Self-proclaimed political gadfly Jerry Rice has been a perennial presence at Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings for more than 20 years.
A passionate advocate of fiscal conservatism and open government, he’s taken to the lectern to speak out on issues ranging from zoning to cleaning up the former CTS site to mental-health care and education. The longtime Candler resident has also videotaped thousands of hours of public proceedings and maintains a massive archive.
Rice says he draws inspiration from growing up with 18 brothers and sisters, which underscored the importance of giving. “Dad would say, ‘OK, boys and girls, let’s go help a neighbor,'” he remembers. “So what I’ve always done is use that principle in what I do.”
Rice sees his role as “alerting people that there’s danger out there, that there’s things happening.” Mountain Xpress sat down with him recently; here are excerpts from that conversation.
Mountain Xpress: Why are you so passionate about county government?
Jerry Rice: Because when it comes to government issues, I don’t think the commissioners really want people to be informed. They do things in what I’d call very secretive meetings. I think their decisions are made before they get to the [public] meetings. …
They inform the media the way they want to inform them, but they really don’t inform the public. And the articles that get written up, unless you dig like a dog, you’re just not going to find what the real issues are. …
And from what I understand, we don’t have any investigative reporters. … What bothers me more than anything is why the press is not on top of these major issues. And here I am telling about things that the press already should have been on a year or two ahead of me.
Have you ever considered going into journalism more formally?
No, no; I don’t want no part of it. I feel like I’m doing what I need to do. It’s kind of like a junkyard dog … put in there to protect whatever’s inside that fence. I’m in Buncombe County and I feel like I’m a watchdog, because I’m trying to protect what people don’t know is inside the fence. …
I get a lot of people in the grocery store. My wife says, “Who’s that?” I say, “I don’t know.” They’ll just walk up to me and say, “I do appreciate your support in helping us and what you do at the county commission level.” … So there’s no question I fill a void for others that would like to be there. I feel like I do speak for a lot of people.
Was there a particular issue or cause that originally got you involved?
School issues. I ran for school board in 1994; I started videoing commissioner meetings in 1993.
Why education issues?
I had a child that we had some problems with academically, and I wanted to see if the child had any learning disabilities and had him evaluated. … And that got me into understanding more of how the school worked. And I read the law and the procedures and the policies, and I got educated real well. … So I started attending school-board meetings and videoing … and then I started learning how much money was coming from the county commissioners to the schools, and it intrigued me. …
From there, we got into the county government, because it was feeding the school system. It’s all politically tied together. You’ve got to know how it’s all connected, because that’s what makes it all run.
Have you thought of running for office again?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it. But my wife said she’d divorce me if I did, so I don’t try to think of it. We’ve been married 41 years. I’ve got a very good, devoted wife and family, and I love family.
What have you done over the years to help inform the public about what’s going on with local government?
I’ve been asked by the county commissioners, “Why do you video when we’re videoing?” Well, first of all, I get a whole lot more information than they do on my camera, because they’re only concerned about the speakers at the podium or their little parts that they want to bring to the public. They don’t always get the audience, all the people that come to the meetings. They only get the shots they want.
What have you done with all those tapes?
I don’t ever say where I’ve got them, but I’ve got a little over 3,000 tapes. … Anything the commissioners did, I was always at.
How do you think the current commissioners compare to past boards?
I don’t really see that big of a change, except they’re more secretive. Things that are costing the taxpayers millions of dollars are not discussed at the county commission meetings.
The capital projects that I accused the county manager of not bringing forth in her budget message … they planned it that way. They did not want the taxpayers to be informed on the millions of dollars being spent, because it would show that they’ve got a bankroll of money that the taxpayers would be on to them about if they knew it.
It’s like [County Manager] Wanda Greene said, “If you want to see it, go on the website.” How many people in the general public have access to the Web? How many of them see it on TV and how many see it in the newspaper? If the budget message is going to be given, it ought to be given as it should, and it ought to be complete. I was upset about it. And I made my comments known. [Editor’s note: Rice was the only resident to speak during the county’s public hearing on its 2010-11 budget).
How do you find the time to be as involved as you are?
Everybody’s asked me that question for 23 years. I work for myself, and I’ve always spent my money out of my own pocket and done without a whole lot, moneywise, just to be a watchdog for the community and for the taxpayers. And I have no doubt that I’ve saved the taxpayers millions of dollars … just by being there and observing what’s going on and alerting the public to what they were doing.
Do you plan to continue for the foreseeable future?
I have no doubt of continuing, if my health is well and able to go. But … I have seen a lot of interest from private citizens getting more involved into the causes — more than I could ever keep up with. And I feel like I’ve been an inspiration to a lot of folks to do that.
Do you think modern technology helps empower citizen journalists to be watchdogs and get the word out about what they observe?
I think the county commissioners, any elected body — I think they fear what technology is doing, because the actual public is informed probably quicker than the county commissioners are. … I think technology in the future is going to be more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.