Monday, July 30, 2007

Legislature: 'The exuberance is gone'

Former Charlotte lawyer D.G. Martin has an interesting take on the atmosphere in the N.C. General Assembly these days in the wake of a couple years of revelations about legislative corruption and changes in ethics laws.
Martin knows a lot about the legislature even though he was away from it for a while. He was the UNC system’s lobbyist for years before retiring a decade ago, but came back earlier this year to temporarily run the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund while it was looking for a new director. Martin spent a lot of time at the legislature this year, and he reports some changes in a column entitled, “The exuberance is gone.” Here’s part of what he had to say:
“The legislature that I left 10 years ago was exuberant, even boisterous. Legislators and lobbyists alike projected cheerful self-confidence. Even in fierce battles, the contestants were often happy warriors. Even the roughest and meanest legislators loved their work.
“And, the rounds of eating and drinking together, admittedly most often at the expense of lobbyists, fostered camaraderie in the legislative building.
“Apparently all that came tumbling down with the recent scandals that shone a spotlight on the unholy connection between political fundraising, legal and illegal, and the votes and important actions of some legislators. The cheerful camaraderie that I missed this year had come to be seen as a breeding ground for secret deals and special favors.
“Ironically, as the legislature and I prepare to leave Raleigh and go home, the person most responsible for the changes in the legislature is going to a new home in a distant federal prison. Former house speaker Jim Black’s actions are as much responsible for the changes at the legislature as Richard Nixon was responsible for the nation’s post Watergate reforms.
“Quietly, almost whispering, many legislators and other insiders will still say that Jim Black was a good legislator who knew how to bring people together to get things done. Some call him a gentle persuader and an astute manager of the legislative process.
“In fact, the diminished spirit that this Rip Van Winkle noticed at the legislature this year, was, no doubt, a result of the sympathy, disappointment, and disheartenment that some, perhaps many, legislators feel as their disgraced former leader heads towards his new home.”

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why do fewer voters cast ballots for judges?

A slew of reports come across my desk that tell a lot about what’s going on in North Carolina, and most of them have implications about choices we’ll face before long. For those who like to absorb data and analysis, take a look at the latest edition of “North Carolina data-net,” a politics and policy newsletter from the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill, on the declining public interest in voting for judges.(Scroll down on the home page to July '07 current report on the judiciary.)
The report by Prof. Ferrel Guillory and his staff notes how voters “regularly cast fewer ballots in judgeship races than in elections for governor and other state offices,” and notes the changes in how we choose judges. It also notes that a fairly new public funding mechanism used by most appellate judicial candidates “does not provide sufficient resources to run ‘effective’ statewide campaigns” – at least in comparison to other statewide offices. And it notes that making those races non-partisan also gives voters less information about candidates. The report doesn’t make a judgement on the success of the program because, with just two election cycles, there isn’t enough trend data.
And there’s a report on the difficulty that essential workers such as police and firefighters have finding affordable housing in the communities they serve and protect. The report was done by researchers for the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC Chapel Hill for the N.C. Association of Community Development Corporations. The report, “Workforce Housing Needs in Brunswick County, North Carolina” focuses on one coastal county where land and housing prices have made it difficult for essential workers to live where they work. While the findings are based on Brunswick’s experience, they reflect the same sorts of trends that happen elsewhere in fast-growing urban areas such as Mecklenburg and Wake.
Who cares? Depends on whether you want firefighters or police officers or teachers or other essential workers who leave in your community and care what happens to it. “The lack of such workforce housing has a variety of negative impacts including difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees, and longer commuting times that result in increased traffic congestion and more air pollution,” write William Rohe and Spencer Cowan, the report’s authors.
The workforce report will be available soon via the organization's website. Click here for more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

