Wednesday, May 31, 2006

With the ink-stained wretches

The Capital Press Corps has lost some of its veteran newshounds recently, and it’s a shame for readers and viewers who want to know what’s going on in Raleigh. The news business is like any other, of course: People come and go from time to time as the workplace offers them other ways to make a living.
Seth Effron, who worked at the Fayetteville Times and at the Greensboro News and Record before inventing the N.C. newsletter called the insider and later ran State Government Radio for Curtis Media, joined Gov. Mike Easley's press operation earlier this year. He was an aggressive newsman who found out stuff and made it known -- including stuff politicians didn't much want out.
Not long ago my friend Tim Crowley left UNC TV, where he had been a mainstay of its legislative coverage for years, to join the staff of Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. Tim cut his journalistic eyeteeth in radio and has a good feel for what’s important. He also had a way of cocking his head and raising an eyebrow that communicated his reaction when some politician was feeding him a line of bull.
He did an Elvis imitation – Elvis imitating Speaker Jim Black, in fact – at the end-of-the-legislative session annual press corps follies a few years ago that made the audience howl, though that may have had more to do with the evening’s high spirits than resemblance to the King or the Speaker. His leaving the press corps was a reminder of another loss several years ago, when reporter John Bason left public TV to join the staff of Attorney General Roy Cooper. Bason’s acoustic guitar send-up of an Eagles tune was a hilarious but gentle poke at the governor: “Take it Easley.”
Now the pencil press has lost one of its best reporters. David Rice, longtime Raleigh correspondent for the Winston-Salem Journal, has left to join the law firm of Manning Fulton to work in its government relations division. If you didn’t read the Journal you might not be aware of David’s reportorial reach. He honchoed the paper’s coverage of the possible relocation of a major league baseball team a few years ago and was the resident expert on the old tobacco price support system and the complicated tobacco buyout. He somehow managed to round up more pithy quotes than an ink-stained wretch is normally entitled to stumble into. His story about a nearly 900-pound bear shot down East in Craven County by a cousin of Dolly Parton seemed appropriate coverage; David had written about wildlife in the legislature for a long time, too.
I think it was a mark of the trust lawmakers put in David that when Sen. Hamilton Horton got sick last fall, he notified Rice to tell him what was going on and what his prospects were. David used to play Sen. Horton – decked out in a bow tie and a definitely non-Forsyth County accent – at the press corp follies.
Now Ham Horton has gone to his reward and David has gone over, as our colleague Paul O’Connor puts it, to the dark side. Readers of the Journal will miss him and the stories he used to put in the paper.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Going down The Drain

Most of us who grew up riding around North Carolina learned how to drive on dirt roads and paved highways marked with signs and sometimes directions. You could get lost, but you could find your way home by following one road after another. They’re easy enough to see.
I was thinking about that Sunday afternoon while trying to pick my way across the shallow, watery expanse between Taylors Creek in Beaufort, over to Harkers Island and out to Cape Lookout in a boat. It’s truly one of the most beautiful areas of North Carolina, but if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have a chart, you and your boat can be hard aground before you know it. We were.
Nautical highways are marked, to the extent they are marked at all, by navigational aids called dayboards – numbered red triangles on a post to mark one side of a channel and numbered green squares to mark the other. If you’re heading south and returning to port, the reds mark the right side and greens the left.
Trouble is, some of those posts are a long way apart, and often nature has a way of changing the bottoms of creeks, rivers, inlets, sounds and marshes long before the government can remark the course and dredge the shallow places.
So it was that we plowed a bit of a furrow as we mired up while trying to find Barden Inlet, a way to get from Cape Lookout Bight back towards Harkers Island. That inlet is a quieter way to get out to Lookout than Beaufort Inlet, which has lots of room under the keel for ocean-going ships but can be incredibly rough. We once went through it in our old 37-foot, 20,000-pound sailboat at the wrong time – tide going out, wind blowing in – and we were coming off the crest of waves and dropping into the trough. It was enough to rattle your fillings, not to mention your garboard strakes.*
This time we were in our 22-foot fishing boat, which draws a couple of feet when puttering along. We were looking for a straight channel called The Drain, part of Barden Inlet, which opened during a 1933 hurricane. We finally picked it up, with the help of a GPS chartplotter that had a three-year-old digital chart stored on a little memory chip. Once we started trusting it, we were fine, following the screen’s route right into Lookout Bight.
If you’ve never been in the lovely anchorage that lies at the foot of Cape Lookout lighthouse, you’ve missed one of this state’s marvels. It’s a breathtaking view of a place deeply rooted in the state’s history – and a sanctuary for ships for centuries.
The Lookout Light, 150 feet tall, was built in 1859 and became the pattern for three more lights – Currituck, Bodie and the most famous, Cape Hatteras Light.
The lighthouse is painted in a black and white checkered pattern that many mistake for a diamond pattern. That confuses folks into thinking Diamond Shoals is nearby. It’s not. Diamond Shoals is up at Cape Hatteras. The shoals off Cape Lookout are called Lookout Shoals. In 1873, the federal lighthouse board ordered the painting of Bodie with horizontal stripes, Hatteras with a spiral and Lookout with checks so mariners wouldn’t confuse the three during daylight.
Lookout Shoals has been a dangerous place for ships for a long time. Sunday they were a dangerous place for fish – bluefish and Spanish mackerel. We trolled for several hours off the cape and back down Shackleford Banks and caught some for supper with enough left over to freeze to take back home.
The wind had picked back up over the afternoon and shifted southwest, giving us a bit of a beating and an occasional bath, and this time it was an easy call how to go back: Beaufort Inlet, thank you very much, with a lot of water under the keel and a rapid ride home.
*Garboard strakes are the boards right next to the keel of a wooden boat – and can take a pounding in rough waters.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tracks to the past

