If there are two things Jerry Rice keeps an eye on, it’s local governments and the media.
On April 14, this Buncombe County resident gave both a little lesson, telling Asheville City Council members that a recent Asheville Citizen-Times lawsuit against them was a misuse of taxpayers’ money.
The Citizen-Times sued the city this winter, calling for the release of cable-franchise-fee documents. The newspaper, owned by Gannett Co. Inc., recently won the case.
Rice thinks the information should have been disclosed initially, but questions why the Citizen-Times would file a lawsuit to force the issue. He remarked, “I don’t know who they were trying to impress, or what they were trying to sell [with this lawsuit] but themselves. … They’re promoting mistrust, with the way they’re covering [City] Council.”
Council members, about to go into closed session about the lawsuit, said not a word in response, but allowed Rice to explain what he was getting at.
Ever the local-government watchdog, Rice said he had researched the company that filed the lawsuit — Multimedia Publications, doing business as the Asheville Citizen-Times. After a few phone calls, he found out that Gannett — which also publishes USA Today — owns Multimedia, and Multimedia includes a cable division that operates in a few North Carolina cities down east, such as Greenville.
Council members just nodded as Rice went along: This was common knowledge.
The intrepid Rice made a few more phone calls, carrying out his own impromptu test case: Would Gannett’s own cable company release franchise-fee information to him?
Would the city of Greenville be just as reluctant to release that information as Asheville Council members and staff were, when Citizen-Times Executive Editor George Benge demanded it two months ago?
“I want to share a thought with you, one that troubles me,” Rice told Council members: If the Citizen-Times wanted to test the North Carolina law that calls franchise fees a tax — and, thus, prohibits the release of fee records — why didn’t they use their own cable company as the guinea pig? Doing so would have avoided burdening Asheville taxpayers with the cost of fighting a lawsuit, Rice reasoned.
As it is, he said he could only conclude that the Citizen-Times was just “looking for something to make the news, rather than reporting it.” The lawsuit, Rice alleged, was done to establish their “reputation for going all out.”
After he finished, Mayor Leni Sitnick smiled, saying only, “Thank you, Jerry.”
Council members immediately went into closed session — in order, they said, to “preserve the client/attorney privilege” on matters relating to Multimedia’s lawsuit and Brenmor — the cable partnership (which does business as InterMedia) currently negotiating with the city to renew the cable franchise. According to City Attorney Bob Oast, Brenmor has “intervened” in the lawsuit. That means that either the city or Brenmor can choose to file an appeal, he says.
After Council went into closed session, Rice attempted to further explain his line of reasoning. “If the Citizen-Times wanted to make a point about the cable records, why sue the city and make taxpayers pay for it? They jump on City Council members about using taxpayers’ money for a trip to Seabrook Isle, when they’re doing the same thing: costing taxpayers money.”
Benge had not returned Mountain Xpress’ telephone calls at press time.
Rice points out that Greenville’s city attorney appears to be keeping his eye on the franchise-fee lawsuit here: If Asheville Council members elect to appeal the case, the decision of the higher court could set an important statewide precedent. If the city won the appeal, the state statutes referring to cable franchise-fees as a tax and not rent for the use of rights-of-way would be upheld — and, thus, prevent release of that information, which the Citizen-Times has insisted is crucial to understanding the cable negotiations going on right now.
If the Citizen-Times comes out the winner, then city councils and city attorneys across the state will get to do what they’d rather do anyway: Release the information.
“Can you follow all that?” Rice asks. It’s a sticky, technical topic, he concedes — then kind of wonders out loud why the Citizen-Times isn’t applying similar tactics to the Buncombe County Commissioners.
In any case, Rice reflects, “Everyone I spoke to was real nice. But they still wouldn’t give me the fee information.”