Headlines speak louder than words

Headlines speak louder than words

by Bill Fishburne

Mountain Xpress columnist Jerry Sternberg has taken The Asheville Tribune and myself to task for jumping all over City Council regarding the Army Reserve rent increase (see “The Gospel According to Jerry: Patriots Come in All Stripes,” Dec. 20, 2006 Xpress). The opportunity to reply is too juicy to pass up.

Let’s start by saying that I have tremendous respect for Jerry Sternberg. He is an Asheville native, a successful and respected businessman, a Navy veteran, a true local character and a founding member of the Council of Independent Business Owners. And yes, he has declined our offers to write for the Tribune, saying, “I’m too liberal for you to handle.”

Now to the situation at hand. In North Carolina and most other states, it is traditional to encourage reserve centers to locate in or near municipalities by leasing land to the military for $1 per year. Nine of the 10 Army Reserve Centers located on municipal, county or state land in N.C. pay $1. Asheville is the sole exception.

In 1950, the city leased the Army land on Louisiana Avenue for $1 for 50 years. When the lease expired in 2000, Asheville’s director of development, Ed Vess, engaged certified appraiser Richard Jacobs to look at comparable leases in the commercial sector. He failed to recognize that the nature of a Reserve Center is different from that of any other institution that rents land from the city.

Vess recommended that the rent be set at $60,000 a year for six years — the high end of the commercial scale. Mayor Leni Sitnick was absent from City Council’s Sept. 26, 2000, meeting, but Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger and the remainder of Council approved that day’s consent agenda 6-0 on a motion by Council member Charles Worley.

When the rent came up for renewal this year, Vess again failed to consider tradition and comparables in other municipalities. His new recommendation was $112,000 a year for three years, giving the Army time to make its intentions known about moving from the now-prime location. Council member Carl Mumpower objected, and the item was removed from the consent agenda. Mumpower said it was unconscionable to raise the rent on “these brave young men and women who are defending our country when we are at war.”

I was there for the debate (Sternberg wasn’t), and I was appalled when Mayor Terry Bellamy launched into a totally inane lecture about how the Social Security Administration doesn’t even have bus service and is paying $33,000 per month, and since the Reserve Center is empty most of the time anyway, maybe they could share the space.

Council member Bryan Freeborn seemed as stunned as the rest of us but recovered to say that while he liked the idea, he thought the Army really needed a contract signed soon. Vice Mayor Holly Jones said she had problems with taking property off the tax rolls “when the Social Security Administration could be doing some problem solving on their own.”

I didn’t see why the Army would want to sign a contract that, in Mumpower’s words, “gouged” them. I had no idea what the mayor was thinking, but I can tell you she has never been in a Reserve Center during a drill weekend or an emergency. As for Jones’ uninformed rambling, the SSA building is privately owned and will stay on the tax rolls whether or not the agency is located there.

The whole logic was surreal, melting and flowing off the bench like the characters and clocks in a Dali painting while the sane world just watches, uncomprehending. The motion passed 6-1, slapping a $52,000 annual rent increase (91 percent) on the Army Reserve Center, which imposes zero costs on the city.

The next agenda item was spending $53,600 on decorative stoplight poles. Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek showed slides of two different poles. One was a standard, brushed-aluminum model that could hold two stoplights. The other was a green pole with a curved arm, which Butzek said is more in keeping with Asheville’s character. The motion passed 5-2 with Brownie Newman and Mumpower opposed.

At that point, what we had was a City Council that clearly placed more value on fancy light poles than it did on the Army Reserve. It was time to buy another barrel of ink.

The Tribune‘s news story was titled “Asheville Gets Pretty Light Poles but Gives the Army the Shaft.” Our editorial was titled “Council Liberals Show True Colors in Tuesday Night Anti-Military Vote.” It pointed out that for $52,000, the Army could buy 105 sets of the latest life-saving body armor, 320 pairs of composite boots made by Wellco in Waynesville, or 248,000 rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition.

As Mumpower said, “There’s a war on.”

But what really got Council’s goat, and what Sternberg seems to object to, was our front-page headline (in a modest 90-point typeface), “City Council Screws the Troops.”

We debated the use of such a strong adjective for maybe 30 seconds. The debate was whether we should say “Council Democrats …” “Council Liberals …” or “Council Progressives …” We compromised, because the vote was an official act of City Council, not a random act of unkindness by a few individuals.

Sternberg’s solutions to the problem include having us lobby Council members in advance and imposing a citywide 1-cent property-tax increase to benefit the military. (Why is it that liberals always solve problems with tax increases?)

I have done quite a bit of soul-searching on this issue, and I believe Sternberg’s criticism is unfounded. When he says we “hit a new low in editorial bottom fishing,” he’s either wearing the biggest blinders this side of Derby Downs or he put them on the wrong end of the horse. Without the Tribune and our retired Marine and Special Forces friends, this Council’s misguided rent increase would be in effect today.

During the next Council meeting (Oct. 24), Mayor Bellamy chewed out retired Army Master Sgt. Fred English, saying the Tribune had printed a story that was “horrible, deplorable and intentionally divisive.” Then she said: “I have received death threats over this. … No one, especially not a mom with little kids, should have to undergo such threats.”

The Citizen-Times and Xpress had picked up on the story by now, and it was clear that if Bellamy was successful in diverting attention from the issue and making the public feel sorry for her, the Army Reserve would be stuck. The Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the e-mails and was given 21 messages. We found no death threats, and neither did the other media; there wasn’t even any foul language.

The following week, we printed a news story on the matter, this time using 100-point type.

At the next meeting (Nov. 28), some semblance of common sense, shame or both prevailed. Council rolled the rent back to $60,000, with a token increase keyed to the consumer price index. It helped enormously that Vess, at Holly Jones’ insistence, had finally gotten his comparables from other municipalities. The results were distributed to Council members only, in hard copy only; the public and the media were not given access until the Tribune, again, requested a copy Wednesday morning. We played this one with the headline “ABOUT FACE” in 120-point type.

The bottom line is that the mayor, the liberal Council members and Jerry Sternberg can complain all they want, but the story and the Tribune‘s actions stand the tests of news-page accuracy and editorial clarity and integrity. We did the right thing.

[Asheville native Bill Fishburne, a former Army officer, is senior editor of the Tribune Newspapers.]

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