Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haley Barbour

Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, has aroused controversy by his claim that "things weren't that bad" in his home town of Yazoo City, MS during the civil rights movement, and that the White Citizen's Council played a helpful role in peaceful integration.

Haley Barbour is wrong. Not only is he wrong, he does a disservice to his home town, his county, and his state by failing to recognize that despite very real danger, courageous citizens of Yazoo County and neighboring Holmes County did play a helpful role. There was, for example, Hazel Brannon Smith, the courageous owner and editor of the the Lexington Advertiser, in Holmes County, just north of Yazoo County. Her account here of the formation of the White Citizen's Council and its purposes and methods gives the lie to Barbour's more rose colored recollections.

In 1955 in Holmes County, the White Citizen's Council, together with the County Sheriff, ran the leaders of an interracial cooperative farm near Cruger out of the county. Here is a brief account of that event. For a more detailed account, see Providence by Will D. Campbell.

I know Yazoo City (pronounced "yeh-zoo", not "yah-zoo"). My father and younger brother were born there. My parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great aunts and great uncles are buried in Glenwood Cemetery there. Other relatives are buried at the cemetery at Fletcher's Chapel about five miles southeast of Yazoo City. My grandmother took me there to see the yankee cannon ball embedded in the chapel's wall.

I'm about ten years older than Governor Barbour. Even so, he would have to have been totally oblivious as a young man not to have known what the White Citizen's Council was up to.

It is true, so far as I know, that Citizen's Councils did not directly organize any murders. Those episodes (Emmett Till, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, and others) seem to have been done by the Klan. But as a result of Citizen's Councils efforts, many Black Citizens lost their livelihoods. The Citizens Councils published names of Black citizens who actively sought their civil rights, including the right to vote. Members of the Klan and others of a violent inclination knew what to do with that information.

Nor was the Citizen's Council only interested in Black activists. They worked closely with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to harass and intimidate white citizens receptive to integration. The White Citizen's Councils never supported integration, peaceful or otherwise.

As the White Citizen's Council newspaper explained in a front page article in 1956, "integration is a Communist - Jewish conspiracy to mongrelize the human race."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke died Monday in Washington, DC. Relatively few Americans knew who he was or what he had accomplished. His death is a great loss to the country.

Today's newspapers are full of tributes. Here is one of my favorites.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Instant Runoff Comments

I haven't come to a final opinion about the instant runoff voting procedure NC has used to fill Judge Wynn's former seat on the Court of Appeals, but I have some interim thoughts. And I also want to share some thoughts about comments received from a genuine expert on voting matters: Joyce McCloy.

The "instant" part of the procedure clearly refers to the voting, not the counting. The "runoff" part of the name is misleading. We don't have runoff primaries in judicial elections. IRV in this context provides an accelerated procedure to avoid the expense of a special election.

An ordinary judicial election with more than two candidates (thirteen sought this Court of Appeals seat) is held in two stages. The first stage is the primary, the purpose of which is to reduce the number of candidates to two for the general election. The two candidates then meet head to head. In this case, by definition, the winner will take more than fifty percent of the votes cast at the general election. But at the primary election, there is no requirement for any candidate to receive a majority of the votes cast in order to advance to the general election. It could therefore be said that the appearance of winning a majority of the votes is an illusion.

The same can be said of non judicial elections with many candidates from two or more parties for a single office. That is, the winner may actually enjoy the support of only a minority of the voters.

Ms. McCloy comments quite rightly that McCullough's vote amounts to only 27.99% of the total votes cast for this office, and Thigpen received only 27.65% of the votes. A true comparison with other judicial elections, though, would require counting total votes received at the general and dividing that by the total votes cast both at the primary and the general elections. I expect that would reveal that judicial candidates often are elected with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote.

Another way to compare would be to divide the votes received by each candidate by the total ballots cast in the state (2,003,130) instead of ballots cast for the office (1,943,771). That results in a vote percentage for each candidate of about 20%, give or take.

Counting the votes accurately in an IRV election presents special challenges because our machines are not programmed for such a count. The state board did a marvelous job of developing "work around" procedures. I'm just glad that Pamlico County uses the iVotronics machines. Our paper ballots (absentee by mail, curbside and provisional) had many more errors than the direct record equipment would allow. I'm confident in our count. Next week's recount is occasioned by the closeness of the result, not by the fact that it was an instant runoff.

If this procedure is to continue in the future, the state should make sure that replacement equipment is programmed to count IRV elections.

Another way to avoid the expense of runoff primaries, as I previously suggested here is to abolish the runoff. We don't need it. Most states don't use it. Despite its name, though, the purpose of IRV in judicial elections is not to avoid a runoff, but to avoid a special election. There are other ways to do this. For example, if the judicial opening comes too late to hold a primary at the regular time, just let the gubernatorial appointment to last until the next election cycle.

A more pointed question might be, "why do we elect judges, anyhow?"

That's the subject of another post.

Recount!

The North Carolina Board of Elections reports that it has received the timely request for a mandatory recount from The Honorable Cressie Thigpen, Court of Appeals, for the Instant Runoff Election.

The State Board has ordered County Boards to schedule the recount beginning Wednesday, December 15th, 2010, to be completed by Friday, December 17th.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Instant Runoff Vote, Round Three?

This Tuesday, December 7th, the County Board of Elections held the canvass of the second round of counting of the instant runoff vote for a NC Court of Appeals seat. After round one in Pamlico County, Cressie Thigpen led, 667 to 593. After the second round, Doug McCullough leads Pamlico County 1137 to 863.

Unofficial statewide results for 99 counties (excluding Warren County) have McCullough leading Thigpen 541,861 to 535,396, a margin of 0.6% of the vote. This may require a recount.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Instant Runoff Vote, Round Two

Next Monday, November 29th, county and municipal boards of elections all across North Carolina will gather to begin Round Two of the Instant Runoff Vote.

In Pamlico County, we will count eligible second and third place votes for a vacancy on the NC Court of Appeals. After the votes are counted and uploaded to the State Board, we will do an audit of selected precincts, with a hand to eye count.

We don't know how long it will take. Maybe we'll be done by close of business Wednesday. Then again, maybe not. We'll see.

At least we don't have to open all ten polling places for another primary or special election.

Friday, November 26, 2010

US and Korea

There seem to be no really good options with Korea.

How long has the US been wrestling with Korean issues? At least 139 years.

June 10 to 12th, 1871 a US Naval force commanded by Commander (later Rear Admiral) Kimberly attacked and captured five forts in retaliation for the Korean murder of the American crew of the schooner General Sherman, the destruction of the ship, and for firing on American small boats taking soundings on the Salee River. The force captured Korean cannon and took them back to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay.

At the time, Korea was known as "The Hermit Kingdom."

Here is an account of the action.

Both Commander Kimberly and his Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Schley, were eventually promoted to Rear Admiral.

Civilization and the Discontented

I've been rummaging around in the web site of the Pew Center, hoping to become enlightened about public opinion. Instead, I came upon the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a very interesting conversation between Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter on the issue of "Can Civilization Survive Without God?" Mingled in with the conversation are some illuminating observations about current world developments.

Even though the Hitchens brothers have very different views on the question, it is a very civilized conversation. Worth reading here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Voter Turnout 2010


2010 General Election Turnout
County State

Below voting age 2,183 2,216,736
Voting Age Population (VAP) 10,655 7,165,873
Registered Voters 9,169 6,192,004
Registered Voters as Percent VAP 86% 86%
Votes Cast Nov 2 2010 4,735 2,702,342
Turnout Percentage VAP 44.44% 37.71%
Turnout Percentage Registered 51.64% 43.64%

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is there Merit to a Meritocracy?

For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to digest the meaning of the November 2 election.

One question is, what does the election portend for the future. It may not bode well. I fear for the future of our grandchildren. That's the subject for a future post.

A more immediate question is, what does it say about today's America?

Noam Scheiber, writing in The New Republic, analyzes the appeal of leading Tea Party figures such as Sarah Palin and Rand Paul as stemming from a politics of resentment - resentment at being led by snobs who think that governing requires expertise. Or who labor under the illusion that knowledge is better than ignorance.

To some extent, this is nothing new in American politics. We have, as David Hackett Fischer details in Albion's Seed, his cultural history of the United States, always been dominated by identity politics. We have also had examples of politicians who became successful by attacking intellectuals and other so-called elites. The example of George Wallace comes to mind. Himself a well-educated man, he attracted a following by attacking "pointy-headed intellectuals."

