Monday, September 15, 2014

Davidson Affordable Housing: A Program in Need of Reform.

When the Town of Davidson's mandatory affordable housing ordinance comes up in conversation at town hall, it is usually accompanied by numerous self-administered pats on the back and all-knowing head nods by the program's staunch supporters. To hear some people talk, one would think this single program more than just about anything else makes Davidson, well..."Davidson".  Those same supporters are quick to its defense if anyone suggests otherwise.

An example of that defense occurred last year when the Town's Affordable. Housing Coordinator, Cindy Reid, announced a series of meetings to address a program that isn't working.  At the time...
  • there was no waiting list for the mandated for-purchase units in the program, but there was one for rental - a situation the overall program currently does not effectively address.
  • the town had also been dealing with ongoing issues from the county revaluation regarding affordable housing. 
  • many houses in the program went unsold and were eligible to people not meeting the income requirements for the population the program is meant to serve.  According to data provided to aShortChronicle by the town, this number was as high as 1/3 of the all the units sold through  the program.  In the Davidson Bay development which is highly praised for its integration of the affordable housing units, only 3 of 7 for-sale affordable units had been purchased by buyers qualified by the Davidson Housing Coalition.

Still, in light of all this at that May 2013 meeting, Commissioner Connie Wessner voiced concerns about opening up discussion on the topic.   The expectation was that even talking about changes to the program would upset some in town.

In the 15 months since the announcement of the working groups, much has changed:
  • Commissioner Wessner is now former Commissioner Wessner after last fall's elections.  She was the existing program's staunchest supporter on the Town Board.
  • The town has seen its first developer-built affordable housing rental building opened.  Ironically, this building is also at Davidson Bay and has a waiting list - solid proof that rental close to transit and in town is in demand. 
  • The town is staring down a potential lawsuit over the program in general by Artisan Homes - a Davidson based developer whose very own Jay Johnstone was listed as a participant in the working groups started least  year. 

Still, facing a changed political and economic reality is difficult for some to accept.  Planning Board Members Brunson Russum and John Kennedy spoke passionately at the September 9th Town Board meeting encouraging the Board to stand strong against potential legal challenges.  They followed this up with some rather aggressive comments on DavidsonNews.net.  They are part of a core group of affordable housing supporters who appear willing to accept just about any cost to preserve the mandatory aspects of the program.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is common sense.  At the most recent Board meeting several possible alternatives were discussed that would make the program less rigid.  They would provide alternatives the current program does not - making it more user friendly and flexible for developers.  Many of the proposed changes would also make the program more attractive to buyers.  In short, they would address the program's issues.  Here is the link to the presentation.  In general, these changes make the program less "mandatory" - for both the developers and the homeowners.

As Davidson's Affordable Housing program moves forward, the question is will common sense reforms win the day, or will those who would rather circle the wagons around a failing program prevail?

To help a program with a long history of issues, let's hope those who want to actually solve problems win out.

Bonus Observation:  aShortChronicle has received information that indicates there could eventually be multiple developers involved in future legal action against the Town - a situation that would raise the stakes even further.  If this case does eventually go to court, expect it to take the same course as the APFO litigation in recent years which eventually resulted in the Davidson ordinance being repealed.  The courts determined that the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) was essentially a tax that the Legislature did not authorize municipalities to implement.  The exact same logic could apply to Davidson's Affordable Housing ordinance which is one of only 2 mandatory ordinances in the state.  Making the program more voluntary or at least providing more options may be the only way to actually save it.  Trying to shame developers into going along with an ordinance that may eventually be determined to be illegal certainly would seem to be a less-good option. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Towns Ask Feds at FCC to 'Preempt' NC State Law

In a case with potentially national repercussions, the Towns of Mooresville and Davidson have waded into the fray over municipal broadband network ownership.

On August 28th, both towns submitted comments supporting petitions to the Federal Communications Commission by Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN asking the FCC to 'preempt' North Carolina law governing municipal owned communications networks.  This State legislation passed in 2011 as H129 with strong bi-partisan support and commonly goes by the name - the 'Level Playing Field' law.  This law outlines the requirements municipalities must meet to operate their own retail communications networks.  It does not strictly prohibit them from doing so, but it does ensure that public coffers are not a limitless backstop for any funding shortfall.  Maybe most importantly for taxpayers it requires that any debt incurred for this type of operation be voter approved.  (In a bit of irony, Mi-Connection is actually exempted from most provisions of this law because it was created before the law passed.)