When Wilmington built victory ships

When Wilmington built victory ships
North Carolina has a long tradition of boat-building experts, going back to the earliest days when Native Americans built log canoes, during Colonial times when the live oaks in our coastal area were prized for their strong, tough limbs from which shipwrights cut knees and other parts of sailing vessels, and in more recent days when Harkers Island craftsmen built beautifully flared bows without a set of plans – by “rack of the eye,” as they called it. The Carolina Flare is still an important part of many sports fishing boats because of its ability to throw ocean spray to the side and keep anglers aboard relatively dry.
I’ve read a lot about those boat builders over the years, but not much about the World War II victory ships – Liberty Ships, they were called – built at the North Carolina Shipbuilding Co. on the banks of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.
You can’t see much of those shipyards anymore, but at one time the place teemed with 20,000 workers who put out hundreds of Liberty Ships and other vessels during its relatively short operating life of five years.
But you can read about it in a new book – “The Wilmington Shipyard” – by Ralph Scott, rare books curator at East Carolina University. I haven’t seen the book, but here’s a link to an interesting review by Ben Steelman in Sunday’s Wilmington Star-News. If you’re interested in boats, World War II or coastal N.C. history, don’t miss it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sir Walter Raleigh, still under wraps

Sir Walter Raleigh still tied up
Poor Wally. He never got the Queen’s permission to come to the New World -- and what would become North Carolina -- before his death nearly 400 years ago. And these days his statue still isn’t on public display in the town named in his honor. He’s moved several times as the city of Raleigh’s downtown has developed, but he’s back under wraps awaiting a new position.
The 11-foot-tall statue was originally placed on the old Bicentennial Mall in downtown Raleigh directly across from the entrance of the Legislative Building in 1976. That was a fine spot – and then-N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Big Jim Graham used to stop and have a brief, daily chat with Sir Walter. They were pretty one-sided, but Graham told me he liked to keep Sir Walter up to date on happenings political and otherwise.
In 1988, Sir Walter was moved to a spot at the top of the Fayetteville Street Pedestrian Mall, directly across from the south entrance to the Capitol, and between the buildings housing the N.C. Court of Appeals and the N.C. Supreme Court.
Then in 2005, when the city began tearing out the Fayetteville Street Mall to make way for a reopening of what some were calling North Carolina’s Main Street, the statue went off to the body shop to be cleaned off and buffed up – a $15,000 worming out, as the late N.C. Secretary of State Thad Eure would have called it.
The News & Observer had a story Sunday about Raleigh’s brief reappearance in Raleigh over the weekend. Click here to read it.
As Thomas Goldsmith’s story in the N&O notes, the statue will go back into storage until completion of the city’s new convention center, where he’ll be on display at the corner of South and Salisbury Streets. It’s a few blocks south of the old Hotel Sir Walter, where legislators routinely stayed for decades when the General Assembly was in session.
The new perch is the latest in a steady southward progression of about a city block every five years or so. At this rate, Sir Walter will finally get to the beach in about, oh, a couple jillion years, give or take an epoch.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Auctioneer of the N.C. Senate dies

Another colorful character in N.C. politics has gone on to his reward. If you didn’t spend much time in the state Senate from the 1960s into the 21st century, or spend much time in tobacco warehouses in Eastern North Carolina, you probably never knew LeRoy Clark Jr., the Senate’s longtime reading clerk. His obit is available here.
But those who paid attention to tobacco and politics knew him, listened to him rattle on in session and in auction and appreciated his sometimes whimsical ways.
Not many folks knew, either, that LeRoy had a degree from the University of North Carolina – in journalism, I once read. He was in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, where he was awarded the Purple Heart twice, and was a member of the class of 1946 at Chapel Hill.
But his calling was an auctioneer. LeRoy could talk fast. His skills were in demand in agriculture and politics both. He owned Farmers Warehouse in Wendell just east of Raleigh, but for nearly 40 years there wasn’t a bill that passed the legislature without LeRoy Clark’s singsong description of the bill on at least three occasions.
In the sometimes arcane business of parliamentary procedure, bills in the legislature must be read three times before they pass. The first reading is the day they’re introduced and sent to committee. The second and third readings occur if and when they come back with a favorable recommendation from committee and get debated before the legislature. The reading clerk’s job is to read the bill’s title before votes are taken, and any pending floor amendment, and sometimes, rarely, the whole cotton-picking bill or resolution.
LeRoy often stood at his post, a light blue sports coat draped over his shoulders, reading off the title of a bill and the operative ending phrase, “The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts.” Except when LeRoy chanted it, it sounded more like “GenAssimlyaNawthCalinaenax.”
Lot of legislative votes are one-sided affairs. In the Senate when a bill passed second reading by a lot, LeRoy would made the tedious day a little lighter on third reading when there was no controversy. He’d intone something like, “A bill to do away with poverty and some other stuff, GenAssimlyaNawthCalinaenax.” Or he might say, “A bill to do some sort of foolishness, GenAssimlyaNawthCalinaenax.” And of course legislators would smile a little and nod their heads and vote for whatever bill was on the calendar for final approval.
LeRoy Clark retired a few years ago, and in his place we now how another reading clerk with journalism training – former Capital Press Corps TV reporter (WFMY-TV in Greensboro) and producer (UNC Television) Ted Harrison.
I was sitting in the Senate one day last week as members took a final vote on a bill to require the mowing of overgrown vegetation. I didn’t catch it exactly, but I swear I think I heard Ted describing the bill with words something like, “It has to do with kudzu, morning glories and all sorts of overgrown vegetation, and some other stuff. GenAssimlyaNawthCalinaenax.”
Good. Some traditions ought to keep on keeping on.
Goodbye, LeRoy. Hello, Ted.
Postscript on July 24: A veteran Observer of legislative doings makes a good point, herewith:
"The only thing I'd take issue with (and this is really just a matter of degree) is that at times, usually when they had a really big calendar to wade through, I think he'd get it down to four syllables: 'Gen'lenax.'"
Which reminds me of the late flamboyant attorney Chub Seawell of Carthage, who often ended his fiery letters to the editor, "Call your next case."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

