Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Local activists who've used public records to hold government's feet to the fire

by Jon Elliston, David Forbes and Jason Sandford in Vol. 16 / Iss. 34 on 03/17/2010

March 14 to 20 is this year's Sunshine Week — an annual, nationwide celebration of the critical importance of government openness and freedom of information. Discovering and reporting the inner workings of government is part of Xpress' mission, so it's a week we take special note of.
Trying to change a channel: Davyne Dial, who pushed for the release of records she believed public-access station URTV is obligated to reveal. Photos by Jonathan Welch (unless otherwise noted)

Year round, we maintain the Xpress Files, an online archive of government documents on everything from local development rules to police reports to environmental-impact statements (see mountainx.com/xpressfiles). It's something we typically highlight during Sunshine Week, but this year, we decided to turn the spotlight on local activists who pried open public records and used them to advance their respective causes. Here's what they had to say.
URTV dispute

Who: Davyne Dial, former URTV producer and board member

What was your mission, and how did you get involved?

"While on the board, we had questions about the financial records; we wanted management to be a little more forthcoming. When I started asking questions, I was sent an e-mail by the board president [Jerry Young] telling me I was suspended." Dial was later removed in a controversial vote by URTV members.

How did you get the public records?

"We still haven't gotten them. Through an attorney we requested the records, and their attorney said they didn't have to provide the records. We pressed hard, lobbying City Council [which, along with Buncombe County, oversees the public-access channel]."

What obstacles did you encounter?
"It was such a fight, and we encountered such hostility. I was suspended, then removed. We started to ask: Why this fight over some basic records? The fight still continues."

What did you find in the records, and what did you do with that information? What impact has it had?

"We're still waiting on the records, but in the city's new management agreement, they clamped down with requirements that URTV be open about its meetings and records. I think society would be better if things were more open and transparent, and this was my way of pressing for that wall to open up just a crack." After Dial and other activists pressed for greater openness, URTV also began allowing its meetings to be filmed, abolished a controversial secrecy oath for board members and started posting more meeting minutes online.

Any advice for other activists seeking to find and use public records to advance their cause?

"I suggest that they think carefully about what a whistle-blower can expect and about their next steps when they face opposition. You're going to get a lot of hostility. But if you're in the right, stay the course anyway. You have no good reason to back down."


Editor's note: During the time before the scheduled meeting, Pastor Jerry Young stood outside URTV and told people coming to vote that the meeting had been canceled and no voting would take place. Inside , General Manager Jonathon Czarny also worked to confuse and skew the voting by spreading vicious rumors about Ms. Dial. As shown in the video, no meeting was ever called to order, and Ms. Dial was never allowed access to the membership list (this access was required in NC statutes governing this type of special meeting), to notify her supporters of the special meeting. Also Jonathon Czarny oversaw the voting, thereby making the vote a free choice, impossible. The atmosphere at URTV facilities became one of extreme division.



URTV staff: members vote 33-12 for board member’s removal; controversies continue Suspension after requesting financial records.
by David Forbes on 05/01/2009

Davyne Dial
Members remove Director

URTV members voted 33-12 on Wednesday to dismiss outspoken board member Davyne Dial, according to figures from URTV staff. However, Dial and her supporters have taken issue with the process.

The URTV studios were the scene of no small amount of tension and arguments. An Asheville police officer was in the offices during the proceedings.

Dial’s detractors asserted that the station is running well and that her actions caused negative publicity for the public-access channel.

“We’re moving forward, we’re trying to make this work,” URTV producer David Connor Jones said. “But negative stuff — portraying URTV as a shambles and not working properly — how does that help the membership? She’s being removed from the board because a lot of people are dissatisfied.”

Dial and her supporters replied that she’s just tried to bring attention to management and transparency issue,s and that she should not be penalized for, in the words of URTV producer Sean McNeal, “exercising her First Amendment rights; she’s being censored.”

The poll, lasting from 1 to 10 p.m. in URTV’s office,s was a last-minute change from a member’s meeting originally scheduled for that night. In objection to the change, Dial and others held a “nonmeeting” to discuss issues facing the station.

Board member Sandra Bradbury was there, and said that while the notice changing from a meeting to a poll had been signed “URTV Board of Directors,” she’d had no knowledge of it.

“It seems like they’re going off on their own and having secret meetings,” she said. “I hadn’t heard anything about it.”

Dial confirmed she had retained an attorney who had called URTV and said that any votes counted before 7 p.m. were invalid.

“I retained an attorney because this process is not legal,” she said. “Me standing on my own and saying that wouldn’t have the same weight. I did not threaten to sue, the attorney just said, ‘Hey, if you do this, it’s not legal.’”

But Treasurer Joe Scotto said that transparency concerns have been resolved and that URTV is following the state’s open-meetings law, as its required to do by its contracts with the city and county, who funnel a portion of cable fees to the channel.

“There’s no secret meetings,” he said. “Our meetings are open, they’ve been filmed. We’ve addressed these concerns.”

“You failed to speak up, Joe — you were a part of it,” Board member Richard Bernier, who’s also facing a dismissal attempt, said of transparency concerns.

“The issues that have been resolved — about open meetings — have only been done because me and Richard and I have been insisting these things are done,” Dial said. “If nothing else happens, and I get kicked off the board, I feel pretty good because things are looking up, people are paying attention. This is an important public entity to our community. I’m sorry that it had to come to this point, but you have a management style that forces a push-comes-to-shove situation, which is extremely unfortunate.”

Both Dial and Bernier said they’re willing to sit down with URTV’s management and other board members to work out their disagreements.

After the vote, Dial sent out a list of criticisms of the process, including that her supporters hadn’t been told to vote after 7 p.m. while her opponents had, and that the necessary membership meeting had never been called to order.

— David Forbes, staff writer

After bad press for improper removal of Board Members URTV tries a different tactic.

URTV attorney explains call for special meeting to remove board member

by David Forbes on 04/06/2009

A petition presented by URTV producer Dale Joyner calling for the removal of outspoken board member Davyne Dial at the last meeting of the public-access channel’s board of directors constituted a call for a special meeting of the channel’s membership, URTV attorney Scott Dillin asserted in an e-mail today.

Dial, along with board member Richard Bernier, has pointedly criticized the management of the station and what she sees as issues of transparency. On Feb. 9, the board’s executive committee voted to recommend the removal of Dial and Bernier.

“The Special Meeting was called by the members, at the last board meeting, via [Joyner’s] petition,” Dillin wrote, in response to requests by Xpress to clarify the meeting process. “Under the bylaws, such a petition would constitute a request by 10% of the members (I recollect approximately 26 were said to be on the petition) for such a meeting.”

Usually, URTV bylaws require a 2/3rds vote by the Board of Directors to remove a member, and this is the method that has been used in the past. State law does allow the members of some nonprofits to remove board members they’ve elected.
“Other positions on the Board, such as Mr. Bernier’s seat, are appointed by the Board itself or Asheville City Council, and so on, and are not subject to removal by the Members,” Dillin noted.

“In the end,” he added, “this is probably a positive for all parties involved, as it requires notice be sent to all members, giving all parties with an interest in the proceedings an opportunity be present and cast their vote reflecting their position on the removal of the member.”

In presenting her petition, signed by 26 URTV producers, Joyner called on the board to “discuss the dismissal of Davyne Dial,” whom the petition accuses of spreading “undue negative publicity and false rumors to URTV that have served to bring URTV negative press at a very critical period.” As read, the petition did not mention a special meeting of the membership.

The special meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29, in the URTV studios.

— David Forbes, staff writer

Following the improper attempt at removal of two Directors

Asheville City Councilman Bill Russell (liaison to URTV) was contacted by email. Email was necessary as Councilman Russell had never found time to attend a single Board meeting of URTV while he was assigned as liaison, even though this Board was on his watch.

On Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 9:05 AM, Davyne Dial wrote:
To: Mr. Bill Russell
Liaison to URTV

Dear Mr. Russell

I wanted to let you know that I've heard that the URTV board has met (in secret) and officially voted Mr. Bernier and myself (Davyne Dial) off the Board of Directors. We were not notified of a "special" meeting, nor were we ever given the reason for our dismissal. Neither was Sandra Bradbury notified of a special meeting by the Board. That made a total of at least three board members who were missing from the meeting.

