Thursday, June 21, 2007

Zings and arrows at the Press Corps follies

Every year since 1985, the Capital Press Corps in Raleigh has mounted a production called the Legislative Skits, poking fun at the honorables in the legislature, the governor, assorted lobbyists and bureaucrats, and sometimes even the ink-stained wretches themselves. It’s the legacy of Observer religion writer Tim Funk, who came to Raleigh as a capital correspondent 22 years ago only to discover the press corps here didn’t have an annual show spoofing the bigwigs. He started it all.
This year’s show was presented Wednesday night at Raleigh’s Temple Beth Or and it was, as usual, well attended by legislators, lobbyists and various hangers-on. The program was a mix of the hilarious and the tacky, off-key singing and on-target balloon-puncturing, with no small measure of bathroom jokes and other low humor. In other words, just right for a legislative audience.
The star of the show in my book was the Associated Press’s Margaret Lillard, who skewered Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake, with her riff on life’s daily annoyances and a canny impression of Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-Pender. No one’s ox was safe from goring.
The Observer’s Mark Johnson played former Speaker Jim Black. When he walked on stage in a set of baggy orange-and-white jailhouse togs borrowed from the Wake County Sheriff’s Department, there was a collective intake of breath, then a rolling thunder of laughter as Johnson spoke in the familiar Jim Black mumble and, of course, a pungent reprise of Black’s once calling a reporter a “Sorry Sack of S---.”
The Observer’s David Ingram played the role of “Dr. B,” a busy medical professional, in a skit about equipping mens’ rooms in restaurants with banking facilities – to make it easier to handle political transactions and “do business while you’re doing your business.”
One gag introduced a reporter playing the part of Sen. Dan “I’m Smarter Than You Are” Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg and another made fun of Mecklenburg Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham’s schoolmarmish ways, threatening to spank recalcitrant lawmakers. Other skits made fun of Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight’s Outer Banks “Hoi Toide” accent and the legislature’s preference for honorary resolutions over substantive legislature.
The reporter playing Basnight – Scott Mooneyham of “the insider” – proposed a resolution changing the state motto from “To Be Rather Than to Seem” (Esse Quam Videri) to “To Honor Rather Than to Be.” AP Reporter Gary Robertson played Senate Deputy President Pro Tem Charlie Dannelly of Charlotte, saying in a fictional debate, “I...knew... Esse Videri....Her friends called her 'Quam'" that brought the House down.
Another skit noted 10 indications the new ethics and lobbyist laws are working, including these two: pricey steakhouses like Sullivan’s now offer a senior citizens discount, and stock in the local K&W Cafeteria is at an all-time high as legislators have to buy their own meals this year.
There were some real zingers, too. In a list of 10 indications that the new ethics legislation isn’t working was this one: Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, still has a committee chairmanship. Whew!
And there was a raggedy attempt at a group song, playing off the Beatles’ “Hey, Jude” with an ode to House Speaker Joe Hackney: “Hey, Joe.”
Polished, it wasn’t, but then, neither is the Capital Press Corps. That’s the way it should be.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The governor's, um, place in history

If you didn’t see Ryan Teague Beckworth’s Saturday story in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer about how Gov. Mike Easley’s chapter in the latest edition of North Carolina Governors came about, don’t miss it. It’s a hoot. Here’s a link.

Monday afternoon, the governor answered a few questions about the chapter, calling the whole affair "idiotic" and referring to it as a "catfight."

Ryan rooted out the e-mail exchanges and the differences in drafts between what professional historians would have published and the, ah, scrubbed, spun and tumbled-dry version his press office liked. It’s too juicy for words.

I blogged on the chapter back in March and noted,
“Alas, the entry on the state’s current governor, did not read with the same kind of raw-material, bark-still-on candor. Gov. Michael Francis Easley’s entry read more like a public relations pamphlet. (Indeed, the book’s introduction notes, Easley’s entry was written after consultation with his press office.) Among other things, it referred to ‘[T]he more than $400 million in annual funds generated by the new lottery’ for schools – except the lottery hasn’t generated that kind of money yet.

“It also noted he ‘successfully led North Carolina through its transition to become a major competitor in the new global economy... Easley provided the tools needed to attract successful new industry and to grow existing businesses. These tools will help secure a strong, healthy economy for North Carolina years into the future.’

“Whew! Even Easley’s admirers will find that spread on a little thick. Perhaps state officials should wait until governors have left office before they try to assess their gubernatorial terms.”