What seems new is the degree to which the poor and elderly have allowed themselves to be persuaded to vote against their own economic interests.

Americans once believed that the way to free the country from the grip of an aristocracy was to replace the self-appointed and self-perpetuating institutions of those with wealth and power with a meritocracy. The idea was that it is more democratic to be governed by those who achieved their positions by hard work and demonstrated excellence, rather than by family connections.

Not surprisingly, the wealthy and connected have fought back.

This phenomenon was examined a few years ago by Thomas Frank in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank highlighted what appeared to be effective use of explosive social issues to redirect the anger of those in economic distress away from the wealthy and powerful who caused the distress toward "liberal elites." When the book appeared, some pollsters disputed Frank's analysis.

This year, however, the Washington Post has taken a detailed look at congressional districts where Republicans gained enough seats to change the party in power. "The Republican Party's big gains in the House," the Post reports, "came largely from districts that were older, less diverse and less educated than the nation as a whole. Democrats kept their big majorities in the cities." This seems to confirm Frank's analysis.

A new feature is the extent to which a particular media conglomerate has lent its voice to supporting the interests of the wealthy and connected by whipping up anger against those with knowledge and expertise. See Paul Krugman's recent comment.

Experts may not always be right about what needs to be done. Still, when planning for the future, knowledge provides a better basis for planning than ignorance. Judgment is important, but judgment at variance with facts is fraught with peril. There is still merit to a meritocracy.

"...wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.
The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness...."

Ecclesiastes 2:13-14

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Armistice Day

Ninety-two years ago, November 11, 1918, the twentieth century's seminal war ended with a whimper - an armistice, not a victory.

Subsequent events conveyed the illusion of victory: The political and economic collapse of Germany; the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the collapse of the Russian Empire and descent into Civil War. Other catastrophic events were to follow.

In a prescient essay, John Maynard Keynes warned of "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" that followed. European wars continued to rage. Hungary attacked Czechoslovakia. Poland attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union invaded Poland. The United States and England invaded the Russian arctic near Murmansk. The United States, Japan and England occupied much of Siberia.

The word "armistice" conveyed the ambiguity of the war's end. Despite our resounding victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, World War II also did not resolve the ambiguities of World War I. If you watch "Lawrence of Arabia," it should be apparent that we are still playing out many of that war's ambiguities.

Maybe we should reactivate the name "Armistice Day."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More on Coffee

Puritans usually believe what they learned as a child is the be all and end all of knowledge, or at least of right conduct. More open-minded people sometimes think out of the box.

When I was a child, coffee came already ground up, in a can that said "Folgers" or "Maxwell House" ("good to the last drop") or possibly even "Luzianne." That seemed meet and right to me.

I was twenty years old when I learned about grinding your own beans. I was a house guest of a Navy Commander and his wife, who had traveled the world. I visited them in Memphis, Tennessee, where they had the habit of grinding their beans fresh in the morning.

What a difference in flavor! I still put sugar in it, but I no longer added any dairy product. It was a year later before I abandoned sugar in my coffee, but once I experienced freshly ground beans, there was no going back.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Deceased Voters

Several months ago we had a bit of a dispute in Pamlico County over clearing our voter registration rolls of voters who were deceased or had moved. I argued that we must be very careful who we remove.

Last Tuesday a voter turned up to vote, but encountered a problem. The voter, who was very much alive, had been removed from Pamlico County's rolls on the basis of information received from the State of North Carolina reporting the voter's death.

Reports of the voter's death, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

An example of why we need to be very careful about sources. Even official sources may turn out to be erroneous.

Friday, October 22, 2010

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

One of the strangest articles to appear recently in a local newspaper was an attack on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Curious as to what the fuss was about, I looked it up here.

The convention was negotiated with full participation by the United States during the Reagan administration. It was opened for signature in November, 1989 and became effective when enough nations adhered to it in September, 1990.

Every member of the United Nations has acceded to the convention except for two: the United States of America and Somalia.

Is this really the company we want to keep?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coffee: Part I

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I Corinthians, 13:11 (King James Version)

I was about six years old when my grandmother gave me half a cup of milk, added some coffee and sweetening and let me drink the grown-up drink. The sweetening was saccharine - sugar was rationed and too precious to use in coffee or tea.

When I went off to sea a decade and a half later, the only thing I had to drink was coffee. It kept me awake on the bridge during the mid watch. I drank it any time of day or night. I would have a cup before going to bed and sleep like a log.

I had long since stopped putting milk in it, but I kept using sugar. I drank so much coffee, I got coffee nerves. A shipmate suggested I stop using sugar. I did. The coffee nerves went away.

I had finally put away childish things - at least concerning coffee.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Vote in Remembrance

Never forget: Brave Americans gave their lives so you can vote.

Honor their memory. Go to the polls.

124 voters voted at Bayboro Friday.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Vote Early

The polls opened at the Bayboro courthouse yesterday morning for one-stop voting.

Why is it called one-stop? Because you can register, make any changes to your voter registration, and vote all at the same place. In fact, only during one-stop you can register to vote and go ahead and cast your ballot.

NC is one of only ten states to offer some form of same day registration and voting.

Yesterday's turnout was pretty good: 116 voters cast their ballots.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cutting the Apron Strings

Today's New York Times has an interesting article examining the difficulty today's college students have breaking away from their parents. Have College Freshmen Changed? Cutting the Apron Strings examines the phenomenon.

But it starts well before college.

Children seldom get to play on their own. Their sports are organized and supervised by adults. They have no free time - it is all programmed.

Sixty years ago, mothers would shoo us out of the house. "Go out and play. Be back for supper."

We would ride our bikes for miles. For sports, we found a vacant lot and chose up sides. The baseball might be wrapped in tape in lieu of the original leather cover, the cracked bat repaired with electrical tape or even a nail. A few of us had gloves. There was no catcher's equipment, batting helmet or any of that. Any scrap of wood could serve as home plate. Other scraps or a mark in the dust would outline a base. We called our own balls and strikes and outs.

Not an adult in sight.

If there weren't enough kids to have two teams, we played workup. (Also called "scrub" some places).

During football season, we played tackle without helmets or pads. The only shoes were tennis shoes.

In the winter we played basketball on a dirt court, shooting at a hoop attached to a square piece of plywood nailed to a tree. My basketball had laces like a football.

We had to solve our own squabbles.

It wasn't a bad way to grow up.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Right to Vote

I'm reading an interesting book, published about ten years ago: The Right to Vote, The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.

Suffrage has been a contentious issue in our history, as I have mentioned in some earlier posts. In fact, of all the members of the Pamlico County Board of Elections, I am the only one who would have been allowed to vote at the beginning of our nation's history. That is, unless I had lived in Massachusetts, where I would have had to belong to the Congregational Church, or unless I did not own enough property.

In many of the former colonies, the vote was granted only to those who owned real estate. Some states, though, allowed the ownership of personal property of a certain value to qualify.

Benjamin Franklin once had a humorous observation about this qualification:

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers – but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?

I think Dr. Franklin would be surprised, pleased and gratified to learn that 220 years after his death, any American citizen older than eighteen years now has the right of suffrage. A big change, though it took two centuries to accomplish.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Instant Runoff Voting

One-stop voting in North Carolina starts next Thursday, October 14. In Pamlico County, our only one-stop voting location is at County Board of Elections headquarters at the courthouse in Bayboro.

A good reason to vote at one-stop is that you can take your time, study the information on the candidates, and cast an informed vote at your own convenience.

This may be especially important for the instant runoff vote for a vacancy on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. This will be a historic first. There has not been an instant runoff vote in the United States for a statewide office since the 1930's.

Instant runoff means you won't have to come back for a second round of voting for that office. Here's the way it works:

1. You cast your vote on the same iVotronics touch-screen machine as for the other offices, unless you use a paper ballot (absentee by mail, curbside or provisional vote).

2. When you get to the choice for Court of Appeals, choose the candidate you prefer for the office in the "first choice" column.

3. If you have a second choice candidate (in case your first choice doesn't win in the first round of counting or make it to the second round of counting), mark the second choice in that column.

4. If you have a third choice, mark that choice in the third column.

5. Be sure to pick a different candidate for each choice.

At this point, your job is done. Cast your ballot as you always do.

No need to read further unless you are unusually curious about the process.

For election officials, the job has just begun.

On election night the first place votes will be counted. If any one of the thirteen candidates wins more than 50% of the votes cast for that office, that candidate wins. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes cast, then the top two candidates move into the second round of vote counting.

Now it gets complicated. The second round of counting will take place after the official canvass of the November 2nd vote. (Ranking of the top two candidates won't be official until then).