For more than a year, workers in downtown Raleigh have been tearing out the old Fayetteville Street Mall and restoring the street to vehicular traffic. The old mall – begun the spring I moved to Raleigh as Raleigh correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News in 1977 – was never successful in drawing daily crowds back downtown.
But now that developers have been building residences downtown – and selling them as fast as they can put them up – the prospects for real revival seem bright. Assuming, of course, that this public works project ever gets finished. It was supposed to reopen this month; now city officials are hoping for a late July celebration of the project’s completion.
One good result, as I mentioned not long ago in a column, is the reopening of the broad vista between the state Capitol on Union Square in the city center, and the lovingly restored Memorial Auditorium at the foot of Fayetteville Street seven or eight blocks south. The copper-topped roofs of the Capitol and the auditorium already give strollers a sense of the grand buildings and inspiring view that once brightened this street. Until earlier this year, an ugly convention center had blocked the view between the two.
While hoofing it over to the legislature Monday, I saw work crews tearing out the last of the old street crossings on Morgan Street a few dozen feet from the statue of George Washington on the Capitol grounds. Workers had uncovered what must have been Raleigh’s old streetcar tracks, including the curving turn from Morgan onto Fayetteville Street, and were cutting the rails into manageable lengths with a torch. As I watched, a big shovel pulled the heavy iron rails out of the ground where they had been covered with asphalt for decades. Today all you could see of the old railway path was a jumble of wooden railroad ties, a few spikes still protruding from the wood.
I expect my grandparents rode those rails when they came to visit family here earlier in the 20th century, and my great uncle John might have ridden those cars to work or shop downtown in an earlier time. By the end of this summer, I’ll be driving that same route to work just so I can see the same sight they would have seen from the Capitol to the auditorium. I hope it lives up to the billing when all the work’s done.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Time to vote on Judge Boyle

Observer Washington Correspondent Tim Funk had some inside skinny about the nomination of U.S. District Judge Terry Boyle for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Monday morning towards the bottom of his weekly column “Inside Your Washington.” Once again, Judge Boyle’s course to the circuit court in Richmond has gotten trickier to navigate.
Boyle, who once worked for former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. and who married the daughter of a Helms ally, is regarded by liberals as unfit for a circuit judgeship.
I think they’re wrong, but I don’t have a vote.
What troubles Boyle’s opponents this time, other than that they think he’s conservative and don’t like it, are reports from and the Center for Investigative Reporting charging that Boyle had ruled in cases involving companies where he had investments.
I’ve also looked at the stout defense of Boyle mounted by several of his former law clerks, who point out that in one of the cases cited, Judge Boyle ruled against the company and in favor of the plaintiff in a disability case. If that’s a conflict of interests, the company didn’t get its money’s worth.
Still, Democrats may filibuster Boyle’s nomination, which has been pending, off and on, for years. This kind of delay is part of a long and sorry story of both parties opposing controversial nominees and delaying a vote on the floor of the Senate long enough to scuttle a judgeship. Republicans did it to Democrats, Democrats have done it to Republicans, and there’s way to much finger-pointing and not enough voting. No wonder the public is disgusted with both parties.
I’ve sat in Boyle’ courtrooms in Raleigh and in Elizabeth City and watched him handle three high-profile matters – a campaign finance regulation case, the dispute over ownership of North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights and the proposed Navy Outlying Landing Field in northeastern North Carolina – and I’ve noticed a couple of things: He knows more about the cases than the lawyers arguing before him. He gets at the truth. And he surprises people with his independent rulings.
I say it’s time to vote.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pondering the NC Senate's makeover

