Friday, April 24, 2015

A voter referendum to stop I77 tolls?

The answer to that question is a solid maybe – if the stars align correctly, the Legislature moves quickly, and voters decide that's what they would want in the face of what would surely be massive pressure to the contrary.

With all those qualifiers “solid” probably is not the correct way to describe the possibility of averting HOT lanes on Interstate 77, but at least it is a possibility that’s on the table with a bill recently submitted by NC Senator, Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) of Cornelius.

Readers may have seen the stories recently for a bond package being promoted by Governor Pat McCrory.  The Governor wants the General Assembly to approve putting a $1.2 billion bond package on a statewide ballot this November to fund a number of road projects that fall way down on the list of state priorities – projects that would otherwise not be funded for a very, very long time under the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments Law or STI

Well, that possibility does not sit well with Senator Tarte, in an email response to questions for this story Tarte had this to say about the projects included in the bond proposal.

“They are political choices, not based upon agreed criteria in the STI for establishing priorities. We said we would take politics out of ranking road priorities, then we turned around and did exactly that. Endless supply of stupid in state government.”

As for the likelihood the bond package makes it to the ballot Tarte had this to say.

“My belief from talking to various folks was the authority to bond would not be granted. It still may not. But the idea remains on the table.”

With that as the backdrop, in late March Senator Tarte introduced Senate Bill 639 titled the “Transportation Funding Bill”.

While this bill is primarily a revenue bill proposing tax and fee increases to generate more transportation infrastructure dollars, it also includes an interesting provision requiring a local referendum prior to implementing any new toll roads. The preliminary effective date of the bill is August 1st 2015 – a date Tarte confirmed was chosen to include the I77 HOT lanes project.

So, what could happen – emphasis on could – with this proposal relative to the HOT lanes project?

After assuming the Legislature moves with jackrabbit speed to pass a complex and controversial set of new tax increases prior to recessing this summer and assuming the bill’s referendum provision survives the editing process, then you have to assume the public would even vote to stop the project for this bill to have any effect on the project.
With as much negative press as this project has received, you would likely think that a referendum shooting it down would be a no-brainier.  However, historh and the setup of the referendum proposal itself would say otherwise.

We have seen this movie before here in Mecklenburg with the transit tax repeal effort in 2007.

In that effort, the special interests which benefited from the tax poured whatever it took into an the effort to defeat its repeal via referendum.  The same thing would surely happen here if there was a referendum on HOT lanes.

In the case of the I77 project, local transportation officials have already approved how the “bonus allocation” that came with accepting tolls will be spent.

You can hear the ads now supporting tolls  - ads funded by contributions from those who will build the road or benefit from its operations.

“Vote for tolls or lose $144 million in bonus allocation dollars.”

Add to that the fact that Tarte’s proposed legislation does not require any certain course of action in the event a project fails in a referendum.  What happens then?

If the answer is simply the road doesn't get built and the next project in line gets those dollars, why would most people not vote for tolls under those circumstances?

Of course, that would be setting up the referendum as a false all or nothing choice.

The proposed legislation could say something like “in the event a toll project is defeated in a referendum all state dollars previously committed to the project must still be spent in the same transportation corridor.”

For the I77 project, that would be close to $300 million including the bonus allocation as well as the other funds the state has committed for the project in the contract with Cintra.

That would be enough to make some serious improvements to the corridor without resorting to tolls.

Then again, presenting it that way would also expose that we never needed to resort to tolls in the first place, and that's not something those who have supported the project are likely to admit.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A new season, a new volunteer opportunity...

This column spends a lot of time looking at ways to improve our local government, and sometimes that can come off as being a bit “negative”.  So, periodically it's nice to talk about the good things people are doing in the community.  This last week saw two emails land in the inbox that are excellent reminders of that.  

A few short months ago during Christmas week, this column told you about the Room In The Inn (RITI) program run by Urban Ministries in Charlotte where local church congregations and other organizations provide a warm place to sleep for our homeless neighbors during the winter months.  In Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson 15 different congregations participate.

As of March 31st, this year’s RITI program has come to an end, so I wanted to pass along an update and some numbers.

Over the course of the 2014/2015 Winter, RITI provided almost the exact same number of bed nights, as it did last year – just over 17,000.   The number of families needing shelter and the total number of children actually increased slightly this winter.  The overall number of organizations participating stayed exactly the same at 135.

The good news here is that because of this program and the thousands of volunteers who helped make it a success, that was 17,000 nights people were spared from the cold.