The second round will be a hand count. Vote counters will have to count using the following rules:

1. Examine each ballot. If the voter's first choice is in the runoff, do not count the second or third choice.

2. If the voter's first choice is not in the runoff and the second choice is in the runoff, count the second choice votes. Add the second choice votes to the first choice votes (remember, there are only two candidates remaining at this point).

3. If neither the voter's first choice nor second choice is in the runoff but the third choice is in the runoff, count the third choice votes. Add the third choice votes to the first and second choice votes for the two runoff candidates.

4. The candidate with the most votes wins.

Simple.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Parking

During the August meeting of Oriental's Town Board, a resident submitted photographs to the Board, complaining that they showed instances of people parking their cars partially on the pavement. She cited a rule that "all four wheels must be on the grass."

I had heard the rule before, but wondered where it came from. So I asked Town Hall. The source, I was told is:
NCGS 20-161 and
General Ordinance of the Town of Oriental, Chapter F, Section 1-7.

So I looked them up. The provision of North Carolina General Statutes, it turns out, applies only "outside municipal corporate limits."

Then I looked up our ordinance. It says: "no vehicle shall stop in any street except for the purpose of parking...."

OK, Then what is a street? The ordinance defines it as "The entire width between property lines of every way or place of whatever nature when any part thereof is open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for purposes of vehicular traffic."

Bottom line: there is no "four wheels on the grass" rule. Not in our town.

The rest of the story: a couple of weeks ago, at the insistence of two town commissioners (never mind that they have no operational authority in town affairs) and the Interim Town Manager, three perfectly healthy wax myrtles gave their lives in honor of this nonexistent rule.

Postscript: I wasn't all that fond of the wax myrtles. It is also clear that they were in the town's right of way. The town has assigned significant authority over trees in public areas, including rights of way (streets) to the tree board. Had the tree board met and deliberated about the trees and recommended their removal, I would have no problem. Let the tree board do its job!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elections in Ancient Athens

Thinking about our forthcoming election, I was somehow reminded of a story from ancient Athens.

One of the strangest of elections was held in Fifth Century BCE Athens . It was an election to determine whether the citizens of Athens wanted to banish some prominent person.

In January or February of each year, citizens were asked if they wanted to hold an ostracism (so called because the ballots were scratched on shards of broken pottery known as "ostrakon"). The actual vote was held two months later, and if there were a total of six thousand votes, the person with the most votes was banished from Athens (ostracised) for a period of ten years.

Over the years, many prominent Athenians were ostracised. The reasons for ostracism were often not clear.

In one story, an Athenian name Aristides, known as "the Just," was being considered for banishment in 482 BCE. As the vote was being taken, an illiterate citizen approached Aristides and asked him to write the name "Aristides" on his ostrakon. Aristides asked why. The man replied, "because I am tired of constantly hearing him called 'the Just.'"

Anchor Time (guest commentary)



But Kinde and True have been long tried
A harbour where we may confide,
And safely there at anchor ride.
From change of winds there we are free,
And need not feare Storme's tyrannie,
Nor Pirat, though a Prince he be.

- Aurelian Townsend
(1583?-1643)


-Capt. Ben

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Town Board Meeting Sept 7 2010

Last night's meeting of the Oriental Town Board was reasonably uneventful. Highlights:

1. The first item on the agenda, approval of minutes, only took eighteen minutes this time. There seem to be remaining issues in the area of drafting minutes that report what was done, rather than what was said. Another problem seems to be to rid the minutes of editorial asides and characterizations of the commissioners' thoughts. Commissioner Roe is leading the effort to improve the minutes. Good for her.

2. The continued public hearing on rezoning of Mr. Friedman's property on Midyette Street was continued again at Mr. Friedman's request. Mr. Friedman was not present.

3. The Board went into closed session to discuss a personnel matter. The Town Attorney, Scott Davis, had to leave early and apparently his presence was required during the closed session.
So the closed session was held early in the evening rather than at the end.

4. The Board received an update on the work of the surveyor hired by the town to determine the location of South Water Street. His report also raised the issue of the width of the right-of-way. Following a lengthy discussion, the Board established the width of the South Water Street right of way as 36 feet. The board briefly considered the issue of what is allowed to be placed in the right of way by adjacent landowners and concluded the existing ordinances are adequate.

5. During the public comment period, Pat Herlands suggested the Board should consider having a second business meeting each month, as the County Commissioners do. She pointed out that the Board increasingly takes action each month during the agenda meeting, and supported recognizing that fact by scheduling a second meeting.

6. During the period set aside for non-agenda items, Commissioner Roe moved to amend the minutes of the June 1 meeting to accurately reflect the motion that was made concerning employee insurance. She went on to introduce an amendment to the Town's personnel ordinance to reflect decisions made about employee insurance during the budget process.

Editorial comment: Not mentioned during this discussion, but mentioned at two recent Board meetings, is that the Town's personnel ordinance, adopted by the 2005 - 2007 Board, asserts that we have a mayor-council form of government. We now know for certain that the Town has a council-manager form of government. Personnel policies may be significantly different between the two systems. Someone needs to review our existing manual to identify necessary amendments, if any.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

South Avenue - The Rest of the Fence

Learned this evening at the Town Board meeting that the rest of the fence across the end of South Avenue and Avenue A will come down tomorrow.

South Avenue Fence - Not Down Yet

For some reason, the town's hired contractor left fifty feet of Mr. Henry's fence standing. It intrudes about twenty feet into the 30-foot wide right of way for Avenue A. The fence encompasses approximately a thousand square feet that does not belong to Mr. Henry and constitutes a major obstruction to Avenue A.

Last year's decision by the NC Court of Appeals makes it crystal clear that Mr. Henry has no plausible claim to any portion of any street shown on the Oriental Bulkhead Improvement Company plat, including both Avenue A and South Avenue.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Joe Himbry - A Life Well Lived: 1941-2010

We celebrated a life well lived today. Joseph Otto Himbry, Jr. was an example to us all. He devoted his life to serving the people of this county in ways large and small. He was a talented, persistent and effective visionary.

Friends and classmates came from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania to say farewell and lay him to rest.

He will be sorely missed.

Fear and Intolerance

Nicholas Kristoff in today's New York Times reminds us of our history of intolerance based on fear and demagoguery.

For those concerned about the current wave of intolerance, he points out that we have been there before. In fact, I would add a few examples of fear and intolerance to Mr. Kristoff's list. Still, most of us eventually return to our central tradition of tolerance.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lessons from Sandlot Baseball

Here are some lessons learned from sandlot baseball:

1. When team captains choose up sides, you don't have to play;

2. If you do play, give it your best effort;

3. Always keep your eye on the ball;

4. When you step up to the plate, don't just rest the bat on your shoulder;

5. If you get on base, don't just stand there;

6. The object of the game is to score - not just avoid being thrown out;

7. You leave the safety of one base to reach the next;

8. You don't win - the team does.

Monday, August 30, 2010

South Avenue: The Fence is Coming Down

After eight years of litigation, loss at summary judgment, victory on appeal sustained by the NC Supreme Court, and six months after Judge Crow signed the final order granting ownership to the Town of Oriental, the fence across the South Avenue right-of-way blocking public access to the water is coming down.

This morning, a contractor hired by the Town began cleaning out the debris left behind when Neuse Ways Company ceased operation of its marine railway. By tomorrow, it may be possible for the public to walk right down to the water, as they were able to do in past decades.

This is a time to celebrate.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Filibuster

The U.S. Senate always called itself "the world's greatest deliberative body," even in the 19th century, when seats were fairly blatantly purchased. (Until 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures.)

Even after 1913, the Senate has been arguably the least representative legislative body in the Western world. Because each state has two senators, a senator from California, for example, represents thirty times as many people as a senator from Wyoming.

This problem isn't going to be fixed. It is built into our Constitution.

But rules of procedure in the senate aren't determined by the Constitution. They have evolved in recent years to a situation where any senator can prevent the senate from considering any particular bill simply by filing a piece of paper.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has made a reasonable proposal in the New York Times that might unclog the senate. A central feature of his proposal would be to bring back the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" style of filibuster. When filibusters were done that way, they were remarkably rare.

I think it is a good idea and would greatly improve the public image of the senate. It might also help get things done.

End "Complaint-Based System"

If I were asked what qualities or views I would seek in a new Town manager, at the top of my list would be the abandonment of the "complaint-based system" concept.