When the N.C. General Assembly moved into its brand-new Legislative Building in 1963, its architecture reflected the state’s desire to modernize and fully join the 20th Century. The building had been commissioned in 1959, and the state selected architects Edward Durell Stone of New York as a principal designer. Work began in 1961, shortly after the inauguration of Gov. Terry Sanford, an ally of President John F. Kennedy, two adherents to the new-day, new generation theme of that era.
The N.C. Manual reports the architects wrote this description: “The State Legislative Building, though not an imitation of historic classic styles, is classical in character...”
Perhaps so. But some thought its crushed marble block walls looked like glorified cinderblock and its pyramidal roofs and big, 1,500 pound brass Senate and House doors a bit gaudy for a state that had long prided itself on not being too proud, too showy or too ostentatious. Some just called it tacky, the ultimate insult.
About eight years ago a few senators had it with their chamber and jokes about a showy brass backdrop to the Senate dais some called the wine rack. Plans were laid for redecorating in a major way, hiding the offensive block walls behind wallboard and coming up with a more, um, classical style for desks, chairs and the dais where the presiding officer and a host of clerks did their work. Economic slowdowns got in the way and delayed reconstruction until late last year.
When the Senate convened Tuesday, the public got its first good look at the results – the full effect, as the Southern saying goes. Adorning the walls were portraits of long-dead governors and other historical figures, including William R. Davie, a key figure in the founding of the University of North Carolina. There are new cherry desks and lovely blue chairs for senators with the Senate’s seal and – for those willing to shell out $750 to buy them – their names embossed into the top.
It’s quite a different look, soothing in some ways and pleasant enough. I was never a fan of the old crushed-Vermont-marble style, but it was an original and it was unique. And one day tastes will change again. A historic preservation movement might result in a decision – around 2050, I’d guess, by maybe sooner -- to tear out the 2005-06 revisions and return to the original scheme Stone envisioned 45 years ago.
If so, they’ll discover intact the original walls under the wallboard, and the wine rack is still there – covered over with a curved backdrop that now bears the state seal and a king’s ransom in crown molding. Pretty fancy for a state that didn’t have much use for royalty or its trappings, once upon a time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wanted: Good trashy ideas

When the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission met last week to discuss a number of issues, one item on the agenda was the growing problem of trash on our roadsides, and what to do about it.
I wasn’t there for Friday’s meeting, but I see by Saturday’s News & Observer that reporter Matthew Eisley was there and reported that no one suggested legislative approaches about what to do about roadside trash.
Eisley wrote that commission co-chairman Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, asked the state DOT’s litter control coordinator if he’d like to recommend policy changes. The newspaper reported that George Kapetanakis declined, saying it wasn't his place to make recommendations. Absent suggestions from anyone, the commission took up other issues.
Given that readers of The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer have suggested a long list of actions, it’s surprising that none of them came up before the Environmental Review Commission.
Maybe it’s time for those with good ideas to send them to their legislators. An easy way to make that connection is to go to the General Assembly’s Website and follow the links to House and Senate members. From there it’s easy to hit the e-mail link for individual members. If you’ve got a helpful idea, let ‘em know.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A chrome-plated lining to low voter turnout cloud?