'Hell has just frozen over'

When news broke Thursday morning about the arrest of Christian Action League of N.C. executive director and Cabarrus County Commissioner Coy Privette on six charges of aiding and abetting prostitution, the widespread reaction in Raleigh was disbelief. Most folks I talked with were dumbfounded that the former Republican candidate for governor,retired Baptist minister and former president of the Baptist State Convention could be charged with anything like that.
"Hell has just frozen over," said defense lawyer Wade Smith, a former chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, when he heard the news on a Raleigh street corner.
That's much the same reaction in the N.C. General Assembly, where Privette for years was a member of the state House and, earlier, an outspoken opponent of legislation to allow the sale of liquor by the drink. He was associated with many conservative social causes over the years and was regarded as a personable, voluble advocate for many causes and against all things sinful. His cheerful greetings in the halls of the legislature were always prefaced by "Hello, Brother" and accompanied by as warm and engaging a smile as you're likely to see in this old state. His bio in the NC Manual said, among many other things, that he was a member of the National Consultation on Pornography, so the charges had most folks flummoxed.
Smith, one of the best defense lawyers in the South, recalled that he once represented Adam and Eve, an Orange County distributor of sexual aids and such things as condoms, in a court case. Adam and Eve won the case, and later, Smith said, Privette asked Smith what he had done with his fee from winning that case. "I told him, 'I gave it to the North Albemarle Baptist Church and they built a new parsonage with it,'" Smith laughed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jimmy Green's hardball legislative legacy

Someone once said politics is a combat sport, and in Raleigh it’s sometimes hardball without batting helmets. It’s been that way since I came to Raleigh to cover the N.C. General Assembly 30 years ago, when the late Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, an ex-Marine machine gunner who had survived Iwo Jima and the rough-and-tumble politics of Bladen County, rarely took legislative prisoners. When a bill he opposed was voted down, Green would intone, “That bill is dead, dead, dead.”
Hardball politics still prevail, though not in such a brusque fashion.
Ask Republicans Sen. Phil Berger of Rockingham or Rep. Paul Stam of Wake. As their party’s leaders in the state Senate and House, they don’t have the votes to get their way. That’s the way politics works. Majority rules, often along strict party lines.
Tuesday they were worked up about a House-passed bill they say would close a loophole and provide property owners with more protection against eminent domain seizures for economic development projects. The bill was popular in the House, where it passed 104-15, but Senate leaders evidently don’t believe there’s any need for a constitutional amendment to provide that protection.
So the bill has sat in the Senate Ways and Means Committee for going on two months. Other House-passed bills the Senate Democrats don’t like are also pending in the committee, chaired by Charlotte Democratic Sen. Charlie Dannelly, who is deputy president pro tem of the Senate.
The committee, says Berger, has not met since June 21, 2001.
The Ways and Means Committee is, depending on your point of view, either an efficient way to stop unneeded legislation. or an unconscionable ruse to thwart the democratic process. Take your pick.
But it has a long history. When Lt. Gov. Green was presiding over the state Senate in 1977 or ‘78, he used the same technique to kill bills – some from the House and some proposed by Senate members – late in the session. He created the Senate Special Committee on Ways and Means.
And, he told members of the Senate one hot summer afternoon, he expected the committee to be “firm, fair and expeditious.”
It was. If memory serves, not a single bill got back out of that committee, and in due time the honorables quit Raleigh and went on back home.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Did '95 House scandal teach us anything?

