Proposed 11th District rips out the center of WNC
Redistricting is always political, and voters on both sides have to accept that. The party with a majority will get districts that it hopes will advance its ideology.
But the recently released map for our 11th Congressional District has ripped out the cultural and business heart of Western North Carolina. By taking a large part of Asheville out of the 11th, we’re left with a district lacking a center, merely a collection of mountain counties strung along the spine the Smokies.
Look, there’s a lot most of us don’t like about Asheville. Most of us in this part of the state prefer small towns and isolated mountains and we don’t like traffic and crowds. Some of us can’t stand the very idea of malls and mega shopping centers.
Still, it is the metropolis of our region. We go there for festivals, we go there to shop for big-ticket items, to attend concerts and other cultural events. We use its hospitals. Many of us go there everyday to work, returning to our small towns every evening.
It gives our district more clout to have a vibrant, growing city whose name constantly comes up around the country as one of the best places to live and raise a family.
On the other side of the coin, I imagine folks in Asheville might be more upset than we are. Now they have to share a representative with Gastonia, a former mill town that has become, more or less, a suburb of Charlotte. There’s little hope that a representative from that new Piedmont district will actually know anything at all about Asheville, which is a mountain town through and through.
Redistricting is difficult and complicated, no doubt, and there is no mandate to think about a region’s culture and history. But Asheville and all of Buncombe County should be in the district that includes the seven western counties. In this case, we belong together, and I hope the lawsuit challenge that is sure to come succeeds.
A report sent to the General Assembly last month recommended — for all intents and purposes — that all three community colleges west of Buncombe merge administrative functions with a larger institution. This is just a bad idea that hopefully will be shelved.
The report’s intent was to find ways to save money at the state’s community college system. That’s a great idea, but unfortunately it is those of use in smaller, rural counties that would suffer from the proposal.
According the report, community colleges with less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies (which is sort of like a full-time student) would merge many of its accounting and administrative positions with the larger colleges. That means no president and no deans locally. Haywood, Southwestern and Tri-County community colleges all have less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies.
Right now, community colleges get 27 percent of their funding from the counties where they are located. Cut the staff, get rid of the local presidents and move staff to Asheville, and you can kiss that money good bye. The local county commissioners would not pay, I’ll guarantee it. Then the savings would disappear.
Plus, community colleges by definition are supposed to serve and reflect the communities where they are located. Without local leaders, they would lose that local focus and the ability to work closely with the local business community.
Finally, this fundamental change would only save a pittance: $5 million out of a $1.2 billion state budget. That’s less than one half of 1 percent. That speaks, it seems to me, to a pretty efficient operation.
Our community colleges are going to take their budget cut from this General Assembly session and make do as best they can. But this merger plan is just a bad idea that would do much more harm than good.
Appreciating good stories, civic engagement
A week before this week’s dedication of the new Jackson County Library complex, this newspaper’s 12th birthday passed almost unnoticed by those of us who work to put it out each week. Where there used to be celebrations, we just don’t make a big deal out of it anymore. Another year, another number — now at 13 — on the volume that shows up on the front of each week’s paper.
The first edition of The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets of Western North Carolina on June 2, 1999. The Jackson County Library saga has run like a thread through our paper’s history, starting that first year when there was talk about expanding the library into the land where the Hooper House now stands.
This issue was has been important to me professionally because it acquainted me with so many Jackson County leaders. After having been a reporter and editor in Haywood for nearly eight years, this story got my feet wet in Jackson and was the first issue our newspaper got very involved with. From day one we’ve covered it very closely, following all the twists and turns.
Way back then I got to know people like Jay Denton and Stacy Buchanan, Gail Findlay and Cecil Groves, Julie Spiro and Joyce Moore and many others as these community leaders all got involved in this long, somewhat convoluted debate.
Now, it ends with the Sylva’s oldest Victorian-era home — the Hooper House (once slated for demolition to make way for a new library) — serving as the gateway for visitors and the courthouse (sitting empty and unused all these years) getting a second life. What was once the home of law and justice is now the epicenter of culture and history for Jackson County.
In an era where football stadiums and corporate headquarters too often depict our most ambitious building projects, it is nothing short of brilliant that the citizens of Jackson County have, through heart-rending, sometimes tumultuous debate, ended with this library and the renovated Hooper House. It’s one of those not-so-small miracles that define a community, showing what it values and what is important. What a grand statement.
