Buncombe County Commission

How should the county proceed in negotiating a franchise agreement involving two local cable companies? Should they accept the terms as offered, or should they hold out and aggressively bargain for a better cable deal?

That was the key question at the Buncombe County commissioners’ Dec. 1 meeting, as they weighed the pros and cons of delaying their approval of the new franchise agreement till they could consult with a media specialist. Unless commissioners officially disapprove the proposed transfer of ownership by Dec. 20, 1998, it will pass by default.

Further complicating matters is a proposed merger involving the Marcus and Charter cable companies and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Ventures. The multibillionaire has offered $4.5 billion for Charter and nearly $3 billion for Marcus. Vulcan Ventures plans to combine the two companies to create the nation’s seventh-largest cable operation. And though FCC rules give local municipalities the power to approve or disapprove such transfers of ownership, they have only 120 days to do so, making any research into the complex issues a hurried affair, at best.

No one seemed to question that the Board would eventually approve the transfer, but Commissioner David Gantt (in obvious pain from a slipped disk) pushed for a closer look at the terms of the franchise renewal, hoping to improve on the present arrangements, specifically by gaining a public-access channel. “I’m concerned about our overall plan,” he said, adding that the last franchise agreement the Board had made — with Intermedia in October 1997 — may not have been as well-researched as it could have been. “These contracts are for 10 or 15 years,” he noted, arguing that they should be carefully thought out.

Commissioner David Young agreed. “I think we ought to look at our options and wait two weeks before we pass this.”

But Wally Bowen, the founder of the Asheville-based nonprofit group Citizens for Media Literacy, pushed for a 60-day extension on the deadline, arguing that the present negotiating opportunity is simply too rare an occurrence to let it slip by. “There are basically three occasions when you can deal with a cable company on something approaching a level playing field,” he said: “When you have something they need — [such as] a franchise renewal, a transfer of ownership approval — or if there are some compliance issues.”

For that reason, he continued, a specialist should be the one to look at the contract. Since Charter’s franchise renewal is only three years away and the company will want to get things off on the right foot, they would probably be willing to grant a 60-day extension, reasoned Bowen — enough time for the county to bring in a specialist who could figure out what real leverage the commissioners might have. Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Joe Van Eaton, noted Bowen, is one of the top public-interest media specialists in the country.

Bowen also stressed the critical importance of having sufficient performance penalties in the contract. “You can have the best contract in the world,” he said, ” … but if [the contract doesn’t] have teeth in the form of serious performance penalties, the cable company can thumb their nose at the provisions in the contract they signed,” and will often let the municipality take them to court, an option which most municipalities find too expensive to realistically pursue.

When Commissioner Patsy Keever wondered how much it would cost to have Van Eaton come down, Bowen said it probably would be somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.

“To me,” said Young, ” … a $1,000 or $2,000 or whatever it is [charge] would be very minimal to pay.”

Board Chairman Tom Sobol, though, warned against forcing the cable companies into a corner. “It will be much easier for us to negotiate with everybody feeling good,” he said.

Gantt also made it clear that his own stance was not a reaction against the work that County Manager Wanda Greene and Associate County Attorney Stan Clontz had already done in negotiating the deal. “This is a [long-term] contract,” he said, “and it’s pretty complicated. It will be going long after we’re out of here. There will be different people sitting up here, and for those kinds of contracts, I think it’s extremely important we get the absolute maximum number of opinions, so we can do the best we can.”

Late in the meeting, Charter General Manager Diane Gilkeson bristled at any suggestion that her company had not provided quality service. “The bottom line is our customers,” she declared, “[and] if they’re not complaining, ultimately that’s who we’re here to satisfy.” Noting that there had been few problems with Charter’s service, and that the company had already agreed, in principle, to a public-access channel. Gilkeson said she didn’t see why the commissioners would want to push for a more aggressive franchise agreement. “We’re doing a good job; otherwise, the county would be inundated with complaints.”

Young thanked her for her company’s good work, but held firm. “All I’m saying is, we have a two-week window. Let us look at our options before we pass this resolution.”

Doublewide blues

Commissioners also considered new amendments aimed at improving the appearance and accessibility of mobile home parks — rankling the hides of some park owners.

Debby Truempy of the county Planning Department presented the board’s recommendations, saying, “A lot of people view manufactured-home parks as [having] a negative impact on the community. The board felt it was their obligation to try to improve the parks for the residents and try to make them more acceptable to the community at large, at the same time trying not increase costs to the park owners.”

The board’s recommendations were presented in two categories. The first, which applies only to new mobile-home parks and expansions of existing parks, would most prominently require turnarounds on roads and drives more than 500 feet long. All existing parks would be grandfathered. The second category, which applies to all existing parks in the county, requires that mobile homes be “underskirted” (hiding the space between the mobile home and the ground, often with specially made plastic sheets); that weekly trash pickup be provided; that an adequate water-and-sewer system be provided; and that each home have steps from at least two exits.

But the deliberations soon became mired in legal and practical considerations, as park owners voiced their side of the story. Eric Gaddy, a park owner from Leicester, wanted to know whether he would be held responsible for a tenant’s noncompliance. When Truempy acknowledged that, after 45 days, the park owner would be held responsible and fined, a legal wrinkle became apparent: Gaddy explained that, though his park already requires many of the items covered by the amendment, such as underskirting, his tenants often don’t have the money to pay for them. Rather than evicting these tenants, Gaddy said he often will allow them to stay and meet the conditions when they can. He also said he isn’t comfortable bearing the financial burden during the “90 to 120 days” it takes for the process of eviction to go through the courts.

Sobol suggested that perhaps merely initiating legal eviction proceedings could protect a park owner from incurring any fines. That prompted County Attorney Joe Connolly to propose changing the language in the amendment to accommodate park owners who have initiated eviction proceedings. “The penalties [would] stop as of the date of the filing of the summary-of-judgment action,” Connolly declared.

But Gaddy wasn’t satisfied. “I don’t think it would be right to fine somebody if the people who are living there are doing the best they can do,” he argued. While acknowledging that he doesn’t like [the current problems] either, Gaddy maintained that these are not appropriate circumstances for eviction. “A lot of them can’t afford the skirting,” he said. “That little amount of money is crucial … and I’m not gonna go up there and say, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna have to hit the road.’ And there they are — their wife and family, with no place to go.”

In response to Gaddy’s worries, Truempy explained that most parks in the county are already enforcing these provisions, but that there are a few “bad ones” that don’t. Gantt also mentioned an appeals process that would counterbalance any overenforcement.

When Gaddy voiced reservations about costly legal proceedings to evict a tenant, Connolly said such matters would most likely wind up in small-claims court. And Sobol assured him that ” … as this goes along, if this appears to be an unreasonable expense, we can adjust this.”

Connolly concluded that these provisions would no doubt keep some property owners from opening a mobile-home park. “I would hope that this board would take the position that there may be some property that is just not suitable to be a manufactured-home park here in Buncombe County,” he declared.

The amendment passed unanimously, with Commissioner Bill Stanley absent due to illness.

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