We have not been "officially" notified of this decision; however mention was made of the Board decision yesterday evening at the County Commission meeting. So you may want to verify from someone at URTV. I suspect this was an effort to avoid the bright light of transparency and the possible presence of the press had this meeting been done in the proper fashion.

Here is my official statement on this.

"It appears the the Board of Directors has cherry picked certain members to attend a secret "special" meeting to vote on Mr. Bernier's and my dismissal. Wouldn't all boards like to be able to conduct business like this? Who needs to debate and listen to differing points of view anyway?

We were never informed of the reasons for this decision to remove us, and due to not being informed of the meeting we were unable to offer any rebuttals for the Board to consider. This move is another sad example of the rules and regulations of URTV being necessary and strictly enforced for the members or producers of URTV, but not an important guide for proper behavior for the management of URTV.

It appears that while the Board has chosen the easy way out, my feeling is this opens up a whole new hornets nest of controversy about the continued flaunting of established rules and regulations."

Davyne Dial

Mr Russell replied withing a few days and asked Ms. Dial to please forward her observations to City Manager Gary Jackson.

That letter is available at this link. | Letter to City Manager Gary Jackson

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bernier and Dial request tape of secret executive meeting

In violation of their own bylaws, a chosen few (Executive Committee) decide to get rid of Board Members who are requesting URTV comply with open meeting law, comply with terms of the City/County management agreement and comply with open records law. They feel not doing so jeapordizes of public access in Buncombe County.

The only way Board Members may be removed is by a 2/3rd majority of the whole Board of Directors, Knowing this fact, instead the President (Jerry Young) treasurer (Joe Scotto) Vice President (Bob Horn) and Secretary (Ralph Roberts) supposedly (since no minutes or recording was ever forthcoming this "meeting" is in question), met in secret and decided to illegally remove two Board members. Following is email dialog on this situation

From Davyne Dial dixiegirlz@gmail.com

To Pat Garlinghouse , richard bernier

Date Wed, Apr 8, 2009 at 7:54 PM

Subject: Secret meeting tape / NC Open Record laws & David Gantt
To: Pat Garlinghouse Executive Director URTV

Mrs. Garlinghouse,

Mr. Richard Bernier and myself are asking that the "tape" made in secret meeting regarding our dismissal, be made available for listening on Friday afternoon. In the event you are unable to be at URTV on Friday, April 10, 2009, please make this available for listening to by staff of URTV.
In a recent meeting with Commissioner David Gantt, we were assured that URTV does come under NC open record laws(statute posted below). And that our responsibility as Board Members is to oversee financial issues. Therefore Mr. Bernier and I would also like copies of last years, and the three months of 2009 of the check register, copies of credit card expenditures and also we understand we are have a right to the list of all URTV members and their contact information. So we are requesting that list also.
Please confirm receipt of this email.


Davyne Dial

Richard Bernier
Board of Directors URTV
The response to this letter was to deny access of this information to Mr. Bernier and myself. Shorty after, Mr. Bernier and I were left completely “out of the loop” and forced off the Board of Directors.
On April 10, 2009 (19 days before the “vote” on my dismissal), I received these emails from Young & Garlinghouse (emphasis, mine):


On Fri, Apr 10, 2009 at 3:06 PM, Jerry Young wrote:
Dear Richard and Dayvene,

I am writing you as Board President of URTV, the purpose of my letter to both of you is to inform you that your membership is suspended.

Richard, you have refused to pay your membership! I have previously informed you of this matter which is expected of all our membership. Therefore, you should not be speaking to anyone on behalf of URTV. As president I am the only authorized person to speak for URTV.
Davyne, as you are aware you have been officially noted that you are up for dismissal from the board and as a result you also should not be speaking in behalf of URTV. As president I am the only authorized person to speak for URTV.

Sincere regards,

Jerry Young - President

From pat@urtv.org

To Davyne Dial

Cc jericho007

Date Fri, Apr 10, 2009 at 10:43 AM

Subject RE: Secret meeting tape / NC Open Record laws & David Gantt
i am not authorized by the URTV board of directors to release this information at this time. pat

Monday, June 20, 2011

URTV executive committee votes to remove two board members

In an illegal move to silence Board Members first amendment rights the executive committee attempts to improperly remove two Board Members:

In a closed session on Monday, Feb. 9, URTV’s executive committee voted to remove board of directors members Richard Bernier and Davyne Dial, who have criticized what they see as a lack of transparency at the public-access channel.

Bernier told Xpress that he found about the removal when he received a letter informing him of the vote and that in 10 days (on Feb. 19), “a special meeting will be held. In executive session, you will be given an opportunity to present your case. After speaking, you will leave the room and the board will vote.”

The letter is signed by Board President Jerry Young and Secretary Ralph Roberts and does not disclose the reasons for Bernier’s dismissal.

Both Bernier and Dial said they hadn’t been notified of the special meeting beforehand. The move comes on the heels of several controversies at the channel, including those over a confidentiality clause in an oath administered to board members (which was later changed), denial of a request to film a meeting and a memo from Young that muzzled board members’ ability to the press about station business.

“We have done nothing more than follow up on a request to film the meeting; since then there’s been all this negativity towards us,” Bernier told Xpress. “All we’ve done so far is try to address some basic transparency issues, because we want URTV to survive. These basic issues should have been resolved years ago.”

Dial, meanwhile, said she was notified of the vote by another board member and hadn’t yet received a letter.

“We need to be beyond these issues to deal with matters of sustainability and outreach — and we’re not,” Dial said. “What this action looks like to me is that it reveals an attitude of disrespect for the laws and rules that have been put into place. It’s like, ‘You have to follow the rules if you’re a member or mere producer, but we don’t have to follow the rules, we’re the people in charge [and] we can make up our own rules up as we go.’ Which is exactly what they’ve done. The rules aren’t for them, they’re for the little people. They think they don’t have to pay attention to what the management agreements with the city and county say.”

Bernier asserts, “I’ve only asked questions and amplified the community’s interest at board meetings, brought some issues to light. What have I done wrong? They’ve yet to advise me of that. I’d like to know what I’ve done wrong.”

URTV bylaws allow board members to be removed by a vote of two-thirds of all board members currently in office.

Under the state’s open-meetings law, which URTV is required to follow by its agreements with both the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, only matters of personnel (paid staff), property acquisition or consultation with legal counsel may be dealt with in closed session. In all those cases, the board must still begin its meeting in open session before voting to hold a closed session and citing the legal justification for such a move. On Feb. 9, at the beginning of the meeting time for the executive session, the doors to URTV’s offices — the announced meeting place — were locked.

Dial has sat on URTV’s board since last July, Bernier since September.
Executive Committee votes to remove two board members

— David Forbes, staff writer

Monday, June 13, 2011

City Attorney Bob Oast's opinion on URTV's responsibility regarding Open Meeting Laws

This statement from Bob Oast was presented by City council liaison to URTV Robin Cape (presented to the Board of Directors Oct. 23, 2006)

I have looked through our agreement with URTV, and in URTV’s articles of
incorporation. I find nothing in there that requires that their meetings be
open to the public, or otherwise conducted in accordance with the Open
Meetings law. They are not a “public body” that is explicitly subject to the
law. That does not mean that the law does not apply to them, however.
It is my understanding that URTV operates substantially with public money
(cable subscriber paid PEG funds allocated by the City and County). Its
function is the management of a TV facility for the public access station.
The equipment and space it uses is paid for with public (PEG) money as
well. A North Carolina Court of Appeals case, News and Observer
Publishing Co. v. Wake County Hospital Systems, Inc., 55 NC App. 1
(1981), held that a non-profit agency contracting with a county to operate a
public hospital is subject to the Public Records law. The main factor that led
the Court to that conclusion was that the non-profit operated largely with
public money; clearly that is occurring here. Other factors might be the
extent to which the non-profit agency is controlled by the government with
it(sic) contracts or the extent to which it performs a governmental function.
It appears that the City and County exercise some degree of control over
URTV’s operations. While TV might not by itself be a governmental
function, a strong argument could be made that public access TV is by
definition governmental.
Even though the Wake County case involved public records and not open
meetings, I think that the same arguments could be made. On this basis, I
think that URTV is subject to the Open Meetings law. This means that the
meetings are required to be open (except for legally-permitted closed
sessions). This further means that “any person may photograph, film, taperecord,
or otherwise reproduce any part of a meeting required to be open.”
NCGS 143-318.6.
Since the County has some involvement with URTV as well, I’d want to
review my opinion with their lawyer, but the law is pretty clear and I don’t
think there will be any disagreement. I’ll try to do that today.
Of course, I think your reasoning that “it’s public access, for cryin’ out loud”
makes the most sense.
I hope that this is responsive to your question; if you need any further
information or need me to address the URTV board, please let me know.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oath of Silence and violation of public meeting laws

