June 2008


I broke my silence at this evening’s Town Council meeting.

All throughout the Spring I’ve tried to ignore the Council’s accumulating messes. It was difficult.

The Mayor and Council acting “shocked” by the financial predicament we’re in – something I’ve been forecasting for the last 4 years. More “shock” that the drought has real impacts on the community’s growth and well-being. Greater “shock” that gas hit $4 a gallon, the housing market slumped, credit is tightening and many of the other underpinnings of a successful, sustainable community are lacking.

I’ve tried these last 5 years to get them to move on the obvious deficiencies but….

Anyway, the recent mountain of excuses that some of them have spewed about why our Town is ill-prepared and the ascendancy of political gamesmanship over good – transparent, accountable and HONEST – governance was just too much to keep quiet any longer.

Here were my prepared remarks:

The criticism the Council has heard surrounding their attempt to extended health benefits seems to fall into two basic areas: one, it is another example of the current Council’s fiscal irresponsibility and two, the impropriety – really, the sneaky fashion – that the extension was introduced: burying it on the consent agenda – introducing it at an end-of-term meeting – a meeting with plenty of distracting issues – omitting previous public discussion or disclosure.

As you are well aware of, I’ve been pushing for greater transparency and accountability in our local governmental process which is why I think a number of citizens have contacted me to discuss both of these issues.

First – let us be absolutely clear.

While the Council has said that putting forward a self-serving policy with no public oversight was a “mistake” – the papers and radio are full of their abject apologies – let us recognize that while it definitely was a “mistake” it was not – in any fashion – an accident.

Tonight, I’d like to focus on this unfortunate continuation of a troubling trend – a growing use of political gamesmanship by some of the longest serving of the Council to deflect public attention from questionable or controversial issues. What may be excellent strategy to the benefit of a few is terrible public policy.

I’m sure the more experienced of our Council are counting on public concern about this issue to abate over the summer – that is part of the strategy. I’m sure that those that have said it will have little political impact on their re-election are quite correct.

We have seen tempests like the awarding of a no-bid contract to Member Strom’s campaign treasurer blow over. We have seen public outcry over the Mayor’s request to remove term limits from his office quiet quickly. Public concern about the Mayor and Council’s recent handling of the possible conflict of interest that one of the Councilmember’s family had involving RAM Development – the Town’s partner in the fiscally irresponsible Lot #5 project – seem to dissipate rapidly.

Over the many years I have observed this Council, I have noticed more and more of late – a willingness to cut ethical corners, to delay or deny public awareness of problems – to drag their feet on practical, needed improvements increasing transparency in the political process.

Yes, it is easier to cut those corners, to delay bad news – as many of you did when you borrowed from the Town’s rainy day funds, drained our much needed fiscal reserves and put our bond rating in jeopardy.

The pattern these last 4 years has been to deny the known fiscal impact of the bonds, to trivialize the financial jeopardy the Lot #5 boondoggle puts our Town in, to pretend that the cost-overruns on the Town Operations center or the foreseeable increase of gas to $4 a gallon and many other obvious trends were not going to affect this community.

Now we’ve seen the culmination of these self-inflicted “mistakes” in this year’s tax increase. Yet, as another example of the same type of political gamesmanship that brought us the health insurance debacle, the Mayor and others on the Council continue to claim this year’s increase is an aberration – knowing fully well that more bad news is on the horizon.

The measure of ones character, they say, is how you behave when no one is paying attention. I’d add that it is also a measure of ones political character if you not only talk about greater transparency in the political process but actually support it with policy changes.

What to do, then? The majority of this Council accepted the recommendations of the now defunct Technology Advisory board on opening the governmental process – shedding more light in greater detail of our Town’s operations. Stop dragging your feet and implement those recommendations.

As I’ve been asking for the last 5 years, deliver a complete and accurate agenda 7 days prior to a business meeting. No movement on zoning or budgetary items requiring modification within those seven days. Stop burying unpopular items – like the health insurance issue – in parts of the agenda that few rarely review. Don’t mix creation of zoning districts with far-reaching affects in with zoning modifications for a particular project – like you did with Greenbridge – something, by the way, Councilmember Thorpe agreed with.

Overall, you should take the summer to think about what kind of political character you wish to be remembered for. Are you going to take the easy way out – continue your growing reliance of political trickery to the public’s detriment – or are you going to push to make your job more difficult – require and respond to greater public oversight?

I tried to keep it less than 3 minutes as I didn’t want Jim Ward – who had already sternly lectured the citizenry about keeping it short – to give me hell for going 19 seconds too long.

I had to shorten my remarks – not sure how they came out. I’ll post the video when it’s available.

