Legislative subcommittee to investigate ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of Hurricane Matthew recovery program

 

Damaged in Hurricane Matthew in 2016, these houses are under construction or are being rehabbed as part of ReBuild NC’s disaster relief program. The homeowners have been displaced for as long as two and a half years, living in motels, with relatives or in dilapidated houses, while construction is delayed. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

A 12-member legislative subcommittee will investigate the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s handling of a Hurricane Matthew disaster relief program that has left thousands of people displaced, living in motels, with relatives, or in dilapidated houses for years. NCORR is familiarly known as ReBuild NC.

This week House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger established the Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery. Its co-chairs are Rep. John Bell, a Republican representing Wayne, Johnston and Greene counties; and fellow Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, whose district includes Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.

ReBuild NC received $236 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hurricane Matthew homeowner recovery. Initially, the Division of Emergency Management ran the program under then-director Mike Sprayberry. However, HUD criticized the division for the slow rollout of funding.

In response, in late 2018 the legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which is under the Department of Public Safety. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as chief operating officer to get the program on track. She hired Ivan Duncan as chief program delivery officer, who held a similar position in New York State after Hurricane Sandy.

Laura Hogshead, director and chief operating officer of the ReBuild NC program. (Photo: NCORR)

However, under Hogshead’s and Duncan’s leadership, ReBuild NC has continued to founder. Since May, Policy Watch has published a series of investigative stories and homeowner interviews uncovering the extent of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement: arbitrary and preferential treatment to some construction companies, an atmosphere of secrecy, high turnover of case managers, lack of communication with displaced homeowners, as well as exorbitant expenditures on motel rooms and mobile storage units for those households.

As a result of Policy Watch’s reporting, Gov. Roy Cooper in late June ordered ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety “to undergo a thorough review of all areas where the process can be streamlined and customer service improved. They have identified a robust plan of action to get people back into their homes faster. The governor expects that NCORR will focus on delivering results faster while staying in close touch with those being assisted.”

Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer of ReBuild NC (Photo: LinkedIn)

Nonetheless, in the past month, Policy Watch has continued to hear from displaced homeowners who are desperate for help. All of them have told Policy Watch they get no answers from ReBuild NC about the progress on their homes. Several contractors have also left the program, further delaying construction.

The homeowners also said their case managers instruct them to communicate only by phone, not via email. Not only does this practice leave no paper trail for accountability purposes, it also prevents case managers from having a comprehensive history of a homeowner’s issues. In many instances, homeowners said they had to rehash their entire history with the program — even providing redundant documentation — to new case managers.

Hurricane Matthew disaster relief is not the only program under ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety to be scrutinized.  In April, State Auditor Beth Wood blasted the agency’s handling of Hurricane Florence recovery money.

In response to the announcement of the subcommittee, NCORR issued a statement:

“Since beginning its work in early 2019, NCORR’s top priority has been to get hurricane survivors back into their homes as quickly as possible, while supporting the overall recovery of storm-impacted communities. NCORR has been working closely with General Assembly members and staff to increase understanding of its progress and operations. We look forward to sharing additional information about program changes underway that are improving and expediting the recovery process for the people we serve.”

In addition to the co-chairs, many of the subcommittee’s members represent constituents in eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by the historic hurricane in October 2016. The first meeting has not yet been announced.

Senate                                                                                     House

Danny Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson)                                    Brenden Jones (R-Columbus, Robeson)
Jim Perry (R-Lenoir, Wayne)                                                  Mark Pless (R-Haywood, Madison, Yancey)
Steve Jarvis (R-Davidson, Montgomery)                              Sarah Stevens (R-Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes)
Kirk deViere (D-Cumberland)                                                 Charles Graham (D-Robeson)
Joyce Waddell (D-Mecklenburg)                                            Shelly Willingham (D-Edgecombe, Martin)

Comparing NC’s teacher pay with Alabama’s, fair elections at risk, and two takes on privacy: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

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“Privacy” concerns, “government overreach” take center stage in the final days of NC’s legislative session

In the waning hours of the 2022 summer legislative session, two of North Carolina’s most conservative House members took to the floor to speak out against government overreach.

