Higher Ed, News

Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weigh in on state budget stalemate

The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weighed in on the state budget stalemate Tuesday, passing a resolution calling on lawmakers to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s  veto of the budget passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

The move comes after last week’s meeting of the the UNC Board of Governors where that board passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long political struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the legislative Republicans.

The board of governors’ resolution called for “all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Western Carolina appears to be the first university whose board of trustees has done so.

The resolution was passed in a special telephone meeting of the board Tuesday afternoon. One board member was absent, two abstained and all others voted to approve the resolution.

The UNC Board of Governors is appointed by the Republican dominated state House and Senate. The board of governors in turn appoint members of the boards of trustees of the UNC system’s constituent schools. The current, 24-member board of governors is entirely composed of members who are Republican or unaffiliated. No Democrats serve on the board.

 

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Judges: Voters unhappy with 2016 special session should take care of it at the ballot box, not in court

The judicial branch of government has no right to tell the General Assembly how quickly laws must be enacted nor can it require them to give advance public notice ahead of a legislative special session, according to a state Court of Appeals opinion released today.

The plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Forest challenged the 2016 special legislative session in which two bills were passed that fundamentally changed the balance of power between governmental branches. The session was called with no advance notice to the public, and there were 26 separate bills filed at the time, which the plaintiffs’ attorney said at the hearing was to distract from the legislation that ultimately passed.

A unanimous, bipartisan three-judge appellate panel rejected the argument that the people have a right to instruct their representatives via a time limit for public notice of a special session.

“The right protected [the right to instruct] is one of open access to the law-making process and of open communication with one’s representatives in that process,” the opinion states. “The courts have the power to defend that right. But the decision of how quickly particular laws, on particular subjects, must be enacted is a political question reserved for another branch of government.”

Judge Richard Dietz wrote the opinion, with Judges Hunter Murphy and Allegra Collins concurring. He wrote that the judicial branch has no constitutional authority to demand from the legislative branch an explanation of why a particular bill must move quickly to  enactment, much less the authority to review whether that explanation is “valid.”

He also wrote the plaintiffs did not show they were denied the right to instruct their representatives.

“They have shown, at most, that their representatives chose not to listen to them,” the document states. “That may be a reason not to vote for those representatives in the future; it is not a constitutional violation.”

The bills that were passed out of the challenged special session were Senate Bill 4, which changed the structure of state and county boards of elections and the State Ethics Commission, created partisan appellate judicial elections, and stripped the newly elected governor of the power to administer the Industrial Commission, and House Bill 17, which transferred power from the state Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

There has already been extensive litigation over the substance of those bills rather than the special session itself.

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause NC, said Tuesday they are considering whether to appeal the opinion to the state Supreme Court.

“There was no justifiable reason for the special legislative session that was hatched in secrecy,” he said in a news release. “It was a deliberate effort by Republican legislative leaders to keep citizens in the dark about their plans to engage in a nakedly partisan power grab.”

Read the full appellate opinion below.



COA Common Cause Challenge (Text)

Housing, NC Budget and Tax Center

Durham tragedy shows why we need to end the cycle of under-investment in public housing

The tragedies at McDougald Terrace, Durham’s largest and oldest public housing complex, have shaken the community. Authorities evacuated hundreds of families from their homes into hotel rooms after about 40 percent of appliances at McDougald Terrace apartments were found to be emitting carbon monoxide. Housing advocates in Durham have argued that one reason for these problems is inadequate federal funding. Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than one housing complex. In fact, there are dozens of publicly supported housing developments throughout North Carolina that received failing grades according to inspections in 2019 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Real Estate Assessment Center.

Apartment complexes subsidized by federal dollars undergo physical inspections, which aim to ensure that these developments are safe and sanitary places to live. In 2019, 24 of the 227 developments that were inspected received a failing grade (below 60 on a 100-point scale). Reporting by ProPublica suggests that residents in many developments with a passing inspection grade still experience serious health and safety issues.

The map below shows the housing developments that received a failing grade in North Carolina in 2019.

Three out of the four developments with the lowest scores in North Carolina are in Durham County; McDougald Terrace tied for third lowest with a score of 31. The housing development with the lowest score is Hillcrest in Wilmington with a score of 27 out of 100.

It shouldn’t take three infant deaths to wake us up to the needs of our neighbors. As Samuel Gunter of the NC Housing Coalition said last week, “We have criminally underfunded our public housing system in this country for decades.” When we continue to neglect the needs of our neighbors, everyone suffers.

The community response to McDougald Terrace has been inspiring. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many will seize the opportunity to serve their community by donating supplies or volunteering their time. But if we want to build safe communities for the long term, we need to end the cycle of under-investment in public housing. That work may start in Durham.

Education, News

After a five-day hearing, a decision in Istation case is still weeks away

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

It’ll be more than five weeks before a decision is made on the fate of the controversial contract award to Istation to assess reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.