Mountain Express article

URTV oath sparks criticism
by David Forbes on 01/23/2009
Related topics: Buncombe Commissioners, urtv, openness, David Gantt, transparency
A confidentiality clause in an oath administered to members of public-access channel URTV‘s board at their last meeting has sparked criticism — and Buncombe County’s attorney’s office is looking into whether the vow is in line with the state’s open-meetings law.
The oath reads:

“I, the undersigned board member of URTV, do solemnly swear or affirm that I will, so far as the duty devolves on me, diligently and honestly oversee the affairs of URTV in a sound and businesslike manner; that I will not allow my actions as a member of this board to be influenced by personal or political friendships or obligations; that I will familiarize myself with the bylaws of URTV; that I will not knowingly violate or willingly permit to be violated any of the provisions in the bylaws; that I will keep confidential all the affairs of URTV, except to other members of this board in good standing or URTV staff, as necessary to the conduct of my duties.”

That last part didn’t sit well with board member Richard Bernier.
“I’m profoundly angered by this type of oath being required for a member of a board that should set an example of transparency,” Bernier told Xpress. “I found it odd when it was presented to us. We weren’t really told much about why it was needed or where it was coming from.”

URTV receives money known as PEG funds, which are collected in the form of fees from cable subscribers in Asheville and Buncombe County. Although the money doesn’t come directly out of the city and county coffers, both the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners make appointments to the nine-member board. In January 2007, Asheville City Council amended the nonprofit channel’s management agreement to require its board to abide by North Carolina’s open-meetings law.

URTV Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse says the oath is just a formality and that while it says “all affairs of URTV,” the clause applies only to such matters as personnel or property acquisition, which public bodies can legally address in closed session.

“This is just to protect URTV,” Garlinghouse told Xpress. “It’s absolutely standard practice for a board to have a formal induction. We hadn’t been doing that. URTV does fall under open-meetings law, and we’ve been following that.”

Asked why the oath says “all affairs” if it actually refers only to those brought up in closed session, Garlinghouse replied: “The wording was just taken from a standard oath. This is just routine; this is not a story.”

But Bernier isn’t the only one concerned about the clause. Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt, an attorney by profession, said that part of the oath “looks a little suspect to me,” adding that he’s directed the county attorney’s office to look into whether or not it conforms to open meetings law.

“It doesn’t sound like any oath — or the kind of transparency — we usually have,” Gantt told Xpress. “I understand that there are some decisions — like staff matters or property acquisition — that need to be in closed session, but we want our boards to be transparent. I hope it [the clause] was an accident.”

— David Forbes, staff writer

Treasurer Report / Peter Brezney

Treasurer Peter Brezney raises concerns regarding expenditures

Rather than look into the issues Brezney raises, the Board of Directors removes Brezney

Peter Brezneys Report on Our Asheville.com

Posted November 15, 2007

URTV Board not following NC Open Meeting Laws, Ignoring personnel handbook and allowing Executive Director to violate established by-laws and policies, valuable employee forced out by board's inaction:

On November 12, 2007 the URTV board of directors voted to remove Peter Brezny from the board. He was the only active producer and outspoken critic of Pat Garlinghouse on the board of directors.

Detailed information regarding violations of established policies by the Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse and the board's executive committee including Mark Wilson, Chairman, and Nelda Holder, Secretary, can be found in the PDF's Below:

October 2007 Treasurer's report (PDF) Treasurers Report

Notice to URTV Producers outlining concerns (PDF)
Brezny's farewell to members (see below)

Under the current leadership, the URTV by-laws, policies and procedures, and other governing documents have been removed from the URTV.org web site. We've placed the latest copies we have available here:
URTV By-laws (PDF)
URTV Policies and Procedures (PDF)

"URTV is a fantastic resource for the community, immediate and decisive action is needed to insure it's long term survival," notes Brezny

See Asheville Citizen Times Article

Brezny's farewell message to members:

-----Original Message-----
From: Peter Brezny [mailto:pb_at_purplecat.net]
Sent: Tuesday, November 13, 2007 6:47 PM
To: 'urtv-asheville_at_yahoogroups.com'
Subject: FW: URTV Board Decision

Dear URTV Producers,

As I am sure most of you are aware by now, the URTV board has chosen to remove me as a director of URTV.

I am sorry, though not surprised, that this administrative body has chosen to do so. By this action they have removed the only individual on the board apparently both knowledgeable of and willing to speak out against obvious violations of the bylaws and policies of URTV by the Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse.

Their vote to remove me from the board is a vote against the membership who put me on the board in the first place.

It is a vote for an Executive Director who has denied available equipment to members and alienated a once enthusiastic and supportive membership.

It is a vote for irresponsible purchasing practices that has taken money out of our local economy and placed it in the pockets of Pat's colleagues in Texas.

It's a vote for a board chairman who does not follow the guidelines in the personnel manual--one willing to allow an employee to be, in my opinion, harassed out of a job with no formal investigation.

It's a vote for a board secretary apparently incapable of meeting the guidelines of NC open meeting laws which our station has agreed to abide by, even when it's as simple as posting meeting minutes on the web site and sending notifications of board meetings in advance.

And finally, a vote against the simple and meaningful sound practice of following the established rules and guidelines put in place by those who worked so hard to bring URTV to fruition in the first place.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to serve the membership as long as I did, and hope that all of you will continue to work toward the long term future of URTV, and find creative, positive, and effective means to let the current board of directors and executive director know that their irresponsible behavior will not be tolerated.


Peter Brezny

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Mark Wilson
Date: Nov 12, 2007 4:15 PM
Subject: URTV Board Decision
To: brezny peter


At the meeting of the URTV Board of Directors today, November 12, 2007, a motion for your removal from the Board was approved 7-0 (with 1 abstention).

Mark Wilson

Further Info:

Pat Garlinghouse is hired in Jan. 2007

In a "not so well" researched decision the Board at URTV hires Pat Garlinghouse. Supposedly unbeknownest to the BOD this woman had been forced to resign her position at Houston Media Source approximately 18 months earlier.

A lot of background on this controversery can be found by Googling "Garlinghouse + Houston Media + Wiseman + $800,000"

MediaSource has 8 new board members
All but one city council member OK replacements

By MATT STILES Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Aug. 31, 2005, 9:52PM

The City Council approved eight new board members Wednesday to oversee Houston MediaSource, the city's embattled cable public-access channel.
The new members, approved by all but one council member, will replace those on the 15-member panel whose two-year terms expired at the end of last year.
The terms of the seven remaining board members expire Dec. 31.
The newly composed board must deal with two months of controversy over the channel airing a few programs earlier this summer that had nudity and profanity.
The council repeatedly has delayed the renewal of MediaSource's $800,000 contract, which the panel is set to consider next week.
The programs also sparked a debate about whether the city could regulate the channel's content without inviting First Amendment lawsuits.
In response, Mayor Bill White proposed shaking up the board with new members who could offer fresh ideas.
Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs called the new board "a whitewash" that would do little to change the underlying issue: questions about content on the channel.
"I don't see this as any real change," she said, casting a "no" vote.
"That's not really what the citizens of Houston deserve."
Councilwoman Addie Wiseman, who first raised the issue and has been the channel's chief critic, voted for the new board members.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do when they all get together," she said.
"I'm willing to give them a chance."
Wiseman also has submitted a plan to amend the nonprofit's contract with the city, which spends fees collected by cable users to provide the channel.
She said the changes would offer safeguards to keep "obscene" material off the air.
The mayor has suggested that new leadership might be needed.
However, on Tuesday MediaSource Board President Garth Jowett said it would be "unfair" for new board members to vote to replace Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse without first hearing her accomplishments.
Jowett praised Garlinghouse for overhauling the channel's procedures, improving community education programs and increasing participation by citizen producers.

