Commentary, Higher Ed

UNC’s Silent Sam settlement, a bad deal executed very poorly

The Daily Tar Heel, a student-run newspaper, is in the midst of a serious role reversal with the adults over at the UNC Board of Governors.

That much is clear following the paper’s inherently logical suit charging the UNC board violated our state’s open meeting laws when they negotiated a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take Silent Sam off their hands, in addition to a $74,999 payment intended to keep its protesters off an already simmering campus.

The paper’s management corporation is asking the court to nullify the agreement, an outcome virtually everyone not currently seated on the UNC Board of Governors or in legislative leadership would prefer at this point.

Boards have the luxury of discussing such matters with their attorneys in private, although it’s another matter for several board members to design and sign a deal in private without even a public notice.

The idea was bad, and the execution was even worse.

Fittingly, WRAL’s Capitol Broadcasting Corp. slammed the university system board in an editorial Tuesday.

The courts should drop this dismal deal, and the UNC Board of Governors—one of North Carolina’s leading lights for humiliation these days—should sit the next few plays out.

From the editorial:

The reporters and editors at the Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill have been doing their job in examining the Silent Sam consent agreement between the University of North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s a good thing. They are digging to answer the basics: Who did what, where, when and why.

The DTH has also been working to uncover the how. Did the procedures the UNC Board use follow the state’s Open Meetings Law?

The DTH investigation, so far, raises disturbing questions about a lack of basic due diligence by the board and the university.

The newspaper, a non-profit student-run publication that’s been around for 127 years, has gone to court to nullify the consent agreements. The two deals with the Sons of Confederate Veterans that pays the group $74,999 to not protest on campus and $2.5 million to shelter and display Silent Sam were reached “in total secrecy in violation of the Open Meetings Law.”

In addition, the lack of transparency leads to wonder why and how could a university pay anyone to give up their 1st Amendment rights? It goes against the most basic precepts for freedom of inquiry that quality universities stand for.

Will the university now pay other groups to stay off campus? This deal sets a terrible precedent.

The most basic due-diligence on the part of UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC Board of Governors clearly has been neglected.

The DTH revelations are raising questions about whether the key party to the deal, Sons of Confederate Veterans, violated tax and campaign spending laws. State Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall who oversees non-profits — along with the state Revenue Department and state Board of Elections, all must look into these serious matters.

The rush to approve anything, at any cost, to get rid of the Silent Sam issue has done just the opposite. In fact, Superior Court Judge Allan Baddour, who signed the initial consent judgment and order is reexamining his approval and will be holding a hearing on Feb. 12 to further look into the deal.

It is time for the courts and regulators to say enough-is-enough. Terminate the deal. University officials should be ashamed of themselves.

Commentary

After “emergency” iStation purchase, who is Superintendent Mark Johnson working for?

Last week, Policy Watch’s Greg Childress reported the latest head-scratcher from N.C.’s Department of Public Instruction, where Superintendent Mark Johnson—a very loud lame duck, sort of—ordered the “emergency” purchase of nearly $1 million from iStation to continue offering its reading assessment technology.

The purchase fell afoul of the decision-makers over at the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) again and Johnson’s tortured iStation saga became a little more tortured.

From Childress’ report:

State Superintendent Mark Johnson may have violated state policy when he failed to seek approval from the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) before signing an emergency contract with Istation to assess the reading levels of North Carolina’s K-3 students.

As a result, State CIO Eric Boyette may “suspend or cancel” the contract if DPI cannot adequately justify the “emergency purchase” or the “execution of the RFQ (Request for Quotes),” which took place outside of normal business hours.

Johnson made the $928,570 purchase for services late Tuesday. Istation had been implementing its reading assessment program for free, but that arrangement ended Dec. 31.

Johnson cited a state procurement policy that gives agencies the authority to make emergency purchases to prevent the cessation of an important program. Under the policy, such purchases can be made without CIO approval if they’re made after regular business hours.

DPI has been given until 10 a.m., Tuesday to answer five questions about the emergency purchase.

“In the absence of a sufficient amended justification fully responsive to this memorandum and the questions below, the Sate CIO may exercise his authority to under [state law] to cancel or suspend any information technology procurement that occurs without the state CIO’s approval,” Patti Bowers, DIT’s chief procurement officer wrote in a letter to the N.C. Department of Public of Instruction (DPI) and Tymica Dunn, DPI’s procurement manager.

