Xpress editorial

The city Planning and Development Department has recently allowed Wachovia Bank to place 50 advertising signs on lampposts downtown. The bank says the 5-foot-tall banners are meant to thank the people of Asheville for 100 years of support. Yet when Xpress asked a bank spokesperson why the banners don’t say “thank you” if that is their intent, we were coolly advised to submit our questions in writing.

If the Wachovia banners aren’t advertising, what are they? They’re pitching a brand name and using the words “100 years” to promote an image of stability that is doubtless reassuring to bank customers.

City Planner Sasha Vrtunski told Xpress that the decision to allow the banners was made ad hoc, since there’s no policy in place for handling such requests. The bank, she said, is paying the city to install and remove the advertising banners. (And the city, in turn, is hiring a private contractor to do the work.) Vrtunski also noted that “the city has allowed organizations to put banners up, such as the United Way, the Arts Council and Bele Chere.”

Have we lost sight of the difference between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business? Since when is it the city’s business to help Wachovia make money?

Coupled with other recent moves by city staff, the decision to let Wachovia post its banners suggests serious confusion about both the proper role of government and the rule of law.

In late March, Police Chief Will Annarino and the Parks and Recreation Department decided to close Pack Square to public demonstrations, citing safety concerns — although none of the peace demonstrations held there over the last year-and-a-half have caused any injuries to demonstrators, passersby or drivers.

Recently, the ban was lifted, but only for groups of 20 or fewer people; larger groups must now obtain a permit first. The Women in Black have held weekly silent vigils at Vance Monument for more than 19 months without incident or injury. But two weeks ago, they were told that a permit for “about 30 people” would cost $160. That works out to a little more than five bucks apiece to exercise the constitutionally protected right to peaceably assemble.

These de facto rewrites of city law, we note, were accomplished without citizen input or formal action by elected officials. Which is not to say that the current City Council hasn’t shown an interest in public activities downtown.

Last November, Council passed a panhandling ordinance banning any solicitation of funds downtown and in Biltmore Village, including “without limitation, the spoken or written or printed word or such other acts as are conducted in the furtherance of the purpose of immediately collecting alms or contributions.” On May 6, Council indicated that it will rescind the ban on written or printed solicitations, and specifically allow “nonverbal” panhandling and busking by entertainers.

Xpress applauds Council’s rethinking of an ordinance passed in haste, and hopes that First Amendment issues raised by the November law will be resolved without lengthy and expensive legal wrangling. We remain troubled by the “nonverbal” designation which appears to specifically restrict free speech.

Xpress is also troubled by a new restriction suggested for the sidewalk ordinance, banning enclosed carts large enough for a vendor to stand inside. To drive away some of the smallest of small businesses seems misguided. City staff labeled them “too big and aesthetically … not attractive.” Several callers to Xpress have said precisely the same thing about the Wachovia banners.

Of course, bank executives aren’t homeless and destitute, and they don’t rock the boat by opposing a controversial war. Nor do they conduct their business in cramped sidewalk carts. So Asheville, it appears, will allow them their free speech — for free, no less — while ordinary citizens have to pay to exercise their First Amendment rights.

The Asheville Citizen-Times called the Wachovia deal a “banner idea.” Xpress calls it appalling. In the absence of a policy on the commercial use of public space, the banners should come down — now. And any future policy involving selling advertising placement on city property should be subject to existing city law, with any changes made only after adequate public input, and after Council has debated and voted on them.

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