Read more: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl//3334001.html#ixzz1P7N9ikQU

After years of wrangling URTV opens in July of 2006...then three months later the Board inexplicably forces the resignation of Kurt Mann

URTV Board & Kurt Mann Controversy: Rapid River Says "Rehire Kurt Mann"
“The URTV Board is dismantling the very thing that had been set in motion – a diverse public having a voice on local television.”
-Byron Belzak

As published with permission in the October 2006 issue of Rapid River Magazine:

Mountains of Art
URTV Needs to Rehire Kurt Mann
By Byron Belzak

The three greatest general complaints one hears about politics today – and about dysfunctional non-profit organizations, many of which are so political that they might as well be political parties – is lack of leadership, lack of transparency, and lack of vision.

The Board of Directors of URTV – channel 20 on Charter cable television, the first public access television station to serve the Asheville area – accomplished all three things in one fell swoop when it let Kurt Mann go as its executive director.

URTV Board of Directors headed by president Mark Wilson recently told its first executive director, Kurt Mann, that it was not going to renew his one-year contract. Mann immediately resigned, and URTV is now looking for a new executive director.

Two phrases immediately come to mind: “Shooting itself in the foot” and “It’s a pissing contest.” Nobody who really knows why Kurt Mann was not extended a new contract is talking candidly. I have my suspicions of what really happened.

I also suspect that many (if not most) of URTV’s 325 members – particularly those who plan (or had planned) to produce original, locally produced programs – are shocked and dismayed about the Board’s decision. I know I am. Anyone who has seen Kurt Mann in action knows he was the absolutely perfect person for the job.

Everything was going so well. There was no warning of this happening. Crash. Boom. The URTV Board is dismantling the very thing that had been set in motion – a diverse public having a voice on local television.

The URTV Board has squandered its initial brilliant decision and goodwill of hiring local film production entrepreneur Kurt Mann in the first place. What a shame for the public; what a windfall for those who support the old guard and status quo. Kurt Mann put zing into UR and MY public access. Now it’s gone. Even if the URTV Board was not required to ask anyone’s opinions about such matters, they should have.

Kurt Mann inspired many of us to become members and producers in the first place. And that’s the whole point of URTV: to have diverse, quality, local programming that will inspire audiences to watch something other than shows produced by the Big Six media conglomerates.

Kurt Mann was getting the job done. He oversaw the physical and technical birth of the station. No small feat by a long shot. I know what it takes; I once owned, operated and managed a small video production company in Atlanta. One of my associates went on to become a top director for Disney and another is now executive director of one of the nation’s most watched public access television stations. I can spot talent. And Kurt Mann and his two hard-working staff members, Jen Mass and Paul Snow, are talent. They accomplished so much in so little time over the past year. They should all be getting raises, not the boot.

So what can those who want Kurt Mann reinstalled do? Email or phone the three local politicians who attended URTV’s July 31, 2006, successful grand opening and launch: Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, Asheville City Council member Robin Cape, and Buncombe County Commissioner David Gannt. Email current URTV Board president Mark Wilson, former URTV Board president and current member Maryanna Bailey, as well as other members of the Board. Email the URTV staff. Voice your opinion at public meetings of the URTV Board, which are held the fourth Thursday of every month beginning at 5pm at URTV headquarters and studios in downtown Asheville. Go to www.urtv.org for directions.

And don’t forget to email me UR thoughts at byron@mediabear.com. I’ll publish the ready-for-primetime ones on my website: www.DowntownAsheville.com. Tell me if I’m all wet on this one. I won’t mind admitting if I’m wrong. I just wonder if the URTV Board is big enough to admit if it’s been wrong.

We all make mistakes.

Copyright 2006 Mediabear

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Gantt's empty statement of support

March 25, 2004

RE: Public Access TV (URTV)

Thanks for your letter about Public Access TV (URTV). I appreciate your balanced and open consideration of URTV. I am going to support URTV in every way I can. I think the public deserves an opportunity to produce TV time that furthers their beliefs, goals, ideas, music, crafts, etc. I believe that local artists, musicians, clergy, and educators will end up dominating the programming. WNC already has a strong crafts community. The opportunity to share ideas, techniques, and network on the channel can only enhance and strengthen this important segment of our economy. However, the channel cannot used for purely commercial means.
NC law specifically defines obscenity in the attached document. Anyone who violates this law will be committing a felony and will likely be prosecuted. In the other six North Carolina cities with public access, none have experienced obscenity problems in their programming.

I do not anticipate any problems here. Opponents of public access have engaged in a scare campaign that has no validity in fact or experience in our state.

Communities with public access are enriched with differing ideas and local information. I think Asheville will be a better place to live with this type of open and honest communication.

David Gantt, Commissioner

Sunday, March 13, 2011

URTV Gears Up


URTV, Asheville’s public access television channel soon to debut on Charter Channel 20, is opening its doors to the public soon. You have a few opportunities to check it out in the near future.

URTV Mission Statement: “The mission of URTV is to empower every resident of our community by providing equal opportunities to create and present television programming in keeping with First Amendment principles of free speech.”

This station has been years in the making. Conservatives all over the county have opposed it for years, fearing that the lesbian witches and the vegan anarchists would poison the minds of Buncombe County’s youth. Well, it appears that there’s room for every point of view at the station now, and they’re planning a big open house for August 1st. Before then you have three opportunities to find out more:

Nonprofit INFO-Exchange at URTV Studio
June 20th at 6 pm

Learn how your nonprofit can reach 60,000 viewers by putting your message on URTV, Channel 20. This will be a sneak peak at the studio as we prepare for our August 1st Grand Opening.

We will provide a tour of the facility and give an overview of how to become a member. Information and forms for submitting programming and signing up for camera certification will also be available.

Open to nonprofit organizations only.

Seating is limited. Please email kurt@urtv.org with your RSVP.

URTV Annual Board Meeting

The Annual Membership Meeting of URTV will take place at 5PM on June 22, 2006. All members are invited and urged to attend and vote for the new Board position allocated to a membership representative. The 3 candidates are Linda Wells, Louise O’Conner and Peter Brezney. Each has written a paragraph about why they want to be on the board which was sent out to the membership on June 10th. Each member will have one vote. Please attend, meet the present Board members and VOTE! Click here for directions.

INFO-Exchange at URTV Studio
June 27th at 6 pm

Learn more about URTV, Channel 20 at our first public event June 27th at 6 pm. This will be a sneak peak at the studio as we prepare for our August 1st Grand Opening.

We will provide a tour of the facility and give an overview of how to become a member. Information and forms for submitting programming and signing up for camera certification will also be available.

Friday, March 11, 2011

After years of wrangling

Years of wrangling over the creation of public-access television in Buncombe County culminated in a unanimous vote of support from the Board of Commissioners at their Jan. 18 meeting. The board approved both a 10-page management contract with URTV Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and a funding-distribution plan that will substantially underwrite operations at the station for the next 10 years.

In the public-comment period preceding the board's formal meeting, URTV opponent Fred English reiterated his concerns about content on any public station, reading what he identified as a news story in which a white supremacist had used public-access television to incite a murder. English also worried that future funding shortfalls might find the URTV board demanding more money from the county.

But three speakers representing at least a dozen people in the audience spoke in favor of the public-access plan and the county's collateral efforts in government and educational television.

Sandy Mush resident Kurt Mann, the owner of Asheville's Ironwood Media and a longtime advocate of URTV as an incubator for the local film-and video-industry, urged the commissioners to provide substantial backing at the outset. "We need enough funding for URTV to get a good manager, in order to avoid some of the problems that others have warned about." He suggested that adequate funds would permit the hiring of a veteran broadcaster rather than a recent college graduate without much experience.

Asheville resident Rose McLarney spoke to the same issue. "It is discouraging to think that after all the work that has been done, URTV might be underfunded," she said, which "will make it difficult to hire good administrators."

Sharon Willen, director of business and industrial services at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Media Arts Project, also asked for full funding of the URTV media center.

URTV will immediately receive approximately $380,000 from the county's escrowed PEG funds (fees added to cable TV bills to cover the costs of public, educational and government television channels). In coming years, the project will receive between $95,000 and $108,000 per year.