“We should not have a government tracking people,” said Rep. Keith Kidwell, the House deputy majority whip.

The Beaufort County Republican was not addressing privacy concerns that have been raised since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, ending the constitutional right to an abortion.

Rather Kidwell was angry about a provision tucked inside Senate Bill 201, legislation that would make a number of changes to North Carolina’s motor vehicle and transportation laws.

The objectionable section would allow the state Department of Transportation to enter into agreements with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation for the placement and use of automatic license plate reader systems within land or right-of-way owned by the DOT as part of a pilot program.

The cameras provide real-time data for law enforcement and could be useful in the case of a stolen vehicle or an Amber alert.

But Rep. Kidwell was unwavering.

“Now, I’ve had someone write to me and say we do not have an expectation of privacy once we’re outside of our home. Well, that may be true, but I do think we have an expectation of privacy that our government should not track us every place we go.

Then I hear, ‘You don’t trust your government?’ No. I don’t to be quite honest with you,” Kidwell answered. “That’s one of the main reasons I’m here. I don’t trust my government.”

Kidwell then directed the House to read the Constitution.

“Pull up that Fourth Amendment and read it and see if you don’t agree this is a blatant violation of that right – the right to privacy.”

Tracking political opponents, dissidents

Rep. Larry Pittman (R- Cabarrus Co.) joined in Kidwell’s opposition, calling the pilot program ‘reprehensible.’

Rep. Pittman

“We hope and pray we never have government leaders in this state who want to keep tabs on political opponents, but this system would allow that,” Pittman warned. “I am not gonna sit still for that as long as I am here.”

Pittman said while cell phones can provide tracking data and one’s location, that handheld technology could easily be left at home, whereas the license plate could not legally be removed from one’s car.

“If there becomes a totalitarian government in this nation, this state, you should not be putting in a system by which they can track political opponents wherever they go.

I know the benefits of it. Oh, we can catch kidnappers, we catch bank robbers. You can also catch dissidents,” Pittman warned his colleagues.

Fifteen Republicans joined with Pittman and Kidwell in rejecting Thursday’s version of the bill. A rare 55-55 vote sent SB 201 off the floor and back to a group of conferees.

‘This is America in 2022?’

In the upper chamber, state Senator Natasha Marcus was also thinking about privacy last week in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs.

“It pains me to think my daughters or any body’s daughters might face a problem pregnancy, an unwanted pregnancy, a not viable pregnancy and not be able to get the healthcare they need in America,” said Marcus in an interview with Policy Watch.

“This is America in 2022? That we are going to have forced birth?”

The Mecklenburg County Democrat said it is stunning to think we are now in a place where we are not going to trust women to make the very personal choice that is best for them and their families in consultation with their doctors.

“Instead, we are going to have politicians almost literally in the exam room.”

She said this is a terrifying prospect for women.

“For now, abortion is still legal in North Carolina. We cannot slide backwards or allow the government to block people from making our own decisions about such deeply personal matters,”  Sen. Marcus said.

Marcus sponsored a bill this session that would codify Roe and Casey protections.

Under that proposed legislation, the state would be prohibited from imposing any undue burden on the ability of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.

Marcus and other progressives believe the measure is essential as Republican-controlled states quickly begin to ban or severely restrict  abortion access.

Another unsettled issue being debated is whether women might be punished for traveling out of state to get an abortion.

Senate Bill 888 was sent to the Rules committee in late May. It was never given another hearing.

A different ending in the House

But what of Senate Bill 201, the transportation bill that raised concerns because the pilot license plate readers might track motorists?

Reps. Kidwell and Pittman won their push for privacy.

The 13-page bill became a 12-page bill in a matter of hours; the section was removed entirely.

The House passed the conference committee substitute for SB 201 unanimously last Friday.

 

Silence from UNC as public and private universities weigh in on Supreme Court abortion ruling

One week after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its landmark ruling in Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization, public and private colleges and universities across the country have weighed in the elimination of a constitutional right to abortion.