I’m happy to hear the state will follow that policy next time – but, of course, future governors could decide to change it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The cost of saving us from ourselves

It's getting pricier to preserve land in North Carolina -- and save us from ourselves.
Two events this week shone a bright light on the high costs – and other difficulties – of preserving open space in North Carolina.
On Tuesday, the coalition group Land for Tomorrow released a report outlining how dramatically the costs of preserving land have jumped over a 10-year period. Kate Dixon, executive director of the organization, told the House Environment Committee that costs of preserving land for drinking water, state and local parks and habitat for plant and wildlife have jumped 300 percent.
“The supply of critical conservation areas is dwindling as lands are developed to meet the needs of our rapidly growing population,” Dixon said in a statement. “Under such conditions, waiting will only mean higher prices and lost opportunities.”
The report is available here .
Then Thursday, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and leaders of three local citizens groups made a public offer to the state for the last 311 acres remaining on Dix Hill, for more than a century the site of the state’s mental hospital and a good many other state buildings. The state is closing Dorothea Dix Hospital next year, and local citizens are debating the best use of the land.
Gov. Mike Easley wants to build some new state offices there. Speaker Joe Hackney and other House members concerned about state mental health programs want the property to continue to have a role in provision of mental health services. Some developers would like to purchase the property and develop it in a variety of ways.
But the mayor and leaders of Dix Visionaries, Friends of Dorothea Dix Park and Dix 306 (until recently it was thought there were 306 remaining acres, but there are 311) say the land is a rare urban gem that ought to be preserved as the capital city’s Central Park.
Meeker said the group is offering offer the state $10.5 million for the land and welcomed an appraisal of the property for a park. He said that if the property is valued as other parkland the city has purchase, it would pay about $3,000 to $5,000 per acre for about 100 acres of lowlands and landfilled areas of the property, amounting to about $500,000, plus as much as $50,000 per acre for more than 200 acres of developable land, amounting to $10 million more.
Here are links to Friends of Dorothea Dix Park and DIX306.
Gregory Poole of Dix Visionaries also announced that Dix Visionaries would pledge to raise $7 million for the park from private contributors.
Said Meeker, “The state is not being asked to pay for the park. The state is being asked to accept” the $10.5 million for the park.
No doubt the legislature will want more money for the park, but the offer Thursday represents a good-faith effort by some dedicated folks to preserve what’s left of Dix Hill, just a brisk walk from downtown Raleigh and the Capitol, as a park for North Carolinians from the coast to the mountains.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Judge Boyle tough -- but not always

Most folks I know think former House Speaker Jim Black won’t be any better off with a different federal judge than he was with U.S. District Judge James Dever. Judge Terry Boyle, who will handle Black’s sentencing, is known as a tough, no-nonsense judge. But then there’s the Jerry Gaskill case. More about that in a moment.
Black’s lawyer Ken Bell recently asked Dever to remove himself from the case because he once handled a lawsuit against then-Speaker Black and other state leaders over redistricting. Dever rejected the argument he was in any way biased against Black, but stepped aside anyway so that Black can go ahead and be sentenced without more delay.
The conventional wisdom is that Dever’s replacement in this case, Boyle, will be just as tough on Black as Dever would have been. (Dever had made it clear that he might sentence Black to a longer prison term than federal sentencing law normally provides for the crime of accepting illegal payments. It was part of a bribe scheme the government says Black engaged in to stay in power.)
I’ve sat in Judge Boyle’s courtroom a number of times and found him to be fair, firm and direct. I think the only bias he has is in upholding the law as he sees fit. His well-known independence has confounded observers who thought he would rule one way and were surprised when he ruled another in some civil cases and at least one criminal case.
I’d guess Judge Boyle will do about the same thing Judge Dever would have done in Black’s case. I think there’s a long prison term in his future.
But it’s also worth noting that in one recent high-profile case, Boyle did not throw the book at the defendants. When Judge Boyle sentenced former N.C. Ferry Division chief Jerry Gaskill and former dredging superintendent Billy Moore in an illegal dredging case in Currituck County, Gaskill and Moore got off light.
Gaskill had been convicted of making a false statement during the investigation and Moore pleaded guilty to ordering the dredging. It involved creating an illegal channel on the other side of Currituck Sound to create a passenger terminal to ferry students across the sound on a daily basis. There was all sorts of speculation about political involvement. After all, the 2002 General Assembly had ordered a feasibility study for a ferry operation to cut school travel time by boating 12 miles across the sound to Corolla.
But none of that came out in court. When Gaskill and Moore came before Judge Boyle in March, he sentenced them not to the two years of active prison time most folks expected them to get. Instead, he put them on probation for three years, gave them six months of house arrest, ordered them to serve 50 hours of community service and fined them $5,000 each.
This case won’t have any bearing on the fate of Jim Black, of course, and shouldn’t. But it’s an interesting departure from what most folks thought Judge Boyle would do in what, for a while, was a high-profile criminal case in northeastern North Carolina.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ocracoke near the top of my list, too