After a five-day hearing about the award, Jonathan Shaw, the general counsel for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) who presided over the hearing, granted the court reporter two weeks to transcribe recordings and attorneys three weeks to respond with proposed decisions.

On Friday, Tymica Dunn, procurement manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, spent several hours answering questions about the state procurement process, particularly about how the criteria for the reading assessment tool changed after a Request for Proposal (RFP) was cancelled and DPI entered directly into negotiation with Istation and Amplify.

A day earlier, Amplify CEO and co-founder Larry Berger testified that he believed the evaluation criteria for the state’s reading assessment tool was changed to disadvantage his firm.

Berger contended that during the RFP process an evaluation committee ranked Amplify above Istation and two other competitors for the lucrative state contract worth millions to the winning bidder.

Amplify CEO Larry Berger

But he said the evaluation criteria from the RFP to the negotiation phase was changed to make criteria less favorable to Amplify more important.

Cost, for example, was ranked highest in the negotiation phase but carried a lower ranking during the RFP process.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson eventually awarded Istation the contract, worth $8.3 million, Amplify’s bid was much higher, around $12 million. (Both firms eventually lowered prices during the negotiation phase but Istation’s remained low-bidder).

Amplify filed a protest after Johnson awarded Istation the contract. That led to this week’s hearing to determine whether DPI acted properly in the contract award.

Dunn was relatively new in her job as procurement manager when the reading assessment RFP fell into her lap.

DPI Procurement Manager Tymica Dunn

So, when the RFP reached the brink of cancellation after an evaluation committee formed to weigh proposals couldn’t reach consensus, Dunn asked officials with the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) for advice.

She said Pattie Bowers, director of procurement for DIT, told her and a colleague that the criteria could change in the negotiation phase because it would become a new procurement.

Mitch Armbruster, lead attorney for Amplify, said changing the criteria, and then not notifying his client about it, was unfair. Berger testified that he was never told about the changes.

One interesting development during hearing involved a discussion earlier in the week about the way DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson learned about an evaluation committee member’s breach of confidentiality, which played a part in the cancellation of one reading assessment RFP.

It’s been alleged that someone illegally monitored a former employee’s email that was still attached to her cell phone. The former employee received email messages discussing the procurement process from a member of the evaluation committee selected to evaluate reading diagnostic tools.

A printed copy of the exchange was slipped to DPI staffers who turned it over to Johnson.

DPI spokesman Graham Wilson confirmed in an email message that DPI is investigating the claim.

“We do not know where the text message came from,” Wilson said. “We are conducting an investigation to try to find out.” Read more

Commentary, News

Conservative NC lawmakers boost controversial King Day gun rally

Concerns continue to grow about a gun rights rally that has been planned for Richmond, Virginia on the upcoming January 20 King holiday.

Click here to read a Virginia Mercury story about how a state court judge recently upheld a temporary ban on bringing firearms onto the site of the rally and here to read about how the FBI has arrested three suspected members of a white supremacist group who planned on attending.

The state’s governor has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the event, which has been endorsed by some of the same actors that participated in the infamous 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Meanwhile, despite these many troubling aspects to the event and its obvious overtones of racism and violence, it appears numerous North Carolina lawmakers have signed on to a letter in support of the rally’s goal of promoting so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” cities and counties.

The following Facebook post by North Carolina State Rep. Steve Jarvis of Davidson County indicates that at least three North Carolina lawmakers will attend the rally and deliver a letter signed by 50 House members (see page one above — Raleigh’s News & Observer has the full letter here), including House Speaker Tim Moore. The

Today as your State House Representative I signed a letter in Support of the 2nd Amendment counties and cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This letter states that the North Carolina House Republican Caucus supports the counties and cities that have self-declared themselves as “2nd Amendment Sanctuaries”.
The signers of the letter include Speaker Tim Moore and Majority Leader John Bell Freshman Majority Leader Steve Jarvis as well as 47 other members. Representative Kidwell will attend a rally on January 20th where he and several other members of the North Carolina House of Representatives including Rep Michael Speciale (Craven) and Rep Bobby Hanig (Currituck) will present the letter to the members of the Virginia legislature. “It is our hope that we can impress upon the Virginia legislature the importance of protecting the rights of the people they represent”. Said Rep. Kidwell. As stated in the letter, North Carolina and Virginia have stood together beginning with the revolution, and it is the hope of the signers of this letter of support that we will continue to stand with the citizens as their rights are being attacked in much the same way they were under colonial rule.
All in all, this is pretty scary stuff. It’s one thing to hold strong views on gun rights, but it’s quite another to play footsy with avowed white supremacists and some of the other characters involved in this event. The North Carolina lawmakers should take a step back and rethink their implicit endorsement of the event.