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Being an examination of the term as it applies to Asheville and Buncombe County governments’ sundry foibles during 2018, fearlessly catalogued by Enquiring Minds.
“What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? “
That was Scrooge’s reply when his maddeningly cheerful nephew wished him a merry Christmas. Some say it could just as well have been made by any local taxpayer to any member of city or county government.
In 18th-century England, “humbug” was the name given to a piece of hard peppermint candy. Later on, the noun became student slang for something or someone phony or insincere; as a verb it meant to trick or deceive. The Duke of Wellington probably picked up “humbug” when he was at Eton; thus, when informed on the night before Waterloo that Napoleon had stolen a march on him, he exclaimed, “Humbugged, by God!” As for Scrooge, he doubtless used it as the Victorian equivalent of “bullsh*t.”
Which leads us right back to the rising of the sun and the running of the city and the county, and our Yuletide look back at the past several months of bringing you The News Behind the News Behind the News. Here’s a sampling:
Enquiring Minds’ first article explored the back story behind city’s “you-can’t-quit-you’re fired” treatment of City Manager Gary Jackson. Jackson had given notice in February that he would be leaving his post in August. But in March, leaked bodycam footage showed an Asheville police officer beating a black pedestrian six months previously, and the city immediately assigned Jackson overall responsibility for the coverup and fired him. However, they paid him the balance of his contract, which came to about $98,000.
In May, we brought you a look at the dynamic behind city council’s decision to propose a “road diet” on Charlotte Street that will reduce a stretch of one of Asheville’s busiest thoroughfares from four automobile traffic lanes to three, in order to accommodate expanded bike lanes. Our story detailed the cozy relationship between city government and Asheville’s increasingly influential bicyclist lobby.
May 22, as we reported, was “the day council, caught flat-footed between a civil disobedience trick on one hand and internal shutuppery on the other, foggily passed a package of resolutions dealing with a topic that was not even on the agenda for discussion when the meeting started.” A torches-and-pitchforks squad of activists used something they called a “public filibuster” to hijack the meeting (with some internal help from Councilman Keith Young ) and got council to sign off on a package of police procedure changes before anybody could even say, “What did we just do?” Which, in fact, somebody said.
Meanwhile, over at the County … in July, commissioners approved an 8% rate increase for Florida-based garbage hauler WastePro. On the same day, WastePro’s regional vice president walked into a federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, apparently summoned there by a grand jury reviewing evidence collected in an FBI public corruption investigation in which WastePro played a central part. Thanks to journalist Diana Starr’s Florida connections, EM was able to cover the developing story on two fronts.
August brought the much-hyped International Equestrian Games to Tryon. The event was supposed to inject half a billion-with-a-“B” dollars into the WNC economy. Instead, the games left behind them a half-finished show venue, a litany of setbacks and screw-ups, and a seven-figure net loss. Among the hit-taking stakeholders was Buncombe County, which, it turned out, had, over a three-year period, sunk $577,000 into sponsoring equestrian events here and in Florida, and also into advertising in magazines owned and published by impresario Mark Bellissimo, who brought the Games to Tryon. A pre-event story by EM, showing pictures by Diana Starr of the nowhere-near-ready games site, prompted readers to ask why Buncombe had spent more than half a million dollars on an event forty miles away. The best answer seemed to be, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
In mid-September city council appointed a blue-ribbon panel of local movers and shakers to provide input and review candidates for the successor to departed city manager Gary Jackson. On October 4 and 5 — without any input from the panel — council interviewed finalists for the position. And on October 15, council announced it had gone ahead and made its selection, bypassing meet-and-greets, public comment, and all the other steps it had told everybody the selection process would include.
The most widely read EM story of the year — nearly 7,000 hits — had nothing to do with politics. In late October the hideously mutilated body of Kitty, a much-loved cat belonging to the Naster family of West Asheville, was discovered behind a vacant building on Haywood Road after a trio of transients posted horrific pictures of themselves with Kitty’s corpse. Two of the killers were arrested, while the third remained openly at large. Ironically, the Facebook group Asheville Cat Weirdos had been monitoring the movements of the perps, who were suspected of similar atrocities in Charlotte, and had warned that they were on their way to Asheville. Diana Starr made this story her own and did a masterful job of following up, which included a daily-updated timeline.
In November Asheville on Bikes, the increasingly influential cycling organization that had successfully lobbied for the Charlotte Street road diet (above) persuaded city council to let it carry out a “tactical urbanism” experiment. At its own expense ($162,000) AoB overhauled Coxe Avenue’s curbside parking spaces and narrowed the street to accommodate “multi-use” bike and pedestrian lanes on both sides. To top it all off, AoB turned the road surface between Buxton and Banks Avenues into a “street mural,” painting it royal blue with a design of enormous stylized butterflies. Startled Ashevillians expressed concern about traffic confusion and the impact of the paint on the environment; AoB reassured them, saying it was all just an experiment at this stage anyway. (As EM was about to publish this article, large flakes of paint had begun separating from the mural, drifting through street drains into the city’s stormwater runoff system — which ultimately empties into the French Broad — and clogging the drains themselves. Conservationists and Coxe Avenue business owners were outraged. AoB said that wasn’t supposed to happen and they’d get right on it.)
In November the two alleged cat killers who had been arrested and incarcerated (the third remained free) were turned loose on unsecured bonds, after much in-court dickering, as followed and reported in-depth by Diana Starr. Judge Calvin Hill stipulated that the defendants must be assigned directly to pretrial release; that they not possess or have contact with any animals; and that they observe a 7pm curfew, a provision that many pointed out would be impossible to enforce since the miscreants had no fixed abode. Several persons claimed to have seen all three suspects walking along Haywood Road … with a dog. Sentencing was continued until December 11, then continued again until February 15, 2019. Meanwhile, the three appear to have left the area; observers said they were recently spotted in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta, so it appears unlikely that they will be on hand for their February hearing.
And, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes. In the early winter twilight, we tread warily down the cobbled street of the year towards the misty curtain of 2019. Like the one we’re leaving, it’s a dicey neighborhood and one best not approached alone. So come with us. There’s safety in numbers. All you have to do is click on the “Subscribe to Enquiring Minds” button at the top of the page and for five bucks a month, cancellable at any time, you can share the journey with us. Just click on “subscribe” and follow the directions. Pay no attention to those two empty, untitled boxes above the “subscribe” button; just like many aspects of city/county politics, we don’t know how they got there and they lead nowhere. We’ll get rid of them when we update the page. (The boxes, not city/county government, though that’s food for thought.)
“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:”
“Get your own damn light. If you want to see what’s going on, subscribe to Enquiring Minds.”
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