- Commissioners instruct URTV to follow open-meetings law
Arden resident Aaron Penland has a problem with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and at their Feb. 3 meeting, he made his feelings plain.
"In the last election, all we heard is, 'Change is coming, change is coming.' Well, how long will it take to have this change trickle down to the public level?" he asked the board. "We want to see you succeed, and without your help we don't have a chance. We want a resolution tonight to stand up to CTS. If you don't hold their feet to the fire, nothing's going to happen. You have to make the first move."
The former CTS of Asheville site is contaminated with trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent and suspected carcinogen that's seeped into wells adjoining the Mills Gap Road site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is handling all aboveground cleanup efforts, such as removing toxic fumes, while the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is responsible for the rest.
But Penland, who lives in the affected area, and some members of the CTS Citizens Monitoring Council fear that the Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS could agree to undertake "voluntary remediation," which would cap the company's cost at $3 million. Any additional cost would be borne by taxpayers, who fund the state and federal agencies that would pay for the cleanup. Penland asserts that the cleanup could cost "tens of millions of dollars." Voluntary mediation is one option being considered, but federal and state agencies haven't settled on it.
Hoping to head off such a turn of events, the Monitoring Council, appointed by the commissioners in January 2008, drew up a resolution last May and called on the commissioners to approve it.
But the county, asserted Penland, has done nothing with the document since -- and, once again presenting copies to the board, he pleaded with them to take action.
Asked about it later, Board Chair David Gantt told Xpress that he hadn't had a chance to read the resolution, cautioning, "We can't accept anything that would put us at a liability. Some of this is under federal jurisdiction, some under state. We're doing everything we can to help folks, but I think the consensus of the board is to let this process play out."
Ironically, however, Monitoring Council member Dave Ogren says it was Gantt's idea to produce the resolution in the first place.
"There was a real concern that CTS would get away with this, so we asked [Gantt] if there was anything the county could do," Ogren told Xpress. "He said write up a resolution and the board would approve it."
So Ogren did and sent it on to the commissioners on behalf of the Monitoring Council.
"It arrived two days before their meeting, and we were told that items had to be ready a week before, so we figured it was just postponed," said Ogren. "Then nothing happens. I called up [then board Chair Nathan Ramsey], and he said the resolution was in the Legal Department. We found that a little puzzling. Nothing happens. We e-mail [Clerk to the Board] Kathy Hughes multiple times. At first we'd at least get a basic response. Now it's nothing."
He added with a laugh, "So we're just waiting for that phone call -- and they've yet to call. It makes no sense to me."
Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone, who's overseeing the county's handling of the CTS situation, told Xpress later that the city and county had teamed up last year to extend city water to the area, and that the board had passed a resolution last fall calling on the EPA and DENR to keep the cleanup process more transparent.
Ogren doesn't dispute that, but like Penland, he gave a blunt assessment of the county's response to the Monitoring Council resolution. "They've done nothing," Ogren told Xpress. "The commissioners have virtually ignored the Citizens Monitoring Council that they hand-picked."
That's not Penland's only complaint, however. He has long pushed the county to get an independent entity to carry out its own tests, saying he distrusts the test results coming back from the EPA and DENR, and he revisited that theme at the meeting, saying, "We would like to have independent water testing done by someone other than the state, other than the EPA, and we've got valid reasons for wanting that done. We've come here repeatedly to ask for the funds to do this, and [professor Steve Patch] at UNCA has agreed to do it for the cost of the test. You're talking about ways to save money and engage the community: This would be a win/win for both parties. As of last evening, [Patch] had yet to hear anything from the county commissioners."
During their Dec. 10, 2008, meeting, the commissioners instructed county staff to look into the possibility of cooperating with UNCA on such testing.
But Gantt told Xpress that the county is already doing water testing in conjunction with DENR for anyone in the area who requests it. "More testing on top of that isn't something I see a lot of interest in pursuing," said Gantt. "This is a tight time economically, and we're having to make cuts everywhere."
The item -- a resolution instructing URTV to obey the state's open-meetings law -- was on the consent agenda, and like the other routine matters there, it was approved without debate. But the mere fact of its presence on the agenda reflected an ongoing controversy over the transparency of the local public-access channel's operations.
URTV gets most of its money from so-called PEG funds -- a fee charged to cable subscribers to pay for public access, educational and government cable channels. The county and the city of Asheville then allocate the money to the various channels.
Controversy first arose over a confidentiality clause in an oath that was recently administered to board members (see "Questions Arise over URTV Oath," Jan. 28 Xpress). In response to the furor, that oath was rescinded, but a video then surfaced of Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse making statements at a board meeting that may have misrepresented open-meetings law.
The city's management agreement with URTV stipulates that the nonprofit must adhere to open-meetings law, but the county's agreement had no such clause.
"I had a lot of calls about [the oath], and our attorney wrote a letter of inquiry," noted Gantt. "We're going to nail this down. They're subject to public-meeting laws, and now there's absolutely no question about that."
During the public-comment period, however, county resident Alan Ditmore said the issues with URTV run much deeper.
"I feel URTV has been a bit extravagant, both in their facilities and equipment and their membership dues, which continue to deny access to most Buncombe residents," Ditmore told the board.
Annual memberships range from $25 (for students and seniors) to $75; certification courses enabling members to use URTV's equipment cost $50 to $75 each, according to the Web site.