Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC Board of Elections recommends salary increase for executive director

The State Board of Elections wants its new executive director to start her tenure with a raise.

Members voted unanimously Thursday to recommend a salary of $140,000 for Karen Brinson Bell, who will take over at the agency June 1. Kim Strach, who has been at the helm for just over six years currently makes $110,762. The new salary is contingent on approval by the Office of State Human Resources.

Democrats on the five-member State Board ousted Strach last week in an effort, they said, to steer the agency’s focus to election administration ahead of 2020. Republicans had pushed to keep Strach in the position, but were out-voted.

Board Chairman Bob Cordle said when he first took over his role, he was surprised after talking to staff to find out how much Strach made.

“I thought it was horribly underpaid and that she has been for some time,” he said.

He asked Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board, to look into salaries and how they might seek an increase for the executive director. Lawson told members for context that the Mecklenburg County elections director made about $30,000 more than Strach.

“Our executive director ought to make at least a similar amount of money as the director of Mecklenburg County,” Cordle replied, proposing that she make $135,000 per year.

Republican member David Black amended that proposal to $140,000 because he thought Strach earned it given the events of the past several months — primarily the absentee ballot fraud investigation in the 9th congressional district.

Lawson told Board members it was highly likely the salary increase would be approved.

Lawson turned in his resignation to align with Strach’s departure. The State Board also voted unanimously Thursday to designate Katelyn Love as acting general counsel, effective at the close of business May 31.

Love joined the agency as special counsel in 2016 and was promoted to the position of deputy general counsel in 2017, according to a news release. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University School of Law. She previously served as associate counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The State Board also certified the results of the 3rd congressional district primary election, which was held April 30, and unanimously set a one-stop early voting plan for Greene County for the second primary in the same district.

News

Julian Castro joins “Fight for 15” rally in Durham

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro marches with workers in Durham who rallied Thursday for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. Photo by Aditi Kharod

 

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro addressed a large crowd outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Morgan Avenue in Durham Thursday morning.

“One of the first things I noticed, because I used to be the Secretary of Housing, is how many beautiful construction projects are going up around Durham,” Castro said. “And so many of them are luxury condos and apartments – you can’t afford them. You can’t afford them because places like McDonald’s are paying less than $8 an hour to their workers. You can’t afford them because companies across the United States are making more and more profit without passing that down to the people who make that profit for them.”

Hundreds marched to the McDonald’s Thursday as part of the Fight for 15 movement, demanding a $15 minimum wage, the right to form unions and health care and sexual harassment policy reforms in the fast food industry.

The crowd was peaceful but passionate throughout the morning, chanting “We work, we sweat, put 15 on our check!” and “Put some respect on our check!”

Castro, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017, is one of a number of Democratic candidates marching in similar rallies all over the country as the issue becomes a crucial one in the presidential primary.

Julian Castro addresses Thursday’s “Fight for 15” rally in Durham.

“What’s happened in this country over the last 40 years is we’ve expected less and less from people and from corporations at the very top,” Castro said. “And we’ve expected more and more from the middle class and the working poor.”

N.C. Rep. Marica Morey (D-Durham)rallied with the crowd in a red “Fight for 15” t-shirt and praised Castro for coming to North Carolina to support the movement.

“He has been out front on this issue and I think him being here is a tribute to Durham and to the movement,” Morey said.

Morey is among the lawmakers who have sponsored bills in the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage, most recently a House bill that would establish a living wage in the state by 2024.

Opposition from the Republican majority in the General Assembly has kept such bills from getting out of committee.

Fast food workers shared their testimony with the crowd Thursday, saying they’ve struggled with harassment, assault and constant financial insecurity while working in the industry.

Lois Jones, a fast food worker who once worked at the very McDonald’s that was the scene of Thursday’s rally, told the crowd she experienced sexual harassment and assault during her time at a McDonald’s employee at multiple locations. Speaking up didn’t bring help but retaliation, she said.

“When I said something, no one did nothing about it,” Jones said. “After that my hours got cut. They started playing with my time and my paycheck.”

McDonald’s sets the standard for the fast food industry, Jones said, and should lead the way in improving pay and conditions for its employees.