Please keep this effort in mind next year is you are looking for a worthwhile cause that can make a real difference.

While the RITI effort was winding down, the other effort I’ll mention is just getting ramped up.  

It is an opportunity where people can really get into the weeds – pun intended – while helping others.  That opportunity would be the annual start of the Davidson Community Garden on Potts Street in Davidson behind the Wells Fargo drive through.

The garden is on land donated by Davidson College with its unofficial kickoff each year being a work day as part of the annual “Great Day of Service” put on by Davidson United Methodist Church.  This year that was on March 14th.

Five years ago, the initial garden was build during the DUMC event, and it has been added to every year.

The second summer saw the garden double in size.  For the third summer, the garden set the goal of donating a full ton of food to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry at the Ada Jenkins Center.  That goal was met and has been repeated annually since then. After three summers of watering using a 300 foot hose and crossing the railroad tracks, a fundraiser brought in more than enough money needed to install a permanent water supply going into season number four.  

Along the way the garden has brought together people from all across the community.  On any given Saturday, you will see residents from neighborhoods all across town.  Families, students from the college, seniors and young children can all be seen working together.

There are a number of groups that participate regularly such as different Scout Troops and classes from the Community School of Davidson.  There is also one group that likely never sees the fruits of their labor – local inmates.  Many of the plants that are grown in the garden get their start in the greenhouse of the North Mecklenburg Jail in Charlotte as part of a work training program.

The whole operation is coordinated by Connie and Eddie Beach of Davidson.  For their efforts, they were honored last November with the town’s annual “Jack Burney Award” for community service.

So, if you are interested in learning how potatoes are harvested, stop by in early June.  You may get to see what a hundred pounds of potatoes coming out of the ground looks like.  Or, if you've ever wondered where that odd looking southern staple, okra, comes from, then check out the tall bushy plants that seem to be growing just fine in the blistering heat of July and August.  The okra plant is from Africa, and it takes off when most other things start to wither.

Unlike most “community gardens” there are no fees or individual plots.  The Davidson Community Garden donates the bulk of the produce to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry at the Ada Jenkins Center.  It’s truly a garden for the community.

However, even though you won't have your own personal plot at this garden, there is a good side benefit to volunteering.  After a good morning’s work, you might just get to take home one of those juicy tomatoes.

Garden volunteers meet Saturday mornings at about 10am through the fall.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Time to (re)appoint? Davidson's town attorney?

A few weeks ago Davidson’s Town Manager, Leamon Brice, announced his intent to retire later this year after 25 years of service to the town.

Twenty five years is a long time.  However, there is another official who works for Davidson who has a much longer tenure.  That would be Davidson’s Town Attorney, Rick Kline.  Kline has been in that position nearly 39 years.

Like the town manager, the town attorney actually actually works “at the pleasure of the Board” – meaning this position reports to the Board – not the town manager as some may think.  By statute, the position of town attorney is appointed and does not have to be reappointed after each election.  Appointments by a previous board are considered to be continuous – unless revoked.

That makes a lot of sense when the attorney is also a town employee.  For example, Mooresville's town attorney is full-time.  Cornelius’s town attorney actually serves in that role for both Cornelius and Belmont.  These town attorneys do not operate in a private practice, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to re-appoint in that situation.

However, that is not the case in Davidson.  Like in many other small towns Davidson’s town attorney is also a private attorney appointed to handle the Board’s legal questions.  That means the attorney for the Town of Davidson also operates in private practice.  In Mr Kline's case, he is an active real-estate attorney.

Recently, this arrangement has resulted in a a couple of eyebrow raising situations.

Readers may remember late last year a story regarding the Bradford neighborhood in Davidson.  At the public hearings for the town’s proposed planning ordinance re-write, Bradford’s HOA President delivered some lengthy remarks regarding long-running issues with the town and the developer – including direct reference to the town attorney wearing multiple hats while also serving as the developer’s private attorney.

In the interest of transparency, readers should know I am a Bradford resident and former president of the HOA myself, so I am intimately familiar with some of the concerns the neighborhood has with this setup.

In response to follow-up questions after these hearings, the Town Manager responded about Kline's dual roles.  After indicating that Kline had always communicated to the developer that he could not be involved with issues related to the town, he went on to say the Davidson Board had asked Kline to contact the State Bar for an opinion on the “propriety of his representation” of both the developer and the town.

That was at the beginning of last month.  As of this writing, the Board still has not heard the results of that request.  Making the results of this request public is being left up to Kline.

In another ongoing matter, the town attorney once again sits the middle of an uncomfortably close situation.