I told someone last week that an idea was percolating for a column about our newspaper’s anniversary coming at the same time as the library dedication. To me the correlation is simple: when we started this paper, we did so under the pretense that people in this region would value a journalistic endeavor that sought to reach between counties to discuss issues that are important to all of us who live in these mountains.
We are no repository of learning, like the library, but this newspaper has taken a stand against the notion that everyone wants short, surface-level articles without meat and depth. We’ve rebelled a bit against the notion that newspapers needs to dummy down to a populace that has a short attention span and can’t digest complicated issues.
There’s no doubt we lose a lot of readers because of what we don’t do with our newspaper. We don’t try to be a community newspaper — this region has several that are very strong and very good — because that’s not our role. We aren’t an entertainment and music mag, though we do try to cover these areas. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are a hybrid, and our goal is to be interesting, informative and useful each week. Our success, I believe, is a testament to some of the same values that led to the success of the drive to build this new library.
There are many who would argue that neither libraries nor newspapers are needed these days. The digital literary catalogues created by companies like Amazon and Google and the Internet’s infinite news sources have rendered us both obsolete. At least that’s what I’ve heard — at least about newspapers — many, many times since we unloaded those first issues in those brand new blue boxes 12 years ago.
But here’s the truth: both the library and most good newspapers are embracing the digital revolution while still acknowledging many peoples’ abiding love affair with real words on real paper.
What’s important, at least by my estimation, is that this region still shows such strong support for knowledge and civic engagement. That’s worth remembering as we celebrate the people and the accomplishments that led to this one-of-a-kind facility atop that little knoll in downtown Sylva.
Six pints of Guinness and a glass of milk
What do Barack Obama and my son have in common? They both visited Ireland in May. Obama, though, was proud to partake of a pint of the national drink, Guinness Stout, and was shown on dozens of television stations imbibing. My son wouldn’t take a sip, no matter the teasing. Good for him. He’s only 12, for God’s sake.
It was my father-in-law who made the call about bringing Liam on our guys’ trip to Ireland. The idea was to take Bill Sullivan — my father-in-law — to the country his relatives emigrated from to Canada, eventually making their way to Detroit. At first the plan was for the adult males in the family — my father-in-law, my brother-in-laws Patrick, Joe, and Jim, and Patrick’s son, Matthew, who had just graduated from Florida State — to make the trip.
When we sprung the surprise on Bill, his response was almost immediate. “We gotta take Liam. He’ll be the life of the trip,” he said.
I wondered how Liam would travel with six men, if he would even like it. Most of all, though, I worried about what he would eat. Few humans would survive even a couple of days on his bland diet. I can use my fingers to count what my son will eat. It goes something like this — pasta, pizza, cereal, bag soup, select sandwiches, and ice cream. He’s gotten to where he’ll mix it up with a few beans and, after a bit of cajoling, will even try a few spinach leaves.
In addition to this limited selection, remember he’s also 12. That means he begins to ask about the next meal before the one he’s currently consuming is finished. I remember those days, and most parents of boys know exactly what I’m talking about. So I was a bit worried, but his mother and I decided he would survive the dietary struggles during the trip and that the whole international experience would be worth the possible problems. If any problems arose concerning food, we would just deal with them.
His older sisters, though, were a bit put off by the prospect of Liam going, and it had nothing to do with whatever gastronomical challenges he might have to endure. They’ve done their share of traveling, but neither has been to Europe.
“I can’t believe he’ll get to Europe before me,” fumed 18-year-old Megan.
“Unbelievable,” pouted 15-year-old Hannah.
Truthfully, the sisters were just teasing. I think. I’m over 50 and still can’t decipher the intentions of women young or old, even those I’m closest to (you girls were just joking, right?).
Then the teasing from the men started. In addition to his utter lack of creativity with solid foods, Liam’s liquid diet is an either-or proposition. Water or milk. Nothing else. Nada. I’d like to take some credit for this, like those parents whose children enter college and have never had sugar or a soda. But no, it’s just his choice. Milk or water. Water or milk.
“This will be his chance to expand that limited fluid intake to include Guinness,” declared Uncle Patrick Doone, the only among us with living relatives in Ireland. As emails, cards and calls were exchanged during the planning of the trip, the teasing built to a bit of a crescendo, with me doing my bit to egg it on. One day Liam — not knowing whether we were kidding or not — decided he wasn’t going to take it any more.
“Dad, I’m not going to do it. I want y’all to quit saying that,” he pronounced, rather forcefully, one night at dinner.
