While complaints from local politicians about perceived bias in media coverage aren’t unprecedented, Hendersonville Sen. Chuck Edwards kicked it up a notch in remarks to the Council of Independent Business Owners’ July 14 breakfast meeting. Brandishing a July 12 copy of the Asheville Citizen-Times displaying the headline, “Buncombe Democrats frustrated by GOP,” the Republican senator blamed the article for causing his wife to order a second drink with dinner. “She was just fuming,” he said.
“Had I had a chance to write this article, I would have titled it something like, ‘North Carolina is doing great and the Asheville Citizen-Times won’t print it,'” Edwards continued.
According to Edwards, in addition to composing headlines to which he objects, the Citizen-Times does not allow him to dictate what topics the newspaper covers. “I’ve sent several press releases with some great things that have essentially been ignored,” he said. In a dig at Buncombe legislators, he added, “If you spent your time in this past session trying to name spiders or legalize marijuana, then you deserve to be frustrated.”
Some of the good news that is going unreported, Edwards said, includes measures of North Carolina’s fiscal stability, including the state’s AAA bond rating and a July 11 ranking from George Washington University’s Mercatus Center as 15th among states for fiscal strength.
“This summer the N.C. Department of Commerce released record tourism numbers for 2016,” Edwards said. “We’ve seen unemployment fall from 11 percent in 2010 to 4.5 percent this May, better than cut in half. We now enjoy a savings reserve of $1.838 billion, the highest ever in North Carolina.”
Economics aren’t the only good news, the senator said. This year, “North Carolina also celebrates having its highest-ever fourth-grade reading proficiency, with 74 percent of fourth graders reading at or above grade level,” he told the crowd.
Edwards said many of those in the room had asked him to advance legislation that requires Asheville to implement districts for seats on its City Council. The bill the senator introduced became law on June 29; it requires the city to draw six districts by Nov. 1.
Audience member Sheila Surrett asked Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer whether the city still plans to hold a referendum on whether to adopt district elections on Nov. 7. Manheimer replied that it does.
Edwards concluded, saying, “I will tell you that the citizens of Asheville need to get out and find candidates and fund candidates and get folks to the polls — because if we have participation as low as 6 percent in the future, as we have had in the past, districts are not going to help us at all.”
Rep. Brian Turner also addressed the gathering, which filled the meeting room at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center. The Buncombe Democrat is working to increase the number of school counselors, which he described as inadequate to meet the needs of large numbers of North Carolina students affected by trauma. Dealing with the state and local opioid addiction crisis, he said, is an important priority. Praising Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan‘s efforts to get the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan “in the hands of those who need it,” Turner also said that he will be working to restore $2 million cut from the state budget for the Julian F. Keith Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Black Mountain.
Manheimer gave a brief overview of changes to the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project approved by Asheville City Council on June 27. When bids for the project came in significantly higher than anticipated, Manheimer said, city staff worked quickly to preserve $14.6 million in federal highway grants pledged to the project. By eliminating or modifying several elements, the mayor explained, the project can move forward.
Items left on the cutting room floor include protected bike lanes along Lyman Street, from Amboy Road to a new roundabout in the former location of 12 Bones Smokehouse; a retaining wall along Riverside Drive near the Norfolk Southern railway bridge; the planned French Broad West, Bacoate Branch and Town Forest greenways; and the Livingston Street Complete Streets improvements.
Though those elements have been reengineered or postponed, Manheimer said, the goal of the project to create a “palette for private investment” will nonetheless be fulfilled by the revised scope.
Retired attorney Sidney Bach asked how it could have happened that the city was so surprised by the final bids.
“I think the question was, ‘How come the Council didn’t know till pretty close to our meeting what the bids came in at?'” responded Manheimer.
Though the mayor said she couldn’t speak for city staff, she theorized they didn’t want to present elected officials with the problem of dramatically increased costs without at the same time proposing a solution. “Because of the federal funding deadline, they were able to only have one community meeting and we were only able to have one Council meeting before having to move ahead with this, or we would risk losing $14 million,” Manheimer said.