There’s not much good to come from low voter turnout. It says something about our political culture – either voters are turned off by politics as usual, or they just don’t care enough to vote – when turnout is bad. Elections officials believe barely 9.5 percent of registered voters took part in Tuesday’s primary elections – a record low.
There’s no silver lining to this cloud, but there may be at least a chrome-plated one: The low turnout made it easier for state and local election officials to give new voting machines their first test.
“I hate to say publicly that low turnout helped us,” said state elections director Gary Bartlett, “but I do say that it will help us be ready for the General Elections.”
Had this been a big turnout, it might have made elections officials’ jobs harder. The pressure of long lines waiting to vote always makes things more difficult at polling places.
In the main, Bartlett said, “Things did go well.” That’s encouraging because last summer the General Assembly ordered up new voting machines after some dramatic failures of existing voting systems, including the loss of 4,438 machines in Carteret County that required a new election. The State Board of Elections had barely enough time to request proposals for new machines, approve vendors, deal with the decision of Diebold not to participate, get machines in stock and train local officials in their use.
Bartlett, the veteran director of elections, says fewer than 25 memory cards failed, less than one-sixth the number he expected in the new machines.
The new law requires that ballots be counted one of three ways – by optical scanning, electronic device or by hand. Officials believe every vote was accurately counted in this election. “There were no votes we’re aware of that were lost at all,” Bartlett said.
That may be a crucial factor in restoring public trust in the democratic process – and in the government’s ability to do its job. The voting problems in Florida in the 2000 presidential race created a lot of distrust and hostility to government; if Tuesday’s North Carolina primary went as well as officials believe, then elections officials in Raleigh have done a first-rate job of fixing what was wrong.
In a sector where so many news stories tell about what’s wrong with government, it’s good to note when things work right, too.
Now, if things will just go as well when there’s a large voter turnout.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

When we get to judge the judges

It didn’t take long to vote at my precinct this morning. The main races on the ballot were three statewide judgeships – the primary for a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court and two primaries for the N.C. Court of Appeals.
It was a reminder that we have a goofy hybrid way of choosing judges in North Carolina.
By law we’re supposed to elect judges, and often we do. But often, judges are appointed to a vacancy and then there’s an election at the next nearest opportunity when voters can either validate that appointment or throw the appointee out and replace the judge with someone else.
Years ago when I worked at the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, we looked at how every judge in the state –_ district judge on up to chief justice – first became a judge. In an impressive majority of cases, judges first got to the bench by appointment, and then tended to stay a judge even when they ran for a higher judgeship. If memory serves, it was pushing two-thirds of the judgeships.
So we really had an appointive system – just not a formal one. There was no formal pre-screening of candidates, no standard criteria based on merit the governor would have to use in appointing a judge, no confirmation by a legislative authority and no check or balance other than what voters thought at the next available election, which can be a couple of years away in some cases.
That’s one key reason I’ve always thought North Carolina ought to adopt some form of merit selection – with periodic retention elections in which judges would stand for re-election without opposition. If the judge didn’t get, say, 60 percent of the vote, a vacancy would be declared and the merit appointment system would start over.
Unfortunately, Democrats didn’t like the idea when Republican Gov. Jim Martin pushed it. And after Republicans started winning more judgeship elections in recent years, they haven’t been eager to approve Democrats’ proposals for merit selection.
Meanwhile, the cost of judgeships got so high that a bipartisan coalition decided to do something about it. They came up with our current system of nonpartisan elections for appellate judges. It features a voluntary public-financing component that provides money to run on if judicial candidates qualify by raising a threshold amount in small contributions and then agreed to spending restrictions. Some legislators now want to try that kind of financing in a few legislative districts to see if it will reduce the corrosive influence of money in elections for General Assembly.
Meanwhile, the appellate judicial races are under way. Tuesday’s primary featured five candidates for the Supreme Court seat being vacated this year by Associate Justice George Wainwright. Three are running for the Court of Appeals seat held by incumbent Bob Hunter, and three more candidates are running for the seat held by incumbent Linda Stephens, appointed to the seat earlier this year by Gov. Mike Easley.
In this nonpartisan primary, the field for each of those races will be narrowed to two candidates, who will face each other in the Nov. 7 election. But voters didn’t get two votes to determine the two fall candidates. They got to vote for one person in each of the races; the top two finishers in each race will be on the fall ballot.
That’s the same system the state has used for trial court judgeships and for other nonpartisan races such as local school boards, says Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina.
But it’s a little hinky. It means, for example, that in a three-candidate primary race, one candidate might get 75 percent of the vote, another might get 13 percent of the vote and the other would get 12 percent. That 13-percent vote getter would wind up in the general election along with the 75-percent winner. Messy. But that’s democracy.
Legislators are working on a proposal that could avoid this kind of race. The House last year approved H 1024, a bill to allow for instant runoff voting in up to 10 counties as a trial to see if this produces a better result – or at least saves money by avoiding a costly, low-turnout runoff in other races.
The original version of the bill called for statewide instant runoffs in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and the winner of a substantial plurality would win the seat. If there is no substantial plurality, the bill provides, there is a second round of counting based on the voter’s ranking of candidates. This may sound complicated, but the original version of the bill spells it out.
So here’s the question: Would an instant runoff, or merit appointment, be a better way of choosing judges than what we have now?