Point taken. We all enjoyed the teasing, but we put it to bed rather quickly.
So we got to work planning the trip. A couple of days before departure, Liam decided that he and I should play Frisbee across Ireland. “I hear there are a lot of green, grassy fields there,” he said as we looked over a map. Indeed. So we did just that, pulling out the disc whenever possible to celebrate the beauty of island. The green fields did not disappoint.
So we made our tour of castles, manor houses, museums, national parks, rugged coastlines, small villages and large towns, breweries, distilleries, restaurants and pubs across southern Ireland. Every grand trip needs a rallying cry, and we found ours the first day, repeating it across the land: “Six pints of Guinness and a glass of milk.” Onward.
SCC road gets mired in questions about motives
A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.
But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.
“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.
About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.
The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.
Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.
But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.
In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.
Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.
Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.
Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.
In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.
Common sense loses to ideology in House budget proposal
North Carolina is facing a budget crisis. I get that. What I don’t get is the proposed slashing of so many worthwhile programs when a relatively simple answer – not a panacea, mind you, but a stopgap way to provide salve to some of the bloodletting – is available.
What I see is ideology running roughshod over smart governance. Sorry, but that’s the truth about the current House budget proposal.
I’ll tell you why objectivity is impossible for me. This budget slashes programs that are very important. As Rep. Ray Rapp said, we’re “eating our feedcorn” with the current House prospoal.
My wife’s a teacher. I know how hard she works all day and then for a couple of hours amost every night, and all I hear is constant criticism about public education. I also know my own children have received pretty good schooling in those public schools.
Back in the day, I was able to attend college without having to rely totally on loans partly because of grants that provided aid to those from disadvantaged households. Among the cuts proposed by House leaders is a reduction in the amount the UNC system needs to meet the needs of students who can’t afford college. This comes after tuition at our public universities has risen nearly 200 percent in the past decade.
Children who are entering school and are at risk will be told to go find help elsewhere because it won’t be funded in this year’s budget. And the teachers in second and third grades won’t have assistants to help. According to one news report, the House budget on public educaiton would place North Carolina 46th in the nation in per pupil spending. Ridiculous.
Community colleges will get a 10 percent cut and the university system a 15 percent cut. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources works every day to protect the state’s land, water and air resources. It would lose hundreds of jobs. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, “GOP leaders have long felt that DENR has given business too hard a time with permitting, and that it’s full of liberal tree-huggers. Those tree-huggers have fought for decades … to protect our natural wonders that are valued not just by residents buy by the millions of tourists who have spent tens of millions of dollars on Tar Heel soil through the decades.”
And there’s much more that anyone who can read the newspaper or do a Google search will easily find. I agree that in this business climate the state needs to reduce spending. But if we keep the state’s current sales tax rate intact – which most won’t even notice — and don’t reduce it by the penny the House GOP leadership is advocating, then we cut the budget shortfall nearly in half, from somewhere near $2 billion down to $1 billion. With it we save jobs, protect education and the environment, and still make big cuts in spending.
But the anti-tax ideology is trumping common sense. Shameful.
Justice will be painful, but so was Aubrey’s short life
The Jan. 10 death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn was an unspeakable tragedy, one compounded by the questions surrounding both the cause of death and the potential cover-up by employees of the Swain County Department of Social Services.
At this time, two needs are paramount: a speedy and thorough investigation by the SBI and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office; and just as important, an unwavering commitment to seek the truth — however ugly that might ultimately be — among Swain and Cherokee leaders trying to sort through familial and personal allegiances during the investigation of what could be a very serious crime.
Aubrey’s short life was beset by problems from the beginning. Her single mother, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is in jail awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge. The mom left her infant to live with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, when the baby was just months old. Both law enforcement and Department of Social Services had been called to Powell’s home several times prior to the winter night in January when Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee hospital cold and lifeless.
Swain law enforcement authorities investigating Aubrey’s death became suspicious not just of the cause of death but also of the activities of Swain DSS. It took DSS five weeks to turn over their case files on Aubrey to law enforcement. According to warrants, a DSS worker admitted falsifying reports in order to cover up the agency’s missteps in looking into Aubrey’s death. How high up the DSS chain of command the possible cover up goes is what the SBI and Swain law enforcement authorities are still looking into after seizing DSS files and computers.