Our Town manager, the Chief of Police, the Mayor, and other elected and appointed officials keep reciting the mantra that we have a complaint based system of enforcing the Town's ordinances. If this is true, we should abandon the system.

Otherwise, we set neighbor against neighbor.

We saw the consequences of "complaint-based system" last Thursday. The Board of Commissioners seemed unable to resolve a neighborhood dispute, even after spending $1500 that was not budgeted.

If there arise in the course of Town affairs disputes between neighbors, the proper place to resolve such disputes is the courthouse in Bayboro. The Board of Commissioners is not a court and cannot rule in favor of one or the other disputant. What the Town Board is supposed to do, is make the rules (ordinances) that apply to everyone and rely on the Town manager and subordinate departments for enforcement.

Requiring a complaint to initiate enforcement results in inherently inconsistent, arbitrary and unfair enforcement.

If the Town is not going to enforce an ordinance, the Board shouldn't pass it. If an unenforceable or unenforced ordinance remains on the books, it should be repealed. (I tried to do that last year with the chicken ordinance, without success).

Then the Police Chief, the Town Manager, etc. could simply enforce the ordinance anywhere in town against any resident, owner or business, without requiring a citizen complaint.

All too often, when a citizen complaint initiates action, another citizen makes a counter complaint and the Town Board members choose up sides, perhaps based on personal animosities or likes and dislikes, rather than enforcement of existing ordinances or judging what new ordinances or amendments are best for the Town.

That's no way to run a government.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Citizens Voter Registration Awareness Month

Governor Perdue has proclaimed September 2010 as Citizens Voter Registration Awareness Month. The goal is to provide North Carolina citizens with every opportunity to register to vote.

This is a statewide effort, conducted by County Boards of Elections. We will be working on the details at our next meeting of the County Board.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Special Meeting of Oriental Town Board Aug 26

Oriental's Town Board met at 4:00 p.m. today, August 26, 2010 in special session. Commissioner Styron was unable to attend.

The main reason for calling the meeting - to appoint an interim Town Manager - was delayed until the end of the meeting. Items were discussed as follows:

1. Bay River Metropolitan Sewer District and the Town of Oriental continue to negotiate in an attempt to conclude an interlocal agreement. The main issue is the price the Town charges Bay River to provide billing services, including collecting payments and remitting them to the utility. About two years ago, at the recommendation of the Town's representative on Bay River's Board (Nancy Inger) the Town increased the monthly fee to $1.50 per household. Bay River proposed an agreement that would freeze this rate for five years. The previous board found that unacceptable and wanted to set a level that would not lose money. They also wanted to establish an automatic escalator clause in case Bay River were to increase their rates. Negotiations have been going on for more than a year. The absence of a contract was identified in last year's audit as a control deficiency.

2. South Water Street. The Board played "kick the can" with this issue as well. The Town retained a surveyor who had never surveyed in Oriental or perhaps even in Pamlico County, to determine where South Water Street's right of way lies in hopes of resolving a neighborhood dispute. The report, which arrived today, described how the R/W line was surveyed and marked. Now the contentious issue is "how wide is it?" The surveyor reports some maps show it 36' wide, some 40', some 45' and at least one shows the R/W as 60.' He marked the R/W with stakes at a width of 40'. The Board decided to table the issue until next week's agenda meeting, though it was unclear exactly what was tabled. Commissioners Bohmert and Roe advocated just setting the R/W width at 36' since this width was encompassed within all of the possible widths. This was rejected by Commissioners Johnson and Venturi. Mayor Sage broke the tie, voting with Johnson and Venturi.

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that a surveyor familiar with Oriental and its history would have given far greater weight to the original survey of 1900, which shows the width as 36'. Another factor to consider is that if the Town tries to claim a wider R/W than 36', they may have difficulty defending it in court. The survey has already cost the Town $1200.

3. South Avenue Right of Way. Mayor Sage reported that he has met with Mr. Lacy Henry. Mr. Henry has "given the Town permission" to remove the fence. Why the Town needs Mr. Henry's permission to remove a fence in the Town's R/W was not explained. Heidi Artley reported she has received one bid from a contractor to remove the fence at a cost of $1200. Two more bids are expected. Some of the commissioners seemed unaware that a decision had been made to hire a contractor for this job. No mention was made of whether the Town would send the bill to Mr. Henry. Some mention was made of the contractor cleaning up debris and identifying items of historical interest. As I reported here three months ago, the items of greatest historical interest disappeared not long after the judge signed his order. Removed by a person or persons unknown.

Incidentally, one of the commissioners reported some time ago an interest in a grant application, which opened June 15. Well, that deadline (Boating Infrastructure Grant program) has passed and nothing was submitted. What will it take to get some action?

4. Amendment to Town Charter. It was Alice DeBaun who provided information that the Town had adopted an ordinance in 1997 amending the Town Charter to Council-Manager form of government. Apparently for some reason it wasn't filed with the Secretary of State and the Legislative Library. I informed the Board that a similar circumstance appears to exist concerning the amendment to have five commissioners instead of three.

It was the council-manager amendment to the charter that required the Board to appoint an interim manager. They went into closed session to discuss personnel, even though Commissioner Roe tried to make a nomination in open session.

Following the closed session, Commissioner Venturi moved to appoint Heidi Artley as interim manager, seconded by Commissioner Johnson. Commissioners Bohmert and Roe voted against the motion. Mayor Sage broke the tie by voting in favor.

In his closing remarks, Mayor Sage said this is a major step to "making right" what we did during a nearly three month interim, in the mistaken impression that the Town had a mayor-council form of government.

The meeting adjourned at 6:00 p.m.

Oriental Audit News

In case you missed it - the annual audit of the Town of Oriental started Tuesday, August 24. It should be completed by Thursday.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Instant Runoff Voting

Just got back from State Board of Elections training in Asheville.

The weather was lovely, though walking up those hills certainly challenged this flatlander's legs.

Yesterday while I was being trained, the State Board of Elections held a well-publicized meeting, packed with press and TV. The media wanted to learn what action the State Board would take concerning failure of the governor's campaign to report a number of private plane flights. As soon as they learned the outcome, most left.

They missed a very important story - the election of a replacement for Judge Jim Wynn of the NC Court of Appeals, recently appointed to the federal bench. Judge Wynn's appointment created a vacancy "less than 64 days before the date of the second primary." Under state law adopted in 2006, this mandates an election to fill the vacancy, on the same day as the election for members of the General Assembly, using "instant runoff voting."

This requires voters to rank their choices. If one candidate doesn't win a majority of votes on the first round of counting, then the second or possibly third choice votes will be counted. A very clever system to avoid calling a special election.

The filing period opened yesterday and will close August 31. We won't know how many candidates there are until then.

If there are more than two candidates, North Carolina will become the first state in the nation to hold an instant runoff for a statewide election.

Details to follow.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Oriental Form of Town Government New Info

I understand the ordinance amending the Town's charter to a council-manager system has been found. Good. The Town needs a manager.

Thursday's special meeting to appoint an interim Town manager is important. The interim manager has all of the statutory powers assigned by state law to a permanent manager.

Whoever is appointed will be responsible for taking the town through its annual independent audit.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Does Oriental Really Have Only Three Commissioners?

I found a record today suggesting that Oriental may only have three legal commissioners, though it has been operating with five since the election of November 2, 1993.

How can that be?

The Town Charter of 1899 provides for three commissioners and a mayor.

In 1992 the General Assembly authorized a referendum on possible changes in the electoral system for the Town of Oriental. In 1993 the General Assembly approved technical corrections to the first act. On November 2, 1993 Oriental voters held a referendum, selecting one of three choices; A: - three commissioners and a separately elected mayor who could vote only in case of a tie; B: - five commissioners, with the highest vote-getter serving as mayor and voting on any issue; C: - five commissioners and a mayor, with the mayor voting only in case of a tie.

The vote was held, and the voters selected option C.

Two problems.

First, the only surviving record of the vote, an abstract of canvassing on file at the County Board of Elections, describes it a a "Bond Ref" and gives no description of the meaning of A, B, or C.

Second, and this may be more significant, no one seems to have told the Secretary of State or the Legislative Library what option the voters chose. This is possibly significant because the ratified Bill includes the following language: "If a plurality of the votes cast are in favor of question 'A', then Section 1 of this act shall become effective beginning with the 1995 regular municipal election. Otherwise, Section 1 of this act shall have no effect." Identical language referred to questions 'B' and 'C' and the corresponding Sections 2 and 3.

So only one of the three Sections can be in effect, but we never told State officials which one. In other words, we never finished the amendment process.