From the University of North Carolina System and its flagship campus, UNC-Chapel Hill: total silence.

On Thursday Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, released her own statement.

“When health and well-being are so threatened, what is our task as a community of scholars and practitioners?” Chapman wrote in the statement. “The real-world implications are so severe that we cannot hide behind worries about being “biased, uncivil, or too political.” We need to use our science, our moral, political and legal analyses, and our empathy to help our state make the best decisions for our citizens. As the University of the People, to do so is our job and our honor.”

“As I’m sure you know,  I do not and cannot speak for the University on these matters,” Chapman wrote. “So, I speak for myself and hope that provides you with a measure of courage and comfort in these difficult and uncertain days.”

Chapman is one of the founders of the Coalition for Carolina, which has been pushing back on what it says is the politicization of the campus and the UNC System by the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly and their political appointees, who govern the university system.

In the absence of an official statement from UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health released its own statement on the ruling’s impacts on the day it was announced.

“I recognize that, as I make this statement, there are those in our community who support the Supreme Court ruling,” wrote Dean Barbara K. Rimer. “That is their right, and I respect the differences between people on the issues of abortion and reproductive rights. However, this is not and should not be an issue of politics. Abortion has never been the province of one party alone. And, when it comes to personal decisions, people have made choices that transcend party, religion, region and other factors. That is as it should be.”

“Self-determination over one’s body is a basic tenet of public health and enabling people to make choices about whether to end the medical condition of pregnancy is an integral part of that,” Rimer wrote. “Abortion is a part of the full complement of reproductive health services. The World Health Organization underscores this tenet by including comprehensive abortion care in its list of essential health care services. Bearing a child should be a personal, private, individual choice and should not be mandated by government. Ending a pregnancy certainly should not be criminalized.”

Other universities and colleges – in North Carolina and beyond – have not felt constrained in weigh in on the decision.

Duke University’s Duke Health released a statement last Friday, shortly after the high court’s ruling was officially released.

“Duke Health is committed to providing a full range of the highest quality family planning services, including abortion, in full compliance with current state laws,” the statement read. “This care is designed for the complex and highly sensitive health and emotional needs of people who are making childbearing decisions. Safe and reliable access to these services is a critical part of women’s health, and it is also a vital component of our educational mission to train physicians to deliver comprehensive care. We value the ability to deliver these critical services safely and compassionately, and we will assess changes if required by law.”

Johns Hopkins University, widely considered a peer institution to Duke and UNC in medicine and research, also released a statement the day of the ruling.

“As a major employer in Maryland with a presence in the National Capital Region and in Florida, and as a leading provider of clinical care, including health and well-being services to our students, we take seriously our obligation to the many populations we serve,” the statement read. “We have been monitoring closely the outcome of this decision and its implications for the provision of reproductive health care.”

“To the fullest extent allowed under the law, our institutions will continue to be guided by the evidence-based best practices established by medical and public health faculty experts and practitioners, which make clear that access to safe, legal abortion is critical for the health of individuals, families, and communities,” the statement read.

As private institutions, Duke and Johns Hopkins don’t face political constraints or fear of political reprisals from governing boards of political appointees. But public universities around the country have also spoken up on the decision.

The University of Connecticut released a statement this week saying it would continue to provide access to abortion as essential health care, as did the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon, California State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison  and public universities across California. Several of those universities expressed concern as to how the decision would impact training and medical care at their university hospitals and medical schools.

In a message to his university community, University of Oregon President Michael H. Schill wrote that he was also concerned about the broader impacts of the ruling.

“This ruling is extremely distressing for many members of our community who see reproductive rights and protections as central to human rights,” Schill wrote. “It also may threaten other rights that many of us have come to rely upon. And, unfortunately, It is almost certain to fuel further division in our already polarized society.”

As Policy Watch reported this week, legal experts in North Carolina expect the ruling in Dobbs will be the beginning of an erosion of precedents involving legal access to contraception, the legality of same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage.

 

Photo gallery: Reaction to the overturning of Roe

Scenes from Raleigh’s Bicentennial mall on June 24th: