Covering local government, one meeting at a time

Talk about the people. Find the drama. Look where no one else is looking. That’s what Mountain Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes told me and Neal Evans when we started covering local government in 1994.

Neither of us was on staff for the nascent publication, despite what the masthead said. Seemingly there were 15 or so people on staff, including me (my first name was consistently misspelled, first appearing in September 1994). But really, most of us were freelancers enticed by Fobes’ determination “to keep [readers] informed, entertained and interested in the local scene.”) I was a naïve English-literature major. Evans was a semiretired finance director from a town in Virginia. He went for the numbers. I went for the people.

Together, we helped launch the local-government coverage Xpress came to be known for, but first, we had to figure out who the people were, what issues they faced and where the stories were. In December 1994, an early issue of Xpress noted that Jodie Foster’s movie Nell (filmed in Western North Carolina) was playing at theaters. But there was nothing about Asheville City Council members’ local coup: In a split 4-3 vote early in the month, a group of Council members dubbed The Gang of Four — Chris Peterson, Rock McClure, Carr Swicegood and Herb “Big Daddy” Watts — had managed to fire embattled City Manager Doug Bean. The vote would lead to a grassroots (but failed) effort to get the four newcomers recalled — and a counter recall, which also failed, to oust Council members Barbara Field and Russ Martin, who had voted to keep Bean.

Would the next meeting be so dramatic? Was no one covering these meetings? Fobes sent me to the next December meeting — a dry, decidedly non-dramatic work session in which Council members were surprised to learn that they had the power to appoint members to the board of the Opportunity Corporation, which oversaw $3 million in community action programs and was perhaps the largest public service organization helping the poor in Buncombe and Madison Counties.

The board’s new director, Dee Williams (no relation) had asked Council members why they hadn’t appointed a new board member since 1972. “It’s the lost board,” one Council member joked. “Twenty-two years of federal funding that we don’t know anything about?” asked then-Council member Leni Sitnick. My report concluded, “In a council strapped for cash, struggling to find ways to pay for all those handy little services we expect out of our city government, like sidewalks that aren’t overgrown with grass or streets without potholes. Well, $3 million got their attention.”

Never mind that the last two phrases were incomplete sentences and that nowhere in the narrative did we note the date of the meeting. Xpress had quietly, but with a little sass, started its local government coverage.

By the Jan. 4, 1995, issue, we had added a “Citywatch” skyline logo to herald our regular coverage in each print edition. In “Study ‘Til You Drop,” Evans and I detailed Council members’ back-and-forth discussion about how much money the city was spending on studies — for example, a $49,800 plan to have an outside consulting firm study how Asheville stacked up against other cities in regard to its employee pay and job classifications. Council balked, though the city’s very-new manager, Jim Westbrook, offered to do the study on his own to determine whether the city really needed all its current employees and whether they were “working hard and smart.” Ever the numbers guy, Evans reported on the fact that Westbrook “did not mention that, as it is, he is being paid over $100,000 a year to make this same determination of resources needed to carry out the policies set by council.” A few months later, Evans managed to get the tough-to-interview Westbrook to detail his reorganization of city staff.

In the ensuing weeks and months, Evans and I tag-teamed our reports, while Calvin Allen and his team of freelancers provided a steady source of in-depth articles, paid for by the Fund for Investigative Reporting (FIRE), covering social issues, such as his March 1995 story, “On the Short End of the Stick: Women and Minorities Find Few Jobs and Few Dollars in Asheville City Hall.”

When commissioners debated ways of allowing public comment (or not), Evans was there to report Commissioner Bill Stanley’s remark that, “In the true spirit of democracy, I wish to withdraw” a motion to restrict public comment.

When the numbers were released on how much money the political action group, Citizens for Recall, had raised to oust the Gang of Four, Evans tracked the nearly $40,000 and gave readers a sort of driving tour that showed who the donors were and what neighborhoods they lived in.

When City Council debated controversial changes to the sign ordinance one snowy February night, I covered it. “Life is full of compromises,” Council member Rock McClure said when the vote (another split decision) allowed big signs to be grandfathered despite new city regulations restricting size.

We didn’t compromise on our coverage, though, diving into debates about water rates, exposing what was happening at the industry-stacked board of the regional air-quality agency and detailing the discussion at every Unified Development Ordinance hearing, some of which ran past midnight.

A few months into the Xpress adventure, Publisher Fobes wrote in “Say, What Kind of Paper Is This?” commentary that while Xpress was “dwarfed — in staff and capital — by the [Asheville] Citizen-Times. … the corporate Big Boys must have realized there’s a party going on at city hall after they began reading about it in our ‘Citywatch.’ … This town has the stories — and, lord knows, the controversy.”

Margaret Williams  first freelanced for Xpress in 1994; she became a staff reporter (and, briefly, distribution manager) in 1995. She’s now the managing editor.



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