How to fix it? Easy. State Law lets us amend our charter by ordinance. We should do it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Notes on the Passage of Time

August of 1954 I raised my right hand and became a 17 year old midshipman, United States Naval Reserve. That was 56 years ago.

We began learning about US Navy history, traditions, customs and usage. We learned about the Battle of Manila Bay, when Commodore Dewey led his squadron into Manila Bay and destroyed the Spanish squadron stationed there. To a 17 year old midshipman, that day in May 56 years earlier seemed impossibly remote in time. So did the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Great White Fleet (1907-1909), and the First World War (1917-1918).

To a midshipman serving in Dewey's squadron, 56 years earlier would have been 1842, before the War with Mexico.

How time flies.

Maritime Treasures

Today's New York Times reports on the sad state of some national maritime treasures.

The most urgent and saddest case is USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey's flagship at the battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

I toured Olympia almost thirty-five years ago when my ship was being overhauled at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The ship's guns had been removed (possibly during a WWII scrap metal drive) and had been replaced with hollow metal tubing. Still, it was possible to imagine the ship speeding through the warm waters of Manila Bay, evading Spanish mines, that long ago May night, closing at dawn on the Spanish Fleet, when Commodore Dewey turned to the ship's captain and said, "you may fire when ready, Gridley."

The most impressive part of the tour below decks was the engine room. Her massive reciprocating steam engines could propel the nearly 6,000 ton ship at a speed of 20 knots.

Olympia was ordered in 1888, only five years after the first four ships of the modern steel navy were authorized by Congress. Her design incorporates the lessons learned from building the first four ships (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dolphin) of the new steel navy. It did not yet have the benefit of operational experience with the "ABCD" ships.

Olympia's paint job, with white hull and buff masts and stacks was the peacetime paint scheme of US Navy ships of the day. Before going into battle in 1898, she was repainted in haze gray.

USS Olympia is the only ship of her era still afloat. A true national treasure. We need to find a way to preserve her.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oriental Form of Government Update

Mr. Hartwell Wright of the NC League of Municipalities conducted a workshop today with the Town Board. Mr. Wright, who is an expert on human resources matters, not an attorney, nevertheless provided some interesting observations.

1. If the Town has a council-manager form of government, the duties of the manager are spelled out in General Statutes. The Town Board may not take away any of those duties except by charter amendment.

2. In a council-manager system, a member of the Board may not serve as a department head.

3. In event of departure of the manager, the Board shall appoint an interim manager.

4. The relationship between the Board and the manager is pretty much what I described earlier:

"The Council/Manager plan of government promotes the separation of the Town Board's responsibility for political judgments and policy direction from the manager's responsibility for administration in accordance with the council's overall policy guidance and his or her own politically neutral expertise.

I think this is a fair description of how the Town has been governed for many years."
.

5. When Mr. Wright assists towns in changing their form of government it is always from mayor-council to council-manager, not the other way around.

6. Towns in our size category with council-manager forms of government tend to be towns with more infrastructure whose population grows during the summer.

I have not been able to confirm that the Town adopted an ordinance amending the charter to council-manager. Still working on it. August 24 update. The Town has located the amendment to the Charter. The Ordinance amending the charter to provide for a Council-Manager form of government was adopted November 12th, 1997. It is signed by Mayor Sherrill Styron and Town Administrator William Crowe. It cites NCGS 160A-101(9)(b). David Lawrence's data specifically cites GS 160A-101 as basis for one of our charter amendments. A change to council-manager in other towns often cites that provision. Our only amendment on file not only doesn't cite that provision, it was done by petition to the General Assembly, not by ordinance. Curious. It also doesn't report the results of the town's referendum. Maybe we still really have a mayor and three member council?

No telling what you'll find when you start looking.

The search continues.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oriental's Form of Government

Professor David Lawrence of the NC School of Government has kept a detailed database of town governments in the state: http://www.sog.unc.edu/pubs/FOG/index.php

Using his database, you can find out how every town is governed and the statutory citations. Where a town with a mayor/council form of government hires an administrator to run the departments, this is also shown. According to his data, of the municipalities in Pamlico County, Minnesott Beach and Oriental are Council/Manager governments. The rest are all Mayor/Council.

The professor provides statutory cites for each town. For Oriental they are:

SL 1993, c. 4
GS 163-279
GS 160A-101
Pr. 1899, c. 184
SL 1991(92), c. 878

You can look it up.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Town of Oriental's Form of Government

Did the Town's 1899 Charter establish a Mayor/Council form of government? Yes. In fact, in 1899, that was the only form of municipal government in North Carolina.

Does the 1899 Charter determine what Oriental's form of government is today? Not necessarily. A lot has happened since then.

In 1899, for example, the Mayor had all of the powers of a Justice of Peace. He could put people in jail, levy fines, sentence citizens to work on the roads. The Town issued its own automobile license plates, kept its own tax lists, ran its own elections. In the 1920's, the Town had authority to issue bonds. In those days, if the Town wanted to amend its charter, it had to petition the General Assembly.

No more.

A big change, introduced in North Carolina General Statutes about 40 years ago, was to give Towns the right to change their form of governance without going back to the General Assembly for an amendment to the charter.

The town can change its form of government to a number of forms spelled out in NCGS 160A-101. They may change it by ordinance (160A-102)[see below for new info], subject to referendum by petition (160A-103). The charter can also be amended by popular initiative (160A-104) in the form prescribed by 160A-105. When the charter is amended, the amendments must continue in force for at least two years after beginning the term of office of officials elected thereunder (160A-107). Take a look at NCGS 160A. The index and links are at: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/statutes/StatutesTOC.pl?Chapter=0160A

Advocates of the Mayor/Council theory apparently believe the Town never officially adopted the Council/Manager form of government.

Before I accept that as fact, I would want to research the Town's minutes and ordinances from the time NCGS granted authority to change the form of government until some reasonable time after the Town first characterized the chief administrative officer as "Town Manager." We need more than proof by assertion.

Even if it can be shown that the Town did not follow the procedures prescribed in 160A-101 through 106 to amend its charter, it has consistently followed the procedures of governance characteristic of a Council/Manager system for many decades. This history of town governance establishes a reasonable expectation on the part of the Town's citizens that they will be provided the benefits of a Council/Manager form of government.

I argue that the Town is estopped from adopting a Mayor/Council form of government without going through all of the procedures outlined in NCGS 160A-101 through 106.

I don't argue that the Town Commissioners lack the authority to adopt a Mayor/Council form of government. But to do so, they need to go through all the steps. Not by stealth.

August 16th update. I have pretty good information from the NC School of Government that the town's charter was in fact changed by local ordinance pursuant to the procedures in GS 160A-102. I will be seeking confirmation from the state legislative library, now that I have some citations to refer to.

Special Town Board Meeting August 17 11:00

The Town of Oriental has scheduled a Special Workshop Meeting August 17, 2010 at 11:00 am with Mr. Hartwell Wright of North Carolina League of Municipalities to discuss Human Resources.

Warning! This could be a stealth effort to change the form of government the Town of Oriental has enjoyed for nearly 40 years, without alerting the citizenry to the issues.

To set the stage, I quote from a recent letter of Mayor Bill Sage to the Local Government Commission (back)dated April 1, 2010:

"The prior Town Administrator, Wyatt Cutler, had served for nearly a decade when he announced his retirement in late 2008, effective January 31, 2009. The Town began a search process for his replacement and hired the current Administrator, Randall K. Cahoon, in March 2009."

"Pay no attention," the letter seems to say, "to the contract between the Town of Oriental and the same Randall K. Cahoon, made the 9th of March, 2009." The contract was addressed to "Randall K. Cahoon, Town Manager" and signed for the Town of Oriental by "William R. Sage, Mayor." Pay no attention, likewise, to nearly 40 years of minutes describing the "Town Manager's Report," correspondence addressed to and signed by "Town Manager," and the fact that during his "nearly a decade" of service, Wyatt Cutler was styled as and performed the functions of the Town Manager.

With no notice to the public, someone working out of Town Hall seems to have decided to expunge the term "town manager" from our lexicon and replace it with "administrator."

Isn't this a distinction without a difference? Not exactly.

What is at stake is how the town is governed.

The Council/Manager plan of government promotes the separation of the Town Board's responsibility for political judgments and policy direction from the manager's responsibility for administration in accordance with the council's overall policy guidance and his or her own politically neutral expertise.

I think this is a fair description of how the Town has been governed for many years.

The Mayor/Council form of government assigns decision making responsibility to the Town Board as a group, with no clear executive authority.

