Education, News

Report: Critics question state Superintendent Mark Johnson’s website

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Critics are questioning why the state Department of Public Instruction’s main site shut down during Hurricane Florence and directed visitors to the personal site of Superintendent Mark Johnson, a News & Observer report said Monday.

Johnson’s taxpayer-funded site — which, in many ways, resembles a campaign site — was created weeks ago, stirring up questions from members of the State Board of Education as well.

Members also questioned Johnson’s June purchase of $6 million in iPads to support K-3 literacy, after a Policy Watch report in August uncovered a trip last October in which Apple officials “wined and dined” state leaders like Johnson and powerful K-12 budget writers in the N.C. General Assembly.

The Republican has had a contentious relationship with the board since his 2016 election, even though the board has also been piloted by GOP leaders.

From the N&O’s report:

As Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina this month, the state agency that oversees public schools shut down its website and referred people to a new website created by State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Critics of Johnson are charging that it was a politically motivated decision to shut down the state website and to direct traffic to Johnson’s website, www.ncsuperintendent.com. But state education officials say they shut the state website down as a safety precaution and referred people to Johnson’s website and to the State Board of Education’s website, stateboard.ncpublicschools.gov, to make sure people had a place to go during the storm.

“We had a time-critical decision to make and I made a decision based on what my abilities were to have a page that would be up,” Drew Elliot, chief of communications for the state Department of Public Information, said in an interview.

The decision has generated a buzz on social media sites for teachers in the state.

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“Can anyone name another state agency whose website was shutdown and then rerouted to the personal website of the ‘boss?’” Stu Egan, a Forsyth County teacher and frequent critic of Johnson, wrote on his blog. “Is there any school system in the state whose website was shut down and then rerouted to the personal website of the superintendent of that school system?”

Johnson’s new website went online earlier this month, with state board members questioning why it was created instead of the superintendent using the existing DPI website (www.ncpublicschools.org).

“We are not where we need to be technology wise with the DPI website to be able to do some of the things that we can do if I just have one of my own staffers create a website,” Johnson said at the Sept. 6 state board meeting.

Johnson said one of his staffers created it for free instead of paying $15,000 to the state Department of Information Technology to develop the site. Bill Holmes, a spokesman for DIT, said that if a state agency has a large amount of data or an expedited time line that the department might recommend hiring outside contractors to assist development of a website.

Elliot said ncsuperintendent.com is a taxpayer-funded website maintained by DPI. He said it cost $174 to build the website and will cost $9.92 a year going forward to maintain it compared to $9,100 a year to maintain the state board site.

In the week Florence came ashore, DIT sent a message saying state agencies with sites potentially in the path of the hurricane should shut down all IT equipment by Wednesday.

Elliot said DPI technology staff made the decision to shut down the state website at 2 p.m. Sept. 13. With the site going down, Elliot said he asked whether they could redirect people to external websites.

“We made a decision to link to those sites so people wouldn’t get a 404 error,” Elliot said.

DPI’s website was restored Sept. 15 after it was safe for staff to return to the office in Raleigh, according to Elliott.

At least one other state agency in Raleigh, the Secretary of State’s Office, shut down its website during the storm. Holmes said he wasn’t aware of any other agencies in Raleigh that shut their websites down during the storm.

Egan charged in a post that Johnson was using Hurricane Florence to manipulate people to look at his new website.

“Ironic that the Raleigh area still has power and that every other state agency’s websites are still up and functional,” Egan wrote. “And now people will have to go to a website that masquerades as a service but actually is a campaign site that only serves one person: Mark Johnson.”

Elliot said the decision to link to the websites for Johnson and the state board was made by him and that the superintendent wasn’t notified until after it happened.

Elliot also said the new website is owned by Johnson in his official capacity as superintendent. He compared it to how taxpayer dollars are also used for Gov. Roy Cooper’s official website, governor.nc.gov.

State board members, who’ve been clashing with Johnson, will also likely be asking questions about what happened with DPI’s website.

Eric Davis, the newly elected chairman of the state board, was out of the country on a church mission trip and said last week he had not heard about the DPI site being shut down and redirecting traffic to Johnson’s site.

