Sunday, May 30, 2010

Decoration Day

Tomorrow, May 31, 2010, the last Monday in May, is Decoration Day.

You may know it as Memorial Day.

Wikipedia explains: "Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May (May 31 in 2010). Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in the military service.[1] First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War (it is celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War), it was expanded after World War I."

Many Americans will spend tomorrow shopping. And that's fine.

But please take a little time out to attend one of the Memorial Day observances, such as the one at the Bayboro Court House at 11:00.

And don't forget to vote. Next Thursday One Stop voting starts at the Board of Elections office at Bayboro for the second primary. The May 4th primary won't be completely over until after the second primary on June 22.

Never forget: courageous American patriots died so you would have the right to vote. Honor them by going to the polls.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Closed Meeting Minutes

Yesterday evening at Oriental Town Board's monthly agenda workshop, the Board finally addressed closed meeting minutes. Commissioner Johnson moved to open a long list of closed session minutes, including the minutes I had requested. The vote was unanimous.

That's a good move. I hope it becomes more routine.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bay River Again

Yesterday's report in Pamlico Today was good news about Bay River. The state has held off the moratorium on new hookups until June 7, hoping proposed repairs prove successful.

The news doesn't, however, resolve a longstanding issue that needs to be addressed. There is no agreement between the Town of Oriental and Bay River Metropolitan Sewer District obliging BRMSD to provide sewer treatment for new residences or businesses in Oriental, even though the town's Growth Management Ordinance seems to require sewer hookups for new construction and clearly requires it for subdivisions.

At the time Oriental sold its sewage treatment plant to BMRSD, no one thought to protect the Town's interests with a formal agreement. The problem with handshake agreements, though, is that they are only good while the handshakers are still around. Even then, they may not have thought to cover every likely contingency.

We are all mortal. We owe it to our progeny to protect their interests with formal agreements. An interlocal agreement between the Town and Bay River seems in order.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Legal Fees

According to today's Pamlico News, the Town of Oriental has so far paid $21,000 in legal fees for a study by an employment attorney of "personnel problems" at Town Hall. It sounds like there is no end in sight.

From Maureen Donald's article, one could deduce that the Town Board has spent $21,000 in order to avoid paying a $25,000 severance package. Few attorneys would recommend that course of action. Is there something else they are trying to protect?

If the object of the attorney's effort was to uncover the truth or obtain evidence, the Board could have done that at little or no expense by exercising their power of investigation:

"§ 160A‑80. Power of investigation; subpoena power.

(a) The council shall have power to investigate the affairs of the city, and for that purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of evidence.

(b) If a person fails or refuses to obey a subpoena issued pursuant to this section, the council may apply to the General Court of Justice for an order requiring that its order be obeyed, and the court shall have jurisdiction to issue these orders after notice to all proper parties. No testimony of any witness before the council pursuant to a subpoena issued in exercise of the power conferred by this section may be used against him on the trial of any civil or criminal action other than a prosecution for false swearing committed on the examination. If any person, while under oath at an investigation by the council, willfully swears falsely, he is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor."

The only downside is that allegations would have to be made and responded to in the light of day rather than in the shadows.

Secrecy can be expensive.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Negotiating with Bay River

The Town of Oriental provides Bay River Metropolitan Sewer District with billing services. We include the sewer bill with our monthly water bill. The town collects the sewer payments and forwards the money to Bay River.

Interestingly enough, there appears to have never been a contract with Bay River to provide this service since the expiration of a non-renewable contract about 1995.

In 2008 the Town increased the monthly per customer fee that we charged Bay River for the service.

Bay River didn't like that. I wasn't pleased either, since a back of the envelope calculation indicated we still weren't charging enough to cover all our costs. How much are we losing? I think the figure is about two bits per water customer per month.

Almost a year ago, Bay River proposed that we sign a contract agreeing, among other provisions, to freeze our fee for five years.

Now there's a really bad idea.

Randy Cahoon, Bill Sage and I drafted proposed changes to the Bay River draft and the Town retained Ben Hollowell to represent us in the negotiations.

We still have no agreement. Bay River has rejected every one of the Town's proposals.

Someone needs to explain why the Town wants to continue negotiating for the privilege of losing money to Bay River.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why all the Secrecy?

Last Friday I submitted a request in writing for copies of closed session minutes pertaining to lawyer client discussions on South Avenue.

Today I was told that on advice of counsel, the Town Manager (who is the custodian of the town's public records) could not release them because the Town Board has not finally agreed to their release.

Why the foot dragging? Is someone afraid to let the minutes see the light of day?

Last December, in its final meeting, the previous board agreed that the South Avenue closed session minutes would be released when the case was finally over. Judge Crow signed the final order last February 5th, after Mr. Henry exhausted all his rights of appeal. A case can't be any more "over" than that.

North Carolina General Statutes are quite clear about closed session minutes:

"NCGS 143-318.10:
(e) Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions held pursuant to G.S. 143‑318.11. Such minutes may be in written form or, at the option of the public body, may be in the form of sound or video and sound recordings. When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired. Such accounts may be a written narrative, or video or audio recordings. Such minutes and accounts shall be public records within the meaning of the Public Records Law, G.S. 132‑1 et seq.; provided, however, that minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143‑318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session."