There won’t be any winners as this case proceeds. Powell may be guilty of neglect or abuse in the child’s death, and DSS employees may also be guilty of crimes. Families and friends in Swain and Cherokee are lining up on opposing sides. County commissioners in Swain have asked for the resignation of DSS board members, and three of them have quit and done so while criticizing commissioners. The five DSS workers named in the criminal investigation have been banned by Cherokee from working on cases involving children on the Qualla Boundary.
Justice, when it comes, will be painful — but less so than the short life of young Aubrey. The one ray of hope, in the end, is that what will emerge from this unnecessary tragedy are lessons that might save the life of the next innocent child placed in a similar situation.
Make open government a part of constitution
In this country, the people own the government. It’s ours. End of debate.
That’s something we can all be thankful for. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly is attempting to enshrine this simple fact in the state constitution. We would encourage readers to write, call or email your lawmakers asking them to support it (Sen. Ralph Hise, who represents part of Haywood County, is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill).
The legislation – House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 67 – would put an amendment to the state constitution on the 2012 ballot for voter approval. The wording is yet to be finalized, but in essence it would make access to government records and meetings a right under the North Carolina Constitution.
The need for the amendment is something those of us in the press probably appreciate more than most. Every few days we get stonewalled by some public official when requesting documents that are a matter of public record. Sometimes there is a legitimate question of what is a public record and what isn’t, but other times it’s just a petty display of power by someone who holds access to the information.
Worse, every year new bills are introduced in the General Assembly that, taken en masse, would seriously compromise the ideal of open government that is a cornerstone of our republic.
“Every year we see it, whether it’s another attempt to erode access to 911 tapes, or to protect conversation between public sector lawyers and their clients about stuff that neither should be able to hide,” said John Bussian, the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association.
The Republican leadership in the General Assembly is supporting the constitutional amendment. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston representative, is a co-sponsor of the House bill.
“We need to do this so that open government truly is a right rather than a privilege,” LaRoque told The Raleigh News and Observer.
The primary opponents of the bill are lobbyists for local governments, school boards and sheriff departments. They oppose a provision that would require a two-thirds majority for any exceptions to the open records and meetings law. However, we believe that any necessary national security or other important exception would easily garner enough support to garner a super majority. And in fact, we think it’s critical that any exception that blocks access to open records be able to win the support of two-thirds of members of the General Assembly.
The timing of this debate couldn’t be better. This week, March 13-19, is Sunshine Week. A coalition of groups from around the country is encouraging government at all levels to maintain openness. This amendment would add a new gravitas to the sanctity of open government in North Carolina, and we hope it shows up on the ballot for a vote of the people.
What happened to all the big, sweeping ideas?
Growing up, I knew America was the country of grand ideas carried out from the moral high ground. We could put a man on the moon, we could end institutionalized racism, fight a war on poverty and try to wipe out air and water pollution. It was part of our national identity.
Those days are gone. Those sweeping programs and ideas that galvanized almost the entire country just aren’t around today. Banality and boorishness rule in the current state of politics, and problems fester for decades.
This realization hit me after I received an email from Brent Martin. Brent is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, and he’s based in Sylva. We published an article in last week’s edition by Martin that called attention to the Weeks Act, federal legislation approved 100 years ago on March 1 that authorized the creation of the our national forests (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3359-nantahala-pisgah-national-forest-turns-100).
Here’s an excerpt from that article: “... But drive or walk anywhere in the Western North Carolina region and you will likely see beautiful forested mountains. I think we will have these for years to come, and this is due to the vision of many who came before us over one hundred years ago. This gives me hope.”
Virgin forests from Maine to Alabama had been cut over by 1911, leaving a swath of environmental and cultural destruction unknown in America to that point. The purchase of these devastated lands from timber companies was a sort of first step in land development regulations, a way to make use of the country’s resources while adding a new layer of federal protection through ownership.
I haven’t done the research, but can only assume the Weeks Act did not pass without some squabbling about the government takeover of private property rights (amazing how some things never change).
Can we ever do something like the Weeks Act again, find the political will to do something so big and so good?
I had this same kind of sinking feeling about our national spirit a little while after attending space camp with my son when he was in the fifth grade. We spent two days in Huntsville, Ala., learning all about U.S. space exploration from the Mercury missions up through the shuttle. And we heard talk about a manned Mars mission NASA was planning, and we left intrigued and inspired, and I saw the wonder of a 10-year-old thinking about space and planetary travel.
Over the ensuing years, though, we read how the idea was scrapped and how there just wasn’t enough money. A big, sweeping idea finds itself on the scrap heap.
