Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

BREAKING: 3-judge panel rules Board of Elections, Ethics Enforcement structure unconstitutional

A three-judge panel ruled the evening before early voting that Republican lawmakers unconstitutionally restructured the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected.

Provisions of a state law restructuring the State Board (including its executive director and chairperson) and county boards of elections violates the separation of powers clause in the Constitution by diminishing the Governor’s control over the agency, according to the 2-1 opinion released after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Judges Jesse Caldwell III, a Democrat who presides in Gaston County and Todd Burke, a Democrat who presides in Forsyth County signed the opinion. Judge Jeffery Foster, a Republican who presides in Pitt County, wrote a dissenting opinion noting that he believed the issues were political questions and therefore nonjusticiable.

The split decision enjoins the parts of the law ruled unconstitutional but suspends that injunction until after the November election is certified so the election process can continue without interruption.

It’s not immediately clear if GOP legislative leaders will appeal the decision. There is a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that also restructures the State Board.

The State Board currently consists of nine members — four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated voter. The executive director is Kim Strach, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. County boards are composed of four members evenly divided by Republicans and Democrats.

The proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate the unaffiliated representation on the State Board and give the legislature more appointment power over the agency.

Read Tuesday’s full court opinion below:

3-judge panel order NCSBE by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

News

State Board of Elections delays Hise hearing, will hear other interesting cases

Wednesday’s meeting of the state Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement won’t feature the hearing planned for Sen. Ralph Hise, whose campaign finance case has been in the investigation stage for nearly two years.

Policy Watch reported a back-and-forth over a proposed delay of the hearing last week. The Hise hearing was pulled from Wednesday’s agenda over the weekend as disagreements between the board and its staff over whether the investigation was complete enough for a hearing led to partisan bickering on the board and beyond.

Wednesday’s meeting will still feature several interesting cases, including  Rep. Rodney Moore’s (D-Mecklenberg) alleged $10,000 in  unreported campaign contributions . 

The board will also hold a hearing on the removal of Cornelia Cree, a Republican member of the Haywood County Board of Elections who made posts on social media accusing Democrats of  to legalizing pedophilia as part of a bizarre conspiracy theory about winning the Catholic vote.

The board will also discuss the settlement of one of the largest campaign donation forfeitures in state history, in which 48 improper donations from the Pfizer Inc. political action committee were forfeited by political campaigns and committees across the state.

Environment

PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Jimmy Dew’s family owns Marshwood Lake, just northeast of the Chemours plant. He spoke earlier this year at a public information session in Bladen County. His family’s well has been contaminated with fluorinated compounds. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds.

All study participants had some level of PFHxS in their blood. It is often found in carpet and firefighting foam.  

Also detected in all blood samples, the compounds n-PFOA, n-PFOS, and Sm-PFOS are variations of C8. It is used to make non-stick coatings, including Teflon, and can be found in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.

Although manufacturers like DuPont have phased out their use of C8 — replacing it with GenX — the compound persists for years in the human body and the environment. C8 is classified as “likely carcinogenic,” which means they can cause cancer. However, not everyone who is exposed to these compounds develops cancer. The compounds can also cause low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders.

C8 is the compound that triggered the class-action lawsuit by residents who drank well water contaminated by discharge from the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, WV. DuPont paid $670 million to settle the litigation.

The median detection levels of PFHxS and n-PFOS in the 30 North Carolina residents were higher than that of the US population. Median is the midpoint between the lowest and highest readings.

The highest level of PFHxS in blood among study participants was 6.7 parts per billion. By comparison, 95 percent the US population tested has levels of 5.6 ppb or below, according to 2013-14 data from the CDC.

Similarly, the highest level of n-PFOS among the study participants was 34.6 parts per billion. In the general US population, it was 14 ppb. People who drank from wells near the Parkersburg, WV, plant had median levels of 38 ppb.

Other findings included:

  • Nine of 17 fluorinated compounds were found in the blood of at least one of the participants. The other eight were not detected at all.
  • Only one fluorinated compound was found in urine, and that was at the lowest detectable level.

The sample size was small because the CDC could not test more people. Each household could have a limit of one adult and one child from 12 to 17 years old. No infants, toddlers or young children were tested.

