Monday, March 31, 2008

An American success story

Teenagers in the packed-house crowd at Beasley’s Barn on Highway 32 near the Washington-Beaufort county line Saturday night were still children when their parents first heard the news that they might lose their farms.
Their parents were a lot younger then, too – far younger than the six or seven roller-coaster years that have taken a toll on the emotions, finances and resolve of the sturdy folks who farm the rich, flat fields of northeastern North Carolina.
But Saturday night was a party night for about 500 folks jamming Beasley’s Barn. On a concrete floor of a big steel barn that normally houses John Deere tractors and all manner of heavy farm equipment, the folks of Washington and Beaufort counties held a “Blessed Celebration” marking the success of an utterly All-American grass-roots campaign to preserve what they saw as their way of life and persuade the Navy that their homeland was the wrong place to build a practice jet landing field.
The secretary of the Navy withdrew the plan in January after concluding what the local folks have been saying since 2002: putting a jet field so near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge – with its many tens of thousands of large migratory waterfowl posing a distinct threat to jets and their pilots – was a bad idea.
So Jennifer Alligood and Doris Morris and Jerry and Myra Beasley and a lot of other folks put on the dog Saturday night. They buffed up the barn with enough red, white and blue bunting to decorate a major political convention, arranged for experienced hands to cook chicken and pigs and ribs and got everyone in the community with a recipe for banana pudding or chocolate cake to bring it on over to feed the masses.
And they got the lawyers from the big city: Ray Owens, Kiran Mehta and Chris Lamm from Kennedy Covington in Charlotte, and Derb Carter from the Southern Environmental Law Center. They filed the lawsuit and whipped the Navy in court when they persuaded U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle the Navy hadn’t met its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act.
And they let elected officials, volunteers, county managers and advocates for various groups talk about how they had all pitched in to win the fight. It went on a while.
I think Brian Roth, the ex-Navy navigator and mayor of nearby Plymouth, had it exactly right when he faced the crowd to talk about what they had done in putting together a local movement to address what they saw as a threat. “It’s breathtaking from up here.”
I know what he meant. I’ve followed this story since December 2002, and the thought that a coalition of ordinary folks could take on a branch of the Armed Forces and persuade it to change its mind is just extraordinary. These were smart folks, but they don’t usually have to figure out how to run a grass-roots campaign and make the federal government turn the aircraft carrier around. Most of the time they’re working on getting the roots of grains to grow in abundance, which it does up there.
There ought to be a book about the OLF campaign. Some folks think it’d make a good movie. Derb Carter says it already has resulted in the N.C. Symphony developing a new piece: “The Swans of Pungo,” after the tundra swans that fill the skies on winter days. It was those birds, and snow geese, too, that caught the attention of folks across the land so they could finally understood the dangers of an OLF near the refuge.
Ray Owens had a compelling thought about what it meant. “I want to thank the Navy,” he said, “... for bringing us all together.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Time for a real debate, Ms. Perdue

Note: On Monday the Perdue campaign challenged the Moore campaign to a debate. More at the end of this post.