There’s been racial tensions within Chapel Hill’s public works department for many years. During the last ten years I’ve heard and read about some quite troublesome behavior. I faulted former town manager Cal Horton’s “silo” style of management for covering up rather than resolving some rather nasty bits of racism. With Roger Stancil coming on-board (he got some good marks from Fayetteville’s NAACP), a reshuffling of Horton’s old lieutenants and a turnover of management personnel at the top I expected Chapel Hill would finally strengthen some basic job-related protections.

It appears not.

This graffiti (and other samples like it) have appeared in the Town’s new operations center (that costly bus barn) with some regularity over the last 6 months.

This example appears to target a particular employee that has been involved in organizing the workforce.

Tonight, Councilmember Mark Kleinschmidt did a bit of political theater – properly showing his ire at the affront then launching off into a bit of grandstanding about how he’d metaphorically throttle the offender, etc. Colleague Bill Thorpe also rose and said his piece though his was a bit more rambling (both which I’ll post as the video becomes available).

As I sat there through their outrage – and the polite applause that followed (“all good folks hate racism, right?”) – all I could think of is “Where the hell was that outrage before?”

Mark’s been on Council 6 years, Bill Thorpe served back in the bad days and 3 years this term. We’ve had news reports, civil rights lawyers – like Al McSurely, the NAACP’s Fred Battle, citizens and town employees coming before Council complaining about racial tension for years but what progress have we made?

Yes, I know we have a more balanced workforce, etc. but if the Town hasn’t been able to deal with this graffiti for months where does the Town really stand?

The Council needs to get off their seats and up to the Town Operations Center and talk directly with the good folks doing the day-to-day work of running our Town because if this crap is going on in the bathrooms, imagine what other kind problems – racial or otherwise – are going on within the Town’s workforce.

Just got back from the Chapel Hill Library where, at roughly 7:15pm, my wife and I were the 83rd and 84th voters in today’s primary run-off. Heard from a few folks throughout the day that turnout was abysmal. One of the poll-workers told us that there were only 324 early votes STATEWIDE!

Ellie and I are voting fools – I have voted nearly every election since 1980 – but we’re not the only ones in town. Chapel Hill has some very nice neighborhoods, our former one on Barclay Rd. for instance – but we think (like probably a lot of people think about their own neighborhoods) that there’s something special about the Mt. Bolus community.

When we gave the poll-worker our address she said that the folks in our neighborhood had really turned out today. I wasn’t surprised.

Being surrounded by a bunch of frequent voters won’t help our homes resale value or slow the progress of the road’s pine weevil infestation but it reflects a sense of civic responsibility that we should appreciate and applaud more loudly.

[Update:] Quisling Democrats capitulated in a vote 293 to 129. Rep. Price votes NO!!. Good for him.

More here: House Approves Unconstitutional Surveillance Legislation .

Yesterday I couldn’t get an inking of how my local “progressive” Democrat US Rep. David Price would vote on the latest attempt to defend the indefensible. Would he vote to absolve ATT from its culpability? Would he further extend the reach of the US government into our private affairs?

US Sen. Russ Feingold, one heck of a leader, had no such problem:

June 19, 2008

“The proposed FISA deal is not a compromise; it is a capitulation. The House and Senate should not be taking up this bill, which effectively guarantees immunity for telecom companies alleged to have participated in the President’s illegal program, and which fails to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home. Allowing courts to review the question of immunity is meaningless when the same legislation essentially requires the court to grant immunity. And under this bill, the government can still sweep up and keep the international communications of innocent Americans in the U.S. with no connection to suspected terrorists, with very few safeguards to protect against abuse of this power. Instead of cutting bad deals on both FISA and funding for the war in Iraq, Democrats should be standing up to the flawed and dangerous policies of this administration.”

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is a member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Capitulation.

Damn, David is a nice enough guy. He brings home the goodies more often than not but his inability to take a lead on any of the key issues – the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, illegal domestic surveillance, torture – perverting our nation’s foundations is disheartening.

He can be led to the water, tortuously, but getting him to drink is a hell of a proposition.

Called David Price, my local Congressman, this afternoon to see if he planned to vote NO on tomorrow’s House Bill HR 6304 which proffers blanket immunity to those telecoms, like ATT (Bellsouth, Cingular), that knowingly broke Federal and State wire-tapping laws on behalf of our current lawless madministration.

His current stance: no opinion.

In fact, his office said he won’t be expressing an opinion until after his vote!

Sounds like he’s preparing to defend the indefensible – issuing what the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) calls the ” Congressional seal of approval on illegal surveillance” but maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What’s the big deal? The millions of folks that are represented by the EFF in a class-action suit against AT&T because their “private domestic communications and communications records were illegally handed over to the National Security Agency (NSA)” won’t get their day in court (more here).