At the end of the February Board meeting, Commissioner Stacey Anderson asked about some proposed new lots in the River Run neighborhood being offered by the River Run Country Club.
Mr Kline has long served as an attorney for the overall River Run developer – an entity called River Run Limited Partnership.  He is also a long-time member of the country club which is the totally separate entity trying to sell the lots.  Multiple records requests show that there has been considerable discussion about the buildability of the lots due to floodplain and other issues with Mr Kline sometimes acting on behalf of the town in a roll more suitable to the Planning Department than the town attorney.

The Town’s position is to not want building in the floodplain, but to say the least, having someone involved with this many apparent competing interests while representing the town certainly muddies the waters.

So, why bring up these issues now?

First, the Town Board is beginning next year’s budget process.  If the Board was to decide to make a change, now is the time to do it.  Furthermore, with the above issues continuing to play out over the coming months, it would be good if the Board took steps to clarify its support (or lack thereof) for the status quo.

At this point, Davidson's Board could do any of the following:

Officially reappoint Mr Kline as a vote of confidence.  While not required by law, according to the UNC School of Government it is something that certainly can be done.
The Board could decide it is finally time to remove even the appearance of any conflicts of interest and begin the process of looking for a new town attorney.
Do nothing.

Unfortunately, when the status quo brings this many headaches along with it. Doing nothing, is not really an option at all.

This story first appeared in the Herald Weekly.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Just Say 'No' to NCGA Four Year Terms

Most new Legislatures in Raleigh see a few proposed amendments to the State Constitution, and this one so far is no different.

Often, the proposed changes go nowhere.  Maybe they are proposed by the party that's not in power, so they do not have the votes to get on the ballot.  Maybe they are too contentious, so even if they are proposed by members of the party in control they do not go forward out of concern for riling up the opposition for the next election cycle.

Sometimes proposed changes garner lots of media attention and mobilize large segments of society.

“Amendment 1” in 2012 prohibiting gay marriage in the state was one such proposal.  It mobilized social conservatives and progressives alike before passing with over 61% of the vote.  Two years later it gained a second round of attention when it was effectively overturned by the courts in 2014.

Other times, constitutional changes that have a major impact on society hardly get any attention at all.

Last year’s change to allow criminal defendants permission to waive their right to a jury trial was all but ignored by most.  According to a report by the UNC School of Government, North Carolina was the only state to not allow such a waiver and even though the amendment proposed a “fundamental change in how criminal trials may be conducted in this state” it received little attention from the media and “advocacy groups”.

And then there are the proposed changes seemingly designed to help those in elected office more than anybody else.  Unfortunately, two of the proposed amendments this legislative session fall into this last category.

Two weeks ago, a pair of bills were filed proposing to extend the terms of Legislators from the current two year terms to four year terms.

House Bill 180, sponsored mainly by House Democrats, proposes 4-year terms for Representatives and Senators with a two term limit for the leadership positions of House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore.

Senate Bill 271 sponsored by four Republicans – including Senator Jeff Tarte of Cornelius – goes a step further by proposing 4-year “staggered” terms.  Under this scheme, only half the House and Senate would be elected every two years.

S271 also seeks to implement term limits for all members of the General Assembly.  Legislators would be allowed up to four consecutive terms “in a legislative chamber”.  It is unclear whether the term limits provision would mean a maximum of 16 consecutive years in Raleigh or potentially up to 32 years if an elected official maxed out 4 terms in each chamber.

Multiple requests to Senator Tarte’s office have gone unanswered to clarify this point and include his comments on the bill for this story.

Locally, debating this type of change may sound eerily familiar.  Back in 2011/2012, the Town of Davidson was considering a similar change to four year staggered terms for its elected officials.

If these bills go forward and make their way onto the ballot this November, you can be sure you’ll hear some of the same reasons why it is a good idea.  Supporters will say it “provides stability” by reducing turnover in a given election cycle.  They will tell you longer terms allow elected officials to spend more time on long-term projects rather than campaigning.  They will say it will take some of the money out of politics.  They will make it sound like a good idea.

But here are some of the other impacts.

Four year terms for all legislators provides less accountability and a lot of time for individual members to make mischief between one election and having to face voters for reelection.

In an environment where we already have very few competitive districts due to gerrymandering, cutting the number of districts in half on the ballot in a given election cycle will further concentrate money into an even smaller number of competitive races.

Four year staggered terms makes it much more difficult for the party not in power to take over an elected body – even if those in power deserve to be ousted.  It is not good for small-d democracy.