The folks who run Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor have carefully kept her away from appearances that might give her primary opponent, State Treasurer Richard Moore, a chance to confront her directly on political issues.
She’s making plenty of appearances, including televised forums and other public sessions where candidates answer questions posed by moderators or the public. She’s campaigning hard.
But unlike the U.S. presidential races that created so much excitement nationally, and even unlike the N.C. Republican gubernatorial primary candidates who’ve taken part in a number of sessions that include some head-to-head questioning of one another, the Perdue campaign has avoided anything like a classical debate.
There is an online one-hour “debate” set for Monday evening at 7:45 p.m. on, a Web site with a lot of blog postings by those interested in public affairs. Click here for a link.
I asked the Perdue campaign via e-mail if it would consider a head-to-head debate.
Said Perdue spokesman David Kochman, “I don’t recall any of the events we’ve been invited to including a dedicated segment for the candidates to directly challenge each other, but I think both candidates did directly challenge each other in 3 of the 4 previously televised debates.”
But those weren’t debates. They were joint appearances without much opportunity for give-and-take among the candidates.
That’s probably wise politics from the campaign’s viewpoint. Perdue is generally regarded as the front-runner, and a tradition among some North Carolina Democrats – not all – is to keep the front-running candidate away from challengers. In 1992, for instance, two-term Gov. Jim Hunt was making a comeback and running for a third term after being out for eight years. His campaign advisers kept him away from a debate with challengers including then-Attorney General Lacy Thornburg, now a federal judge, until fairly late in the campaign, when Hunt agreed to a debate sponsored by the Charlotte Observer. He dominated that debate, as I recall, and rolled to a primary victory.
But it isn’t good for voters who don’t get to see how the candidates would fare against one another in a setting where the candidates can ask questions of one another and debate issues point-by-point. In a campaign where the two essentially agree on quite a lot of issues, it would be helpful to see how the candidates handle themselves. Unless something changes, that won’t happen.
This is silly. Bev Perdue is an accomplished legislator, a decent public speaker and candidate for leader of a state of 9 million people and growing. There’s no good reason she shouldn’t take part in a debate with other candidates in both the primary and the general elections, and show voters how she performs under fire.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have sometimes mesmerized and energized voters with their debates and sometimes sharp exchanges. And Republican gubernatorial candidates Bob Orr, Fred Smith, Pat McCrory and Bill Graham have put their views on the line as well.
I’m betting Bev Perdue would do well against any of these candidates in a more formal debate setting.
After all, she’s presided over a Senate that included the likes of Hugh Webster, Tony Rand and Marc Basnight. I expect she can handle whatever Richard Moore has to say, too. But unless something changes we’ll never know.

Postscript: Here's what the Perdue campaign put out Mondayu morning:
Perdue Challenges Moore to 7th Debate to confront sleazy attack ads

Also demands release of public records withheld for eight months

In a letter to the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, Bev Perdue has challenged Richard Moore to a seventh debate. Perdue has asked the broadcasters’ association to oversee the process to ensure a statewide televised audience.

“After seeing the sleazy personal attacks in Richard Moore’s most recent ad, I want an opportunity to look him in the eye to confront him with the facts,” said Perdue.

“And because the debate is supposed to be about our ideas and our records, I call on Richard to release all of the public documents we have requested – documents that he has failed to provide for more than eight months. If we’re going to have a debate about our records, then it’s time for Richard Moore to come clean regarding the missing public records and the sweetheart deal he gave to State Insurance Services.”

Missing public records:

(* denotes documents first requested July 20, 2007)

Copies of the daily schedules and/or visitor logs for State Treasurer Richard Moore -from January 6, 2001 to the present.*
Travel and expense reimbursements (including copies of receipts) submitted by or paid to Richard Moore from January 6, 2001 to the present. *
Records of any state-owned or state-leased vehicles used by Richard Moore, including but not limited to mileage logs and accident reports from January 6, 2001 to the present*
unclaimed property contracts*
legal services contracts*
pr/lobbying contracts*
Letters declaring support or opposition to legislation*
Records regarding the contract awarded to State Insurance Services and any complaints that have been filed regarding policies sold by SIS

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How much open government?