Castro briefly spoke to McDonald’s workers during the rally Thursday.

Castro didn’t just address the crowd Thursday. He also briefly headed into the restaurant to speak with workers and management.

In a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, black pants and Nike running shoes, the 44-year old former mayor of San Antonio, Texas reminded some in the crowd of a young Barack Obama when he first hit the campaign trail.

“I liked that he got out there and marched, he got out there and talked to people one on one and he went inside and talked with the people who need to hear it, too,” said Joyce Batton, who came from Cary for the rally. “That’s what we need in someone running for president.”

After speaking briefly to workers behind the counter in English and Spanish, Castro told the crowd outside he got “a bit of a cold reception.” It’s important to continue reaching out to workers who are an essential part of pushing for change.

Eshawney Gaston, a fast-food worker who spoke at the rally, said another essential part is securing the right for fast food workers to unionize.

“Without a union we can fight for changes but we’re not going to keep them,” Gaston said. “They may give us $15 but they’ll just take it away again. If we don’t have a union we don’t have any say-s0. We’re not at the table.”

Rev. William Barber closed Thursday’s rally, promising the fight for a $15 minimum wage and right to unionize would be kept central to the 2020 presidential campaign.

The Rev. William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and one of the architects of the Moral Monday protests during his time as head of the state NAACP, closed Thursday’s rally. In a passionate speech, Barber called for a raised minimum wage, fair elections and recognition of the struggles of workers who make corporate profits possible.

“We will fight until the American dream belongs to all of us and not some of us,” Barber said. “And not only will we fight – we will win.”

Barber quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in saying that those working for low wages are encouraged to embrace rugged individualism and pull themselves up by their boot straps while large corporations in America enjoy socialism in the form of corporate welfare.

With Castro smiling next to him, Barber said these issues will be front and center in the 2020 presidential campaign.

“We will demand that every presidential candidate be for ’15 and a Union,'” Barber said. “If you don’t stand with workers we can’t stand with you.”

Education, News

NC group to train Asian American high schoolers in hopes of spurring political engagement

Image: http://ncaatogether.org/

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in North Carolina, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, far outpacing other racial minorities. According to statistics from the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina’s Asian American population grew by 85 percent, and between 2010 and 2015, it grew by 30 percent, six times more than the overall population.

Their political potential, however, is largely untapped. Voter registration and turnout for Asian Americans lags behind that of both white and Black voters in the state. According to civic engagement organization North Carolina Asian Americans Together, or NCAAT, this political participation gap has a few important causes.

According to NCAAT’s youth engagement coordinator, Danica Lee, one of the main reasons for the gap in political participation is lack of outreach to Asian Americans. “People don’t ask [Asian Americans] if they voted or if they’re interested in voting,” says Lee. The failure of other organizations to extend civic outreach efforts to Asian Americans is what attracted Lee to NCAAT, an organization which she says focuses on “targeting specifically Asian American communities for civic engagement.”

Another reason for the lack of political engagement from the Asian American community is the lack of education and resources provided to the various Asian American sub-communities. It is important to remember that Asian Americans are not a monolith. Within the Asian American community, there is great diversity of language, culture, religion, and experience, and utilizing a blanket strategy to target all Asian American voters in the same way would not be productive. “Understanding the nuances of various communities within the Asian American population should be at the forefront of developing any voter engagement strategy,” advises a 2016 report by NCAAT.

Lack of “outreach and resources available” to potential voters are the top two barriers to voter engagement in the Asian American community, according to Lee. NCAAT is trying to help erode those barriers.

The organization is committed to making sure Asian Americans have a strong political voice, and one of the ways it does this is by encouraging Asian American youth to be part of the next generation of community leaders. This July 10-12 will be NCAAT’s second annual summer Youth Leadership Institute, a three-day workshop for Asian and Asian American high school students to build their skills in leadership and advocacy.

Registration ends on June 9, and late registration is open until June 30. Interested high school students can apply here.

Aditi Kharod is a student at UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at NC Policy Watch.

