Commentary, News

New “must read’ report: One vote really can turn an election in North Carolina

New from the good people at Democracy North Carolina:

Does one vote really make a difference in an election?

A new study from the nonpartisan voting rights group Democracy North Carolina shows that in a surprising number of cases a handful of votes can determine who wins or loses, especially in odd-year municipal elections like those now underway across the state.

By analyzing elections held in November 2015, the organization’s researchers identified 69 cities in NC where the mayor or a town council member won their election by five or fewer votes.

In 31 cities, how one person decided to vote made the difference in who won or lost.

“I was surprised to see how many places had very close contests,” said Bob Hall, Democracy North Carolina’s executive director. “Of course, many of these are small towns but the elections involve mayors and even several ties settled by a coin toss or another method that follows state law.”

In the Sparta in western North Carolina, one candidate in a tied-vote election for town council called heads – and lost. A coin toss also broke ties for council seats in Sylva, West Jefferson, Clarkton (Bladen Co.), and Godwin (Cumberland Co.), while drawing the winner’s name from a box decided a council seat in Dover (Craven Co.). In Garland (Sampson Co.), the tied candidates put colored pens in a box, and the elections board chair picked the winner, a purple pen.

The mayors of Spruce Pine (Mitchell Co.), St. Pauls (Robeson Co.) and Biscoe (Montgomery Co.) squeaked by with one-vote victories. Mayors in 9 other towns won by five or fewer votes: Angier (Harnett & Wake Co.), Atkinson (Pender Co.), Cooleemee (Davie Co.), Mooresboro (Cleveland Co.), Newton Grove (Sampson Co.), Roxobel (Bertie Co.), Sylva (Jackson Co.), St. Paul (Robeson Co.), and Teachey (Duplin Co.).

Other cities with races settled by 5 or fewer votes in 2015 include Bladenboro, Bryson City, Chadbourn, Creedmoor, Lumberton, Marshville, Nashville, Oriental, Plymouth, Ramseur, Wallace, and Whiteville. A complete list is at demnc.co/2015close (pages 2-10).

“Participating in local elections can have an immediate impact on voters’ daily lives and shape the pipeline for political leaders long term,” said Sunny Frothingham, senior researcher at Democracy North Carolina. “The winners oversee the police, decide funding for vital services, shape neighborhood development, set tax rates, and more.”

“These local officials may win by a narrow margin, but history shows they may eventually become a state legislator or even member of Congress,” she added. “Participating in local elections can have an immediate impact on voters’ daily.”

Early voting continues in most towns until 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 4. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has created a list of the locations and hours of all early voting sites at demnc.co/earlyvote17.

On Election Day, November 7, polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. People in cities with elections can see their personal ballot by following the directions at demnc.co/ballot.

Close North Carolina Elections in 2015

The spreadsheet at demnc.co/2015close (pages 2-10) shows mayoral and council contests in 2015 that were decided by 5 votes or less.

 

agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

“Unsubstantiated by competent evidence”: Judge rules against Civitas’s Francis De Luca in Smithfield Foods case

Wake County Superior Court Paul Ridgeway ruled in favor of Attorney General Josh Stein in granting a motion for summary judgment.

Francis De Luca tried to thread a legal needle but instead poked himself in the eye.

In a lawsuit filed last October, De Luca, the director of conservative group Civitas, had claimed that millions of dollars generated by a 2000 settlement agreement between the state attorney general’s office and Smithfield Foods were being unconstitutionally disbursed.

But beneath the surface, De Luca’s lawsuit appears to be less about the recipients — conservation groups, universities and other nonprofits — or the money spent to enhance and improve the state’s environment.

Rather, although never articulated, the subtext of the litigation, as the American Spectator wrote, was that Chinese money illegally funded Roy Cooper’s successful gubernatorial campaign against Pat McCrory.

Even absent the sub rosa theories, De Luca’s constitutional contentions — argued by his attorney, former House Majority Leader Paul Stam — did not convince a judge. In an Oct. 12 ruling, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway wrote that De Luca’s arguments were “unsubstantiated by competent evidence, contrary to settled law or not relevant.”

The backstory starts 17 years ago when, after then-Attorney General Mike Easley negotiated a settlement agreement with Smithfield Foods requiring the company to commit $15 million for the development of “environmentally superior technology” to manage swine waste. Additionally, the company was to annually pay an amount equal to $1 per hog that it owned in North Carolina, for the next 25 years. The amount was capped at $2 million a year.

Those payments have since gone into an escrow account managed by PNC Bank. Each year, as part of the Environmental Enhancement Program, the attorney general’s office solicits proposals and then awards funding to groups working on environmental projects that would improve water quality in the state.

That money, De Luca argued, should be viewed not as a settlement but as penalty payments. And per the state constitution, civil penalties, fees and forfeitures instead must go to the affected counties, which in turn, use the money for public schools. (Public charter schools, which Civitas champions over traditional public schools, would likely also be eligible.)

Smithfield was an “environmental violator,” De Luca and Stam argued, according to the court documents, and “there is little in the way of reasonable consideration for a company to pay $50 million for environmental enhancement if the agreement didn’t function as a settlement for something.”