One of my good friends, a bright guy who always thinks out of the box, says our country’s great opportunity in this century is with energy. Spend every penny on cutting our dependence on oil, figuring out the most efficient renewable sources while making energy reduction — mass transit, better cars, better light bulbs, etc. — the number one national priority.
If we could turn that corner on energy, we could save those same forests Martin wrote about while also leading the way through this century that is certainly going to create unimaginable challenges for industrialized countries.
Anyone think we will be the country to lead the way? Can we get going before Brazil and China leave us in the dust? Right now we’re taking baby steps while letting crazy despots ruling oil-rich Arabian kingdoms determine the fate of our economy.
I’m an optimist at heart, always will be. Can’t help it. So maybe the reality is that every generation doesn’t get the opportunity to think big. Maybe that post-World War II generation or two learned lessons that helped them change society. Maybe we haven’t learned those lessons, or perhaps we’re just bogged down in the fast-changing, overwhelming information age that leaves too much to comprehend.
Our challenge? Perhaps it’s the more mundane task of picking our way through a minefield of seemingly trivial stuff, setting the stage for a big show for our kids. We have to figure out how to keep our government from going bankrupt (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare). We have re-draw the lines defining the proper reach of government (taxes, regulations, unions) in a free and democratic society. We have to determine how much influence the largest corporations the world has ever known will have over governments and personal lives.
Perhaps working through these issues will re-shape a new identity that will define America in the coming century. The optimist in me is hoping that is indeed the case.
Budgets and politics clashing across the land
Politics and state budgets aren’t usually that interesting, but this year that’s not the case. Ideologies are clashing as lawmakers struggle to find a way through this recession, and we will all be affected by the outcome.
North Carolina and Wisconsin are very different states but share a similar problem — a budget crisis like that facing states across the country as stimulus funding dries up and tax revenues are still down. Fortunately for us who live in the Tar Heel state, our leaders are dealing with their problems in a very different fashion.
In last week’s edition, we published a cover story examining how the state was looking at this year’s Golden LEAF allocation as one extra pot of money from which to stem an expected $2.4 billion budget shortfall. The money is a continuing payment from the massive lawsuit brought against tobacco companies by 45 states.
Gov. Beverly Perdue does not support raiding the Golden LEAF money. She has sent a budget to lawmakers that will lead to a raft of cuts, including cutting thousands of state jobs, but she says she won’t reduce teaching positions. A story in The Mountaineer newspaper this week had local lawmakers predicting the possible closure of the prison in Hazelwood and significant cuts to community colleges and a cost shifting that will force public schools to come up with money for transportation and text books (meaning teachers could be cut despite Perdue’s promises).
Amid this climate, what is the state to do? Even the Democratic governor’s budget will hurt local communities while keeping alive a sales tax that was due to expire. Almost every GOP lawmaker in the General Assembly ran on the promise to sunset that tax, so the Republicans — who control both chambers of the state legislature — have to either make deeper cuts or find new money. And that is what led to the proposal that money from funds like the Golden LEAF may be diverted for at least a year.
After our story ran last week, newly elected Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, called to say our story was good in pointing out the budget position the state finds itself in. Now, however, everyone has to look for creative ways to find a fix.
“What if the Golden LEAF money were re-distributed to, say, the Rural Center,” suggested Davis, saying this was just an example of the kind of thinking that needs to happen in the General Assembly. His point was the money would still come back to the rural communities who need it, but that the $1.6 million in administrative costs could be saved.
So what’s going to happen in Raleigh come June when the rubber hits the road? Unfortunately, I believe some sacred cows will be gored in the name of fiscal responsibility. Personally, I think a one-year diversion of funds going to some granting agencies is not a bad idea. I also think pay cuts for higher-paid state employees is not out of the question.
I would rather look at those options rather than cutting classroom teachers, raising tuition, and hamstringing the community colleges. We can only hope that with compromises a fair spending plan can be developed.
In Wisconsin, the plan to take away the bargaining rights of unions is just shortsighted, an idea that will do much more harm than good.
For those following the situation up there, the GOP governor wants public sector employees to begin paying some of their own money into their retirement and health insurance plans. In a state where the average teacher salary is about $75,000 per year, this seems a reasonable proposition.
On the other hand, he also wants to take away the collective bargaining rights of the union. The employees have agreed to the pay concessions, but they are protesting in the streets to protect their bargaining rights for the future.