The other day I was singing the praises of Taylors Creek and the Carrot Island-Back Sound-Shackleford Banks area of North Carolina’s Down East coastal area. Writing about it reminded me that North Carolina has so many exceptional coastal places and some folks may not know about them.
Some folks, in fact, may not realize what we normally mean by the Outer Banks. They’re the thin barrier islands that run from near the Virginia Border down to Cape Hatteras and then swing drastically back to Cape Lookout, often regarded as the southern terminus of the Outer Banks (though some would say its southerly limit is closer to Ocracoke), even though the barrier islands continue on down past Cape Fear to the South Carolina coast. Thanks to the Intracoastal Waterway, those barrier islands run on down to Florida.
Ocracoke Island is a marvelous place, most of it part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For that reason, most of the island remains undeveloped – which means many miles of lovely beaches uncluttered with surf shops, hot dog stands, motels, fast food joints and the other markingof beach life along most of our coast. There’s plenty of that in the town of Ocracoke perched on Silver Harbor at the southwestern end of the island. That place has a Caribbean atmosphere almost. We’ve chartered sailboats in the British Virgin Islands and sailed our old 37-foot cutter across Pamlico Sound and into Silver Lake harbor, and we got the same kick out of as we did making landfall and dropping anchor at Anegada, Cooper Island and Jost Van Dyke.
Ocracoke’s beaches have been ranked among the top 10 in American for years – second in 2005, third in 2006 and I wouldn’t be surprised it it doesn’t rank first when this year’s rankings come out in the next few days. It’s beach-going without the frills but with everything that’s essential to a beach: sand, saltwater and lovely scenery.
A word to the wise: If you drive there and take the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke, mind the speed limit on highway 12. As you near the town of Ocracoke, the posted speed limit drops sharply from 55 to 45 to, I think, 25. and often there’s a Hyde County sheriff’s sitting there with a citation book. Ask me how I know.
What's your top N.C. beach? How about South Carolina?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Taylor Creek's exquisite coastal scenery

Taylor Creek knocks me out every time I see it. It’s one of North Carolina’s special places, lined with historic homes and an assortment of sailing and motor vessels tied up on one side and one of the world’s loveliest views of the coastal environment on the other.
Pick the right spot and you can watch the feral ponies feeding at twilight, study the shorebirds and egrets and herons on Carrot Island and, with just a little elevation, spot the fishing boats and cargo ships coming in and out of Beaufort Inlet between Bogue Banks and Shackleford Banks.
And if you’ve ever tried to maneuver a 37-foot, 10-ton cutter in the current when it was at full flood with the wind blowing from another direction, you know it can be an exciting place. (That’s when I learned to use pilings as a pivot point getting in and out of the town docks.) The creek has strong twice-daily high and low ties, and woe be to the captain who lets his vessel get caught broadside against the current with not enough power on.
A couple weeks ago I spent a few days in a rocking chair on the front porch of a house overlooking Taylor’s Creek. We saw 20 of the wild horses nosing around in the shallows one morning.
We were there to fish but the weather was foul for a while, and I enjoyed just sitting and watching the scenery that Rachel Carson saw when she first came to Beaufort in 1938 to do research at what was then called the U.S. Fisheries Station.
She spent several years there studying the coastal ecology, and later published “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941) and “The Edge of the Sea” (1955) based in part on her studies. It was much later in her career -- 1962 -- that she published perhaps her most well-known book, “Silent Spring,” prompting concerns about pesticides. She died in 1964 from cancer.
May 27 was her 100th birthday and it has prompted a spate of articles celebrating her work as “the mother of the environmental movement,” her research that later led the Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT and prompting sharp criticism from those who now argue that the DDT ban has led to many deaths from malaria, even though other pesticides have proven effective against mosquitoes.
“Thanks to Rachel Carson, endangered bird species in the untied States have recovered, including the Bald Eagle, Brown Pelican, peregrine Falcon, and osprey,” according to Michael Fry, director of American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds campaign.
Detractors, including columnist John Tierney in Tuesday’s New York Times, argue that Carson “used dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass.”
The area where she did her research nearly 70 years ago is now preserved as the Rachel Carson North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve. There’s a terrific website with, appropriately, a birdseye view of the reserve, including downtown Beaufort and Taylor Creek, Beaufort Inlet, Shackleford Banks and North River and Back Sound. It’ll take you back.