CIBO sabotages WNC air

With dazzling disregard for the public health and the democratic process, some wily tricksters at the Council of Independent Business Owners are suing Asheville and Buncombe County, in an effort to block state approval of the county’s new air agency. And for this 11th-hour maneuver, they should be held accountable. [See “CIBO’s last-minute stand,” on page 12.]

Of course, CIBO leaders will argue that they had to do something to stop the lunatic anti-growth, health-freak environmentalists from messing with WNC’s economy and forcing everyone to ride bicycles.

But CIBO’s last-minute action comes after months of public discussion at government meetings — covered in detail by the local press. This lengthy process finally led to an agreement between Asheville and Buncombe to establish the new local agency, as allowed under state law.

Discontent about the agreement must have run high at CIBO headquarters — high enough to generate a handful of letters and a lawsuit, just before a scheduled July 12-13 meeting of the state Environmental Management Commission, which has been expected to approve the city/county deal.

Aside from calling the plan illegal, CIBO leaders are now saying that the business community wasn’t allowed enough input and that businesses were caught off-guard.

How can you be caught off-guard when you have an inside track? Put CIBO’s “outsider” claims in context: For years, CIBO supported our old two-county air agency, which operated mostly behind closed doors as a sort of businessmen’s club for local industry, keeping few records and asking fewer questions. It was only after years of public outrage and, finally, a state audit, that county commissioners appointed some responsible people to the agency’s board — an act that led to the agency’s reform. (That’s when someone got the bright idea to kill the agency by getting Haywood County to withdraw). During the first four months of this year, while the fate of the agency was being determined, a few CIBO leaders were busy behind the scenes counseling various Buncombe County commissioners and County Manager Wanda Greene. CIBO’s goal, at that time, was to get Buncombe County to put the air-agency under the control of Greene, an outspoken proponent of laissez-faire regulation. At the March 21 commissioners’ meeting, Greene publicly unveiled a plan to do just that, expecting immediate approval. But she failed because commissioners listened to the numerous objections from the public. Had she succeeded, don’t think for a moment that CIBO would have objected to her precipitous action, which hardly allowed for public input.

Throughout the weeks of city/county negotiations, CIBO has closely monitored the entire process, all the while stirring the pot of member concern via its weekly newsletter. The group even held a special “issues meeting” devoted to the fate of the air agency.

CIBO President Mac Swicegood describes CIBO’s supposed exclusion from the deliberations this way: “There was very little input from the business community heard by the county or the city.”

Indeed! I don’t think the local business community (if such a monolithic group even exists) objects to an independent, autonomous air agency, as long as it’s fair. During the months of opportunity for involvement, there was a striking silence from CIBO members (or any other businesspeople) opposed to a reformed local agency. There was no groundswell of letters to elected officials or the local newspapers. And when the city held a public hearing on the future of the air agency, with the crowd spilling out of council chambers, every single speaker supported the creation of an independent, autonomous agency — and some of them were business owners! The Chamber of Commerce has been monitoring the air issue, and it sees no problem with the interlocal agreement that establishes the new air agency, according to its public-policy director, Bradley Hix.

Some business owners have undoubtedly experienced what they consider to be excessive governmental regulation. But how many believe that we should destroy a local air agency — which offers local voices much greater access than the state’s Division of Air Quality — simply because the local body has begun to take its job seriously? CIBO says it has 200 members, but it won’t divulge their names publicly. When I called CIBO Director Mike Plemmons to say that, as a CIBO member, I personally object to the group’s 11th-hour obstructionism, I learned from him that the group never polled its members on the air-agency issue. So how many of them really favor this maneuver?

While Western North Carolina is experiencing a worsening air-quality crisis, CIBO is now opposing local initiatives to reduce air pollution, calling such actions bad policy. Plemmons and his cohorts justify this stance by saying that most of our pollution comes from outside the region. Aside from the folly of that position, they ignore the fact that during our frequent thermal inversions, we’re stuck in a gas chamber of fumes of our own making.

CIBO says stricter air regulations will cost us jobs. Plemmons and friends cite the exodus of industry from the area. Never mind that most of those departures took place during a time when our air agency was criminally easy on polluters. Our industrial woes need to be put in the context of a rapidly globalizing, information-technology-driven economy. And in this context, a healthy local economy requires a lot more than laissez-faire regulation.

While the CIBO strategists may think they’re doing the right thing, I hope that history will show their effort to have been a short-sighted mistake that failed.

[Fobes is publisher of Mountain Xpress.]

About Jeff Fobes
As a long-time proponent of media for social change, my early activities included coordinating the creation of a small community FM radio station to serve a poor section of St. Louis, Mo. In the 1980s I served as the editor of the "futurist" newsletter of the U.S. Association for the Club of Rome, a professional/academic group with a global focus and a mandate to act locally. During that time, I was impressed by a journalism experiment in Mississippi, in which a newspaper reporter spent a year in a small town covering how global activities impacted local events (e.g., literacy programs in Asia drove up the price of pulpwood; soybean demand in China impacted local soybean prices). Taking a cue from the Mississippi journalism experiment, I offered to help the local Green Party in western North Carolina start its own newspaper, which published under the name Green Line. Eventually the local party turned Green Line over to me, giving Asheville-area readers an independent, locally focused news source that was driven by global concerns. Over the years the monthly grew, until it morphed into the weekly Mountain Xpress in 1994. I've been its publisher since the beginning. Mountain Xpress' mission is to promote grassroots democracy (of any political persuasion) by serving the area's most active, thoughtful readers. Consider Xpress as an experiment to see if such a media operation can promote a healthy, democratic and wise community. In addition to print, today's rapidly evolving Web technosphere offers a grand opportunity to see how an interactive global information network impacts a local community when the network includes a locally focused media outlet whose aim is promote thoughtful citizen activism. Follow me @fobes

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