“I feel certain that the board will have further questions for the superintendent,” he said.

agriculture, Environment

Dead hogs being fished from swamps, workers rescued by kayak: We knew how many farms had flooded. Now we know where they are.

This map shows every Hurricane Florence-related incident — waste lagoons, wastewater treatment plant overflows, coal ash spills, petroleum leaks — that was reported or investigated by state environmental officials. (Map: DEQ)

 

Days after Hurricane Florence devastated eastern North Carolina, fourth-generation hog farmer Brandon Howard had to figure out how to remove “large numbers” of dead pigs from a nearby swamp.

Two of the hog houses at Howard’s 3,200-head farm in Onslow County had been engulfed by floodwaters; two others were half full. Howard “was working with the [Department of Agriculture] to get the hogs out of the swamp by air,” read notes from the state Department of Environmental Quality. “He has folks out trying to capture hogs that are roaming.”

At least 5,500 hogs died during Hurricane Florence. More than 100 swine waste lagoons have sustained damage, flooded, breached or nearly breached since the historic storm hit on Sept. 14, and now it’s known where some of them are.

A public but little-known DEQ map  and database lists every hurricane-related incident –wastewater treatment overflows, coal ash spills, petroleum and other hazardous material releases reported and/or investigated by the agency and its regional offices. (Policy Watch found the information via mappingsupport.com,which provides a full list of available state environmental databases.)

Although most of the hog farm incidents are simple entries, a few contain  anecdotes that can only hint at the anguish and panic of losing lives and property.

As the lagoon began to fill at Ronnie Jarman’s farm, the power went out. He had no more room in his dead box for drowned hogs. And while he has a refrigerated box, it couldn’t function without electricity. 

The hog houses at the Scott Farm, also in Onslow, lost their roofs, the notes read, “and it’s still raining. He needs help with fixing the roof so it will stop putting more water into the lagoons” — which flows from the houses that normally hold up to 3,800 pigs. “He’s unable to find somewhere to get a tarp.”

Farm workers were also in peril. At A&P South Farms, both lagoons overtopped. Employees had to be rescued by kayak.

Here is a partial list of lagoon breaches, discharges and flooding that were listed in the database, plus their counties:

 