As the economy has soured and we’ve lost manufacturing jobs in this country, unions have been painted as a big evil. The union groups that once were credited with standing up for the little guys and winning concessions from factory owners are now painted as the cause for the flight of manufacturing to the Third World.
Despite sometimes unsavory actions by union leaders and despite sometimes unreasonable demands for workers who make more than most working-class folks, I still believe strongly that unions play an important role in the American workplace.
As income disparity widens, unions remain a voice for the working class. As the workplace changes, unions continue fighting for benefits and fairness. Taking away their voice is just wrong, and that’s exactly what the Wisconsin governor wants to do.
Vindication for HEP, a little satisfaction here
This is a very odd business, the telling of the news. It’s even more odd as part of an independent media operation. You work weird hours, meet all kinds of people, find yourself in lots of odd places and odd situations, and adhere — oddly enough — to an old-fashioned principle of right and wrong. That means we tell stories, but we also take up causes.
The problem — in business as in life — is that right and wrong are not always black and white. So sometimes you find yourself out there on the skinny branches all alone, about to fall, the ground a long way down but holding on to the gut feeling that you’re on the right track.
Such is the case with The Smoky Mountain News and our reporting on Haywood Regional Medical Center’s problems. That coverage started back in 2004, long before any of our brethren in the media were seeing — or at least reporting — on the problems at the hospital. We could have left it alone and not put resources into the story, but it seemed apparent to us that the hospital serving Haywood’s citizens was in a downward spiral. We felt it was important to discuss this with the community.
I bring this up now because of a legal verdict announced this week. Our newspaper and others are carrying reports that an emergency room doctors group — Haywood Emergency Physicians — has won a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center. The suit stems from the firing of the doctors back in December 2006, when many of the accusations that eventually made headlines in all the regional media were spoken in a public forum for the first time.
Most know of Haywood Regional Medical Center’s demise and near closure, and of its resurrection and new life as part of MedWest with Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County. All three hospitals are now under the umbrella of a management contract with Carolinas Medical Center based in Charlotte.
It was a legal notice in the Feb. 22, 2008 Asheville Citizen-Times — two years after the firing of the emergency room docs — that alerted the community to HRMC’s near-death experience. Here’s a line from that notice, for those who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the story: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that Haywood Regional Medical Center is not in compliance with the conditions of participation ….”
Problems that led to no Medicare and Medicaid money also led most major insurers to drop the hospital. That basically meant no money coming in. That precipitated a whirlwind of media coverage and change, including the resignation of HRMC CEO David Rice and the head of the HRMC board, the near closure of the hospital as patient numbers dropped almost to zero, and the public disclosure that hospital administrators had created an atmosphere of fear and manipulation that had employees afraid to point out problems or sound alarms.
Four years before this crisis, many physicians had told us that things were bad at HRMC and getting worse, that the administration was not working with physicians but manipulating them. We published stories with anonymous sources — extremely rare for any for any credible news organization — and called into question management decisions. When orthopedists and then anesthesiologists left en masse in 2004, we pointed out problems those docs and others were having with administration. We kept up the reporting in 2005 and 2006.
What did it get us?
Well, our largest advertiser — the hospital — simply went away, dropped us like a rock. Ouch. We wrote it off to the cost of doing business and moved on.
It got worse, and a little odd. I got a call one day from the previous CEO David Rice telling me that our newspaper racks were on the loading ramp in back of the hospital and that I could come pick them up. HRMC was banning The Smoky Mountain News from its property. Sounds a little like Hosni Mubarak and the current media clampdown in Egypt. That’s what we thought, but pleas to hospital board members didn’t get us very far.
Worse, none of the other media was following. We thought that once news started getting out about what was transpiring at HRMC, others would surely begin reporting. Well, they didn’t, at least not until February 2008 and the beginning of the public crisis.
The docs who use to make up Haywood Emergency Physicians, by winning this lawsuit, are vindicated. Those doctors said long ago that they were done wrong, and they also complained that their situation was not unique. The hospital administration was creating serious problems. It turns out that they were right on.
Vindication isn’t something newspapers should consider in choosing what to cover, but I’ll admit to some professional and personal satisfaction in how this story has played out over the last seven years since we started reporting on it. There’s a healthy relationship between the medical community and the hospital administration. Many hospital employees are telling us that their professional situation is vastly improved.
More importantly, citizens who need access to medical care are still able to get it right here in the communities we call home. There was a point in the not-too-distant past when that was very much in doubt.