above the legal limits, according to a summary police report viewed by Mountain Xpress.
Lynch did note that many residents have cut across I-240 since its construction nearly 25 years ago, because it’s the shortest route downtown. Back in 1994, some residents argued that many people weren’t using the walkway anyway, preferring the shortcut across the highway or the longest route, up Hill Street.
Field, who has been involved with many city transportation issues, noted that it’s human nature to take the shortest route. She suggested that reopening the pedestrian walkway, which crosses I-240 into the Clingman Avenue neighborhood, might be a symbolic gesture at best, because some residents might continue to dash across the interstate.
City staff noted that the sidewalk on the Clingman Avenue side of the walkway is overgrown and in disrepair. Also, the walkway itself isn’t accessible for residents in wheelchairs or with strollers: It ends in a two-flight stairway.
Tomes suggested that the walkway be open only during specific, generally daylight, hours.
Transportation Authority Manager Lonnie Blair noted that bus service to Hillcrest may be doubled, with trips made every half-hour instead of every hour. That could help residents who need to get downtown, although the buses do not run in the evenings.
Sitnick asked city staff, police, the Housing Authority and residents to consider all the options, such as opening the bridge temporarily and evaluating the results.
City Transportation Planner Ron Fuller recommended cleaning up the sidewalk near the walkway, providing better lighting there, and repairing a collapsed fence that enables pedestrians to cut across the I-240 intersection. He told Council members that he once saw a taxicab stop on the interstate to let a passenger out; that rider climbed up the steep slope and over the fallen fence.
“No matter what happens here, we need to take a general look at access into and out of the Hillcrest neighborhood,” Sitnick concluded. “We need to take a broader look at this … soon.“
She asked staff to set up a meeting of Council members, DOT representatives, Housing Authority staff, police and Transit Authority employees as soon as possible.