Courts & the Law, Environment

Court of Appeals approves plans for controversial asphalt plant near camp for seriously ill kids

Image: Google maps

In the fall of 2015, two land quality inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Quality drew the short straw. They had to visit the Glendale Springs quarry in rural Ashe County, an operation with a history of compliance problems and a disagreeable owner.

After the inspectors arrived, Danny Cecile, the father of quarry vice-president DJ Cecile, “produced a pistol from his pocket,” according to public DEQ records, and stated “that the pistol was in case any of the inspectors got ‘out of line.’”

The employees completed the inspection, but refused to go back without reinforcements. The lead inspector didn’t report the incident to law enforcement, the documents read, because “he felt like it would just aggravate the situation.”

Environmental and administrative law don’t require you to be pleasant. So when Cecile applied to DEQ to operate an asphalt plant next to the quarry, as long as the facility could comply with state and federal law, there was no legal reason to deny it.

Concerned citizens and the Ashe County planning director, though, fought the asphalt plant — and lost. A three-judge panel from the state Court of Appeals yesterday ruled unanimously in favor of Cecile and Appalachian Materials, allowing the controversial project to operate near the New River, as well as a quarter-mile from a camp for children with serious or terminal illnesses.

The court offered several reasons for the ruling, including that the county planning board was within its authority to overturn the director’s decision. The judges also ruled that the planning director’s cursory approval of plant’s application — submitted before the state’s air quality permit was finalized—was in part, binding.

And because of a state law, passed in 2015, Appalachian Materials can choose which of the county’s Polluting Industries Development Ordinances (PIDOs) it wants to be governed under: A previous one, valid when the company initially filed its permit and before the county enacted a moratorium on PIDOs, or the new, more stringent ordinance, approved after a moratorium was lifted. (See box for timeline.)

“The Court’s reasoning is a stunning piece of sophistry,” said Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), among the opponents of the project. “The Court has made a serious error in this case. Its procedural legal reasoning may rest upon precedent, but its humanity is hobbled by a blinkered view of what is most vital in this world. Save the children.”

Chad Essick, an attorney with Poyner Spruill, which represented Appalachian Materials, said they are pleased about the decision, and that the facility “is entitled to its local permit.”

It’s uncertain whether Ashe County will ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case. No one from the county returned an email seeking comment.

*****

Since 2006, Camp New Hope has offered a free getaway, with a lodge and outdoor activities for families who have children with life-threatening medical conditions, such as cancer, seizure disorders or cerebral palsy. “Eighty-five percent of our children are in wheelchairs, have feeding tubes are on some type of ventilator and can’t talk,” said Camp Director Randy Brown, in a 2017 letter to DEQ. “A quarter are legally blind. “My children are very, very sick. They come to the camp to get out to nature in a safe and healthful environment.”

Brown’s comments were included in a 2017 letter from BREDL to DEQ. In that letter, Zeller also asked the agency to reopen the permit for further public input. He pointed out that the Division of Air Quality’s modeling had not considered the campers — “vulnerable populations” —in approving the permit.

But even healthy people can be harmed by emissions from asphalt plants. These facilities emit nearly 30 toxic air pollutants — in varying allowable amounts, according to state and federal law — including arsenic, mercury and benzene.

DEQ bases its permitting decisions on whether the plants can meet air quality regulations. But in North Carolina, local governments have the final say-so over the construction and siting of new plants.

Asphalt plants are often located near quarries, which makes transporting the raw material between the two facilities easier and cheaper. Radford Quarries, owned by DJ Cecile, will supply raw material to the nearby Appalachian Materials asphalt plant.

Given Radford Quarries’ history of non-compliance, plant opponents worry the new facility could be operated the same way.

For example, runoff and other sediment from the quarry and mining property could pollute the New River watershed. The quarry, according to DEQ documents from 2015, “has had ongoing compliance issues … for many years.”

Cecile had allegedly begun grading the land for the asphalt plant before receiving state approval to do so. Stormwater run-off, buffers and piping were also non-compliant,” the documents read, adding that, “even when properly installed and initiated, follow-up of state requirements has not happened and conditions have deteriorated.”