In their comments, the towns that own the money losing Mi-Connection cable operation "strongly support and encourage" the Federal Government to invalidate this State legislation and force North Carolina to allow municipalities unfettered access to make the same mistake they have made by entering the competitive telecommunications marketplace.  (See here and here for the Davidson and Mooresville submissions.)

Mi-Connection was formed without voter approval of the massive debt which now weighs down the operation.  For residents of these two towns there can be little doubt that the decision to form Mi-Connection is the most damaging financial decision in their towns' histories.  This is particularly true for tiny Davidson where at one point its annual subsidies to the cable company equaled nearly a quarter of the town's annual budget. 

This damage was caused by a lack of due diligence prior to getting into the business, a poor initial management team that needed to be replaced, and operational decisions that took years to reverse - all examples of exactly why local government should not be involved in a private sector business.  These are all examples of exactly why a law like H129 is needed.  Mi-Connection is the poster child for the Level Playing Field.  These things combined with a brutally competitive industry landscape have resulted in millions of dollars in annual subsidies from the towns.   However, in the towns' submissions one gets the impression a large part of the failure of Mi-Connection is actually due to the Level Playing Field law - a law that would not pass until four years after Mi-Connection was formed in 2007 and began wracking up deficits.

Here's what the towns told the FCC:

"Numerous plans that were in the works by various local North Carolina communities to build fiber networks for retail business and residential use ground to a halt with the passage of Section 160A-340 (known as “H129”).  The uncertainty caused by the proposed legislation was a major reason a collaborative effort by the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Mooresville and Troutman and Mecklenburg County ended with 3 of the entities dropping out.

Really???  An unpassed law was the reason for these town's dropping out and that's why Mooresville and Davidson were left holding the bag when a risky decision went south?  That seems a bit unlikely, so we checked with a couple of elected officials from towns that dropped out who were involved with this decision back in 2007.

When asked if the threat of Level Playing Field legislation impacted the decision-making process to join Mi-Connection here's what State Legislator Charles Jeter had to say. 

"I was a member of the Huntersville Town Board at that time.  I was also one of the two Huntersville Commissioners to be assigned to the working group committee of the parties that met often on behalf of the Town of Huntersville.
As to your question regarding the level playing field law… I don’t remember it being discussed.  In fairness it was some eight years ago and there were a great number of moving parts that were discussed."

Cornelius Commissioner David Gilroy was more direct.

"Absolutely no role whatsoever.  We pulled out because it was stupid in countless ways frankly."

So, there you have it.  The failure of Mi-Connection lies at the feet of the politicians who supported it and not with some blocking state legislation.

There are also other issues with these submissions...
 
Documents obtained by aShortChronicle show that the towns' comments were hardly more than canned copy provided to Mi-Connection by the local government telecom lobbying group SEATOA with instructions to customize the letter as needed.  (If you look at the two links above, you will notice that the two documents are identical except for the names of the towns.)  It appears the towns did hardly any customization of this lobbyist content and where they did update this copy it was more of an attempt to rewrite the history of Mi-Connection as described above than to provide any real justification for why the Level Playing Field law should be preempted.

Making matters worse, it appears the decision to submit these comments to the FCC was not fully discussed by the town Boards before these supporting comments were submitted by staff on the towns behalf.  This created a somewhat uncomfortable moment in Davidson when Commissioner Beth Cashion brought the issue up at the town's September 9th monthly meeting expecting to engage in further discussion on the subject only to be told by Town Manager Leamon Brice that the comments had already been submitted - a decision that was clearly made by staff on its own.

So, here you have our towns asking for the Federal Government to overturn a state law - a law that has bi-partisan support.  They are using canned lobbyist content modified in a way that is factually incorrect.  And the effort appears to driven more by staff than our elected officials.

Wonderful!

Action Opportunity:  If you want to submit your own comment to the FCC telling them how bad an idea it is to overturn this type of state law, they are taking comments until September 29th.  Here's the link.  It's for proceeding 14-115.

Correction: Commissioner Cashion brought up this issue at the September monthly meeting for further discussion - not August as was incorrectly reported earlier.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Safety Improvement with New Crossing Beacons at Davidson-Concord and Robert Walker

Over the past week, aShortChronicle HQ has been moving to new digs and that has taken up any and all time for blogging.   However, fear not!  We will be back hard at covering shenanigans in local government this week.  There has been a good bit happening recently that we've been keeping tabs on, and we should have a couple more pieces coming out this week that will once again have you shaking your head in disbelief.
But, before we get to that here is some good news.  
Late last week while the Chiquita Classic was ramping up and bringing a lot of visitors to River Run, contractors were busy installing the long awaited crossing beacons for the crosswalk at Davidson-Concord Rd and Robert Walker Dr.  Readers may remember that last year there was a serious accident at this intersection involving a truck and a skateboarder.  Late last year, the town board approved funding to install the flashing beacons to make the intersection safer. 



