Asheville City Council

“We’ve done as much planning as we can do.”

— Beth Lazer, Public Access Channel Commission

Not every City Council work session approaches the five-hour mark. And there’s no sure-fire way to predict which particular agenda items will drag on far longer than expected. If nothing else, however, marathons like the Nov. 5 megasession are a good source of tips for people needing to address Council.

Tip #1: Be prepared to change the subject.

As Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino stood before Council to answer questions about the COPS in Schools program (a grant-funded project that enables police officers to patrol our public schools), Council member Joe Dunn took the opportunity to address a different issue: drug enforcement. Citing complaints about drug deals and drug use on city streets, Dunn asked the chief how the local war on drugs is going.

“We have the best handle on it that we’ve ever had,” Annarino declared, pointing out that all officers are now trained in drug interdiction and can make drug arrests themselves, rather than having to rely on members of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group.

But a still-skeptical Dunn asked if the city’s 170 police officers are sufficient to enforce both current and newly passed ordinances (such as the proposed restrictions on soliciting on city streets that Council is slated to vote on at the Nov. 12 formal session).

Annarino declined to give a yes or no answer.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said the chief, which Dunn called a “good political answer.”

During a break in the meeting, Dunn maintained that there’s still too much drug activity on the streets. “[The police] don’t have it,” he declared. But both Dunn and Annarino also admitted, “We’re never going to solve it.”

Tip #2: Final reports are not always “final.”

“We’ve done as much planning as we can do,” declared Beth Lazer, chair of the Public Access Channel Commission. The resulting 80-page document, two years in the making, outlines a plan for setting up a public-access channel for Asheville and Buncombe County that she called “final.”

In 1998, the city designated $340,000 in start-up moneys, plus $45,000 in annual funding for the project. The Buncombe County commissioners have yet to determine how much operational funding they will approve. (The county’s new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications was approved on second reading at the Nov. 5 Board of Commissioners meeting.)

The commission, charged with charting a course for local public-access TV, has formed URTV Inc. and is applying for nonprofit status. Under the plan, the corporation would become the managing board for the public-access channel.

Lazer asked Council both to endorse the report and to negotiate an “interlocal agreement” with the county allowing the program to move forward.

But some Council members raised concerns about the structure of the URTV board, which would be charged with overseeing the channel. The report describes an 11-member board, only two of whom would be appointed by local government (one each by the city and the county). The other nine members would be chosen by the board itself or elected by the URTV membership. The purpose, Lazer explained, is to distance city and county officials from any liability.

“Public channels get sued quite a bit,” asserted City Manager Jim Westbrook. “And they always go for the big pockets” (such as the city).

Public-access channels are vulnerable to such lawsuits because the medium is often used to air controversial opinions and tends to censor content far less than commercial stations do. The only no-noes are commercial programming and whatever the board deems “obscene.”

Lazer added that, in other communities that have public-access TV, churches are often among primary users.

And distancing government from the editorial decision-making process ensures that the board “will be more concerned with community standards than political ones,” Lazer explained.

Council member Brian Peterson worried that such a setup would give the URTV board too much unfettered power. “It seems like a self-perpetuating group that is not accountable,” he observed. Peterson said he would like to number of board members appointed by the city and county increased to two each. “It looks a little better balanced,” he said.

Lazer responded that she didn’t see a problem with increasing the size of the board to 13 members.

And Dunn, while noting that he doesn’t want to give the appearance that Council is controlling the board through its appointments, said he would like to see some kind of checks and balances, as well as “so much from the left, so much from the right,” in order to make sure things are fair.

Lazer reiterated that the idea is to shift the liability for programming to “the lowest possible level: the people that are making it.”

Council may desire to gain more control over the URTV board, even while shielding itself from possible lawsuits, but Mayor Charles Worley reminded Council that the nonprofit has procedures in place for modifying its bylaws. The board, he said, could change details such as the rules for appointing board members later on.

David McConville of the Asheville-based Black Box Studios (a local multimedia business) pointed out that the public-access station could provide training for people seeking careers in the field while making this area more attractive to multimedia companies. McConville is closely involved with the Media Arts Project, which organizes local hands-on training in the industry.