In 2012 after hearing from voters, the Town of Davidson abandoned plans to make this type of change and lengthen terms for elected officials.  Here’s hoping our legislature and particularly those sponsoring these bills see the light and do the same here.

If legislators really want to give the public a choice on something voters may actually want, they could put a straight up term limits amendment on the ballot.  However, if the price of term limits is longer terms with reduced voter impact, then the price is too high.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Do local elected officials take Clinton's approach to email and public records?

Is it 2016 yet?

One might think so with the first big “scandal” of the presidential election cycle underway after the revelation that Hillary Clinton used private email for public business while she was Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

The story was first reported back on March 2nd by the New York Times and has been running strong ever since.

The defense from the Clinton campaign operation basically boils down to this.  “Everybody does it.”  Meaning, elected officials regularly use private email to conduct public business, and as long as the rules are followed there is nothing to be concerned about regarding public records law.

While the Republicans are certainly using the story to score some political points, Clinton does in fact have a point herself.  Everybody does it.  On March 12th, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about three likely Republicans presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker – who also used private email accounts while in various elected positions.

So, while it is clear this story is as much about politics as it is about transparency, it does shine light on a situation that takes place at all levels of government – even here locally.

Over the last couple of years while writing stories on local politics, I've made several public records requests and had a lot of interaction via email with elected officials.  Here are a couple of observations.

The first is that our town staffs are responsive across the board.  I regularly receive a response within a few days, and at no time have I ever felt like they are stonewalling.

That’s a very good thing and something I think our local Town Clerks do very well.

However, they can only provide public records if they actually have them, and that brings me to the second observation.

Locally, it is not at all uncommon for elected officials to use a private email account when conducting public business.  Most elected officials have accounts for political campaigns.  If someone sends a message to that account and it should be a public record, the official is responsible for keeping it.  Other times, it is obvious that officials are primarily using non-public accounts out of convenience.  You might send an email to their elected office email and get a response back from a personal or work related account.

In both cases, it is basically impossible for the staff to accurately fulfills public records requests because they don't have ready access to anything stored on those private accounts.  They can ask elected officials if they have anything meeting the criteria of a records request, but it is up to the elected officials to respond.

My guess is the vast majority of the time use of private email accounts is completely inconsequential.  However, there certainly could be times when it is not.  Here are a couple of examples.

For one recent request I submitted on the proposed changes to Davidson’s planning ordinance, I received an email from a local organization sent to a pair of town commissioners on their non-public accounts.  One of the commissioners included it in the response to the request, the other did not.  Based on the subject matter, I have no reason to believe the commissioner who did not forward it was doing so intentionally.  It was probably just forgotten.

On the other hand, in a request I submitted last summer regarding the I77 HOT Lanes project, the answer was a bit different.

At the time, a majority of local commissioners had signed a letter to Governor McCrory asking him to delay signing any contacts for the project.  In a series of emails between the four local mayors, three of the four mayors were using private email to discuss efforts to prevent this letter from commissioners from being sent.

This only came up in a records request because the one mayor was using a public system.  This was a very pertinent political discussion on a very important project, and it was contentious.  If they had all been using private accounts would it have come up?

It is impossible to know, but it certainly did not look good.

So, how could our towns solve this problem going forward?

Local towns could pass a policy requiring elected officials to strictly use only their public email accounts for public work.  The policy could further state that In the event they receive an email on a private account regarding public business, they should forward that to their public account and only respond from there.

That would remove a lot of gray area and give the public a better sense their government is operating transparently.

Anyone want to take a bet on on that happening?

Friday, March 13, 2015

End of an era in Davidson...Leamon Brice announces retirement.

Rumors had been swirling for several months regarding the possible retirement of Davidson’s long-time town manager, Leamon Brice, and on Tuesday evening they were finally put to rest.

Brice revealed his plans at the beginning of the regular monthly meeting – announcing the end of the tenure of the one and only town manager Davidson has ever had.

And what a tenure of service is has been.

In April, Brice will have served the Town of Davidson for 25 years.  Brice is already by far the longest serving municipal town manger in Mecklenburg county and when he officially retires in December he will be one of the longest serving managers in the State of North Carolina.

I had previously asked Rob Shepherd with the North Carolina League of Municipalities how Brice’s tenure stacked up against other managers in the state.

Shepherd said “it is unusual to have someone serve in one town for 20 years or more but I have heard of a few managers in recent memory that have served for that long or slightly longer.  I’ve read in some publications by the International City & County Management Association that the average tenure for a manager is 5 to 7 years.  So, Leamon is definitely in an elite group of professional local government managers who have served in one place for that amount of time.”