Here at aShortChronicle we spend a lot of time critiquing the things local government does and ponting out where it can do better, but we also like to give credit where credit is due.  This is one of those times.  These beacons along with Town efforts to get the speed limit lowered on this stretch of road will hopefully pay off and make this area safer for all pedestrians.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mushroom Alert Part II: Who exactly wanted last week's Town/Cintra/NCDOT meets to be closed?

The "Mushroom Alert" post sparked enough interest to warrant looking into this question. 

Who exactly wanted to keep the wraps on last week's meetings with tolling firm Cintra - the LKN Towns or NCDOT?

As expected, what we found was not pretty.  The public record made available though various records requests, shows a concerted effort by many parties to deliberately structure these meetings in a way that would keep the public and the press out.  Even more disturbingly, it shows a business as usual attitude about conducting the public's business this way.  In the end it hardly matters who originally wanted these meetings to remain closed.  Once the process was set in motion, nearly everyone involved was comfortable with it.

That process started with these invites to the Towns' Commissioners:

Huntersville:


Cornelius:


Mooresville:

 
Davidson:



The Mooresville and Davidson invites make it crystal clear that coordinating the meetings to ensure no board has a quorum at any one meeting is the purpose for having three meetings and the method by which they will all remain closed.  This ensures none of the elected bodies runs afoul of the state's open meetings law. 

There are also a number of emails that show significant effort put into ensuring it remains that way.

At one point Cornelius Commissioner Jim Duke offers to not attend any meetings because the one time slot he could make already had two other Cornelius Commissioners.  Davidson Commissioner Beth Cashion asks if she can just go ahead and attend the possible make up session on August 28th since other Davidson Commissioners will be there (the logical thing to do).  Davidson Town Manager Leamon Brice responds that the makeup meeting is also supposed to be closed and if Commissioner Cashion was to attend it would be over quorum.   There is also a message from NCDOT's Warren Cooksey who was coordinating for the State that says "Mooresville and Davidson are prepared to control access to list members only, and I'll set up the same expectation at the plant."  (The Huntersville meeting was at the Dukes water treatment plant.)

So, who wanted these meetings closed?  The answer appears to be just about everybody.

The Mooresville invite to town commissioners specifically says "they would like non-quarum meetings and will not be open to the public."  The "they" in this case is NCDOT and a pretty clear indication that NCDOT may have been the ones to request these be closed

But then there's this email from Davidson's Mayor John Woods...


This is the earliest email in all of the public records provided - a week before the invites went out.  It copies all of the town mayors, and it seems pretty clear they are excited about having these non-quorum meetings on the topic so they can get some coaching on how to deal with the pesky public.

NCDOT's Warren Cooksey was also asked for this piece if he could clarify the comments made by the department's general counsel at the Davidson session.  Those comments as reported by DavidsonNews.net were that "the DOT did not intend for the meetings to be closed" - something that would seem to contradict the language in the Mooresville invite.   Here was his answer:


So there you have it.  This type of thing is just business as usual.  Nothing at all to be concerned about. 

Maybe it's not obvious to some, but there would seem to be a difference in the spirit of attending an open meeting organized by a citizens group such as WidenI77.org and the spirit of attending a carefully organized closed meeting attended only by public officials and the company being paid to build a road most in the community oppose.

Finally, for a good laugh check out the massive amount of chutzpa in the NCDOT news release regarding last Thursday's meetings.  After all the effort to keep these meetings closed and out of the public eye, NCDOT posted the below news release only a few hours after word had leaked they were going to occur.


"Collaborative and transparent" is not how too many average citizens would describe this process.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's the Huns! It's the Mongol Horde!!! Oh, wait. It's just WidenI77.org.

Welcome CarolinaPlottHound.com visitors!

The last post ended with a reference to how this whole HOT lanes situation is beginning to take on the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy, but little did we know that the act would continue so soon. 

Davidson Mayor John Woods possesses a flair for the melodramatic, and once again he delivers.  The below gem surfaced during our investigation of who exactly requested last week's closed meetings with NCDOT and Spanish tolling firm, Cintra.


"Invade!"  Really???  Is that what people are doing when they show up to participate in their government?  One would think Atilla the Hun or Ghengis Khan was about to roll into town rather than a few fed up citizens.