Stein, who inherited the litigation, provided several affidavits from attorneys and state environmental officials who were privy to the original agreement. All stated under oath that the settlement was not related to a civil penalty.

For one, the state had taken no enforcement action, nor assessed any penalties against Smithfield. And besides, the agreement was with the AG’s office, not state environmental regulators, which can “solely assess” civil penalties. Nor did the settlement foreclose on the possibility that the state could take enforcement actions in the future.

De Luca’s ostensible legal argument spiraled into a political conspiracy theory last October, on the heels of the election. Here is a synopsis of De Luca’s thinking, which he laid out in a complaint to the state board of elections. (These claims were outside the scope of the lawsuit against Stein, but the case was likely an attempt to set the table for future litigation.)

Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Berger’s chief of staff: Senate committee appointments coming to discuss best way to pick judges

Jim Blaine, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) discussed judicial selection on Capital Tonight.

The Senate President Pro Tem‘s chief of staff and a former appellate judge turned House Representative faced off Thursday on Spectrum News‘ Capital Tonight about North Carolina’s judiciary.

Jim Blaine has, on behalf of Phil Berger, been presenting the idea of a “merit selection” plan to various groups and stakeholders across the state while Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) has been opposing his chamber’s plan to redraw all judicial and prosecutorial districts in the state.

It’s no secret that legislators have long been trying to politicize the judiciary but the most recent attempt came just two days before the Capital Tonight segment. Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Bladen) introduced a constitutional amendment to shorten all judgeships to two years and force all 403 current sitting judges to run for reelection in 2018.

John didn’t waste any time bringing up that amendment, noting that it was a far cry from Blaine’s statements about wanting to have a discussion on judicial selection.

“Instead of throwing out a ludicrous bill which cuts the terms of all 403 judges in the state — it would create chaos in the election year 2018 — why not appoint the commission, bring in judges, former judges, legislators, folks affected and have a discussion?” John asked. “Not through out a ridiculous bill and then say, ‘oh we want to have a discussion.'”

Blaine said on the news segment that Berger was expected to make appointments in the coming days to a select committee to review judicial selection and that he’d contacted Minority Leader Dan Blue looking for Democrats willing to serve.

Blue’s office confirmed Friday that Berger did contact them.

“I think his hope is that we can arrive at a consensus about a better way to pick judges in North Carolina,” Blaine said.

He did not make known his position on the Constitutional amendment, but said simply that all options are on the table regarding judicial selection. He did think Rabon’s proposal was a serious one, not only to be used as a bargaining tool to warrant support for “merit selection.”

“If you’re going to have elections and you’re going to elect your judges, let the people vote on them regularly just like they do legislators, city councilmen, any other office,” Blaine said.

John responded that the fundamental flaw in his argument is that folks are viewing the judiciary as a partisan branch of government, when in fact it was set up to be “wholly independent.”

Blaine said he did not believe that politics could be taken out of the judicial selection process. He also said the legislature has been discussing a “merit selection” process that includes input from various places — he said he hasn’t seen a plan put forth that only involves lawmakers picking judges.

He also said during the segment that there has been a “groundswell” at the legislature “to do something as it relates to the judiciary” for about four or five years.

You can watch the news segment here with a Spectrum News login.

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Former GOP Supreme Court justice: 2 year terms amendment continued effort to ‘intimidate judiciary’

The North Carolina Senate filed a Constitutional amendment Tuesday that would shorten all judges and state Supreme Court justices terms to two years and end all sitting judges terms in December 2018.

Bob Orr, a prominent Republican who served as a justice on the state Supreme Court and as a candidate for governor, described the Constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 698, as a “continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary.”

“It’s just wrong,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Orr said the amendment sends the wrong message to the judiciary that if judges won’t rule the GOP’s way, lawmakers will retaliate.

“That’s just fundamentally repugnant to everything I believe,” he said.

He added that when the 1868 state Constitution was being discussed — it was the first one with a requirement for judges to run for election — the issue was how long a term judges should serve, not how short. He said some lawmakers at the time wanted 16-year terms. [Read more…]

2. A new low in the dismantling of democracy
The folks running the General Assembly reached a new low this week in their efforts to dismantle our democracy—-and that is no small feat given their actions in the last few years.

Senate Rules Chair Bill Rabon filed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to shorten the terms of all judges in the state to two years and end every current judge’s term at the end of 2018. They would all have to run for reelection this fall and every two years after that.

That would literally turn judges into partisan politicians spending as much time much raising money and campaigning as they do hearing cases. There are currently 403 judges serving, when you add up district court, superior court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The idea is absurd on its face and makes a mockery of the judicial branch of government.  District Court judges currently serve four-year terms. Every other judge and justice serve terms of eight years, the idea being that they will be less affected by the shifting political winds. [Read more…]

3. NC Senate appoints industry front group member to Oil and Gas Commission slot reserved for conservation voice

Jim Womack has a reputation in North Carolina for being many things, but a conservationist isn’t one of them.