Bower said the Dec. 31 expiration of a “no cost” contract between DPI and Istation did not rise to the level of an emergency.

“Mere expiration of the “no cost” Memorandum of Agreement executed August 27, 2019, does not constitute an emergency sufficient to trigger this purchase authority,” she wrote. “If every contract signed after business hours constituted an emergency, the term would be rendered meaningless.”

The emergency purchase came one day after a superior judge refused to lift a stay to allow DPI to continue to work with Istation. The judge’s ruling left North Carolina without a tool to assess reading levels of its K-3 students.

Even so, Bowers said procurement rules must be followed.

“The Office recognizes that maintaining reading comprehension testing for the state’s children is an urgent matter and that certain statutory obligations exist; however, even the continuation of a vital program does not abrogate the responsibilities of purchasing agencies and the Department of Information Technology,” Bowers wrote.

Whatever the agency feuding at play here, it’s fair to wonder who Johnson is working for with this latest shot off the bow. DIT was right to question whether Johnson’s office was stretching the meaning of “emergency” when they unilaterally moved last week.

And the grandstanding sets up continuing legal battles over the K-3 reading assessments. It’s hard to imagine, given the poisoned process thus far, that the outcome of this decision is not poisoned as well.

DPI has until Tuesday morning to answer DIT’s questions, but when Johnson’s office gets around to responding to those official questions, we’ve got another 100 or so questions, starting with: Who is this decision expected to serve?

Look for updates soon from Policy Watch.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Editorial slams Thom Tillis for Trump birthday card

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

Whatever you think of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, add “utterly clueless” to the list.

North Carolina’s Republican senator, pilloried last year for his bizarre flip-flop on President Trump’s emergency declaration, is now earning a lashing for his most recent flattery of the president.

He deserves it too, encouraging folks to sign a birthday card for Trump’s son Eric. There are, of course, a few things going on this week, including a crisis in the Middle East and the president’s pending impeachment trial in Tillis’ chamber.

Fittingly, The Charlotte Observer editorial board excoriated Tillis for the bizarre Tweet on Monday. Read a portion of the editorial below:

There’s nothing wrong with sending someone a happy birthday wish, public or private. So why did Thom Tillis’ acknowledgment Saturday of Eric Trump’s 36th birthday elicit some social media groaning?

It could be that the senator from North Carolina didn’t merely wish the president’s son a happy birthday. Tillis invited Americans to “add your name” to a birthday card for Trump that “we’re putting together,” he said in a tweet. That birthday card, which declared the president’s son an “American Patriot” and said “We’re so thankful for Eric Trump’s work in fighting for America,” was an unusually public and intimate gesture for a U.S. Senator to make for a member of the president’s family.

It could be the timing of the gesture that prompted some eye-rolling. At a moment when the country is grappling with the unsettling U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani — a time when we’d like our members of Congress to position themselves as a thoughtful check on any president’s action — Tillis was acting more like a party planner.

To be fair, few people have an expectation that Tillis would raise questions about the president’s killing of a foreign official and the ramifications it might have on U.S. interests and foreign policy. Republicans have decided such examination is a fool’s errand, that any questioning of Donald Trump will bring backlash from his base and maybe a nasty tweet from the president himself. Tillis, who’s running for re-election in 2020, has been especially hesitant to raise an eyebrow at Trump. The senator long ago laid his political future at the feet of the president, and he’s dutifully made the rounds on television of late to declare the Trump’s impeachment hearings a sham.

So while it’s disappointing, it’s not unexpected that Tillis, like other Republicans, is declining to push for evidence to back up Trump’s assertion that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to U.S. interests. It’s not surprising that Tillis is publicly untroubled by reports that Pentagon officials were stunned Trump took the most extreme option of assassination instead of more measured, prudent approaches to tension with Iran. It’s hardly unforseen that Tillis has declined to utter a peep of protest over Trump vocal willingness to commit war crimes and attack Iranian cultural sites.