How much government should be open?
Last week’s Sunshine Day observance at Elon University examined some provocative issues regarding governmental transparency. The keynote luncheon speaker was former state public information officer Debbie Crane, who was shown the door on Gov. Mike Easley’s orders at the Department of Health and Human Services in what appeared to be a fit of gubernatorial pique.
Her speech appears on the Web site of the John Locke Foundation's Carolina Journal. Click here to read it.
Among other things, she argues, correctly I believe, that all e-mails ought to be retained, not “chunked” when a state employee deems it not necessary for administrative or reference value. She said:
“With few exceptions, most materials are public record. So rather than debating who deletes what and when, public officials should be required to maintain archives of their emails. Rather than cluttering up the state server and taking lots of time, as Freeman suggests, these archives could be maintained on discs or pst [Personal Storage Table] files. Memory is cheap and convenient these days. This wouldn’t require a huge amount of effort in terms of either financial cost or administrative practicality. It is simply a matter of building it into the process of doing daily business.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Easley has appointed the members of a panel that will re-examine the state’s e-mail retention policy. Among them are former Observer Raleigh correspondent Ned Cline of Greensboro.
Here’s the press release from the governor’s office:
First Meeting Is Set For Thursday, March 27 In Raleigh
RALEIGH - Gov. Mike Easley today announced the membership of a special panel that will conduct a comprehensive review of policies concerning the retention of e-mail messages under the North Carolina’s public records law. The panel’s first meeting will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 27 in the Council of State meeting room on the 5th floor of the Administration Building, 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh.
"These are distinguished individuals, from inside and outside of state government, who bring both experience and concern for public affairs and public information to this important task," said Easley. "I know their input will provide guidance so that we make sure the public’s records are properly maintained."
Previously, Easley directed Franklin Freeman, his senior assistant for government affairs, to lead the panel and directed him to conduct a comprehensive review of policies concerning the retention of e-mail messages under the state’s public records law and make recommendations for any changes in policy or state law. He also named Ferrel Guillory, the founder the Program on Public Life and member of the faculty of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to the panel.
Others named to the panel include:
Ned Cline, former managing editor of the Greensboro News & Record: Cline spent more than 30 years as a reporter and editor, covering state government for the Greensboro Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and as an editor and editorial page editor at the News & Record. He has also published biographies of former state Sen. Marshall Rauch of Gastonia and Joseph M. Bryan; "Adding Value: The Joseph M. Bryan Story from Poverty to Philanthropy." In 1974 he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
DeWitt F. (Mac) McCarley, Charlotte City Attorney: McCarley has been city attorney for Charlotte since 1994 and before that was city attorney in Greenville. He is a past president of the North Carolina Municipal Attorneys Association and is 2nd vice president of the International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Staci Meyer, chief deputy secretary N.C. Department of Cultural Resources: Prior to joining the Department of Cultural Resources, Meyer was a special deputy attorney general in the N.C. Justice Department for litigation, health care and personnel matters. She was clerk to former Chief Court of Appeals Judge Robert Hedrick.
George Bakolia, state chief information officer: Bakolia has more than 27 years of experience in information systems in both the public and private sectors. Prior to his appointment in 2002, he was the chief information officer at the N.C. Department of Justice. He spent more than a decade in the private sector before joining state government, working for Unisys Corporation, supporting United Airlines as well as state of North Carolina clients, from 1985 until 1990. He held various positions at Sperry Corporation from 1979 to 1985. He received his bachelor’s of arts degree in computer science at CUNY Queens College in New York.
Bryan Beatty, secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety: Beatty, a former SBI agent, has served as director of the State Bureau of Investigation and Deputy Attorney General for Policy and Planning for the Department of Justice. He also served as an associate attorney general assigned to represent the UNC Hospital system and as an assistant attorney general in the Motor Vehicles Section. In November 1997 he was named the first Inspector General for the State, where he was responsible for a staff of attorneys and investigators charged with the investigation, prosecution and prevention of fraud in state public assistance programs.
Also serving as adviser to the panel is David Lawrence, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government. Lawrence joined the Institute of Government in 1968. He has written on local government revenues, budgeting and fiscal control, and capital finance. As part of his work in local government law, he has also written on public records, open meetings, governing board procedures, economic development and other topics.
Grayson Kelley, Chief Deputy N.C. Attorney General will serve as counsel to the committee and Liz Riley, deputy legal counsel to the governor, will staff the committee.
The committee’s review will encompass the governor’s office and all cabinet and other administrative offices directly under the governor’s control. The review will include use of state-owned e-mail systems as well as electronic text communications on state-owned or leased wireless devices such as BlackBerry handheld units.
The panel will develop proposals that can be implemented by executive directive or changes in current policy and procedure. If changes in current law are necessary, that too will be addressed. The panel will make a preliminary report to the governor by May 20. Meetings of the committee will be open and it will hold public hearings to get input from the various groups with interest in the issue along with the general public.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Oops: Legislature's Web site:

Oops! In Sunday's column I mentioned the legislature's very useful Web site but gave an incorrect address by putting an extra period in the middle. The correct address, as I well knew but failed to provide, is Or you may click here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Former Sen. Morgan: Who guards guardians?