Getting it wrong
This first formal session of 2005 followed the board's annual retreat, a day-and-a-half confab that included the commissioners, county administrators and staffers, school-board administrators, representatives of A-B Tech and the Sheriff's Department, and members of the local media.

During that conference, board members conducted a lengthy discussion of the URTV proposal, particularly concerning the distribution of funds. In the formal session, it was discovered that the numbers under discussion at the retreat had been low by a factor of three, and the apportionment of cable TV fees had been inaccurately described -- a slip-up for which County Manager Wanda Greene took responsibility. This resulted in a five-minute recess of the Jan. 18 meeting, so the corrected information could be distributed to commissioners. Although the numbers changed, the underlying consensus about URTV did not, and the funding was passed unanimously. (See "Full Retreat" elsewhere in this issue.)

Buncombe County Commission Commissioners take next step to public-access TV

by Steve Shanafelt in Vol. 10 / Iss. 41 on 05/19/2004

"I understand that we live in a diverse community today. But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?"

-- Pastor Jerry Young, Trinity Baptist Church

At 4 p.m., the fear in the room was already so thick you could almost taste it.

But many of those attending the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' May 11 meeting seemed less concerned about the ins and outs of local politics than about a profound moral struggle that's been raging in the community for several months now.

Men and women, many of them wearing their Sunday best, waited patiently for a turn to speak their minds during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Some looked over the speeches they'd prepared, with words like "smut," "pornography," "Satanists" and "homosexuality" underlined or highlighted in yellow.

All told, at least 50 people were in the audience; some wore homemade stickers positioned right above their hearts. The stickers bore the letters "PATV," circled and struck through in red. And many of the people wearing them clearly feared that if the commissioners voted to take the next step in creating a local public-access television station, their children's welfare -- and perhaps their very souls -- would be at risk.

The immediate issue was whether to authorize the county manager to negotiate a management agreement for URTV, the proposed public-access channel. The new station would give almost anyone in the community access to a television studio, video recording equipment, and -- most importantly -- the eyes of local cable-television viewers.

And despite the multiple reassurances offered by station planners that safeguards would be in place to prevent material legally considered obscene from airing, the subject appears to be as controversial today as it was when the issue first began drawing public notice this winter.

One by one, about 19 citizens -- seeming more or less equally divided between opponents and supporters of the project -- approached the lectern. Ironwood Media Group owner Kurt Mann implored the commissioners to consider the economic growth such a station could help foster. Buncombe County, said Mann, lost out on millions of dollars on films like Cold Mountain (which wound up being filmed in Eastern Europe) and on television programs like the proposed Salsaman cooking show he helped to create. Both projects failed, he maintained, because of a lack of confidence in the local media infrastructure.

Other station proponents spoke about how URTV could provide support for community projects and showcase the area's diversity.

To some, however, that very diversity is a cause for concern.

"I understand that we live in a diverse community today," said Pastor Jerry Young of Trinity Baptist Church. "But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?" And though he acknowledged that the station would bring benefits to the community, Young also raised the specter of children being exposed to obscenity.

Many other speakers seemed to share Young's concerns. Under federal law, everyone in the community must have access to such stations and be free to say whatever they want. Religions other than Christianity could have airtime if someone in the community went to the trouble of producing a show about them. So could any other group.

Other speakers maintained that local government is overstepping its bounds, and that the PEG fee that appears on county residents' cable-TV bills is really a disguised tax. County resident Don Yelton, who's running for a seat on the board of commissioners, asserted that the process of creating the station has not been sufficiently democratic and that both the commissioners and Buncombe County would be financially liable for any obscenity lawsuits the station's content might provoke.

But most of those speaking against the public-access station based their arguments on moral issues.

Conservative activist David Swanson predicted that PATV would become a haven for so-called "snuff shows" and "pornography."

Swanson concluded his discourse by saying, "I understand that Mr. Mark Goldstein, who might be the general manager of our local URTV, publishes an openly communist newsletter."

"That's me, and that's not true," Goldstein announced from the crowd. The two men argued briefly until Chairman Nathan Ramsey intervened to re-establish order.

"I hadn't planned to speak, but it isn't every day that I'm called a communist in public," said Goldstein after his name had been added to the list of speakers to give him a chance to respond to the charge. "In reference to the earlier statement, I'm not a nasty red. I am the director of an organization called the Fund for Investigative Reporting that promotes free speech -- which must have been confused by [Swanson] with communism. I think that the gentleman made the point for us, because without public comment, I wouldn't have been able to defend [myself against] that remark."

The public hearing lasted about an hour; then the commissioners weighed in briefly. After a few minutes discussion, during which Ramsey voiced opposition to the proposal because of insufficient county-government representation on the board that would make decisions about program content, the commissioners voted 4-1 to authorize the county manager to negotiate an agreement for managing URTV, with only Ramsey dissenting.

After that, all the folks who'd come to speak their minds on others' right to speak theirs on TV quickly left the room, enabling the commissioners to get on with the remainder of the day's business.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We are TV

by Nelda Holder in Vol. 35 / Iss. 10 on 04/07/2004
Perspective is such a curious beast.

Certain recent objections to the advent of public-access television in this community appear to have been the result of someone scouring the Internet in search of "objectionable" programming in any of the 2,000 communities that host public-access stations nationwide.

If you're willing to look that hard for objectionable material, perhaps you deserve to find some. But to use such errant sampling to claim that this is the kind of programming we can expect on local public-access TV is pure distortion.

I speak from experience. For more than four years, I was the executive director of a public-access station in Middlebury, Vt. My work involved management, volunteer training and video sharing throughout the state.

I am therefore well aware of the ways public-access stations actually build -- not destroy -- community. Allow me to give a few examples illustrating what the vast majority of public-access programming is really like.

First, our station provided family-oriented activities. We trained parents and children, who then worked in teams on local video projects. One favorite was the Festival on the Green. Each July, we taped hours of fabulous musical entertainment during the town's annual outdoor festival. Then, when everyone was shut inside during the winter months, we ran those shows, remembering our summer picnics as we watched the children grow from year to year -- right there on our tapes.

Second, our station was a meeting place for residents of every stripe -- politically, philosophically, economically and ethnically. Cooperating in training sessions together, videoing each other during practice interviews, they became friends. And in the process, they strengthened the bonds of community in wondrous ways. I loved the generous spirit that developed among our volunteers, who were always ready to help new trainees or to act as backup when a show was short-staffed.

Third, by allowing individuals to speak their unique truth from the heart, with no censors peering over their shoulders and telling them to do things differently, we began to amass a treasure trove of community history.

I fondly recall one senior volunteer who regularly borrowed our cameras to document the neighbors and the farms in her mountain community. As in Buncombe County, the traditional farms were being lost, and she wanted to preserve her remembrances on tape.

Another senior volunteer taped hours of public events for us -- speeches and gatherings that, collectively, provided a chronology of the topics of discussion in our town.

Our high-school students produced a weekly comedy show that was the highlight of our schedule. Their humor could easily have led any of them to writing jobs on Saturday Night Live. (Indeed, I for one found their show funnier!) Several of the folks who worked on this project went on to study video and filmmaking in college; another particularly talented high-school girl used our studio for countless hours, meticulously crafting a stunning portfolio piece that became her passport to design school. It was an animated public-service announcement about recycling, which we used repeatedly ourselves.

By invitation, we took the cameras directly into elementary-school classes for a hands-on media-literacy lesson, helping the youngsters do interview shows with one another and with guests from the community. These, too, proved to be very popular programs with students, as well as with their parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

An Abnaki couple who'd taken our training used to borrow our cameras over long weekends to document Native American powwows around New England. These pieces of regional history enhanced both public-access programming and our station's archives.

A veteran hunter who'd trained with us took his camera into the field, producing beautiful feature-length nature films. When they were scheduled to run, we would call the local hospital, so their patients could have a chance to "get outside" for a bit. Another particularly artistic outdoorsman borrowed our equipment to tape hours and hours of -- oddly enough -- running water. After editing down these beautiful shots of liquid and light, he created several unusual shows that also enriched our local treasure trove.

Parents routinely brought in their own videos of ballgames or dance recitals, and once again our audience numbers soared as the grandparents and cousins tuned in.

And, of course, we had politics. Interview shows aired weekly, and during election season, we ran inclusive debates and also offered every candidate 30 minutes of studio time (we provided a volunteer crew).

