Friday, October 31, 2014

Like Frankenstein…It’s Alive!!!

With Halloween upon us this week, we bring you the latest transportation spending monster being planned for Mecklenburg County.  This one involves new ways to fund a project that just won’t die – the Red Line commuter rail from Charlotte to Mooresville as part of the regional 2030 Transit Plan.

The Red Line received an apparently fatal blow last June when Norfolk Southern indicated track sharing with commuter rail did not fit the long-term plans for the company’s O line corridor which would be used for the project.  However, that has not phased the mad scientists down at the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) who have been hard at work coming up with new and creative ways to finance floundering rail transit efforts - including the Red Line.

Earlier this month, the road show to start gathering support in North Mecklenburg for that creative financing kicked off in Davidson.  The MTC is requesting the towns support the following as part of its 2015-2016 Legislative Agenda for the next General Assembly.  The MTC wants:

  1. Authorization to use Public Private Partnerships as a financing mechanism for transit.
  2. Authorization to access certain low interest Federal loan programs usable for transit infrastructure.
  3. Removal of the sunset provision on Special Assessment District legislation so they can be used for long-term transit projects.

Immediately after the September MTC meeting, canned language for supporting resolutions was distributed to all of the participating towns.  The request was to have resolutions passed by the Commission's member boards by the MTC's November 19th meeting.

Of the North Mecklenburg towns, only Davidson has seen the presentation from LNTC Chairman Bill Thunberg at this point.  He is doing the road show on the MTC’s behalf.  Davidson will likely vote on any supporting resolution at its November meeting.  If Huntersville and Cornelius vote on such a resolution by the originally requested date, they would likely need to do so at the same meeting where the information is presented to their Boards.  That puts Board members in a real bind if they are trying to make an informed decision.

Giving limited time to review information is a standard tactic when trying to ram something through.  Pushing this through while most people are focused on something else - like our current elections - is also a good way to slide this by the voters.

Why would the MTC want to do this?  A couple of reasons come to mind...

Authorization of P3s for transit financing sets up the same sort of monstrous projects we are seeing with the I77 HOT Lanes.  During the entire HOT debate, elected officials have been using the fact that the NCGA "authorized" the use of P3s years ago to abdicate any responsibility for it.

The earliest plans for tolls on I77 were tiny compared to what the project has morphed into now. Authorizing P3s for transit financing without knowing how a project would take shape in the future will result in the same thing for a project like the Red Line.

The second reason to rush this through is that paying off these projects will require going outside the half cent transit tax originally approved by voters.  If this agenda goes forward, the local economy will be stuck paying for a much larger percentage of these projects than voters originally supported.  Before gutting the property tax base with tools like Tax Increment Financing and Special Assessment Districts to pay off any massive new loans from the Federal government or the P3 private partners, the MTC should have to go back to those same voters for additional approval.  You can be sure that is not something transit supporters want to do. 

At the October 14th meeting in Davidson, Mayor Woods described supporting the MTC agenda as a “benign and routine request”.  It is anything but that, and we’ve previously seen this same kind of horror movie with this same cast.

Former Mooresville Mayor Thunberg and Davidson Mayor Woods were instrumental in pushing for the creation the money-hemorrhaging Mi-Connection cable company back in 2007.  It too was presented to the public as something that just had to be done.  Like Dr. Frankenstein himself, as Mooresville’s Mayor, Thunberg cast the tie-breaking vote that actually brought Mi-Connection to life.  It was a disastrous decision for both towns.

Now, as the LNTC Executive Director and the MTC Vice-Chairman, Thunberg and Woods are showing the same zeal in pushing for the Red Line and transit.  With that in mind, elected officials on the various town boards would be very smart to decline supporting the MTC legislative agenda.  At the very least they should not support it without a commitment to go back to the voters first on any new financing plans.

Will enough LKN commissioners oppose something destined to be more “trick” than “treat” for area residents?  We will all know soon enough.

This post originally appeared in the Herald Weekly

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Most Important, Least Known Races on Your Ballot Next Tuesday

For the first time in sixteen years a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court faces election on the same day.  This Tuesday four of the seven seats are up for grabs - a situation brought about by a random combination of retirements, appointments and the regular election cycle.