The sudden resignation last week of Rep. David Almond, R-Stanly, for what at least one source has described as sexual misconduct brings to mind a question: Does anyone remember Rep. Ken Miller, R-Alamance, and his public censure by the state House for advances on a teenage page?
If the House’s 1996 censure of then-Rep. Miller for making unwanted sexual advances meant anything, it was to serve as an example of what not to do. Among other things, the 33-year-old Republican was found by the House Ethics Committee to have licked a 16-year-old-page’s hand and propositioned a lobbyist and a House clerk in 1995, when the GOP controlled the House.
When the 1996 legislature convened, it censured Miller as he stood before the full House. A legislator from Shelby was quoted in Observer reporter Carol Leonnig’s story:
“What happened today sent a loud, clear message to men in Raleigh and across the state that sexual harassment is not going to be tolerated,” said Rep. Debby Clary, R-Cleveland. “I hope like hell a lot of people hear it.”
Evidently not enough people remember that incident. According to a story Saturday by the Observer’s Mark Johnson and David Ingram, one blogger said Rep. Almond had called a House employee into his office, where he exposed himself. Here’s a link to that story.
All this has veteran Republican legislators shaking their heads. Recent scandals involving Democrats had more to do with money. “They’re going after the money and we’re going after the body,” said one longtime lawmaker.
Republican Rep. Julia Howard, who chaired the House Ethics Committee inquiry into Miller’s behavior, said there was one good rule to follow” “Don’t do anything that would embarrass your grandchildren or that you wouldn’t want your momma to know about.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How long will Black really serve?

If you’re in big trouble with the law, Ken Bell would be a good lawyer to have on your side. Bell’s determined defense of former Speaker Jim Black probably kept the former Mecklenburg lawmaker free a couple extra months while his sentencing hearing was postponed and may have helped persuade a federal judge to impose a somewhat shorter sentence than Black might have gotten.
This is conjecture, of course.
And Bell wasn’t able to get Black off the hook. At Black’s level of crimes – which presiding Judge Terrence Boyle concluded was closer to bribery than the legal terms involving “accepting illegal gratuities” implied for taking cash contributions from contributors – a stiff prison sentence was clearly in order. If Black had gotten off, or had been sentenced to an unusually short sentence, it would have mocked our criminal justice system and served as a sign that it’s okay to buy and sell votes and pull any kind of shenanigans just to stay in power.
Judge Boyle gave Black 63 months in prison plus a $50,000 fine. That’s five years and three months, but it was at the low end of a sentencing range that Judge Boyle said could have landed Black in prison for 78 months – or six and a half years.
There are those who believe Judge James Dever, who handled the Michael Decker case when former Rep. Decker pleaded guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe to switch parties and help keep Black in power, would have given Black a longer sentence. Dever gave Decker a four-year sentence and issued a blistering description of Black’s actions as a selfish lust for power that corrupted the political process.
That’s when Ken Bell filed a motion asking that Judge Dever recuse himself from further proceedings. Judge Dever denied Bell’s assertion that he would be biased against Black because his and Decker’s scheme essentially reversed a lawsuit that then-private-attorney Dever helped win in a state court case over legislative redistricting. But Dever stepped aside anyway in the interests of putting this case to rest.
Judge Boyle took over the case, culminating Wednesday with his imposing a 63-month sentence. Dever, some courtroom observers thought, might have given Black a year or two longer in prison. We’ll never know.
Now: How long will Black serve? If he earns the normal federal good-time-off credit of up to 15 percent, he could be released in about 54 months – making his sentence about four years and six months.
There is no federal parole, but there is such a thing as time off for good behavior. Here’s a May 9 blog entry I wrote on this topic:
How long will Decker, Geddings serve?
U.S. District Judge James Dever has sentenced former N.C. Rep. Michael Decker and former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings to four years in prison for their unrelated roles in a political scandal involving former Speaker Jim Black. Black has yet to be sentenced, but already readers are wondering what a federal sentence really means.
One reader asks:
“Nowhere in the Observer or on TV have I heard anything but Geddings has been sentenced to ‘four years.’ Now, the public are not dummies.... how long will he realistically be in jail, serving what has been called a longer then recommended sentence?
“When will the parole eligibility kick in? 6 months? Less?
“We all know that white collar criminals rarely serve a sentence that will disrupt their careers or personal lives. You know he will behave himself while he is locked up, (probably while writing a book about his innocence and perceived miscarriage of justice.) Let us know what the real sentence we can expect him to serve truly is.”
That’s a good question. Some years ago, inmates in both state and federal prison served a fraction of their nominal sentences, but that changed when both the federal government and North Carolina government rewrote their sentencing laws and did away with the parole system for crimes committed after the mid-1990s.
This is a federal case. I’ve looked up the guidelines and practice on the U.S. Department of Justice Web site and, if what I read is correct, federal prisoners can expect to serve roughly 85 percent of their sentences. That means both Decker and Geddings could expect to serve about 41 months in prison. They would be eligible for a “good conduct time credit” of up to 54 days per year in prison.
There is no such thing as federal parole. Both Decker and Geddings will also serve a two-year tem of supervised release, and each will also be responsible for paying a fine – $50,000 in Decker’s case and $25,000 in Geddings’ case.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Is there a place to work off a debt to society?