Former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan has had an interesting career – trial lawyer, Naval officer in World War II and Korea, Harnet County Clerk of Court, legislator, director of the State Bureau of Investigation, N.C. Attorney General and senator from 1974-1980.
Now 82 and living on the banks of the Cape Fear River in Lillington, he has lamented what he sees as the loss of freedoms in the name of preserving freedom. Our Bill of Rights, he said in the written text of remarks prepared for delivery Friday morning at Charlotte Law School, “is under attack and being torn asunder in the name of ‘national security.’ This is not a new thing. My concern is the pace at which our protections are being dissolved.”
His talk, prefaced on a question posed by a Roman poet named Juvenal, asked, “Who will guard the guardians?” He noted that the oaths of office for the presidency, members of Congress, Cabinet members, judges, state legislatures and even members of the armed forces focus on supporting the Constitution of the United States. They ask the office holder to swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic....”
In his written text, Morgan noted a subtle change in wording lately. A speaker told graduates of West Point last year that their job was “to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Not the Constitution, as the oath requires, and the United States by extension, but skipping mention of the Constitution entirely.
That’s a small but telling change, Morgan wrote – a “seismic” change in words used. Defending the Constitution, he wrote, means “you must be particularly wary of attacks on it from within.”
Freedoms have eroded with passage of the Patriot Act enabling warrantless searches of phone calls, e-mails, bank accounts and other areas of routine life.
“I would say to you that if the powers being exercised by our ‘Guardians’ (Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA and others exercising police powers) are not enumerated in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, if the powers are anathema to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, then the blood of Americans spilled on every battlefield from Concord to Normandy is now in vain.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Easley on e-mail

Gov. Mike Easley Tuesday ordered up a review of state policy on retaining e-mail messages as it relates to compliance with the state’s open records laws. The policy apparently allowed state employees to dispose of e-mail messages they thought had no administrative or reference value. News organizations and First Amendment lawyers have been raising hell with the governor’s policy ever since it came to light last week.
His senior aide Franklin Freeman will lead a review of the policy and make a report by May 20. "Use of e-mail and other electronic forms of communication have expanded in ways that were not contemplated in 1993 during a major update of our state's public records law in which I was involved when I was Attorney General," Easley said in a news release.
The announcement the administration would rethink the e-mail policy comes about 48 hours before a speech by a veteran public information officer the governor ordered fired several weeks ago. Debbie Crane, former chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, was fired because Easley’s office thought she persuaded former Secretary of Health and Human Services Carmen Hooker Odom not to talk to a reporter about the state’s failed mental health reform.
After her firing, Crane told reporters that it was Easley administration press policy to advise information officers to kill e-mail messages after they’d sent them. The Easley administration denies that, but some readers may invest more credibility in her word than Easley’s on mental health reform.
Say, you don’t think the governor’s order to review the e-mail policy had anything to do with the fact that Crane is to address news organizations and other members of the Open Government Coalition Thursday at the annual Sunshine Day observance at Elon University, do you?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Signs of change in the Blue Ridge