Advocates of the Mayor/Council model contend that the Town's 1899 Charter provides for a Mayor/Council form of government.

Maybe.

Maybe not.

More to come.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Town Board Impressions

Watching the proceedings at last week's Town Board reminded me of a film clip I once saw at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. Will had his foot on the running board of a car, relaxed grin on his face, talking to the occupant.

"From the newspapers, Mr. Coolidge," he said,"I see you haven't done much of anything this year."

"Yep," President Coolidge said.

"But," Will observed, "It seems that's just what the public wanted done."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Oriental Town Board of Commissioners August 3

I attended the August 3 meeting of the Oriental Town Board of Commissioners. I learned a lot. Much of what I learned was from what wasn't said, and some from how things were said. Some of what I learned was just from observation. I'll share some of these observations over the next few days.

One of the first observations is that previous problems with minutes haven't been resolved. The Board spent the first thirty minutes of the meeting wrestling over minutes. In fact, they did not approve the minutes for June 1. What I thought I heard was that those minutes would be approved at the next agenda meeting. I must have been mistaken, because now I see that minutes for June 1 have been posted on the Town's web site. Surely that wouldn't have been done without revisiting them at a public meeting of the Board. August 13 update: just checked the town's web site - the June 1 minutes have been removed.

Surely there is some way to make sure the minutes are done right the first time. On second thought, maybe not. We still haven't solved a similar problem at the County Board of Elections.

More later.

Political Expectations

"A man that would expect to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic; but a man that thinks men can be turned into angels by an election is a reformer and remains at large."

Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Time

"There's never time to do it right, but always time to do it over."

-Staff Officers' Lament

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Physical Changes

I saw my doctor last week for my annual physical. Everything was great. Only one piece of bad news: I'm an inch and a half shorter than I was when I was 21.

That's unfair.

The problem isn't that I want to tower over other people - it is that now I have to lose more weight. The weight charts are calibrated by height. As long as I thought I was taller, my weight didn't look that bad.

When you think about it, using overall height as the benchmark discriminates in another way. My legs are short. They should be a couple of inches longer. That wouldn't add much weight, but would make a difference on the weight chart.

Guess I just have to start eating less and exercising more.

South Avenue Update

Pamlico County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Crow signed the final judgment granting ownership of the end of South Avenue to the Town of Oriental last February 5th.

Six months have passed, and the fence is still up. I am told that last Wednesday Lacy Henry agreed for the Town to remove the fence he put up in the Town's Right of Way about eighteen years ago.

Care to place bets on how long it will take for the fence to come down?

Voting Rights

Forty-five years ago, August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending the deal struck almost ninety years earlier that let southern states deprive a large number of their citizens of rights enjoyed by the white majority.

The Voting Rights Act is often seen as a measure primarily benefiting African Americans. I see it as a victory for all Americans. It took another four decades, but the events set in motion that long-ago August eventually led to the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and countless court decisions establishing the right of every American to vote. No poll tax (that hindered all poor people from voting), no literacy test (first used in the Northeast to prevent Irish immigrants from voting), no competency test, easier procedures for servicemen and overseas Americans to vote, removal of administrative barriers.

The bottom line: now every citizen has the right to vote somewhere unless that right has been taken away by a court of law.

We can best honor the memory of the courageous Americans who gave their lives so this could happen by taking the time to register and vote.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

County Audit

At last Monday's meeting (August 2) of the Pamlico County Commissioners, we learned that the County's auditors have completed their work except for one minor item: adding the revenue from the County's share of NC State sales tax, which will not be received until next month.

Good Job!

At Tuesday's meeting of Oriental's Town Commissioners, we heard nothing about the town's audit. I have since learned that the auditors plan to begin their work in a couple of weeks.

You may recall that the NC Local Government Commission sent a letter to the Town on March 1 requiring the Town to correct a dozen deficiencies from our last audit. The LGC went on to "urge the Board to develop a corrective action plan immediately and begin eliminating these serious internal control weaknesses."

Town Board minutes of April 6 report that Mr. Cahoon was to provide information and after consulting with the auditors, Mayor Sage would sign and send a letter in response to the LGC. I have been unable to find any record of action by the Board to develop or even adopt a corrective action plan.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tonkin Gulf 1964


Forty-six years ago today, August 4, 1964, I was aboard USS Higbee (DD-806), steaming at twenty-seven knots toward the Tonkin Gulf. The day before, our destroyer squadron commander, Captain Vincent Patrick Healey, rushed our departure from the naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, so we could get into the action following the North Vietnamese PT Boat attack Sunday, August 2 on USS Maddox.

The above photo, taken from Higbee's helicopter deck, shows USS Mason (DD-852), followed by USS Orleck (DD-886) in the distance. Not seen is the squadron flagship, USS Joseph B. Strauss (DDG-16), leading the way ahead of Higbee.

My wife Elizabeth and our two young sons had arrived in Japan from the states after nineteen hours in a four-engined propeller plane the evening of August 3, hours after our departure. I would not see them for two more months.

That night (August 4) I stood the mid watch (midnight to 0400). After my watch, I stopped by the radio shack to read the fox skeds (incoming messages broadcast to all the ships in the fleet, printed on yellow teletype paper). I soon came across a stack of messages sent at flash precedence from USS Maddox and the embarked destroyer squadron commander, Capt. Herrick. It read like a war novel.

Maddox and her companion ship USS Turner Joy reported being under attack by PT boats. The ships took evasive action to avoid torpedoes detected by sonarmen. The attacking boats, seen on radar, maneuvered at high speed. Lookouts reported flashes of gunfire and cockpit lights. Maddox and Turner Joy fired their five inch guns and reported destroying several boats.

After several messages of that kind, Commodore Herrick sent a message calling into question some of the earlier messages. His messages conveyed increasing doubt that the ships were under attack at all. Then I saw messages from the Pentagon asking probing questions and directing Herrick to keep all of the records, including tracks from the ship's dead reckoning tracer (DRT), radio logs, sonar records and so forth. Commodore Herrick recommended to the Pentagon to take no action until the records were reviewed.

Unknown to him, action was already underway, with a retaliatory strike planned for dawn.

Suddenly there were no more messages on the fleet broadcast about the event. I was certain the message traffic had been moved from general service communications channels to a "back channel" not shared with the operating forces.

Two months later, back in Yokosuka, we began hearing rumors that the two ships may have been firing at each other. I doubted that. But I never believed that the so called second attack, the night of 4-5 August 1964, that was used to justify the Tonkin Gulf Resolution actually happened.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Conservative Fears and Timidity

Conservatives are timid. Don't take my word for it - read the words of Glen Beck's favorite economist, Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek in his 1960 essay, "Why I am not a Conservative."

"As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers," Hayek writes, "one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind."

He goes on to elaborate:

"Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule - not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people."

Be not afraid.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stop the Presses II

A couple of comments were posted taking issue with my previous post "Stop the Presses."

We need to be clear on a few points:

First, it would be good for all political parties and all candidates if there were no deceased voters or moved voters on the voter registration rolls. The reason is that parties and candidates rely on voter registration lists for candidate mailings, telephone calls to get out targeted voters, and other activities in support of political campaigns.

Second, almost every political jurisdiction in the United States has deceased voters and moved voters on its voter registration rolls. The only exception is North Dakota: they do not have voter registration.

Third, as I have explained before, maintaining voter registration rolls is a continuous process. It isn't easy, and there is no automatic system to keep rolls up to date, especially when changes involve other states.

List maintenance is a challenging, but basically tedious administrative process. There is no reason for drama.

In Pamlico County, we are fortunate to have a skilled and knowledgeable Director of Elections, Lisa Bennett, who has made continuous and effective improvements in election administration over the past three years.

Without drama.

No need to stop the presses.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Secret Meeting

Here it is! The long-awaited audio recording of the "Secret Meeting" between County Board of Elections Chair David Cox and Board Member Ed Credle during recess of the March 23 2010 Board meeting!

This is the recording that cost Pamlico County taxpayers $1,400 when Board Member Judy Smith consulted the county attorney about:
1) whether or not a recording she made of the March 23, 2010 Board of Elections meeting was a “public record” which she was therefore obliged to turn over to the Board’s custodian of records; and

2) if so, whether nineteen seconds of audio captured by her recorder when she left it running during a recess of the meeting is also a public record.

Background:

Ms. Smith recorded the March 23, 2010 BOE meeting in her capacity as Secretary in order to aid her in preparing minutes. She then refused multiple requests to provide the Board’s custodian of records with the recording. She also subsequently refused to provide recordings she made of the Board’s April 5, April 13, and April 20 meetings.

