Bellamy and the billboard magnate

Why would a nationally known media executive in Augusta, Ga., send a $200 check to Council member Terry Bellamy‘s re-election campaign in Asheville?

W.S. Morris III runs the Morris Communications Company, a $400-million-a-year media conglomerate that owns scores of media outlets around the U.S., including newspapers, magazines, book publishers and radio stations.

Fairway Outdoor Advertising is the Morris Communications subsidiary that’s listed next to W.S. Morris’ name on Bellamy’s campaign-finance report. Fairway is one of the two biggest owners of billboards in Asheville (along with Lamar Outdoor Advertising), according to City Attorney Bob Oast.

Fairway/Morris recently won a years-long legal battle with Asheville over whether the city could compel the company to take down its billboards. In 1997, the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to forbid all new off-premises signs that were more than 6 feet square or more than 6 feet off the ground — effectively banning new billboards. Then, on a 4-3 vote, Council approved a measure requiring “amortization” — gradual removal over the course of seven years — of all noncomplying existing billboards. That vote, however, triggered a series of lawsuits that the state Supreme Court finally resolved in 2002 in favor of billboard owners, allowing their signs to remain standing.

But wait a minute: Terry Bellamy wasn’t even on City Council in 1997. And since 1999, when her first term began, there had never been a Council vote concerning billboards up until a couple of weeks ago — long past the 2003 election — and Bellamy had never taken a public position on the issue.

So why, Xpress asked Morris’ office several months ago, did he cut her and no other local candidate a check in 2003?

Our call was returned by Jerry Graves, general manager of Fairway’s Asheville-area office.

“We are active in our community — and that includes active in the election side too,” Graves explained. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve recommended several candidates for political contributions. The way our company does it, we have to send it off to Mr. Morris, and he personally writes a check. He doesn’t follow all my recommendations.

“I recommend candidates that we feel will be good for Asheville — not necessarily good for our company, but good for Asheville. We’ve supported many different candidates over the years.”

OK, but why Bellamy?

“I liked her,” Graves answered. “I think that she was a pretty centrist candidate. … I just like her politics in general — her fairness.”

Graves said he’d never asked Bellamy about her position on billboards and had no idea how she would vote if a billboard-related matter came before Council.

But he made no secret of his corporation’s active involvement in Asheville politics.

“Amortization — they wanted us to take the billboards down without compensating us for it,” said Graves, complaining about the prior City Council that “tried to put us out of business” in 1997. “We just think that’s illegal and wrong. … We’d be still looking for a political solution if we didn’t win in court. Obviously we wanted a Council we felt would be more fair and businesslike. We’d have supported almost anyone that didn’t have a track record of voting against us.”

The Council sitting when Graves took over Fairway’s Asheville-area office in 2000 still “wasn’t very balanced,” he said. “It was very anti-business.”

Graves would not discuss details of Fairway’s contributions in previous campaigns, saying, “It’s public record.” In 2001, the record shows that Charles Worley‘s mayoral campaign received $1,000 from W.S. Morris III. And back when the 1997 Council was debating its billboard-amortization proposal, it was Worley (then a Council member) who made an unsuccessful motion for “voluntary amortization,” arguing that Council’s mandatory-amortization proposal wouldn’t allow billboard companies to recoup the millions of dollars they’d invested in their signs. He then voted with the minority against the amortization requirement.

But when the issue finally resurfaced in a Council meeting a few weeks ago, both Worley and Bellamy had harsh words for the billboard industry (see “Signs of the Times,” Oct. 6 Xpress). In the wake of court victories against Asheville and several other North Carolina cities, industry lobbyists had recently won passage of a state law prohibiting cities from taking down billboards without compensating their owners for lost revenue. And Council now approved a much tamer measure that, while still banning billboards near the Parkway and residential areas, focuses on negotiation with billboard owners rather than litigation.

After the vote, Worley complained that billboard companies sometimes demand an “astronomically high amount” of compensation for their property.

And during the meeting, Bellamy lamented: “The sign companies have won. This is where their lobbying has paid off for the industry — they do it hard and they do it often.”

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