The first portion of the Asheville City Council’s Nov. 21 work session was enough to turn your stomach. A graphic and unsettling presentation by Grier Weeks, executive director of the Asheville-based National Association to Protect Children, focused on child pornography. Weeks advised any parents watching the proceedings on the local-government cable channel to make sure their small children weren’t in the room, and the material he presented sent a palpable wave of disgust through the room.
To press his point that child pornography has evolved from mere nude photos to sheer brutality and a particularly vicious form of porn called “hurtcore,” Weeks highlighted the case of a North Carolina girl whose images were discovered by Toronto police. In the images, the girl was seen being beaten, urinated and defecated on, sodomized, forced into oral sex, degraded by having slogans such as “Kill me I’m a slut” written on her body, and kept in a dog cage.
Regardless of what the state and federal governments may do to stop sex crimes against children, “This is a local issue as well,” emphasized Weeks, who’d been invited by Mayor Terry Bellamy to make a presentation. He asked Council to consider dedicating a full-time Asheville Police Department officer solely to tracking and apprehending such sexual predators, especially those who use the Internet. Weeks also suggested creating community-education programs and partnering with the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which he said is severely bottlenecked in its capacity to investigate crimes.
With the advent of the Internet and file-sharing technology, the illicit trade has exploded into an international, multibillion-dollar business. Weeks cited a 2005 congressional study which found a strong correlation between people possessing child porn and those convicted of child abuse or other such crimes. There are more than 100,000 such Web sites, collectively featuring more than 3.5 million images, he said, with an estimated 20,000 new images added each week. As a result, federal and state law enforcement are completely overwhelmed, outnumbered and outspent. Child-porn images have been linked to more than 65,000 IP addresses in North Carolina alone, he reported.
“There is no reason why a small city like Asheville cannot be a real force for change,” argued Weeks.
The subject, noted Bellamy, hasn’t been on the city’s radar up till now, but she wants Council to add it to its crime-prevention agenda and to consider making room in next year’s budget for possible measures to combat the problem.
Council member Carl Mumpower, who’s generally cautious about spending public money, was nonetheless on board with Bellamy and Weeks. If the city can’t afford to do what’s necessary, he said, Asheville should try to partner with Buncombe County and Sheriff-elect Van Duncan.
A city/county partnership to help protect local children would be ideal, said Weeks, noting, “If we actually had two [officers], we would have the nucleus of a team that could really start saving some kids.” State authorities, he said, have told his group that there’s enough such activity involving Asheville and Buncombe County residents to keep local law enforcement busy busting users and purveyors of child porn. Council, he added, might also urge the local legislative delegation to beef up the state’s sexual-predator laws. The current laws are weak and often result only in probation for those convicted, he said.
“There is no substitute for law enforcement,” Weeks declared. “When you have 100 counties [in North Carolina] and only 45 convictions in one year, you have essentially decriminalized [child porn].”
Council directed APD Chief William Hogan to begin taking steps to address the issue and to come back with concrete ideas. In the meantime, Council members said the city will do what it can to spotlight the issue and educate the public, perhaps via links on the city’s Web site.
Land of opportunity
With that unsettling discussion out of the way, Council turned its attention to important if decidedly more mundane issues: what to do with nearly 30 acres of city-owned land and possible changes to the city’s annexation policy.
Although Asheville isn’t poised to put these properties on the market, it wants to establish a “request for qualifications” process that would enable developers to pitch potential projects. Some of the parcels are prime real estate; others include buildings that Bellamy said aren’t being used to best advantage. According to a city staff report, such properties could be developed as affordable housing, entertainment venues, leading-edge “smart growth” or “green” building projects, or in other ways that could significantly enhance the city’s tax base.
One example is the Asheville Transit Center on Coxe Avenue. The prime downtown site could accommodate significant affordable or work-force housing in a city that desperately needs both, the mayor noted. She favors moving the transit facility and opening the site to redevelopment, she said, because “it’s not being used to the fullest. It could be a catalyst for renewal downtown; it has great potential.” Bellamy added that she supports selling city-owned property at a discount to developers who will build such housing.
Other sites identified include the city-employee parking lot on Marjorie Street, the public-works complex on South Charlotte Street, and some downtown parking garages. With parking already in short supply in the central business district, Council members said they’re reluctant to eliminate any unless it were for a project that would provide additional spaces.
The city is also considering soliciting proposals involving multiple city-owned parcels or those linking city property with adjacent, privately owned land — just to see what sorts of projects might turn up. “Our intent is to test the marketplace and see what sticks,” City Manager Gary Jackson explained.
And with Council members looking to tackle an annexation plan early in the new year, they told Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford that they don’t want to be aggressive right now, preferring a more scaled-back approach.
Shuford had suggested reconsidering the city’s policy of not annexing manufacturing businesses, but Council members said they don’t want to change their approach unless Asheville could offer those businesses something in return, since their cost of doing business would increase once they were inside the city limits. Economic Development Director Sam Powers is working on possible financial incentives for businesses, and during the meeting, Council went into closed session to discuss them.
Bellamy also made a proposal that should make city staff happy (not to mention Council members and even local media reps): Council, said the mayor, should jettison its monthly work sessions and meet only three times a month in formal session. No one objected. Work sessions, which don’t usually include formal votes or public hearings, often end up duplicating work that could more easily be done in formal session, argued Bellamy, saying, “I just think this is a waste of time and taxpayer money.”
“This is a great discussion; I’m glad we’re having it,” said Jackson with a smile. The change could come as soon as December, when City Council will set its meeting schedule for 2007.