Brice came to Davidson in April of 1990 after serving stints in town management in the small North Carolina towns of Plymouth and Fairmont.

Compared to those towns which have remained relatively unchanged over the last 25 years, Davidson has experienced massive growth over that period.  In 1990, Davidson had a population of just over 4,000.  Today, the population tops 12,000 and is set to grow significantly more in coming years.

As part of town efforts to limit and control the growth that has occurred, Brice has led the town through multiple regulatory and planning efforts.  The town has done an admirable job of protecting its small town character during Brice's tenure through efforts such as the developing the initial town Planning Ordinance, a Comprehensive Plan, and building out an award winning planning department.  Brice certainly deserves credit for those accomplishments.

However, as can be expected over such a long tenure, not everything has gone quite as planned.

In 2001, Davidson passed an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) in an attempt to pass back more of the costs of additional development to the actual developers.   By 2013, after a string of legal challenges across the state as well as one here locally against the developers of the Summers Walk neighborhood, Davidson saw the writing on the wall and repealed the ordinance.

2001 also saw Davidson implement one of the only mandatory Affordable Housing ordinances in the state.  After 14 years, the Affordable Housing ordinance has generated just 56 for sale units with many of those selling to people with incomes over the maximum thresholds.  Town staff is currently undergoing a major revamping of the ordinance in an attempt to make it effective.

These ordinances are the subjects of a current lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Affordable Housing policy and to receive compensation for previous APFO payments.

Then of course there is Mi-Connection.

Back in 2007, as town manager Brice played a central role for the town in the creation of the locally owned cable company that has become a constant drain on town coffers.

Last week’s column told readers about some good news for the company with the possibility of improving the financing on the bulk of its outstanding debt.  Hopefully, by the time Brice actually retires later this year that frustrating problem will be further along the path to resolution.

It would be a nice way to go out and leave the town in a better financial position than over the last few years.

 certainly deserves recognition for his long tenure and for his contributions to what makes Davidson special.  It's not common these days to stay in one place for such a long time, and in many ways that continuity has been valuable.

When you see him around town over the coming months, thank him for his service.  He deserves it.

However, as Davidson’s Board begins the process of finding a new town manager with the goal of doing so by October, the Board should commit to going outside of town hall for Brice's replacement.

With all of the challenges facing Davidson in coming years as growth continues, the town will benefit from the opportunity of having a completely new set of eyes looking at them.

This post originally appeared in this week’s The Herald Weekly

Sunday, March 8, 2015

March is here. Let the Madness begin!

In a departure from the usual topics covered here, I've just got to say what an awesome basketball season it has been!  March Madness promises to be an exciting one.

Growing up in Louisville, Ky during the seventies and eighties I as a huge UofL fan.  Having the Cards in the ACC has brought back a lot of the interest I'd lost in college basketball.  Add to that my alma mater, UVA, dominating the league for the second year straight, and I can say I'm fully back in 'fan' mode.

So to say the least, I was absolutely torn watching my UofL Cardinals play my UVA Cavaliers Saturday night.  The ending was appropriate with both teams hitting last second shots leaving me feeling both happy and disappointed for both teams in a matter of seconds.

Louisville won that game 59 - 57 handing the Cavaliers only their second loss all season.

And the there is Davidson.

The Wildcats have ended the regular season in spectacular fashion - handing VCU a stunning defeat in Belk arena on Thursday and following that up with a crushing road win against Duquesne on Saturday.

Judging by what the basketball pundits are saying, that should be enough to secure Davidson it's first ever at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

If it wasn't for the two "bad" losses on their record - St Joseph and St Boneventure - there would be no doubt about it at this point.  But in case the selection committee needs any more encouragement to give Davidson a spot, here is a stat that I  hope they take into consideration.

Davidson is one of only two teams this season to score more than 70 points against the smothering Virginia defense.  They scored 72 in their loss to UVA back in December.  They were the first team to achieve that, and after destroying the famed VCU Havoc defense this past week, they've proven they can score against just about anybody.  That's the kind of team you want in the tournament.

After winning the A10 in its first year in the conference, what Coach McKillop and the team have done really deserves some national attention.  McKillop should be on the list of candidates for NCAA Coach of the Year.  Not having him there is a big miss in my opinion.

For a look back on the Wildcats season so far, check out this interview with Coach McKillop on Sunday.

The rest of March promises to be exciting!!!