However, later inspections from 2017 showed no sediment had entered the waterways, and a Division of Water Resources study showed the quarry had not affected the stream. But DEQ did issue Radford a Notice of Deficiency for grading land outside its mining plan. Radford in response, submitted a change to the plan.

Radford Quarries was issued a Notice of Violation related to stormwater at its Bamboo Road facility in Watauga County. Those violations were subsequently corrected.

If Ashe County does not ask the state Supreme Court to take the case — and  since the lower court’s ruling was unanimous, it isn’t required to do so — then Appalachian Materials will begin scraping the land and building the plant, with its attendant environmental impacts.

And so has ended a convoluted two-year legal battle, which Cecile won without having to fire a shot.

Timeline:
• June 2015: Appalachian Materials applied for a Polluting Industries Development Ordinance (PIDO) permit in Ashe County to build and operate an asphalt plant on Glendale School Road in Glendale Springs. At its peak, the plant would be capable of producing 300 tons of asphalt per hour and 300,000 tons each year.
• September 2015: Ashe County Board of Commissioners adopted a temporary moratorium on the issuance of PIDO permits, which put the plant’s application on hold.
• September 2015: State legislature passes “Permit Choice” law. It provides that “if a [county’s] rule or ordinance changes between the time a permit application is submitted and a permit decision is made, the permit applicant may choose which version of the rule or ordinance will apply.”
• September 2015: Appalachian Materials used the hiatus to apply to the state for its required air quality permit. Over strenuous public objection, the Division of Air Quality issued the permit in February 2016.
• April 2016: Based in part on the moratorium, the county planning director denied Appalachian Materials its PIDO permit. The company appealed to the planning board.
• Summer/fall 2016: While the board was deliberating, the commissioners lifted the moratorium, but repealed the PIDO. It created a new, more restrictive ordinance that would make it more difficult for Appalachian Materials to build its plant.
• December 2017: The planning board overturned the director’s decision, allowing the construction of the plant. A Superior Court judge agreed with the board, and Ashe County appealed the decision.
• 2018: Court of Appeals hears the case.
• 2019: Court of Appeals rules in favor of the planning board and Appalachian Materials.

News

UNC Board of Governors Chair: Restoring Silent Sam at Chapel Hill “not the right path”

Restoring the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument to its original place at UNC-Chapel Hill is “not the right path,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said Wednesday.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith.

His thinking has undergone an evolution, Smith said at a press conference following a full meeting of the board of governors.

“My original view and opinion, which I think was probably quick and uneducated, was just to put it back up,” Smith said. “Having taken the time, energy and effort and talking to a lot of people I have tremendous faith and trust in, it’s my view and opinion as one member that that’s not the right path.”

Earlier this month, Smith announced a second delay in unveiling a potential plan for the statue, which was toppled by protesters last August. Controversy over the statue and its future played a part in public conflicts between the board and former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, both of whom resigned their positions.

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper and Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz have both gone on record saying they believe the statue should not return to the campus at Chapel Hill.

Opinion on the board is still divided. Last week outgoing board member Joe Knott wrote a column for the News & Observer in which he advocated for restoring the statue and said a “mob” shouldn’t decide the issue.

That sentiment is strong among some of the board’s most conservative members. Board member Thom Goolsby has repeatedly taken to his YouTube channel to say the statue must be re-erected under a 2015 law passed by the N.C. General Assembly to protect such monuments.

Smith is himself known as one of the board’s more conservative and combative members. His publicly changing his stance could signal a shift on the board, which has struggled with the question of whether and how to restore the statue since it was first brought down.

“From my perspective, my views and opinions have evolved greatly as I’ve gone through the process and learned,” Smith said Wednesday. “I think others’ have as well.”

Smith said he is just one member and he works at the will of the board, which has said has a lot of smart people. They’re going through the process deliberately rather than quickly in order to make the best decision, he said. No deadline now on a new plan for the monument.

“It would be easy to rush, make a decision and move on,” Smith said. “I don’t think that would be the right thing to do either. The goal here is simply to get it right.”

Asked if a new law is needed to resolve the issue, Smith was less expansive.

“I’m not a legislator,” he said. “We’re just working — our board is working really, really hard. And the goal is just to get it right. Whatever right is, that is the goal.”