The Environmental Protection Agency was expected to release its guidance on groundwater cleanup of fluorinated compounds, as well as human health toxicity values and a PFAS management plan as soon as last month. An EPA spokesperson told Policy Watch that the agency “continues to work toward releasing the toxicity values in the coming weeks, the groundwater cleanup values and management plan this year.”

 
Education, News

North Carolina officials choose struggling Wayne County elementary for controversial takeover program

Officials in North Carolina’s controversial takeover initiative, the Innovative School District, have selected a struggling Wayne County school — Carver Heights Elementary — to be the second addition to the program in 2019.

A spokesman for the ISD, David Prickett, confirmed the news Tuesday morning, adding that an official announcement was forthcoming. Leaders in the Wayne County school system were notified Monday, Prickett said.

The Goldsboro elementary school earned an “F” grade and did not meet state growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to its N.C. report card.  But the school serves an extraordinarily high level of economically disadvantaged students — about 90 percent — a population that tends to struggle academically.

Carver Heights was one of six schools that made a final list for consideration this fall, chosen because of their academic marks.

The selection will require the approval of the State Board of Education.

Leaders and supporters of the takeover program held a town hall with Wayne County residents last week and received a rocky reception from some vocal opponents.

Critics say the unproven program, which allows for charters and other private groups to seize control of a struggling public school, amounts to experimenting with predominantly low-income, students of color.

Similar models have been met with lackluster results and public outcry in states like Tennessee and Michigan.

But supporters say it’s an innovative approach for schools that have long struggled. Republican lawmakers advanced the takeover model, once called the “achievement school district,” in 2016, with support from a wealthy school choice backer behind a growing charter network.

Officials with the ISD tapped a Robeson County school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary, for the program last year. Ethical questions about the nonprofit established to run the school have troubled the initiative.

The program is expected to select up to five schools over the next few years, although Carver Heights will be the only recommended addition in 2019, Prickett said.

Leadership with the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which advocates for teachers across the state, have been openly critical of the state-run district.

Indeed, NCAE President Mark Jewell slammed the news in a statement Tuesday.

“The Innovation School District is an unproven and unaccountable takeover scheme that does nothing to improve student achievement,” Jewell said. “Having for-profit companies take over public schools will do nothing but rip our communities apart.  I was just in Wayne County last week and parents, educators, and our communities have been making it loud and clear that they do not want this.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

News

Eastern North Carolina residents press for a just hurricane recovery

Sholanda Regan of South Lumberton tells the story of her family – and her community’s – struggle to recover from multiple storms.

As lawmakers gathered Monday to approve funding for Hurricane Florence relief, residents and community leaders from Eastern North Carolina came together outside the General Assembly.

They told their personal recovery stories and encouraged lawmakers to put recovery money – and their political power – where it’s most needed.

The Just Florence Recovery Collective represents more than 25 community organizations and dozens of impacted residents. Its goal: to shed a light on racial and class disparities that have made storm damage worse and recovery slower in North Carolina’s poorest and encourage those in power to reverse the trend and make those communities whole.

Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition came from Goldsboro where, he said, “part of our community has been used as a dumping ground for Duke Energy’s 6 million tons of poisonous coal ash.”

For over 60 years unlined coal ash basins have harmed drinking water in and around his community and been released into the Neuse River, Jones said.

“And then the storm came,” Jones said. “When Hurricane Florence came through Wayne County, the water submerged these coal ash basins and the coal ash was washed into the river.”

The result, Jones said: levels of arsenic 18 times higher than safety standards for drinking water.

“We need to hold Duke Energy accountable,” Jones said.

“We need to hold the people who work over here accountable,” Jones said, pointing toward the legislature.

Addressing legislators, Jones said Eastern North Carolinians are making a simple request of legislators who have given tax breaks to and eased regulations on companies whose pollution has devastated the state and its residents.

“We are asking you extend to the citizens of North Carolina just a fraction of the favor that you extended to Duke Energy,” Jones said.

From coal ash contamination to millions of gallons of hog feces unleashed in flood waters and into waterways, La’Meshia W. Kaminski said the location of the damage is not a coincidence. Read more