Permit NumberFacility NameCombined OwnerAllowable CountNumber Of LagoonsIncidentCounty NameLocation Lat NumLocation Long NumAddress 1City 
AWS670003Brandon Howard Farm #2Brandon Howard32711Lagoon Inundation Onslow34.8389-77.4967437 Rhodestown RdJacksonville
AWS670010Scott FarmGeorge Scott38401Damage to hog barn roofsOnslow34.8167-77.3856Jim Parker RdJacksonville
AWS520016White Oak River Farms (Forrest Nursery)White Oak River Farms LLC32001Lagoon overtopping/dischargeJones34.9181-77.3708203 Neuhoff LnMaysville
AWS520078Robert Cox Green FarmRobert Cox6001Lagoon overtopping/dischargeJones35.0686-77.445621 Stroud RdTrenton
AWS520036Clayhill Farms, Inc.Elijah Morton20001Lagoon inundation from creekJones34.9917-77.29171087 Davis Field RdPollocksville
AWS310318R & K Jarman Farms 4-7Ronnie Jarman24801Lagoon inundation/dischargeDuplin34.8972-77.8133305 Brown Rd NBeaulaville
AWS510020Sammy Britt Farm houses 1-6Sammy Britt37201Water from hog barn reached surface watersJohnston35.2878-78.32900 Langston RdNewton Grove
AWS310475Reeda Meadows Farms 1 & 2Rufus Rouse36982Lagoon Inundation and dischargeDuplin34.8531-77.85971672-A Pasture Branch RdBeulaville
AWS540111Morgan Farms, Inc.Michael Morgan9605Lagoon InundationLenoir35.1379-77.6668832519 Mark Smith RdDeep Run
AWS310128Triple D Farm, LLCJamie Dail61202Two lagoons inundated but no animals on farmDuplin34.7556-77.6833428 Bear Pond RdRichlands
AWS310166RL Pickett FarmRichard Pickett36721Lagoon inundationDuplin34.8564-77.86561593 Pasture Branch RdBeulaville
AWS820493A & P SouthA & P Farms LLC10643Lagoon overtoppedSampson34.668088-78.2533365527 Wildcat RdHarrells
AWS820698Allen Cannady Farm #1Robert Cannady52001Lagoon overtoppedSampson34.839658-78.3720162181 Wright Bridge RdClinton
AWS960193Strickland Farms 5-12Reginald Strickland58801Large lagoon wall failure releasing all waste to streamWayne35.23-78.17222375 Grantham School RdMount Olive
AWS310273NH Herring FarmNicholas Herring26401Lagoon InundationDuplin35.0494-77.9878751 Veaches Mill RdWarsaw
AWS310445Terry Miller Farm sites 1&2Terry Miller32002Lagoon overtoppedDuplin34.875-77.86671816 Pasture Branch RdBeulaville
AWS310548Carl Baker FarmElijah Baker11961Lagoon overtoppedDuplin34.9869-77.80641278 N NC 111Beulaville
AWS310376Duplin 1 & 2Wbw Sow Farms LLC72002Lagoon overtoppedDuplin35.0022-77.85531604 N NC 11 903 HwyKenansville
AWS760003Applefield Farm-Lower & UpperPhilip Faucette124002Lagoon inundationRandolph35.6208-79.61534599 Riverside DrRamseur
AWS310131Hunter FarmsMichael Hunter24481Lagoon inundationDuplin34.8369-77.7056258 Authar Sloan RdChinquapin
AWS310419Henry D. Teachey FarmKenneth Brown18601Dike wall break/lagoon emptiedDuplin34.8619-77.9489421 Stocking Head RdRose Hill
AWS710033Coastal FarmsKenneth Lanier24481Lagoon Inundation and dischargePender34.475-77.8625Rocky Point
AWS520064W&P Farms IncW & P Farms Inc76802Lagoon 2 inundatedJones35.1064-77.41583 Wyse Fork RdTrenton
AWS820545Craig Collins FarmCraig Collins5161Inground lagoon inundated discharged onto fieldsSampson34.66978-78.2938442625 Wilber Pridgen RdHarrells
CATTLE/DAIRY: AWC760031 McCain DairyWilliam Frazier13013Waste flowing from spillway, traveled 100 feet toward woods. Sandbags keeping it from Lake Lucas, Asheboro's water supplyRandolph35.7456-79.86171904 Lake Lucas RdSophia
AWC990012Shady Grove DairyTim Smitherman148033/5 waste ponds are over; facility out of compliance since August rainfallYadkin36.2331-80.52584408 Shady Grove Church RdEast Bend
Duplin 1 and 2 lagoon overtopping
P1,2, 11, 17 previously overtopped AWS 820415, 412, 511 0900089 AWS 820349 previously overtopped 820511
Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: NC early voting locations cut by almost 20 percent for uniform hours law

What’s more important when it comes to early voting — more hours at the polls or more polling locations for better geographic access?

ProPublica’s Electionland took a stab Monday at trying to answer that question — responses at the legislative level varied by party affiliation; responses from election officials was nearly uniform in their discontent over a new law’s requirement for uniform polling hours across the state.

Senate Bill 325 sets uniform voting hours for all early voting sites across the state. As explained in this NC Policy Watch article, a county board office, at a minimum, must be open during regular business hours for the 17-day early voting period, which will run this year from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2.

Any other one-stop early voting sites in a county must be agreed upon unanimously by the county board of elections and must operate every weekday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If any one-stop early voting site is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all sites in that county must be open for the same number of hours. In addition, if any one-stop early voting site is open, all county sites must be open on that day.

Republicans claimed that the uniform hours would make early voting easier and more accessible, but election officials say there is more to it than that.

Electionland expounds:

For many counties, the trade-off for more polling hours is fewer early voting locations. Take Gaston County, near Charlotte. In 2014, the county opened one main polling place at 8 a.m. and three additional ones at 10 a.m. According to Adam Ragan, the county’s nonpartisan director of elections, there are very few voters in the county eager to cast ballots early in the morning. The county, therefore, typically maximizes its resources by staggering voting hours across multiple locations.

“In elections administration, we have what we consider ‘non-usable hours,’” Ragan explained. “There are some locations where people won’t come at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. That’s why we’ve always opened our auxiliary sites at 10 a.m.”