Note:this provision assigns the Town Board no role in the release of closed session minutes.

On the other hand:

"§ 132‑1.1. Confidential communications by legal counsel to public board or agency; ...

(a) Confidential Communications. – Public records, as defined in G.S. 132‑1, shall not include written communications (and copies thereof) to any public board, council, commission or other governmental body of the State or of any county, municipality or other political subdivision or unit of government, made within the scope of the attorney‑client relationship by any attorney‑at‑law serving any such governmental body, concerning any claim against or on behalf of the governmental body or the governmental entity for which such body acts, or concerning the prosecution, defense, settlement or litigation of any judicial action, or any administrative or other type of proceeding to which the governmental body is a party or by which it is or may be directly affected. Such written communication and copies thereof shall not be open to public inspection, examination or copying unless specifically made public by the governmental body receiving such written communications; provided, however, that such written communications and copies thereof shall become public records as defined in G.S. 132‑1 three years from the date such communication was received by such public board, council, commission or other governmental body."

So the rules are different for written communications than for minutes. Maybe our attorney has conflated two entirely different rules.

The public has the right to see the minutes I requested.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Captain Marvel and Don Winslow

I've already mentioned that I used to run to the dime store in Tulsa Oklahoma each month to buy the latest edition of Captain Marvel comics.

Another one of my favorite comic books was Don Winslow, a naval intelligence officer who sometimes appeared in marine or coast guard uniforms. I even remember Don Winslow appearing in Little Big Books, a series of adventure books in novel form.

A few years ago I decided to google Don Winslow. What I learned was astounding: "The idea for Don Winslow was conceived by Lieutenant Commander Frank V. Martinek USNR [in 1934], himself a storied veteran of World War I Naval intelligence, after Admiral Wat T. Cluverius complained to him about the difficulties of recruiting in the Midwest."

I read the passage to my wife, who looked at me with a knowing smile. "It worked, didn't it?" she observed.

I also didn't know that Don Winslow was introduced to Fawcett's comic book readers in 1943 by none other than Captain Marvel.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Are the Best Things in Life Really Free?

Are you High GDP Man or Low GDP Man?

For many years, certain people generally thought to be eccentric (cruising sailors among them) have extolled the virtues of spending less money, being more self-sufficient, growing and catching their own food and so forth. "Leaving the grid," some call it.

Economists who measure the quality of life ("standard of living") by the amount of resources used, frown on this approach. If everyone left the grid, it would lower the GDP.

Other economists, long in the minority, contend that GDP is a misleading measure of prosperity. So what would be a better measure?

Here is a summary of recent developments in assessing prosperity, including some alternate measurements already in use in other countries.

This is definitely worth reading.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Education: What is it? How to do it?

If you sense a lack of agreement on what education is and the best way to do it, there seems to be a lot of ferment in the field right now.

I recommend three recent New York Time articles:

"Challenges in Replicating Charter School Success," which examines whether charter schools are any better than standard public schools;

"The Education of Diane Ravitch," in which the Assistant Secretary of Education in the George Herbert Walker Bush Administration concludes that neither choice nor testing improve education;

And "Plan B - Skip College," which challenges the idea that we should push for college for everyone.

Each of the articles is worth a read.

Captain Marvel


And mild-mannered Billy Batson, boy radio reporter, assumes the powers of a half-dozen superheroes.

Unless the evil Doctor Sivana's henchmen get to Billy Batson and gag him before he can say more than "Shazmpf." If he gets the whole word out (Shazam), he turns into superhero Captain Marvel.

In case you missed it, the serial at this week's Friday Flicks at Oriental's old theater, will show a Captain Marvel serial, followed by Alfred Hitchcock's 1930's black and white spy story, "Thirty Nine Steps."

When I was six years old or so, I rushed down to Woolworth's every month to buy the latest edition of Captain Marvel. I don't remember ever seeing the movie serial, so this will be a rare treat.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Closed Minutes Again

I hate to keep bringing this up.

Last week Oriental's Town Board Meeting Agenda included an item to consider opening previously closed minutes relating to legal considerations about the Town's South Avenue lawsuit. The board decided to postpone action until the next agenda meeting.

Say what?

Last year the outgoing Town Board reviewed the closed minutes and decided that once the South Avenue lawsuit was over, the minutes would be released to the public. The case is over. The Town won. I didn't make a big stink about it, but I believed at the time, after reviewing the minutes, that the condition established in North Carolina's Open Meetings Law for their release already existed last December. The law is summarized here.

I decided not to wait any longer. I have submitted a written request for copies of the South Avenue minutes. I think the public has a right to know what went on in those closed sessions.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Effluent Issues

Whenever cruising sailors get together, the conversation eventually touches on holding tanks and pumpouts.

Last week an old friend and his wife stopped by on the way north from cruising in Florida. They were accompanied by two other couples and their boats returning to the Patuxent River. The inevitable subject came up. They complained that there are very few pumpout stations available for transient vessels in North Carolina waters.

This is a serious problem for cruising sailors.

It may also represent an opportunity.