Farm Report
For weeks on end up in our part of the Blue Ridge, the predominant color has been slate gray in the treeline on the yonder ridge, framed by hard gray clouds overhead and a light gray stubble in the hayfield that slopes up toward the dirt road.
Down near the old springhouse, though, the seasons are sending out feelers. Tiny daffodils that never seem to grow higher than six inches have sprung back up. I went down to find some barbed wire in an old shed the other day and discovered on my way a handful of bright yellow blooms in a protected spot out of the nearly constant winds.
The evening before, just as twilight began to come on, I watched the last rays of the sun hit the western slope of the ridge across from us and realized it had begun blushing, maple buds just starting to swell and giving a faint rinse of color to an otherwise bland landscape.
Even the bare field has begun to show a smudge of the green tide that will begin to rise before long.
The wildlife are beginning to move about more now, too. We looked out the window a week ago and saw a flock of 11 wild turkeys strutting around the edge of the field not 100 feet away, scuffling and pecking for a late winter ort in ground that has just lately thawed.
A week ago Saturday it was mild one morning, then snowed like crazy for an hour and a half at midday, blew away overnight with temperatures in the teens before warming again the next day. We keep splitting firewood.
Spring doesn’t arrive with all its baggage and bummers for quite a while up around 3,000 feet, but its pickets are moving through quietly now, leaving behind unmistakable – and welcome – signs of what is to come.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ethics panel could use more sunshine

Last week’s decision by the House Ethics Committee recommending expulsion of Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, briefly focused light on what happened to an ethics complaint filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee, a different, joint House-Senate committee, by former Sen. Fern Shubert, R-Union, against Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson. The complaint was filed in 2007 after Gibson had signed a House document in an earlier session certifying that a bill he sponsored involving extraterritorial jurisdiction and meals taxes was non-controversial and had the support of local legislators. It didn’t, and Shubert believed his signing the document was unethical.
But until Wright’s lawyers protested that the House was following a double standard with racial overtones in pursuing an ethics complaint against Wright and not against Gibson, the public didn’t know what happened to that complaint. The House doesn’t make complaints public unless and until it proceeds to a hearing – one of the flaws in the system, I think, because the public cannot find out why ethics officials haven’t done anything – or even whether they’ve done anything, including dismissals.
In this case, Gibson waived the confidentiality last week and committee chair Rick Glazier revealed that the complaint against Gibson had been dismissed by the Joint Ethics Committee last July because, he said, it was not an ethical violation at the time and the ethics committee didn’t have jurisdiction over something that happened in an earlier session.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, passes along a copy of the disposition. Click here to take a look.
As a document signed by Glazier and Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, last July 12 makes clear, certifying that a bill is locally non-controversial when it isn’t will be subject to ethics committee jurisdiction in the future.
John Blust followed up with a note: “I think the House still needs to deal with this matter effectively. Maybe the Legislative Ethics Committee set up by the 2006 reform doesn’t technically have jurisdiction of the Gibson Complaint - they did not have jurisdiction over Wright either and passed it on to the House Ethics Committee. I wonder why the Joint Committee did not pass on the Gibson matter too, rather than dismissing it. I don’t know whether the complainant in Wright (Sinsheimer) specifically requested the House Ethics Committee rather than the Legislative Ethics Committee investigate Wright. If the Legislative Ethics Committee did this on its own in the Wright matter, then why did it not do the same in the Gibson matter?
“It seems to me that filing a false certification with the House clerk has to be an ethics violation of some sort and perhaps a new complainant - maybe one of the Union County residents affected by the Gibson bill will file a new complaint with just the House Ethics Committee. I feel this must be dealt with if the House is to have any credibility.”
Blust added in another note:
“I left out one more point. The Gibson matter is a clear-cut example of why the State Ethics Commission should have jurisdiction over complaints against legislators, at least through the stage of recommending a punishment, and why the process should be totally open. The entire reform community has been unanimous, I believe, in backing these changes.”
I think he's right about this. While legislators may have been motivated by a concern that there would be bogus ethics complaints filed and there's no reason to make those public, the risk is that the legislature will be seen as ignoring complaints with merit to them, or worse, covering up for cronies. There's a lot to be said for allowing the public to see what's going on, and to make up their own minds.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Governor Easley starts digging out