We also had health shows -- a delightful series on tai chi for seniors, plus an aerobics show aimed at a general audience. Guest experts shared medical expertise. (One psychologist, whose specialty was music therapy, taped a weekly show featuring vintage music paired with visuals of vintage model cars.)

Local accountants offered tax tips and investment counseling.

We had astrology shows, book reviews, a wacky show about the elements of gravity (personified), personal commentaries, live call-in shows, videos made by local college students, special shows on governmental issues (zoning proposals, etc.), and even programming for animals (compliments of a serious dog lover).

We also enjoyed a lot of laughs and a grand feeling of camaraderie. And not once did anyone in that community ever agitate to shut down public-access television (which began there in the early 1980s). To the contrary, the local cable company had to expand its territory to accommodate the many outlying residents requesting service so they could get our station.

So here's to the advent of public-access television in Asheville and Buncombe County. This is a wonderful opportunity to turn the spotlight on our own community while providing ourselves with wholesome entertainment and historical documentation that will never happen otherwise.

Go to it, URTV! And if you're reading this, get your name on that volunteer-training list!

[Freelance writer Nelda Holder is based in Asheville. The former executive director of Middlebury Community Television in Middlebury, Vt., she also teaches adult basic skills in Madison County.]

Public-access channel spawns continuing furor

Buncombe County Commission
Public-access channel spawns continuing furor
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 10 / Iss. 29 on 02/25/2004

"I'm optimistic ... that the people who are going to get access to [URTV] are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society."

-- Asheville resident Billy Roberts

The simmering controversy over a proposed public-access TV channel erupted once again last week as opponents and supporters squared off at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' Feb. 17 meeting.

Sporting handmade paper buttons depicting a red slash through the letters "PATV," opponents voiced fears that the proposed channel would turn out to be a showcase for pornography.

But station proponents also marshaled their forces, insisting that the worries about porn are overblown -- and that public-access TV could boost local economic-development efforts while giving budding multimedia entrepreneurs much-needed experience and exposure.

Meanwhile, representatives of URTV (the nonprofit under consideration to manage the new channel) have told Xpress that a number of safeguards have been drafted to deter obscene content -- and to ensure that any non-obscene content aimed at an adult audience is shown only when young viewers are least likely to see it (see "Sex and the County," Feb. 11 Xpress).

The Feb. 17 meeting marked the second time this month that the issue has dominated the board's public-comment session.

Station opponents also turned out in force back on Feb. 3, when the commissioners decided to postpone a vote on whether to launch negotiations with URTV to manage and operate the station. That vote has now been put off until April 6 to give County Attorney Joe Connolly time to research how the Raleigh public-access station handles potentially offensive programming without running afoul of First Amendment protections.

Back in September, the commissioners unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Asheville allowing a single nonprofit organization to run a joint public-access channel. Advocates have been working since 1999 to establish such a station, which would be partly funded by revenues from the separate cable-franchise agreements that Charter Communications has with both the city and county.

The hot-button issue of public-access TV content provided a lively counterpoint to an otherwise solemn session that focused on the plant closings announced during the past year, which eliminated more than 1,000 Buncombe County jobs, according to the Employment Security Commission -- and the efforts traditional economic-development officials are making to try to generate new jobs.

Fear of vibrancy?
In contrast to the Feb. 3 meeting -- when only one person spoke in favor of public-access TV -- there seemed to be as many supporters as detractors crowding the meeting room during the board's most recent session.

Without exception, those supporters framed the issue in relation to the Media Arts Project, a new nonprofit seeking to establish a local media-arts center where novice digital-media professionals could get real-world experience. Public-access TV, proponents say, is one key way to display their work -- which could range from animation to videos.

Greg Lucas, executive director of the nonprofit Media Arts Project, urged the commissioners to support both public-access TV and the media-arts center as a way to help foster skills workers can use "in the 21st century" rather than continuing to rely on manufacturing.

"We are trying to foster a community here that will help our work force get out of this cyclical and, unfortunately, spiraling-downward economic-development plan that focuses on manufacturing and bringing in companies from outside the area," Lucas declared. "That is just simply not working anymore."

Asheville resident Billy Roberts said he views opponents of public-access TV as being afraid of the "risk of vibrancy."

"As a voice of support for URTV, I want to make it clear I'm not for exposing pornography to our community's children," proclaimed Roberts. "I'm optimistic and hopeful that there are good people in Asheville who are interested in putting on quality, informative, really creative programming to enrich our community -- and that the people who are going to get access to it are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society."

Roberts went on to suggest that an advisory council could help encourage and support good programming.

Asheville digital-media entrepreneur David McConville, who chairs the Media Arts Project, also stressed the economic-development aspects of both URTV and the media-arts center. He added that he doesn't understand why the tiny chance of potential problems should doom the entire project.

"If we have this chorus of voices and one person sings out of tune, to shut down the whole choir seems a little bit extreme," McConville told the commissioners, adding that the URTV board has tried to address community concerns by promising to adhere to state obscenity laws.

"We really need to come to a compromise on this so that we can understand how we can really use this resource and not just kill it before it's even on the air," added McConville, a UNCA grad. "I think that would be a travesty for this developing sector."

"Real pornographers"
Even though public-access TV resoundingly dominated the public-comment portion of the meeting, viewers of the county's government channel (which televises Board of Commissioners meetings) might never have suspected it. The county no longer televises the public-comment sessions that precede the board's meetings -- a fact that galled a couple of the very folks who spoke out against public-access TV. One of them was Haw Creek resident Fred English, who also took another turn at blasting the whole idea of public-access TV.

"I don't want URTV in my household," he insisted, adding that he thinks most of the channel's proponents haven't been in North Carolina more than 10 years, whereas he was born and raised here.

Then, abruptly shifting gears, English asked the board, "Why isn't this going out on TV?" referring to the ongoing public-comment session. "Why don't you all have the guts to let the people out here in the county see this, what's going on here ... instead of just hiding it out. You got our voices silenced in this room. That's as far as it goes."

The next speaker, Media Arts Project supporter Brian Morrisey, said he agreed with English that their comments ought to be carried on TV -- public-access TV.

But another opponent, Mars Hill resident David Swanson, said he's worried about what his 10-year-old granddaughter (who lives in Buncombe County) might see on public-access TV. Swanson noted that he represented the Foundation for Conservative American Values, a national organization based in Madison County.

Swanson also raised an economic issue, declaring, "If it's voted in, everybody pays for it," though he conceded that people could simply choose to cancel their cable service -- or switch to satellite TV.

Local fears about content have surfaced only recently; among the more vocal critics have been longtime county-government watchdogs Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt, who have their own cable-TV show. (The Asheville Tribune interviewed the two for an article in its Feb. 12 issue, headlined "The Untold Dangers of Public Access TV.")

Nesbitt, who said he represented a group called Citizens for Decency in Broadcasting, noted that he, too, produces programming -- only he pays for his productions to run on cable TV.

"The taxpayers will be paying for your personal agenda. And if some of the things that you do is so great, then why aren't you going ahead and putting them on television and paying for them like I do?" he queried.

(Only taxpayers who are also cable-TV subscribers will be paying for that programming via surcharges on their cable bills, though this wasn't spelled out at the meeting.)

Nesbitt also told the commissioners about scatological humor he said he'd found on a Web site referenced on the URTV site. "People are able to show anything they want on PATV because of discrimination laws we have under the First Amendment," he said.

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore, meanwhile, calmly observed that "real pornographers are thoroughly commercial" -- hence not likely to be terribly interested in public-access TV.

In an e-mail sent to assorted city and county officials two days later, URTV Interim Board President Beth Lazer wrote: "The URTV board apologizes for referencing objectionable material on its Web site and on the Web site for the Asheville Public Access Channel Commission. Our webmaster inserted material written many years ago that did not originate with URTV and reflected the less-restrictive standards of the national public access association. We were not aware of the specifics of that material until it was called to our attention. Our policies and procedures specifically prohibit material of this sort from being depicted on URTV. In accordance with our policies, once the offensive material was identified, it was immediately removed from distribution."

And in an earlier interview, Lazer told Xpress that the nonprofit has proposed multiple ways to regulate content -- including abiding by North Carolina's obscenity laws. At the same time, since public-access TV would be considered a public forum -- and the station would abide by the First Amendment -- Lazer conceded that programming that some people might find objectionable will likely end up on the air.