Our friends were confident that cruising boats would drop into Oriental if they knew there was a readily available municipal pumpout facility.

17,000 boats go up and down the ICW every year.

A lot of potential visitors to Oriental and customers for our businesses.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Voter Registration Challenges

Under North Carolina General Statutes, any registered voter in a county can challenge the right of any other registered voter in the same county to remain on the voter registration rolls.

The county board of elections is obligated to process all such challenges prior to the next election. Hearing the challenge is a two step process: 1) a preliminary hearing to determine whether probable cause exists that the challenged voter should not be registered; 2) a formal hearing by the board of elections sitting as a quasi-judicial body and providing all of the protections of due process normally provided by a court.

The county board will require the advice of an attorney representing the county during the hearings, and will also require the services of a court reporter. Should there be an appeal from the Board's decision(s), the appeal will go to Superior Court and will require a transcript of the proceedings.

This is uncharted territory for Pamlico County.

The most recent comparable experience in North Carolina is Brunswick County. Following last year's municipal elections, the defeated candidate for mayor of Bald Head Island filed 39 challenges against the town's registered voters.

Of the 39 challenged voters, the Brunswick County Board of Elections failed to find probable cause in eight cases. The challenger appealed to Superior Court, but after discussion, agreed to drop five of the eight challenges. Superior Court returned two cases to the County Board and the Board found in favor of the challenged voters. Superior Court has ordered the Board of Elections to hear the one remaining case.

We have to anticipate and budget for a similar process.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eristic Observations

"If you want to beat a dog, any stick will do."

Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, May 10, 2010

South Avenue Fence

I have been asked several times lately, "when is the fence coming down?"

I modestly point out that I have no inside knowledge anymore. But I have recently learned that the Town of Oriental has given Mr. Lacy Henry a deadline for him to remove the fence.

As some of you may recall, Judge Kenneth Crow signed the Judgment that "the Town of Oriental is the owner of the South Avenue Terminus" on February 5th, 2010. The Superior Court Judgment completed action on a decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued July 7, 2009.

Most of the delay resulted from unsuccessful efforts by Mr. Henry to persuade the Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court to review the unanimous decision of a Court of Appeals panel.

Now the Town needs to get moving. The street end leading down to the water needs to be cleaned up and made presentable.

More urgently, we need a plan on how best to use this public asset.

I have some ideas, which I will be sharing with my readers.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Second Primaries and Instant Runoff

Here's a topic to make your eyes glaze over. The sort of detail only a policy wonk enjoys.

In last Tuesday's Democratic Party primary election, there were six candidates seeking nomination as the party's candidate for U.S. Senate. The leading vote getter was Elaine Marshall, with 153,953 votes (36.6% of the 423,453 votes cast). Second was Cal Cunningham with 115,590 votes (27.3%).

So Elaine Marshall won, right?

Not exactly.

Under North Carolina Law, a candidate has to win 40% of the vote to win. Elaine Marshall came up 3.4% short.

What now?

We have to hold a second primary (also called a runoff) between the top two candidates to determine the winner.

In Pamlico County, the second primary will require us to hold one-stop voting for a couple of weeks, followed by the election on June 22. We are required by state law to open all ten precinct polling places for election day, no matter how light we think the turnout will be. Some other counties have runoff primaries for local elections, but U.S. Senate is the only race here in Pamlico County.

Who can vote?

Any registered Democrat can vote, whether or not he or she voted in the first primary.

No registered Republican can vote.

Anyone registered as unaffiliated who did not vote in the May 4th Republican Party primary can also vote.

Is there a better system? Probably. Some options:

1. Just pick the leading vote getter at the first primary. Most states do that. Runoff primaries are only prevalent in the South. The origin of primaries, including the runoff system, is often attributed to the populist or progressive movement. The true origin may be less benign, as recent research seems to show.

2. Use "instant runoff," where voters rank their choices. This needs computers to determine the outcome. Some US municipalities have tried it.

For real policy wonks, there are at least a dozen different variations of instant runoff.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chimpanzees, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens

I've always wondered if some of my family members weren't descended from Neanderthals. Now we know for sure.

It turns out that 1 to 4 percent of the genes carried by non-African people come from interbreeding between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals about 80,000 years ago. Why non-African? Because the human beings left behind in Africa never interbred with Neanderthals. For more details, read the article in today's Washington Post.

But wait - there's more. It turns out the Neanderthals carried about 73 genes of the more ancient chimpanzee version rather than the modern human version. The interesting thing is that northern Europeans, the Chinese and Papua New Guineans carry traces of Neanderthal ancestry, including the chimpanzee genes, but Africans do not.

That stands a lot of nineteenth century assumptions on their head.

Town Bored?

I wasn't able to attend Tuesday night's Oriental Town Board meeting, as I was tied up with Pamlico County's primary election. But I did take a look at the agenda ahead of time. I had hopes that on the occasion of the sixth regular meeting of the current board, they might actually take some action. No such luck.

I'm thinking, though, that the Tuesday meeting might mark a significant milestone. To verify the milestone would require a thorough search of the town's minutes over the last 111 years, but I think we may be approaching a new record for dithering.