At the Board’s April 27 meeting, Ms. Smith was again asked to provide the recording to the Board as a public record, and she stated she would not provide the recording unless and until I and Mr. Credle agreed to “explain” to her satisfaction several comments she had recorded during a recess when she was outside the room.

I did not believe Ms. Smith had the right to hold recordings of public meetings as hostage for any reason, so I made a written demand under North Carolina General Statutes 132-5 that she turn over the recording. Ms. Smith contacted the county attorney, who explained that a recording of a public meeting made by the Secretary of a body to assist in preparing meeting minutes is a “public record,” and not a “personal” recording. Ms. Smith finally turned over a copy of the recording to the Board’s custodian of records.

As for the recording made during the recess, contrary to assertions made elsewhere, the county attorney never "advised [that the] segment of the recording [made during the recess] is a public document and is a part of the meeting business." The attorney never even listened to the recording to evaluate its content and determine whether the recess conversation actually involved Board of Elections “business.” Instead, he simply took his client's (Ms. Smith’s) assertions as true (as attorneys generally do when writing opinion letters to client inquiries);
“You [Ms. Smith] believe that a portion of the tape recording during the recess includes discussions regard Board of Elections’ business…If any of these assumptions or facts are incorrect… my opinion may change accordingly…"
- Jimmie B. Hicks, Jr. letter of May 6, 2010

Now that Ms. Smith has turned over the recording, including the portion recorded during the recess, we can all listen and determine whether Mr. Credle or I broke any rules.

The Accusations

Mr. George Smith wrote a letter to the editor of the County Compass newspaper asserting that two portions of the recess discussion violated open records and/or open meetings laws:
1) a discussion between Mr. Cox and Mr. Credle about some complaints made by members of the public during the public comments portion of the meeting; and
2) comments about a number of potential voter registration challenges.

The Rules:

What are the rules about two Board members speaking to each other while the third member is not present?

As of May 28th, the rule was: "it is within the law for a board chairman or member to meet individually and privately with each other to discuss a public matter if no action is taken through these individual meetings." Don Wright, General Counsel, State Board of Elections.

Recently the State Board has promulgated a new rule: "Members of county boards of election should refrain from two-person conversations touching on subjects that may come before the board for a decision. Conversations that concern elections but do not touch on subjects that may come before the board for decisions are not in violation of the law and are permissible." - Robert P. Joyce, UNC School of Government July 8, 2010.

In explaining the new rule, Mr. Joyce also made clear that conversations between a Board member and BOE staff members are not covered under the Open Meetings Act.

The Substance - Where is the Violation?

The second question is whether any of the above rules were violated by anyone who was recorded by Ms. Smith during the recess.

First, we should listen to what was said:

(Note: for some reason unknown to me, you may have to hit the "play" button twice to start the player)

(my best attempt of a transcript appears below, at the end of this posting)

In the recording, Mr. Credle and I have a brief exchange about things said by several speakers during the public comment period concerning events that allegedly occurred during the election of 2008. The deadline to file a protest of the 2008 election was November 18, 2008, 16 months before the meeting and conversations about which Mr. Smith complained took place. There was no way the Board could have taken any action on the allegations and complaints made by the speakers, no matter how well-founded they might have been.

Next you will hear SBOE District Election Technician Rosemary Blizzard wondering why the Board spent so much time discussing a number of potential voter registration challenges, commenting that the challengers should simply submit their challenges for consideration and decision by the Board. Pamlico County Director of Elections Lisa Bennett also jokingly suggested that the Board simply vote to remove all challenged voters. I responded to these comments with noncommittal “yeah”s, indicating I heard and understood what the staff members were saying, but giving no substantive responses in order to protect my complete impartiality in the event the potential challenges were brought before the Board for a quasi-judicial hearing and decision.

How does a brief discussion between Board Members Mr. Credle and myself about allegations upon which the Board had no power to act violate any of these rules?

How do comments made by BOE staff members to a Board Member about any matter whatsoever violate any of these rules?

Now we can all listen and decide for ourselves whether anything in the recess recording is a public document or reveals a violation of the NC Open Meetings Act.


(Transcription:)

Ed Credle: Give me a hand. (laughter)

Ed Credle: Give up, give up a "Jesse Jackson." (as Mr. Cox gave a hand to help Mr. Credle stand up) There ya go. Thank you. (laughing)

Dave Cox: Alright.

Ed Credle: I need to straighten up a little (sighs)…

Dave Cox: Yeah

Ed Credle: Gee. Thank you.

Dave Cox: Well, heh-heh.

Ed Credle: I’m catchin’ it.

Dave Cox: Yeah?

Ed Credle: Yeah. Yep. [indiscernible]

Dave Cox: I hope you can see who they focused on uh you know, Mesic and who they were looking at real closely in Oriental?

Ed Credle: Ha, ha. Yeah. OK, well we can take care of that.

Dave Cox: Yeah.

Lisa Bennett (entering room): Mr. Credle, I think I caught you napping [laughter]

Ed Credle: Almost. Wow. Almost. [laughter continues]

Rosemary Blizzard: [indistinct] ten minutes [indistinct].

Ed Credle: You got it.

Lisa Bennett: It’s still on (referring to audio recorder)

Rosemary Blizzard: Why are we discussing? Just turn it in. Y’all do the voting.

Dave Cox: Yeah.

Rosemary Blizzard: If you vote “no” you vote “no.”

Dave Cox: Yeah. It’s OK.

Rosemary Blizzard: Majority rules.

Lisa Bennett: Just vote “yes” so I can take them off, OK? [snickers].

Dave Cox: Yeah.

Lisa Bennett: "[indiscernible/laughing] Just get rid of ‘em."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stop the Presses!

Heedless of the roaring machinery and tons of newsprint racing by inches from his elbow, the intrepid night editor rushed along the catwalk, leapt to the fire pole on the upper deck, slid skillfully to the lower level, ran up to the pressman and shouted in his ear: Stop the presses!

The pressman sounded the siren and pressed a toggle switch. The massive machine slowed, the sound diminishing. A worker trundled a cart carrying newly cast cylinders impressed with the reverse image of the front page. The headline, a mirror image of the page itself, screamed out in 72-point type:

"Deceased People on Pamlico County Voter Registration Rolls!"

Oh, the drama!

Cigarette dangling from his lip, the night editor returned to his office, put on his jacket, jammed a battered fedora on his head and called it a night. He felt the rumbling of the building as the presses started up again. He turned out the light, a note of regret on his face. If only he could have written a more surprising headline: "No Deceased People On Pamlico Voter Rolls!" That would be something - the only county in the nation.

Maybe next century. He fled into the dark shadows of the city, a dim street lamp in the distance.

Monday, July 19, 2010

South Avenue - Closed Minutes September 4, 2007

I promised to continue the saga of South Avenue as revealed in the closed minutes. On September 4, 2007 Attorney Davis reviewed "all the facts" regarding the South Avenue Litigation with the Town Board and handed out copies of the original case filed by Lacy Henry.

After laying out a theory of the case based on the original town map of 1900, Attorney Davis explained "the other side might argue, 'show me where those streets were condemned or acquired' and we cannot."

Actually, we could have easily done so. But Attorney Davis had never researched the necessary facts in the five years since the town filed its suit. No research. No discovery. No requests for production of documents. No requests for admissions. No interrogatories.

The truth is, Ben Hollowell, when he was town attorney in 1995 and 1996, had already laid the foundation for the case. He submitted queries to the NC Attorney General and to David Lawrence of the Institute of Government, the state's expert on right-of-way law. David Lawrence outlined the winning case.

The case was simple. A plat of 34 lots and associated streets was made by the Oriental Bulkhead Improvement Company and filed. The assets of the company were bought at auction by Mr. Benjamin Wallace O'Neal in 1917, before any lots were sold. Mr. O'Neal sold one of the lots in December, 1917 by reference to the plat and to the south edge of South Avenue. He sold at least thirty more lots from the plat in February, 1918. The town opened the section of South Avenue between Wall Street and Avenue A in early 1918. Under NC law, the sale of a single lot completed the dedication to the town and the opening of any portion of any street on the plat accepted the dedication, making it irrevocable.

Attorney Davis didn't do the research and didn't have either the necessary facts or the necessary legal theory. The known facts didn't completely support his own legal theory, but he barged ahead anyway. No wonder he tried to talk the town into settling.