An outspoken fracking proponent, of course. A blogger who, under the pseudonym James Madison, likened President Obama to a Marxist Muslim imam, sure. A Tea Party supporter and Lee County Commissioner who voted to dismantle the environmental board — yes, that happened.

It was because of this background that many environmental advocates and political observers were puzzled earlier this month when Senator Phil Berger reappointed Womack to the state’s oil and gas commission to fill a seat reserved for a “nongovernmental conservation interest.”

Womack’s purported conservation bona fides stem from his membership on the board of science and policy advisors of the American Council on Science and Health. However, a review of the group’s position papers, books and the backgrounds of all 300 advisors shows that ACSH performs no conservation activities.[Read more…]

4. Facing charter takeover, Robeson County leaders tell state to stay out

Just days after a North Carolina official tapped a Robeson County elementary for a controversial charter takeover district, local leaders say the state isn’t welcome in Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

“The governor of North Carolina and the legislators cannot justify that, as far as I’m concerned,” Jerry Stephens, a Robeson County commissioner, told Policy Watch Tuesday. “It’ll be such a great fall-out.”
Commissioner Jerry Stephens

Members of the county’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education unanimously approved a joint resolution Monday night opposing Southside-Ashpole’s selection for the state’s Innovative School District (ISD), which could allow charter or education management organizations—including, possibly, for-profit groups—to seize control of operations and staffing in hopes of turning around lagging test scores.[Read more...]

5. Our rogue General Assembly returns to Raleigh for yet another rump session
Why the legislature now operates this way and why it’s a big problem

The North Carolina General Assembly (or, at least, a goodly portion of it) returned to town last night. Nearly four months after having passed a new state budget—the event that used to signal the conclusion of an annual legislative session—lawmakers are back yet again.

The top agenda item this time for our “part-time” lawmakers: to override Governor Cooper’s veto of a bill to alter state elections passed during their last cameo appearance in the state capital. At least, that’s what we think the plan is. Though the Senate acted last night, no one knows for sure. The move comes just days after legislative leaders had stated publicly that no such action would be taken until at least January of 2018.

This makes roughly a half dozen times this year that lawmakers have convened, departed and returned. Though legislative leaders have wised up (at least from a P.R. perspective) and stopped always referring to their serial returns to Jones Street, as “special sessions,” (there were at least five of such sessions in 2016—remember the HB2 session and the pre-holidays session to undermine Roy Cooper?) that is, effectively, what’s been going on with great regularity for several years. Rather than coming to Raleigh for a single annual session and then returning upon its conclusion to their homes, jobs and families as was long the tradition in the state, lawmakers—especially since Republicans assumed control back in 2011—now operate under a new model. [Read more...]

*** Bonus read: Searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ in partisan gerrymandering standards: An update from the federal trial in Greensboro

News

WRAL: State schools superintendent moves to staff his office

Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey (right)

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is preparing to take advantage of $700,000 in funding state lawmakers approved to staff his office, WRAL is reporting.

GOP budget writers cleared the cash this year for Johnson to hire up to 10 new positions that would report directly to him and not the State Board of Education, all part of the superintendent’s ongoing courtroom battle with North Carolina’s top school board.

From WRAL:

(Johnson) recently received budget approval from the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management to create three positions, and more are expected later. According to OSBM, the three positions and budgeted amounts approved for the salaries (excluding benefits) are:

  • Associate Superintendent of Early Education – $174,603
  • Information and Communication Specialist – $72,346
  • ?Administrative Assistant – $38,867

Johnson has hired one of those positions so far. Isaac Ridgeway, a recent graduate of North Carolina State University, was hired earlier this month as the superintendent’s administrative assistant. His official title is research assistant and project coordinator, according to a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The superintendent’s plan to hire an associate superintendent of early education is not unexpected. In April, he spoke about his desire to create the position during an event announcing his “NC Reads” program. Johnson said he wanted the person in that role to “find out what works best and present those back and really start to tackle early childhood.”

Johnson also plans to hire a communications specialist who will work directly for him. DPI recently hired a new communications director, Drew Elliot, but he serves both the superintendent and state board. In a phone interview Thursday, Elliot said the superintendent wants his own communications specialist because he has a “renewed focus on communication.”

Johnson has previously said he also plans to hire a chief of staff and a chief innovation officer, but it’s unclear when he will make those hires. He has declined to say what other positions he may create.

The superintendent couldn’t begin creating positions and hiring people until the Office of State Budget and Management certified the education agency’s budget on Sept. 13, according to Elliot. The hiring process was also slowed by the ongoing lawsuit between the superintendent and state board.

“He doesn’t know what flexibility he will have to change the existing positions at DPI,” Elliot said.

Court records in the ongoing legal battle have revealed numerous clashes between the superintendent and board over staffing changes at the agency. Johnson has accused the board of severely limiting his authority and ignoring his requests to hire people for certain positions.

Lawmakers stepped in to help Johnson and included $700,000 in the state budget for him to hire his own staff. They also provided him with $300,000 for his legal expenses while barring the state board from using taxpayer money to fund its lawsuit.