"We've done as much planning as we can do." -- Beth Lazer, Public Access Channel Commission

Final reports are not always "final."

"We've done as much planning as we can do," declared Beth Lazer, chair of the Public Access Channel Commission. The resulting 80-page document, two years in the making, outlines a plan for setting up a public-access channel for Asheville and Buncombe County that she called "final."

In 1998, the city designated $340,000 in start-up moneys, plus $45,000 in annual funding for the project. The Buncombe County commissioners have yet to determine how much operational funding they will approve. (The county's new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications was approved on second reading at the Nov. 5 Board of Commissioners meeting.)

The commission, charged with charting a course for local public-access TV, has formed URTV Inc. and is applying for nonprofit status. Under the plan, the corporation would become the managing board for the public-access channel.

Lazer asked Council both to endorse the report and to negotiate an "interlocal agreement" with the county allowing the program to move forward.

But some Council members raised concerns about the structure of the URTV board, which would be charged with overseeing the channel. The report describes an 11-member board, only two of whom would be appointed by local government (one each by the city and the county). The other nine members would be chosen by the board itself or elected by the URTV membership. The purpose, Lazer explained, is to distance city and county officials from any liability.

"Public channels get sued quite a bit," asserted City Manager Jim Westbrook. "And they always go for the big pockets" (such as the city).

Public-access channels are vulnerable to such lawsuits because the medium is often used to air controversial opinions and tends to censor content far less than commercial stations do. The only no-noes are commercial programming and whatever the board deems "obscene."

Lazer added that, in other communities that have public-access TV, churches are often among primary users.

And distancing government from the editorial decision-making process ensures that the board "will be more concerned with community standards than political ones," Lazer explained.

Council member Brian Peterson worried that such a setup would give the URTV board too much unfettered power. "It seems like a self-perpetuating group that is not accountable," he observed. Peterson said he would like to number of board members appointed by the city and county increased to two each. "It looks a little better balanced," he said.

Lazer responded that she didn't see a problem with increasing the size of the board to 13 members.

And Dunn, while noting that he doesn't want to give the appearance that Council is controlling the board through its appointments, said he would like to see some kind of checks and balances, as well as "so much from the left, so much from the right," in order to make sure things are fair.

Lazer reiterated that the idea is to shift the liability for programming to "the lowest possible level: the people that are making it."

Council may desire to gain more control over the URTV board, even while shielding itself from possible lawsuits, but Mayor Charles Worley reminded Council that the nonprofit has procedures in place for modifying its bylaws. The board, he said, could change details such as the rules for appointing board members later on.

David McConville of the Asheville-based Black Box Studios (a local multimedia business) pointed out that the public-access station could provide training for people seeking careers in the field while making this area more attractive to multimedia companies. McConville is closely involved with the Media Arts Project, which organizes local hands-on training in the industry.

McConville has met with representatives of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, local universities and production studios such as Blue Ridge Pictures in an effort to create a comprehensive support system for the future growth of media in Western North Carolina. Public access, he said, is a key link to increasing the industry potential.

"Multimedia has a big future here," McConville told Council. Public access, he said, could "act as an incubator for this industry and provide real-world experience for lots of folks." Lazer went so far as to envision URTV and the Media Arts Project sharing the same facility.

Endorsement of the plan will be up for vote at the Nov. 12 formal session.

Pay TV? Cable contract could fund multimedia center, advocates say

Pay TV?
Cable contract could fund multimedia center, advocates say
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 8 / Iss. 51 on 07/31/2002

Writ large, public-access TV can go far beyond the Wayne's World scenario of two guys and a video camera.

That's the pitch Asheville digital-media consultant David McConville of Black Box Studio made to the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission last week.

"If we do this right, this could be huge," McConville told the group on July 25.

He and other members of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce's Information Technology Council believe a savvy proposal for local public-access TV could help fund a fully equipped studio that could double as a multimedia arts-and-education center.

Such a center, they maintain, could represent a practical economic-development strategy for helping Asheville and Buncombe County become a multimedia hot spot -- one of the Chamber's stated goals. By offering hands-on training to talented young graduates of local schools, who often have to leave the mountains to find work in video, DVD production, computer animation and other multimedia fields, the center would also help local businesses that need a trained work force, says McConville.

The idea isn't brand-new, but the concept is now better developed and has gathered more support than it had back in February, when McConville and a group of like-minded people urged the Buncombe County commissioners to seek more money for public-access TV under the local cable-TV contract, now up for renewal. The IT Council members backing the proposal include representatives of Ironwood Media Group, a local multimedia production-and-design company, and Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.

The recent pitch comes just days before an Aug. 6 meeting at which the county commissioners are scheduled to consider whether to approve a new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications -- or temporarily extend the current contract.

A contract extension could allow time for a privately-hired independent consultant to take a look at the contract and see how a multimedia arts-and-education center could fit in -- an idea McConville is proposing to Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene.

One of the issues on the table is how much Charter is willing to pony up to create a public-access channel (including production facilities) and provide operating support. The money would be shared with the educational and government channels already in operation (the three are collectively called PEG).

A July 2 draft of the contract -- which the two sides have not yet agreed upon -- proposes that Charter pay the county a one-time PEG grant of $340,000 in the first year, which could help cover the project's start-up costs. The draft also calls for Charter to pay the county an ongoing PEG support fee starting at 30 cents per customer per month (which comes to $122,400 annually with the current number of subscribers). As nonrepetitive programming increases, the PEG support fee would increase to as much as 50 cents per customer, according to the contract.

The latest draft is scaled back considerably from what the county was proposing last December. At that time, the county wanted Charter to provide $750,000 for equipment and operating costs for all three PEG channels -- to be divided between Asheville and Buncombe County -- within the first six months. Beginning in the second year, the county was seeking annual payments of $500,000 to be divided among the three channels.

The shift has several advocates worried that the county's negotiator, John Howell (much of whose professional experience has been in working for the telecommunications industry) hasn't pressed hard enough for adequate PEG support.

For his part, Howell says his experience puts him in a unique position to represent cities and counties, adding that he'll continue to represent Buncombe County's interests in the negotiations.

Under the latest draft, Charter would reserve the right to pass along both these costs by increasing cable rates to its 34,000 subscribers in the unincorporated parts of the county by at least 55 cents a month.

"That's one of the proposals on the table," says Janet Cloyde, Charter's director of operations for Western North Carolina. "We're not finished negotiating, so I'm not sure where we'll end up."

The practice of passing on the cost of PEG programming to cable customers is perfectly legal, though advocates find it infuriating (see sidebar).

The argument for the multimedia center has also been boosted by a book published April 30, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Professor Dan Florida of Carnegie Mellon University. He argues that cities that can retain or attract the so-called "creative class" -- everyone from artists to writers to high-tech professionals -- will prosper. Such a center -- ideally, located in Asheville's vibrant downtown -- could be a cornerstone for keeping and attracting exactly those sorts of people, McConville insists.

And having more local multimedia entrepreneurs could only help Charter's business, McConville notes, since many of them would probably use Charter's high-speed Internet access.

On another front, it appears that proponents of the multimedia arts-and-education center may have common ground with the Asheville Public Access Commission, which is working to set up a nonprofit organization that would run a public-access station with money from the city and county.

"The commission is doing everything in its power to have a public-access station, so if we can work together with folks at the Chamber of Commerce and David's group, we're more than happy to do that," said Public Access Commission secretary Mark Goldstein.

In fact, the two groups plan to meet soon to discuss how they can collaborate, Goldstein said, adding: "We feel very strongly that if we're all trying to push in different directions, our chances of having a successful outcome for all of this is a lot worse."

Goldstein, however, also wants to make sure that the public-access station would be a comfortable place for any member of the public who wanted to participate, as well as for folks trying to get career-based technical training.

During last week's EDC meeting, Greene asked McConville exactly how much money would be needed to put together a multimedia arts-and-education center. McConville hedged on the answer, though a sample studio budget included in his presentation listed about $500,000 in equipment costs, plus $250,000 in annual salaries for staffers. That doesn't include the cost of building the facility and other expenses, however.