In this email, Mayor Woods is referring to last Monday's visit to Davidson Town Hall by Mecklenburg BOCC Chair Trevor Fuller for a meeting that was open to the public.  As such, it was a highly stagemanaged affair where Commissioner Fuller dodged any and all HOT lanes questions by claiming ignorance on the subject.  NCDOT's Warren Cooksey was also on hand that night.  He did not participate but could have served as a good backup to Comm Fuller - just in case some "invaders" (aka citizens) got out of hand and asked some really hard questions of the top county official.

Fortunately, the invaders were well behaved.

Folks, Mayor Woods's email and last Monday's session with BOCC Chair Fuller are prime examples of the "Us vs. Them" mentality of too many of our top elected officials.  The "Us" being the establishment ruling class, and the "Them" being the rest of us.  If you disagree with certain elected officials, you are labeled as an invader.  If you ask hard questions, you will get subterfuge and stonewalling for the effort.  If you stand up for what you believe is right, you will be smeared.

This is what the public faces day in and day out from our halls of power.

To be fair, not all of our elected officials act this way.  Commissioner Rob Kidwell from Huntersville exposed the planned closed meetings last week on the HOT lanes.  Commissioner Dave Gilroy from Cornelius regularly asks hardball questions on important issues.  However, silence is acceptance from most.  We need many more elected officials to step up and call out this type of behaviour when it occurs.

For elected officials to treat citizens this way is plain and simple bullying, and it needs to stop.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Cintra: Arrogant or Ignorant on Toll Rates?

Click here for the full video at WCNC.com
Well, now we know why officials wanted to keep the meetings this week with Cintra and NCDOT closed to the public.

On the most important question that has gone unanswered (what are the toll rates going to be for the HOT Lanes?), Cintra's project manager, Javier Tamargo, had this to say...

"WHO KNOWS?"

If that was the best they could do, one can see why they would not want it to be heard by John Q Public.

Here you have the representative of a company being handed a project as the sole bidder, a project worth over $600 million, sitting in front of the elected officials most closely responsible to the citizens that project will serve, and the answer is "who knows"?!?!?!

How can that be???

The answer to that question is one of two things - arrogance or ignorance.  Actually, the answer is probably both.

There's really no question that it's arrogant to think you can foist something like this onto the public without telling them how much they will have to pay to use it.

However, Mr Tamargo's answer may have also been a Freudian slip where he actually told the truth.  Maybe the contractor who will build the road truly is ignorant of how much they will charge in 20 years.  Their math is very fuzzy, and the company's recent troubles on other projects prove that to be the case.

Arrogance and ignorance is a very dangerous combination, and this unfolding tragedy is now reaching Shakespearean proportions.  For our government to let this project go forward under these circumstances after they have been given the public's trust may be the "most unkindest cut of all".

A Small Victory for Transparency on a Record Day

Yesterday was a big day for aShortChronicle, and it was particularly satisfying that it happened around such an important issue as government transparency.  The site hit an all time record in daily page views, and the Mushroom Alert post on the "closed" HOT Lanes meetings with local officials became the fastest rising post in the site's history.  A good bit of that had to do with the post being linked at CarolinaPlottHound.com - the Drudge-Report-styled aggregation site focusing on the Carolinas.  However, we also received a big bump locally driven by Facebook.

A good bit of the regular readership of this site is made up of local activists, elected officials, and staff members.  There are also a few media types mixed in based on feedback we've received.  For many of the elected officials and the more mainstream media, it's probably like witnessing a car crash.  They don't want to look, but they can't avert their eyes.

All of that is to say we don't know if this site played any role in yesterday's opening up of private meetings on public affairs, but we'll take yesterday's readership as a sign the public is truly interested in knowing about these types of shenanigans.  To that end, we'll be staying on top of this story.

DavidsonNews.net is reporting that the NCDOT "did not intend for the meetings to be closed."  Based on the correspondence we've received here, that statement is simply not credible.  We have verification from officials from multiple towns involved that these were supposed to be closed and that the method for keeping them closed was a deliberate attempt to avoid open meetings law.

However, if this wasn't the doing of NCDOT there is another possibility.  It is possible that the intent to keep these meetings closed was being driven locally and not by from the State level.  Remember this post about the lengths our local mayors would go to protect this project - North Meck Mayors + Speaker Thom Tillis (aka The HOT Lanes Bucket Brigade)?

Who really requested these meetings be closed?  That's something worth looking into.