The September 4 minutes are too long to attach here, and I would have to provide explanatory notes that would at least double the length. I'd be happy to share the minutes and explanations with anyone who asks.

More to come.

Open Meetings Act and Boards of Elections

Last week the Pamlico County Board of Elections joined other Boards at a training session in New Bern. We (the Pamlico Board) were handed a paper by Bob Joyce of the UNC School of Government concerning the Open Meetings Act and County and Municipal Boards of Elections.

The problem is that in North Carolina, such boards consist of three members and a discussion between any two of them can under certain circumstances be construed as an "official meeting." The previous interpretation by the State Board had been that two members could have a conversation, so long as no agreements were concluded and no votes taken.

The newly-promulgated rule is more restrictive: "Members of county boards of elections should refrain from two-person conversations touching on subjects that may come before the board for a decision." Then the paper goes on to call for common sense. Right.

I have been quite aware of the problems created by the Open Meetings Act. The public is right to be suspicious of back room deals. On the other hand, agreements have to be negotiated. Public meetings aren't the best place for such negotiations. The North Carolina state legislature has exempted itself from most of the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. Otherwise, nothing would get done. Or, alternatively, only the staffs would be allowed to negotiate, cutting the elected or appointed members of the public body out of the loop as active participants.

For smaller bodies - say, the Oriental NC Town Board, with very limited staff resources, drafting ordinances under the constraints of the Open Meetings Act becomes a challenge.

My solution was to start this blog. My theory is, I don't care who knows what my position is on a public issue. I'll just put it out there in the open. Any member of the public who wants to know can just look. What could be more open than that? Should other Board members be among those who want to know what I think, they can look, too. No secrets.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Climate Change Events

Those who think climate change is a hoax might want to check out Dr. Jeff Masters' blog on Weather Underground web site. Something unusual seems to be going on, affecting the entire globe.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Eyes on the Prize: the Prequel

Watching Eyes on the Prize last night on PBS brought back memories.

A decade before the Selma march, I was a student at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), quietly going about my business while under surveillance by agents of the White Citizens Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. It was an interesting time.

In 1956, I worked with a group of students on an underground newspaper called the Nigble Papers. I was essentially the publisher, which mostly meant finding a mimeograph machine somewhere that wasn't under lock and key. It was much like what was known in the Soviet Union as samizdat.

Our paper was later reprinted under the title Southern Reposure by a small group of Mississippi citizens: P.D. East, editor and publisher of The Petal Paper of Petal, Mississippi (near Hattiesburg); Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of The Delta Democrat-Times of my then home town of Greenville, Mississippi; Professor James Silver of Ole Miss (one of my history professors); and William Faulkner.

I recently came across a reference to the event in P.D. East's memoirs, The Magnolia Jungle, in a book of collected narratives by Marion Barnwell.

Our efforts didn't accomplish much in the short term, but I'd like to believe they helped in the long run.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eyes on the Prize

An important program note: tomorrow night, Wednesday, July 14 at 9:00PM, UNC TV Channel 25 will show a special edition of American Experience, Eyes on the Prize: Mississippi: Is This America? 1963-1964/Bridge to Freedom 1965. If you have never seen this powerful documentary, make a special point of doing so. Even if you have seen it, take another look. You will probably notice something you didn't notice before.

At 8:00, the lead-in program is Terry Sanford & The New South. The contrast between North Carolina and Mississippi in 1962 could hardly be more stark.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Closed Session Minutes - South Avenue I

A while back, I reported that I now have copies of closed session minutes relating to South Avenue.

Here is the first one:

"Town of Oriental - Board of Commissioners Meeting
August 7, 2007

The Oriental Town Board of Commissioners met on Tuesday August 7, 2007 at 6:00 pm at the Oriental Town Hall. Present were Mayor Styron and Commissioners Bohmert, Herlands, Inger and Venturi.

CLOSED SESSION: Attorney Davis informed the Board that Mr. Henry may offer the Town 30 feet in fee simple, down the middle of the right-of-way of South Avenue. The Board requested the offer in writing and in detail.

MOTION: Commissioner Bohmert made a motion to go out of closed session. Second by Commissioner Inger. Vote 4-0."

Comment: The Board was right to ask for a written, detailed offer. None was ever received, nor was it credible to expect one. The Town had in its possession a copy of Mr. Henry's CAMA permit for an eight-slip marina, using Mr. Henry's own lot and the full sixty-foot width of the Town's right-of-way. One can only wonder if Attorney Davis ever looked at it.

More later.

Meeting Minutes

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what goes into minutes of official meetings of government bodies.

Early this year, when Oriental Town Commissioners reviewed draft minutes, newly-elected Commissioner Jennifer Roe made it quite clear: minutes record what was done, not what was said. This general rule applies no matter what the nature of the body. Otherwise approval of the minutes becomes a reiteration of every argument raised at the previous meeting and so on, ad infinitum.

As for public records, any correspondence concerning the business of a board becomes a public record, including audio and video recordings of public meetings. The custodian of all public records of the County Board of Elections is Lisa Bennett, the Director of Elections.

Since the meeting of the County Board of Elections held March 23, 2010, all minutes have included the following statement: "An audio recording was made of the proceedings. A copy has been provided as a public record to the Director of Elections, who will maintain it in accordance with the Records Retention and Disposition Schedule for County and Municipal Boards of Elections, dated October 7, 2002."

Any citizen who wants a copy of any of these records should contact Lisa Bennett at the County Board of Elections - 745-4821.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

First the Facts - Then the Solution

There was some discussion at last Tuesday's meeting of the Oriental Board of Commissioners about the alleged need for a surveyor to determine how much of Mr. Henry's fence at the end of South Avenue needs to come down. As one of the attendees (our son Benjamin) pointed out, the answer is "all of it."

The next day, he showed Mayor Sage the "railroad iron" depicted on Mr. Henry's own survey of the premises that shows clearly that the entire fence along Mr. Henry's lot is in the town right of way. The survey also shows the boundary between the South Avenue right of way and Mr. Henry's lot marked by an iron pipe. Shooting a simple transit line from that point would complete the boundary.

The other side, between the town's right of way and Chris Fulcher's property may be more complicated. Even there, the town should consult the very detailed survey completed in late 2007 at the urging of the Town Attorney, which was never used. That survey may clear up any uncertainty. It shows a pipe found at the very edge of the right of way, though it is not immediately visible at the moment.

Another proposal is that the town may need to work a deal with Mr. Henry to allow the pavement to continue encroaching on Mr. Henry's lot to allow truck access to Chris Fulcher's property south of the avenue.

I don't think so. I checked to see the tuning radius needed to accommodate 18-wheelers. They require an inside radius of 45 feet and an outside radius of 65 feet. Once the fence is out of the way, there is enough room in the originally platted intersection to allow a curve with those dimensions. Let's check it out before doing any deals.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Croaker Fest - Oriental Welcomes Visitors

Tomorrow, July 2, 2010, sees the opening of the Croaker Fest, Pamlico County's midsummer celebration, hosted each year in Oriental. It is a community event, prepared and carried out by many civic-minded people, from parade organizers to garbologists.

Oriental residents and businesses welcome the flood of visitors.

Except for a few. Some take the opportunity to block off "their" section of the town's right of way to prevent visitors from parking on "their" grass. Some even install permanent barriers to prevent parking on public property next to their houses.

Apart from the fact that blocking the town right of way is a violation of the law, it is an offense to the kind of neighborly welcome the rest of us try to extend to visitors. Shame on you!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Great Recession? Or Third Depression?

The great mystery of the great depression of the 1930's was: how could the economy achieve apparent stability at low levels of use of economic resources?

Classical economic theory held that, unfettered by government interference, the market would naturally establish equilibrium at full employment. Periods of reduced economic activity were held to be unstable, leading to a return of stability at full employment.

But from 1929 on, the world economy was stubbornly stable at very low levels of activity. John Maynard Keynes researched the problem with a sense of urgency, publishing his magnum opus, the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in 1936. He demonstrated that in times of massive unemployment and economic stagnation, only government spending could get the economy moving again. Under such circumstances, budget deficits were not important. Keynes was unimpressed with arguments that "in the long run" things would get better. "In the long run," he responded, "we'll all be dead." Over the following quarter century, his theories were adopted by nations all over the world, with great success.

Why would countries abandon a set of insights that worked so well? That is the question economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman examines in today's newspaper. Although he doesn't come out and say so, he seems to fear that once again (as in the 1930's) the world economy is in the hands of fools.

If we hope to avoid a third depression and put people back to work, it is not yet time for Congress to worry about deficits.