Conservative judges Barbara Jackson, Robert Edmunds, and Paul Newby are not up for election this cycle. If you want to vote for judges to give them some additional support, then choose:

Mark Martin for Chief Justice and Bob Hunter, Eric Levinson, and Mike Robinson for Associate Justices on election day.

Judgepedia.org has all the details on the races.  It's worth checking out the whole page beyond the below excerpt.

From Judgepedia.org...

North Carolina's judicial elections are technically non-partisan. However, it is a state where the justices' political affiliations are clearly known and political parties may publicly endorse candidates. Currently, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has five Republicans and two Democrats on its bench. In 2014, four seats are up for election, meaning that a majority of the seven-member court is up for grabs.

Three Democratic seats and one Republican seat were initially up for election this year. Two of those seats--the chief justice position and Justice Martin's open seat--were given new, Republican incumbents thanks to appointments by Governor Pat McCrory in August 2014. That resulted in the chief justice position changing from a Democratic incumbent (Sarah Parker, who retired) to a Republican incumbent (Mark Martin, who is running for a full term in 2014). Going into the November elections, two seats are occupied by Republicans and two by Democrats.

A partisan flip is not possible, even though a majority of the court's seats are up for election, because it would require Democrats to win all four seats and there are no Democrats in the race for chief justice.

Republicans, on the other hand, have a chance to monopolize the court if they can oust Justices Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson. North Carolina is already a Republican-dominated state, where the GOP holds the governorship, a majority in both legislative houses and a majority on the supreme court. This is referred to as a Trifecta Plus by Ballotpedia. A court fully controlled by the Republicans would be favorable to the similarly controlled executive and legislative branches if any of their new laws are challenged in court. More information on state government trifectas is available here: Ballotpedia: State government trifectas.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Could toll-road protesters decide the fate of the US Senate?

Well, the honest answer to that question is “probably not”, and in the grand scheme of things we should all be glad that’s likely not the case.   With global crises like Ebola, ISIS, and a potentially sputtering world economy to put things in perspective, it is surely a good thing for the order of the cosmos that control of the upper chamber in the US Congress is not solely dependent on the outcome of what happens with 26 miles of interstate through the Lake Norman area.

As was mentioned here two weeks ago, events elsewhere in the country took this race off the critical path for the Republicans some time ago.  Even though the race between Tillis and Hagan has tightened in the past two weeks, North Carolina now looks like it will be a bonus seat if the Republicans take over the Senate rather than the critical linchpin it was at the beginning of this election cycle. 
None of that however changes the fact that the I77 HOT Lanes issue could still be critical in the outcome of the contest here in North Carolina.  In a contest like this where every vote counts, any issue that sways a few thousand votes one way or the other could be the difference.

In the case of the HOT Lanes, the credit (or blame) for making that difference goes to the WidenI77 activist group.  Led by Cornelius resident, Kurt Naas, along with several other dedicated volunteers, this group has been relentless in getting out their message about preventing tolls.  Recently, they have been cranking up the volume.  WidenI77.org signs have been popping up in North Mecklenburg at prominent intersections.  One was seen recently floating near the Exit 30 causeway on Lake Norman during Friday afternoon rush hour¸ and this past Saturday one of those signs along with about two dozen protesters were outside of a Thom Tillis campaign event at the Republican “victory center” on Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.

Two dozen protesters may not sound like much, but if that is what you focused on then you would be missing the point.  That small number of protesters held signs that said things like “honk if you oppose tolls”.  Standing there for a few minutes, one got a real sense for how this issue could impact this election.

The noise from those horns and the number of drivers honking them said all you need to know.
Over a five minute period that Saturday evening a good 40% - 50% of passing cars honked.  Some were a quick beep-beep.  Others gave a long angry blast.  Sometimes they came in flurries where every passing car laid on the horn.  At other moments it would be just one in a group.  There was also the person the scooter giving the protesters a fist pump as he rode by.   The most entertaining had to be the man on his bicycle in full cycling regalia giving the protesters a thumbs up as he pedaled past.
Assuming that not everyone who opposes tolls bothered to honk, it was pretty clear in this incredibly unscientific poll that tolls are incredibly unpopular.  That unpopularity could turn into consequences on election-day. 

Here’s why…

Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties have almost exactly 10% of the State’s registered Republicans.  They also happen to be the two counties where residents will be the most familiar with the tolling issue.  Anything that siphons off even a small percentage of those Republican votes from Thom Tillis could throw a monkey wrench into his campaign’s efforts to overtake Kay Hagan.
That siphon could come in the form of former North Mecklenburg legislator and conservative firebrand John Rhodes who is mounting a write-in campaign for the US Senate.  He is a familiar name in conservative circles and has garnered a respectable level of support among local tea party activists.  He is also opposed to tolls.

On the street last Saturday evening several of his supporters were seen holding those signs encouraging people to honk.  If enough of those honks turn into votes, it could spell trouble for Team Tillis.

This post was originally published in the Herald Weekly


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Anti-Toll Effort Gets Some National Attention

While the race between Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan has been getting plenty of national attention (it may eventually be the most expensive Senate race in history) there has not been much attention from national media on a subject that is raging here locally - tolls on I77.

That changed with this story in the Washington Times.

Thom Tillis Senate bid imperiled by tea party toll-road disdain -Washington Times


We first reported on this issue possibility impacting this national election over a year ago.


The anti-toll group WidenI77 has been ramping up their efforts lately sending out a fundraising letter for a possible legal challenge as well as becoming a more visible presence around the area with signs and protests.

More on this story here later this week.

As election day nears it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Community Outreach on Tolls: “Ministry of Truth-style"

One would be hard pressed to find a local issue in recent (or not so recent) memory that has caused more confusion, anxiety, and distrust of state and local government than the proposed HOT Lanes project for widening I77.  At the root of all that distrust has been the ineffective communication to the public all along the way.
In what would seem to be an effort to remedy this, last November NCDOT put out a job posting for a position called “Director of Outreach and Community Affairs” to cover the Charlotte region.  This past spring, former Charlotte City Councilman Warren Cooksey stepped into the job. 
The job title and hiring a local would seem to be a good thing, but reading the job posting may leave you with a different opinion.
“This position supports community relations and public affairs for all NC Department of Transportation activities in the Charlotte area, including highway, rail, transit, bike/pedestrian and aviation.  The position develops and implements communication strategies, programs, and initiatives designed to inform Congressional, State, and Local Elected Officials, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Rural Planning Organizations, Chambers of Commerce, transportation associations, the media, and various stakeholders on how innovative projects and techniques help achieve Departmental objectives.  The Liaison serves as a senior staff member and responds professionally to internal and external issues, helping make decisions on the appropriate organizational response to the public and news media.  The position provides communication expertise supporting project delivery by crafting marketing materials on promotions and time sensitive campaigns.”
Under the “Skills” and “Experience” sections it lists managing relations with government agencies, private and public interest groups, and members of the media.  The position also requires a “thorough understanding of the political process and experience in the intergovernmental relations arena.”
Unfortunately, judging by the description and job qualifications, this Director of Outreach and Community Affairs position sounds like it would fit in just fine at the “Ministry of Truth” from George Orwell’s 1984.  Rather than a position designed to ensure the public is informed adequately and in a timely manner, the position appears focused on managing the information flow to ensure NCDOT gets what it wants.
Former Commissioner Cooksey with his connections and experience is the perfect man for the job.
In recent months, Mr Cooksey has covered all the bases the job description requires.  He has met with the Lake Norman Chamber to promote the project, and last week he was back at Charlotte City Council on the other side of the dais fending off questions from councilmembers.  He recently debated Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy, a HOT Lanes opponent, at the Don Reid weekly breakfast in South Charlotte, and he is scheduled to debate members of WidenI77 at an upcoming meeting of the Bastiat Society on Public Private Partnerships.  These last two are interesting because they are conservative groups and some of the strongest opposition to the toll lanes and P3s has come from the political right. 
Mr Cooksey has also put his understanding of the political process and experience in intergovernmental relations to good use.
Emails show he was at the center of efforts to keep meetings closed to the public when HOT Lanes contractor Cintra came to town in August.  Mr Cooksey defended the use of a legal loop hole to do this – a loop hole that ensured no town board had a quorum of elected officials at any meeting.  On a separate occasion he offered to coach County Commission Chair Trevor Fuller on HOT lanes when Commissioner Fuller came to Davidson for a public forum.  Finally, this past week he oversaw the public open houses on the project – open houses scheduled well after NCDOT says there is nothing that can be done to stop the project.  The sessions were complete with the debut of a utopian video of the I77 HOT lanes in action with no mention of the real toll rates and no presence of any traffic on any lanes.
If all of this does not sound like “community outreach” to you, it gets even better.  One should not expect Mr Cooksey to be spending too much time on all those other transportation methods mentioned in his job description .
There is a reason why Charlotte is the only region in the state that actually has this position for NCDOT.  It was transferred to NCDOT’s Charlotte Division from the NCTA – the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.  The position is a toll road position transferred to the local NCDOT office because this is where the action is with the tolling – now and in the future.
George Orwell would be proud.
 
This post was first printed in the Opinion Section of this week's Weekly Herald.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Debate #2 for NC-98 This Thursday at River Run

Last Thursday saw Democrat Natasha Marcus and Republican John Bradford face off for the first time in the race to succeed Thom Tillis in the NC-98 House seat in the NCGA.

The next day an attack add from the Bradford Campaign hit mailboxes.  The mailer took an interesting approach by linking Ms Marcus to President Barack Obama.  That might seem like a tactic more fitting for a Federal race than one at the State level, but Ms Marcus did lead the local chapter of Organizing for Action in support of the Obama campaign.

Maybe there will be some fireworks as Ms Marcus pushes back?  Attend this Thursday to see in person.  The details are in the below press release.

========================

A ‘Meet the Candidates’ Forum scheduled in Davidson, NC on Thursday, October 16, 2014
Residents in Davidson, NC and surrounding communities are invited to participate in a ‘Meet the Candidates’ forum, Thursday evening, October 16, 2014 at 7:00 PM at the River Run Golf and Country Club Ballroom located at 19125 River Falls Drive, Davidson, NC, 28036. The event may cover Federal, State, and County races and many key issues, such as transportation, education, State and Federal budgets and economic development. This event will be held just seven days before early voting begins, so it could be an excellent way to hear from the candidates prior to casting a vote.

Come early and stay late to dialogue one-on-one with those willing to serve and represent you in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Washington, DC. This will be an excellent opportunity to hear from the candidates about their plans for the future. 

The format will include a moderator and time keeper so that each candidate has an opportunity to respond to participant’s questions. Prior to the 7:00 PM start, index cards will be provided to record questions by the participants and to allow the moderator an opportunity to plan and pose the questions to all candidates during the forum.

We encourage everyone to attend this event.

Sponsored by the River Run Property Owners Association, Government Affairs Committee. Questions: Jim Copio / jcopio@att.net / 704-892-7573


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Post 300 and a New Direction

Post 300...

In the nearly three year run for this blog, it has covered a lot of topics.  Good government and transparency top the list of things getting the most enthusiastic attention.  Elections and candidates have made for interesting subjects.  Then there have been the big infrastructure projects like the Red Line and the HOT lanes - projects that are by their very nature political.  I've also picked on some of our local media and their coverage of events.

By covering the minutia of how government works and how the media covers it, hopefully that has shown a little light on things for readers  It is often pretty clear when a post hits a nerve based on comments and emails it receives.  More subtly, every now and then, small positive changes can be seen in how local government works on topics covered here.  Seeing that makes the time spent well worth it.

But let me be really clear about one thing, what I do here is not "journalism".  I don't try to hide where I'm coming from on topics.   Rather than journalism, I would describe it as editorial mixed with bit of satire and a side of educated citizen activism.  It is not just journalists who have the right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our public officials are doing.  That is really the responsibility of all of us .

Some in our local media seem to be confused on that last point.

Some, but not all...

You may have noticed that the recent post on the NMRW meeting with Thom Tillis was in the latest Herald Weekly.  We hope that will be a regular occurrence going forward for the foreseeable future in the form of a weekly column on the subjects we normally cover here.

A big thanks goes out to the folks at the Herald for giving me the opportunity.  This should in no way change the topics we cover, but it may change the timing of when certain posts go up here.  It will be an interesting challenge, and I am definitely looking forward to it.