McConville has met with representatives of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, local universities and production studios such as Blue Ridge Pictures in an effort to create a comprehensive support system for the future growth of media in Western North Carolina. Public access, he said, is a key link to increasing the industry potential.

“Multimedia has a big future here,” McConville told Council. Public access, he said, could “act as an incubator for this industry and provide real-world experience for lots of folks.” Lazer went so far as to envision URTV and the Media Arts Project sharing the same facility.

Endorsement of the plan will be up for vote at the Nov. 12 formal session.

Tip #3: Keep it short!

Once a month, Council sets aside time in its agenda to hear and discuss new approaches to solving the continuing Civic Center conundrum. But as those on hand to pitch their design ideas found out, time — at least in Council meetings — is not in infinite supply.

Asheville architect Crawford Murphy, on hand to present a plan for a new performing-arts center, was able to get in almost his entire presentation — despite going well over the allotted 15 minutes — before Council called for a break.

Displaying full-color paintings and posters, Murphy proposed building a performing-arts center on what is now the parking lot of the Renaissance Asheville Hotel. He and spokesperson Lilian Fischer, who said they represent a group of interested parties, see the Renaissance lot as an ideal site for such a facility. Contacted later, Murphy said the hotel’s parent company, the California-based Windsor Capitol, has been “receptive” to the idea.

The facility would also house shops, restaurants, offices and condominiums. Murphy estimated the cost at about $60 million (to be spread among various private investors) — a fraction of the figure reported by consultants Heery International in March.

Murphy also stressed the importance of restoring the existing Civic Center. The key to that project (which would also carry a roughly $50 million price tag), he said, is installing a new floor 12 feet above the current one. This, maintained Murphy, would create the additional space needed to make the facility more functional.

Despite the length of Murphy’s presentation, the impact of his ideas wasn’t lost on Council. Dunn said he was “stunned” by the concept. And Council member Carl Mumpower (the former Civic Center Commission chair who’s now Council’s liaison to that body) agreed that while the idea is an attractive one, the issue of money still hovers ominously.

“The vision is exciting, but the cost is frightening,” declared Mumpower.

During a much-needed break in the proceedings, Murphy told Xpress that his firm has been working on the performing-arts-center concept for the last eight months and that the idea has a lot of support among what he called local “allies.”

“We said, ‘Stay the course, no matter what,'” said the architect, adding: “Why? Because [the concept] works.”

A gathering that Murphy called a “make-it-or-break-it meeting” was planned for the next day, he said, but at press time, no information was available on its outcome.

The next presenter, Scott Osburn of the Dual Jewel Project, pitched the idea of a sports complex near the Asheville Regional Airport. Osburn also tried to address the question of where the money for the project would come from (which he said Heery International hadn’t done in its proposal). The construction costs, suggested Osburn, would be covered by revenue bonds that could be paid off by the money brought in once the complex was up and running. Under questioning by Council member Jim Ellis, however, no one from Dual Jewel could cite an instance where this has worked for other sports arenas.

As for the Civic Center, Osburn pointed out that it is used, on average, for only three hours a day. In order to make an upgraded facility work, he said, the Civic Center needs to be used full time. One way to do that, he suggested, is by installing an IMAX theater.

But as the Dual Jewel presentation crept past the 45-minute mark, it became apparent that Council’s patience was wearing thin. Ellis recalled that each presentation was supposed to take no more than 15 minutes. And Mumpower advised the speaker “to tighten it up a little more” next time and bring in “a little more clarity to your vision.”

Tip #4: Show up.

An Oct. 29 community meeting on South Charlotte Street may have been a record-breaker, wrapping up a mere 30 minutes after it began. A round of about 50 introductions (recognizing city staff, police, Council members and even local media representatives) started things off. But it soon became apparent that only five citizens had shown up. The exceedingly brief meeting touched on traffic control and a question about numbering city streets before it was adjourned. Community meetings — held whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday in a month — are set aside as a time for city residents to address Council and ask questions of city staff.

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