And divided among the three PEG channels, the $340,000 initial payment plus the roughly $120,000 in annual support in the July 2 contract draft is only enough to buy "a camera in a closet," McConville told the EDC.

But rather than directly propose a specific amount, McConville planned to propose to Greene that an independent consultant (hired through the IT Council with private money) take a look at the contract and offer an opinion on how much it would take to launch and maintain such a center.

After talking with Greene and County commissioner/EDC Chairman David Young after the EDC meeting, McConville seemed hopeful.

"I do believe that we've come up with a classic win/win situation, and everyone could walk away benefiting from that," said McConville.

[Dirk Konig, a media arts center director from Grand Rapids, Mich., will give a free public talk at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, at Laurel Forum at UNCA's Karpen Hall. His topic: Building Community Through Media: An Introduction to Media Arts Centers. For info on the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, see www.grcmc.org. For more info on the proposed WNC media arts center, check out www.themap.org.]

Passing the Buck

Passing the buck
Public access TV advocates blast 'pass-along' practice
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 8 / Iss. 51 on 07/31/2002 Share


Under pressure from advocates of public-access TV, Buncombe County has been pushing Charter Communications to shoulder the cost of setting up a station and helping to support channels for public-access, educational and government (PEG) programming.

But the idea of Charter's passing on those costs to customers has some PEG advocates crying foul.

"That just basically means that it would be an unrepresented tax, if you look at it that way," says Monty Fuchs, technology director for the Buncombe County Schools. "They're not paying for having a franchise in Buncombe. They're just passing that cost on to the local subscribers, and I don't think that's right. I don't think that's right at all."

Local governments sell cable companies the exclusive right to use the public right of way to distribute their services -- for which the cable companies already charge healthy fees.

Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, sees the pass-along practice -- and the listing of those costs on customers' cable bills -- as a "fiction" that Charter can use as a negotiating tactic to talk down the "rent" they're charged for using the public's media "right of way." In fact, he says, the cable-TV rates in communities with little or no support for PEG access are identical to those in communities with good support.

"If we gave them the public right of way for free, the rates would still be just as high," Bowen maintains. "It's a difficult concept for people to grasp, and that's why it's such a clever tactic on the part of the cable company. And it puts elected officials in a bind, because it looks like it's putting an additional tax on subscribers -- and of course, the cable company has a scapegoat for its excessive rate increases."

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the cable industry, subscriber rates have risen by more than 40 percent, according to The Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to ensure that the digital-media systems serve the public interest. According to the Center's Web site, the FCC's annual report on cable rates cites a 7.5 percent increase between July 2000 and July 2001 alone -- more than double the 3.4 percent inflation rate.

Of course, it's completely legal for cable companies to pass on those costs to subscribers, notes Executive Director Jeff Chester of The Center for Digital Democracy.

"They do have a right to pass it on, but I think it is -- how shall I describe it -- it's a disreputable practice," he observes.

Back in the '70s, many cable companies offered to provide public access on their own dime, using this promise to win lucrative franchise deals, asserts Chester.

"Once they won the contracts, they began to treat PEG access as an unwanted child and withdrew their funding and support," he says.

Buncombe County negotiator John Howell, however, notes that since Charter Communications is a relatively new company, it wouldn't have been part of any franchise agreements created in the '70s. And Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene also sees things differently. Federal rules allow the costs to be passed on, she notes, and itemizing those costs on bills allows customers to understand what they're paying for.

"If I was Charter, I'm not sure it's something I wouldn't do," suggests Greene.

The long struggle to get a public access station in Asheville

Don’t kill your television
Stand up for public access
by Mark Goldstein in Vol. 8 / Iss. 7 on 09/27/2000

It's ironic but true. Television -- the very same gadget that so often becomes a substitute for meaningful human contact -- is enriching lives all over America by enabling ordinary people to speak out and be heard. No, I'm not talking about Jerry Springer or Oprah. I'm referring to public-access television, an often-misunderstood medium that's now coming to Asheville -- as soon as the public rallies behind the idea enough to attract the needed funding.

Public access is often confused with public television stations, those nonprofit channels that air British programming, educational shows, cultural events and the like. But public access is fundamentally different: It's television made by and for the people who live within a single community. It's an opportunity for you or your favorite cause to be on prime-time TV, opposite Friends or Moesha or Survivor.

Think you can do better? Here's your chance to prove it! Because when Asheville launches its channel -- as Greensboro, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and many other cities already have -- anyone in town will be able to produce, direct and star in a TV show. No TV skills? No problem; there will be classes to teach you and your friends how to do it. No money to pay for it? That's OK, it's free -- except, perhaps, for an annual membership fee that will be roughly equivalent to a dinner for two at a fancy restaurant.

I serve on the Public Access Channel Commission, an all-volunteer, city-appointed body that meets monthly, working to make Asheville's public-access station happen. The biggest hurdle now is a lack of money. Most public-access stations get their operating funds from the franchise fees that cities collect from their cable companies. Charter Communications pays the city of Asheville more than $500,000 annually, according to a city official's estimate, but none of that money goes toward public access. City Council has informally indicated that another $340,000 from an agreement with the cable company will be used to buy equipment for the station, but before a public access channel is launched, sources of operating funds must be identified. One City Council member told a member of the Public Access Channel Commission, "Show me a room full of people who want this, and we [City Council] will make it [public access] happen."

During the coming months, the people of Asheville can stand up for public access by contacting a City Council member or the commission. It's also an especially good time to contact the Buncombe County Commissioners. This fall, the county is finalizing its franchise agreement with Charter Communications and deciding how much to allot for public access -- if any. If the county explores public-access options now -- including the possibility of a city/county effort -- a station can be provided to all of Buncombe County. The Public Access Channel Commission is putting plans for a station in place, but the more citizens demonstrate their support, the sooner local residents will experience public-access, as I did last month in Tucson, Ariz., when I represented Asheville at the Alliance for Community Media's annual national conference. The four-day event, attended by many of the nation's public-access faithful, featured screenings of television shows you will never see on other network or cable channels. A few fit the popular Wayne's World public-access stereotype, but most of the videos dramatically illustrated how a public-access channel could positively transform the lives of people here in Asheville.

One show created by children features kindergarten correspondents giving tips on cool places where kids can take their parents. Another, produced for and almost entirely by developmentally disabled adults, shares stories about how it feels to be treated awkwardly in public and gives dating advice for people with disabilities. On a video called Lean on Me, activists from the South Bronx talk about how neighbors are supporting redevelopment efforts. Community-based segments such as Spotlight on Germantown and Jazz from the Artists' Quarter feature important issues and individuals that would be lucky to get eight seconds' worth of coverage from the major networks. There are shows about pets (or even hosted by them), talk shows put on by older adults, and puppet shows for children who don't speak English. Pre-taped programs showcase local flora and fauna, or religious services. Neighbors offer cooking tips, demonstrate quilting techniques, or simply share themselves with the world, as the host of Dee Dee TV! does.

On public access, you can make a show about anything you want, and no one can legally censor it unless it breaks federal laws. That's an idea that delights some people and scares the heck out of others. It's the reason why the city sent me to Tucson, and it's also why the Alliance for Community Media exists. And while a well-run public-access channel is very unlikely to lose a lawsuit prompted by a TV program with questionable content, people do occasionally sue. That threat -- as well as others from private interests who will profit from the failure of public access (which has no commercials) -- tends to keep such stations in survival mode.

A public-access station offers the community tremendous benefits; it gives every resident a powerful soapbox. Anyone can stand and be heard regardless of social status, race, religion or sexual orientation. With power comes responsibility, of course -- which I'm certain the people in Asheville can handle.

"As it is said that youth is wasted on the young," declared one speaker at the Tucson conference, "freedom of the press is wasted on the media." Between public-access workshops and gawking at cacti, my Arizona experience taught me the desert's hard truth: When resources are scarce, opportunities cannot be wasted. Public access is an opportunity to make sure that freedom of speech isn't wasted on Asheville.

Mark Goldstein is the owner of Communication Mark, which provides fundraising and marketing services to nonprofits. He is secretary of the Public Access Channel Commission.
[To stay informed about the Public Access Channel Commission's efforts, send an e-mail to ncmark@bellsouth.net and ask to be added to the commission's electronic mailing list, or write to: City of Asheville, Public Access Channel Commission, PO Box 7148, Asheville, NC 28802.]