Observer reporters David Ingram and Gary Wright told readers Tuesday how former House Speaker Jim Black proposes to serve his sentence on charges related to accepting illegal gratuities and bribery in order to stay in power in Raleigh. If you missed it, here’s a link.
While many readers were rejecting the proposal to provide optometry services as a way to avoid real punishment for fostering the state’s worst political scandal, the idea of community service for nonviolent crimes is not a new one. The question has always been whether such a sentence is tough enough for a major crime. First thing Tuesday, the phones in Raleigh were ringing off the hook, and some of the suggestions were probably not quite serious.
One caller suggested that Black consider offering his services in Darfur, where genocide and starvation are capturing the news. Other suggested locales were Iraq, where Sunni and Shiite Muslims are engaged in their own war on one another and on the American and United Nations’ presence there, the Gaza Strip and Kosovo.
What do you think? Is there any place in this state or elsewhere, where a convicted felon could or should work off his debt to society by providing professional medical services instead of serving in prison?

Monday, July 09, 2007

When roads become the beachfront

Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, sends along a clarification about research his organization participated in showing how our coastline is changing. I had mentioned in a column how rising sea level and beach erosion are gobbling up our beaches. He adds a key point he believes most folks missed:
Hi Jack,
I just wanted to point out that Ben Poulter, with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, was a graduate student at Duke during part of his involvement in the report on the economic impacts of sea level rise. Dr. Pilkey also provided some information and insight.
I think a major point everyone is missing about this study is the fact that the only reason any beaches are predicted to disappear isn’t due to a rising sea level, but to the fact that as sea level rises, beaches move back until they eventually run into a road. So, in essence, it isn’t a rising sea level that’s the problem, it’s the road that’s placed too close to the migrating beach that’s the problem.
And why should anyone (besides beachfront property owners) care if coastal property is “lost”? It certainly doesn’t impact me. While I think the study definitely shines a light on the potential economic impacts of sea level rise, it also makes a number of assumptions that may or may not pan out (such as what people will and won’t due based on the width of a beach).
People will always go on vacation and spend money, whether it’s at the beach, in the mountains or at outlet malls. However, if we managed our beaches in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all NC citizens, instead of obsessing about trying to protect the status quo, there will always be beaches.
Andy Coburn
Research Faculty/Associate Director
Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines
294 Belk
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, NC 28723
Tel: 828-227-3027