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.

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