But soliciting Americans to sign a birthday card for Donald Trump’s son? Yes, such “cards” are often designed to help build databases of potential friendly voters. But the gesture showed a troubling lack of distance between a U.S. senator and a president, one that surely had some of Tillis’ fellow Republicans wincing, too.

Commentary, Education, News, Trump Administration

As the House votes, remember that impeachment is not everything

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in September, announcing the formal impeachment inquiry. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s a historic day, yes, but there has to be a feeling that today is a mildly historic day, in the way that Diet Coke is sort of like Coke.

Which is to say that, technically speaking, after today Donald Trump will be the third U.S. president ever impeached (not counting Richard Nixon, who resigned before impeachment), a fitting fate for our cheddar-colored mini-monarch, one he’s earned many, many times over.

But he will also arguably be the first acquitted by the U.S. Senate without even a passing flirtation with conviction.

“I think we’re going to get an almost entirely partisan impeachment,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters this week. “I would anticipate an almost entirely partisan outcome in the Senate as well.”

Justice is not blind. It never has been in this country. Matter of fact, stop saying that. It makes you sound like a buffoon.

Considering that a D.C. creature like McConnell believes in nothing, perhaps it’s best to stop trying to convince him of something. Convince that bewildering transient portion of the country in the middle instead. I don’t have good figures on that portion of the populace, but if they are still undecided, I believe they may also be struggling to decide whether they’d rather dump cream or rat poison in their coffee.

Also, convince that barely fluid 49 percent of Americans who, according to a new Gallup poll, are not yet convinced Trump deserves impeachment.

But as the parties — and of course the American people — settle into their trenches anyway, here is a plea for a broader perspective, broader than McConnell, broader than Ukraine, broader even than Trump, who is more like an anthropomorphic solar eclipse than a person after all.

It is hard to conceive of, but there will be a day in which Donald Trump is no longer president. The person will be gone, but his policies might endure. It is more salacious, more compact, to talk about impeachment than it is to comprehend the nuts-and-bolts enmity of his administration’s assaults on progressive policy and, in many cases, just good government. Which is really the tragedy of it all.

Read more

Commentary, Higher Ed

UNC system’s “Silent Sam” deal gets more rotten every day

Hundreds gathered on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill this year to celebrate the first anniversary of the toppling of the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam.”

For a moment, the UNC system’s rotten and getting rottener deal to ship off felled Confederate Silent Sam with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) might have seemed evidence of the Board of Governors’ obliviousness.

Obliviousness to what? Common sense, perception, relevance, history. Perhaps all of the above.

But as we learn more about the skull-and-dagger machinations that yielded Thanksgiving week’s surprise visit from the SCV — it’s like your racist uncle stopped by to argue with you during the holiday meal — if there is anyone remaining that believes the board to have been simply aloof, they may soon think otherwise.

As Policy Watch’s Joe Killian reported Tuesday, board members, in addition to their $2.5 million deal with the SCV, paid these anti-history marauders (ahistorical is too gentle a description, these folks are opposed to history) $1 shy of $75,000 to “secure an agreement the group would not display ‘any Confederate flags, banners, or signs before, after, or in conjunction with any group event, meeting, or ceremony on the campus of or property controlled by the UNC System … for five years.'”

(Warning to the board: Confederate symbols won’t be any more palatable in five years. I think. I hope.)

That $1 difference is key because it allowed board members to duck approval by the state’s top-ranking lawyer, Attorney General Josh Stein.

Yes, Stein is a Democrat, and this hyper-partisan board is every bit a Republican cudgel. But their desire to avoid Stein’s review speaks volumes. Board members knew that the settlement, not to mention the bonkers legal theory used to justify the SCV’s claims to ownership of the statue, reeked.

This board knew what it was doing was extraordinarily polarizing, and it hoped to minimize the damage somehow.

Stein condemned the deal last week, calling it an “excessive” amount to rid the UNC system of Sam. And his office’s spokeswoman, Laura Brewer, went one further, adding that the board “negotiated this deal entirely on its own, sidelining our office.”

There is, of course, the obvious point as well that board members dumped the news on the afternoon before Thanksgiving in some vain hope that reporters would be too busy downing pumpkin pie to notice.

Policy Watch is still sorting through the documents unloaded this week by the UNC system, so stay tuned for more updates.