Looks like Gov. Mike Easley realized the hole he was in and has started digging out, not deeper. Over the past three days he spoke to the annual N.C. Editorial Writers Conference in Chapel Hill Sunday evening, had a one-on-one interview with the News & Observer in the hotel lobby following his remarks and gave WRAL-TV an interview Monday morning. His Secretary of Health and Human Services Dempsey Benton was quoted at some length in Tuesday morning’s N&O about solutions the administration will propose to the legislature.
Easley’s press office, you may recall, made the decision that the governor shouldn’t talk to the newspaper for its recent series about the fundamental and costly failures of mental health reform over the past six years. The reason, spokesman Seth Effron said, was a concern that the newspaper would deal more in blame and not in solutions to the problem.
I didn’t follow that reasoning then or now; it’s hard to imagine reporters not wanting to ask about and report what the administration intends to do about a problem. Tuesday’s headline in the N&O: “Mental health plan in works,” with a story on the administration’s developing approach to fix mental health problems by the end of the Easley administration.
I don’t know that Easley is answering all the questions thoroughly or satisfactorily, but I think he’s made an attempt to get at them and to be more open about what happened. And, of course, other questions have arisen. The N&O reported Monday that Easley said he had received a handwritten note from former HHS Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, now a foundation executive in New York. But we’ll never know what it said because, the governor said, he “chunked” it into the waste basket after reading it.
Some days, you just gotta wonder.
Late morning addition: After a news conference to discuss his upcoming proposals to deal with the drought, Easley said the note from Carmen Hooker Odom was not about mental health and didn't even mention the subject. It was entirely personal -- complimenting him, in fact, and thus he concluded the news media wouldn't have been interested in publishing its contents.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A major award for his excellency

Former Charlotte newsman Max Veale, who spent some time in Raleigh and understands some things about how government works and doesn’t, relays the following epistle purporting to be from Sir Rudyard Fulch, self-described knight errant. Veale recently discovered it somewhere near his home in Carpenter. I don’t know of anyone who would vouch for its authenticity, but just in case:

“The Pecksniffian Society of Greater Needmore and Lesser Hilltop has bestowed upon Governor Michael Easley its Award for Dogged Intransigence in recognition of the gubernator’s persistent refusal to accept responsibility for the misdeeds of his lackeys despite whelming evidence of their guilt, to wit:

“Governor Easley has displayed singular tapdancemanship in addressing questions concerning the mistreatment of thousands of North Carolina citizens who have sought professional care under mental health programs that either were or weren’t reformed into a state of confusion and inadequacy either (a) with his explicit approval or (b) over his vociferous objection, depending on who you ask, and assuming anyone can come to the phone.

“The Governor exhibits admirable dexterity by managing to be both responsible incumbent chief executive and critical shadow governor as it suits his fancy or as situations dictate.

“A Pecksniffian “Yo, bro!” to His Excellency and His Effrontery.

“/s/Rudyard W. Fulch III
Exalted Knight Errant”

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Memo to Easley: Quit digging

Rule No. 1 of any problem has to be this basic dictum: When you’re in a hole, quit digging.
That would be some good advice for Gov. Mike Easley to take in the current contretemps over what his administration did and didn’t do regarding the legislature’s reformation of state mental health policies.
Administration of that program turned into a fiasco long ago, as The News & Observer reported in a recent series on mental health.
But administration mishandling of the bad news about the program is a recent development – and has gotten worse since the governor’s press conference in his Capitol office Tuesday. It was a bad setup from the start, and resulted in the governor avoiding follow-up questions from writers who authored the series – and who seemed to know more about what was going on than the governor.
And when it ended after a relatively few questions, reporters who staked out a building exit hoping to get in more questions found that the governor had ducked out another way and was gone.
And while the press conference was underway, the administration fired a public information officer who, it turns out, has considerable credibility with reporters. Debbie Crane was booted out because, among other things, the administration thought she had persuaded former Secretary of Health and Human Services Carmen Hooker Odom not to talk to reporters. Thing is, Crane was regarded as a spokesperson who helped the public understand the truth, not as a spin doctor who tried to put the best face on administration missteps. Her firing was a miscalculation, a symbol of a botched process start to finish.
This whole mess was avoidable, but the governor doesn’t seem to realize it. Here’s a guy who made his bones in politics as a tough, crusading prosecutor in Southeastern North Carolina, and now here he is dodging reporters’ questions. As a former boxer who wasn’t afraid of getting in the ring and trading blows, Easley’s reluctance to face aggressive questioning is curious.
A smart fellow told me a long time ago that the best way to handle bad news is to get it all out, and get it out quick. Easley’s seeming reluctance to deal with this issue more directly, and in full, suggests there’s more the public doesn’t know. If I were he, I’d call every reporter I could find, invite them into the office and sit there until every last question, and every last questioner, was exhausted.
It might not be pleasant, but it would soon be over. And the governor’s hole would stop getting deeper.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mismanaging the news