Not all telcos, notably QWEST (here) went along with this incredibly intrusive and illegal operation. Will Price put ATT and Verizon ahead of our citizenry and strip them of their fundamental Constitutional protections?

Contact David and let him know that warrantless searches are not acceptable.

Washington, D.C.
U.S. House of Representatives
2162 Rayburn Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: 202.225.1784

Fax: 202.225.2014

Durham
411 W. Chapel Hill Street
NC Mutual Building, 6th Floor
Durham, NC 27701
Phone: 919.688.3004

Fax: 919.688.0940

Raleigh
5400 Trinity Road
Suite 205
Raleigh, NC 27607
Phone: 919.859.5999

Fax: 919.859.5998

Chapel Hill
88 Vilcom Center
Suite 140
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Phone: 919.967.7924

Fax: 919.967.8324

Quick response to the Council’s recent “health” problems.

I appreciate your interest. I’ve had a number of folks ask me if I was surprised by last week’s debacle. I wasn’t. The inclusion of this item on the agenda was no accident and is reflective of this Council’s willingness to manipulate the process to get their way. From my experience, those serving longest are generally the most likely to perform this “sleight of hand” – willing to cut corners at our citizens expense.

For years I’ve asked for a few key reforms that would introduce greater transparency and lessen the political “gamesmanship” that some on the Council have substituted for good governance. In fact, reforming the way agendas are created, published and used has been part of my platform these last two campaigns (might’ve been nice to get a little coverage on that over my going 19 seconds too long answering a forum question ;-) ).

Why have I been so concerned? I’ve probably read more agendas, more supporting documents and more published commentary than most citizens – probably more than some of our sitting council members. Trying to respond to these items – many which slip under the medias attention – in less than 2 or 3 days is difficult at best.

How would I change the agenda process?

First, publish a complete agenda 7 days prior to a Council business meeting. Complete means the complete text of ordinances, all appendices, supporting documents and other relevant evidentiary artifacts. The only modifications allowed prior to a meeting would be correcting typographical errors or adding elements to non-substantive items – essentially notifications, commendations, citizen comments, etc.

For deciding issues requiring public hearings, I wouldn’t allow any modifications without an opportunity for further public comment. For example, substantive changes were introduced to RAM Developments’s agreement on Lot #5 minutes before the final Council vote. Neither the press or the wider public had any opportunity to review or comment – positively or negatively – on these changes which had fiscal and policy impacts. That’s a disservice.

I also wouldn’t allow modifications to the budget items requiring approval less than 7 days prior to the vote.

Seven days is not a lot of time for folks holding down a full-time job or with a busy family life. If we want greater transparency and participation, we owe our citizen’s that brief time to digest policy proposals.

Second, I would restrict substantive issues to those parts of the agenda open to public comment and not “hide” them on the agenda. As this latest debacle illustrates, it is easy to “game” the public by burying substantive items in the consent agenda. This isn’t the first time by any stretch. Worse, Mayor Foy has developed a growing tendency to skip citizens who want to speak on consent agenda items.

Third, I wouldn’t hide substantive policy changes by wedging them within other voting contexts.

One recent example, the Council creating a new zoning district for Downtown within a hearing and decision on variances for the Greenbridge development. I’ve had quite a few people express alarm that the height and density limits Downtown were dramatically increased. They were further troubled because it wasn’t obvious that a decision on this fundamental change to our Downtown’s character wasn’t introduced or debated on its own merits.

The timing and placement of this item on the agenda – wedging it in the middle of another set of decisions – was not accidental and was pure political gamesmanship by Mayor Pro Tem Strom and others. Terrible public policy – a repudiation of his and others commitment to open and transparent governance. Bill Thorpe agreed with me that night and said Council shouldn’t continue this practice.

Fourth, I would make sure that decisions on related items are grouped together. For instance, Council approved the contract and modifications to Lot #5′s plaza art project – as part of the consent agenda by the way – before approving the project itself. The timing of the vote on that approval came later the same evening. In other words, the Council created a necessity for further approval of the project by creating a financial obligation.

Following my questioning this approval, one of the members questioned the Town’s attorney on the legality of this out-of-order decision but none challenged the propriety.

There are a few more that have to do with easing citizen access, highlighting changes between different incarnations of agendas, etc. which I probably should ‘blog further on now that you got me started….

Finally, I’ll be coming to next Wednesday’s meeting to challenge Council – again – to fulfill their promise for greater transparency. I will also be asking for a full and complete accounting of how the health insurance item came to appear on the consent agenda. This was no accident or oversight.

By the way, while I wasn’t surprised that political expediency took the upper-hand – an evolving trend among members like Bill Strom – I was delightfully surprised and heartened by the outpouring of citizen concern. It would’ve been nice if these citizens’ critique was met with more solicitude.