The county originally planned to open five early voting locations, but with the new policy it can now only afford to operate three.

The organization’s analysis of polling locations shows that North Carolina’s 2018 midterm election will have nearly 20 percent fewer early voting locations than there were in 2014. Nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are shutting down polling places, in part because of the new law, the article states.

Poorer rural counties, often strapped for resources to begin with, are having a particularly difficult time adjusting to the new requirement.

The law appears to have exacerbated the divide between urban and rural counties, putting a greater strain on poorer, less populous counties, which often have smaller budgets, fewer full-time employees and an older voting population that is less willing to volunteer for what could be a 12-hour poll worker shift.

Take Bladen County. When it approved its operating budget this year, election officials set aside funds for four early voting sites. Though sparsely populated, Bladen County is large — the state’s fourth biggest by area — and local election administrators wanted to provide ample access to voters across the region.

Their plan had precedent. In every statewide election over the past decade, Bladen voters could cast their ballots at one of four early voting locations spread out across the county. Now, with the strict hours requirement, Bladen County can only afford to staff and operate one early voting site.

“We’re a small county and the law has affected us pretty badly,” said Bobby Ludlum, the GOP chair of Bladen County’s Board of Elections.

You can read the full ProPublica report here.

Commentary, News

Report: GOP tried to speed up vote after learning of second (and third?) Kavanaugh accuser

Ian Millhiser of Think Progress filed this commentary last night in response to the story from the New Yorker that a second accuser has emerged against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh:

“A second woman says that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh violated her sexually, according to a new report by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer. The woman, Deborah Ramirez, alleges that Kavanaugh “thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away” while they were both drinking at a dorm room party at Yale University.

Worse, Farrow and Mayer’s report suggests that Senate Republicans tried to speed up Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote upon learning of this second accuser. ‘Senior Republican staffers also learned of the allegation last week,’ according to the report. ‘Soon after, Senate Republicans issued renewed calls to accelerate the timing of a committee vote.’

Ramirez’s accusation follows another allegation by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who says that Kavanaugh tried to rape her during a high school party when Ford, who is known professionally as Dr. Blasey, was only 15. Ford is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about this allegation on Thursday.”

Clearly, if there’s any justice left in Washington, this latest revelation will derail the Kavanaugh nomination or halt it until a full FBI investigation can take place. Senators Tillis and Burr need to do the right thing and speak up now to demand that that the nomination be withdrawn, or at a minimum, put on the back shelf for several weeks.

UPDATE: RollCall is now reporting that yet another Kavanaugh will soon come forward. This is from a story updated late last night:

“At about the same time [that Kavanaugh was denying the Ford allegation] , Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who rose to fame by aggressively taking on President Donald Trump on behalf of his client Stormy Daniels, tweeted that he had another woman with an allegation who will be demanding that Kavanaugh’s nomination be withdrawn.

‘I represent a woman with credible information regarding Judge Kavanaugh and Mark Judge. We will be demanding the opportunity to present testimony to the committee and will likewise be demanding that Judge and others be subpoenaed to testify,’ Avenatti tweeted. ‘My client is not Deborah Ramirez.’”

Environment, Uncategorized

Duke Energy reporting another coal ash breach at Sutton; shuts down nat gas plant

Flood waters from Sutton Lake are surrounding Duke Energy’s natural gas plant there, forcing the utility to temporarily shut it down. (Photo: Duke Energy)

The Cape Fear River has overtopped a dam at Sutton Lake in Wilmington, sending coal ash into the water body from the 1971 ash basin. The lake provides cooling water for Duke Energy’s Sutton plant.

According to the utility, cenospheres, which are coal combustion byproducts, are moving from that basin into the lake and onto the Cape Fear River. Cenospheres are lightweight hollow beads that can contain not only silica and aluminum, but also arsenic and lead.

The second coal ash basin, built in 1984, is stable and has not been affected, the utility said. The lined ash landfill, which suffered two breaches in its slope last weekend, is not affected by the lake water. The landfill is being repaired.

Meanwhile, lake water has surrounded the natural gas plant at the Sutton site, requiring personnel to shut it down.

Duke Energy had previously shut down both reactors at its Brunswick County nuclear plant, but only one remains offline as of today. The second unit is operating at 69 percent, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.