For those looking for some accountability in the ongoing saga of the Easley administration’s mishandling of mental health reform, a head has indeed rolled – but it’s not one of those in charge. As this morning’s papers reported, the administration has fired Debbie Crane, a veteran spokesperson for state government agencies. (A former program director is leaving, but not right away, while new directors have been appointed. Crane is out the door and gone.)
Crane's transgression, the governor’s office said, was interfering with a plan to have former Secretary of Health and Human Services Carmen Hooker Odom talk to reporters from the News & Observer, whose six-month investigation revealed how money has been squandered, treatment botched and needy patients neglected or abused.
Gov. Easley has refused to meet with the paper's reporters – a curious reaction given that Easley handles himself pretty well with the press. If he wants his story told, he’s got to tell it better than he has so far in a press conference where questions were limited and the governor got piqued with reporters who tried to ask follow-ups. It evidently has not been a happy time for Mike Easley.
The administration believes Crane's e-mail to Hooker Odom – the spouse of former state Sen. Fountain Odom of Charlotte – saying she herself wouldn't want to talk to the N&O reporters left the governor holding the bag of blame. Or something. The governor’s office thinks Hooker Odom was all set to talk about it until Crane's e-mail suggested she think twice about it, but it’s hard for me to buy the argument that Hooker Odom decided not to talk based on what Crane advised. Hooker Odom is now head of the Milbank Memorial Fund in New York, a pretty nice foundation job.
Meanwhile, everyone in town is trying to figure out if Easley is right in saying his administration “vigorously opposed” the mental health legislation that went off the tracks. Crane said after her firing that she had talked earlier with Hooker Odom seeking documents showing vigorous opposition. “There is no evidence to show that we did,” Crane said. “I called Carmen to ask her if there are any documents and she said, ‘No, there aren’t.’ Nobody did oppose it vigorously. Now, there were four things that she was concerned with” that she lobbied legislators to change, and two were changed. But “it was not a wholesale” opposition to the bill,” Crane said.
More on this later. This story isn’t going away.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What's the governor going to do?

In a column Sunday spanking Gov. Mike Easley for not being willing to answer questions about his administration’s handling of mental health programs, Easley spokesman Seth Effron said Friday afternoon it was the press office that made the decision for him not to respond to questions from The News & Observer.
Here’s his quote from the column: “It was our sense here in the press office that there wasn’t going to be an opportunity for the governor to talk about solutions, but quite frankly more about the blame game, and that was not where the governor wanted to go,” said Seth Effron, spokesman for Easley.
Here are several more quotations from Effron, a longtime reporter before joining the Easley administration, that I didn’t have space for in the column:
“The governor trusts us to make those kinds of decisions, so the interview was declined.” He added later, “We made that decision.”
Effron also said, “... Reporters can get away with pointing out problems, but the governor will not let himself do that. If he talks about a problem, he is going to talk about solutions.”
When I asked why his office thought the N&O wouldn’t discuss solutions as well as what went wrong, here’s what Effron had to say: “It was our conclusion ... that there was not an interest (in discussing solutions) in the reporting that would have followed.”
We’ll never know now, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that the newspaper wouldn’t have wanted to know what the governor was going to do about it, and how quickly. The program is obviously broken. The question is, how does the Easley administration intend to fix it?
Maybe there’ll be more news this week. It’s high time. Shoot, I even bet reporters will write about it.