Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Civil rights protesters taking the offensive in Charlotte

Back in September, N.C. Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, spoke to Charlotte City Council members and asked them to consider enacting a local civil rights ordinance. Moore, who plans to introduce an anti-racial-profiling bill to the General Assembly this fall, has asked the council to consider supporting that effort by making the bill part of the city's 2015 legislative agenda.

During Monday's city council dinner meeting, Chief Rodney Monroe gave the police department's perspective on the issue. He and City Manager Ron Carlee said the city is already following many of the recommendations, which include not engaging in "arbitrary profiling" of citizens.

With outrage over the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases still simmering, Monday's meeting drew so many demonstrators that many of them couldn't find seats. The city's Twitter account posted a picture of some of the sign-carrying protesters. Also on Monday, students at Johnson C. Smith University blocked a busy intersection outside of their school. That followed the  "die-in" protesters staged in Davidson on Saturday.

It has been encouraging to see how peaceful the local protests have been, and how many young people they appear to have galvanized into action. Willie Ratchford, head of the Community Relations Committee, applauded the diversity and peacefulness of the local demonstrations. While many have been discouraged by the rancor and violence that have shaken Ferguson, Mo., and other cities, Ratchford said he sees the potential for civic good to emerge from it all.

"It is a moment that can absolutely lead to something better," he told the editorial board. "Nothing is more fundamental to us as Americans than to be able to protest if you feel you see an injustice. I think the protesters around the country are hoping we come up with something where people can understand one another better and we can get along better."

--Eric Frazier

Thursday, December 4, 2014

So NOW Hagan wants to go positive?

So U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan now says Democrats would have done better in last month's elections if only President Obama had been more outspoken about all the positive things Democrats have done. The economy has been improving for years, Hagan said, but "The president hasn't used the bully pulpit to get that message out in a way that resonates with people."

Embracing Obama? Getting out a positive message? If only Hagan and her supporters had thought of that before running millions of dollars of negative TV ads against Republican Thom Tillis. And wasn't that Hagan pointedly hitting Obama and not appearing on stage with him when he traveled to Charlotte for a veterans event in August?

Hagan now wishes Obama had been touting Democrats' achievements. But most North Carolinians know she kept Obama at arm's length until now and will forever remember the 2014 N.C. Senate campaign as being the most expensive, and one of the ugliest and most vapid, of their lifetimes.

If Hagan wanted Obama to tout his leadership, why did she have such a hard time doing so herself in the first video below? And if she wanted to accentuate the positive, why did she run ads about Tillis cutting education spending (video 2 below) and warning elderly voters that he's sure to cut Medicare (video 3)? Then there was the ad from the Senate Majority PAC on Hagan's behalf (video 4) saying that Tillis gave tax breaks to yacht and jet owners -- a claim that PolitiFact rated "False."

We didn't support Tillis' campaign, which was also primarily negative, but it rings hollow for Hagan to now long for a positive message from Obama when she distanced herself from him throughout the campaign and offered so little of that herself.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What UAB's football death means to UNC Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of Alabama-Birmingham have often been seen as sister schools, at least athletically. The former Conference USA mates have metro campuses in their state's largest city, and each has fought the commuter school image. Both have also experienced athletic success - mostly in basketball - but they defer in popularity and influence to their state's flagship universities.

Tuesday was a hard day at UAB. College president Ray Watts announced that the school's football program would be shuttered at the end of this season. It was a sad, emotional day, as grieving and angry football players confronted Watts and collapsed in the arms of a school chaplain.

Why did it happen? Students and alumni point to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, which has long been less than supportive of UAB football. Many are convinced that one of those trustees, Paul Bryant, Jr., was getting payback for a 1991 letter that then-UAB athletic director Gene Bartow wrote to the NCAA about investigating the Alabama basketball program.

All of which could very well be true. But there also were financial causes for the football program's death. Like many universities and colleges - including some of the largest - the UAB football program needed the school's help to make the bottom line work. In an era of tighter academic funding, the school was forced to weigh football against other places the money could go, Watts said.

At UNC Charlotte, football is a new, very different thing right now. It's a valuable recruiting tool, an important part of student and alumni life. The football Niners are on an upward trajectory, with the Football Bowl Subdivision in the near-term plans and big victories in the long-term dreams.

UAB had some of those big victories once, but the death of the program is a reminder of the other possibilities out there for schools that don't reside in big-time athletic conferences. We could be seeing more UABs in the coming years, more college administrators looking at a tough budget landscape and calculating what value their football program brings.

That calculation is about to get less friendly for football. In August, the NCAA Board of Directors passed a measure that would allow the five biggest conferences - including the ACC and SEC - to change rules in recruiting, expenses, financial aid and other areas. The changes will likely allow these Power 5 schools to pay some student-athletes a stipend on top of their scholarships.

Non-Power 5 conferences can adopt the same changes, and many probably will at the start, because saying no would also mean saying goodbye to all the TV revenue that the big conferences bring for everyone. But going along with the changes will place an even greater burden on smaller schools with smaller athletic budgets.

It's inevitable that more schools will bow out of the football arms race. Some will compete on a lesser level, which is considerably less sexy than having a big-time college football program. That will bring about a whole new round of is-it-worth-it calculations.

Used to be that the answer was "Yes, of course it's worth it" - at least if you wanted to be seen as offering students the complete college experience. That's a lot of what drove UNC Charlotte's entry into football. But that entry also came with the prospect of big stadiums filled with big crowds for big Saturday games. As that reality becomes less accessible for many schools, leaders will have more justification to weigh the expense and hassle of football against its payoff. That's hard to imagine at UNC Charlotte, where football is all about possibilities right now. But that also was true - not so long ago - at UAB. 

Peter St. Onge

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pat Cotham's superhero alter ego takes flight after chair vote

The Mecklenburg County commissioners, to no one's surprise, gave Trevor Fuller another year in the chairman's seat, dismissing a bid from controversial former chair Pat Cotham, the top vote-getter in the last election. Commissioner Bill James, not exactly a universally beloved figure in local politics, said on his Facebook page that the heavy doses of ridicule coming from the large pro-Pat and anti-Pat protesters in the audience was "not nice to watch."

Cotham introduced a dose of humor to the situation last night when she noticed the following photo on Twitter, created by the satirical group Charlotte Squawks, and posted it on her Facebook page:

Not sure what to call her superhero alter ego here -- BatCotham? PatWoman? the Dark Slight? (Get it? 'Cause she was slighted by the other...oh nevermind). Anyway, here's hoping it helps the board members share a laugh and move on to start finding common ground on the many pressing issues before them.

--Eric Frazier

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cotham's plea to be chair

Fellow Democrats have been rapping Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham for not asking for their vote for chairman. They dislike her and have no intention of voting for her tonight in any case, but they have complained that Cotham was campaigning to lead the board without actually asking them for their support.

Well, now she has. Sunday morning, Cotham sent a letter to the other commissioners asking for their vote for board chair. Cotham argued that voters "sent a clear and unequivocal message" on Election Day by giving her the most votes. They want her "no-nonsense leadership" style, she says. If commissioners give her the gavel, she promises to be "an inclusive leader who respects your voice."

Commissioners vote tonight. Every indication is that they will make Democrat Trevor Fuller, who finished third and did not win a single precinct, the chairman.

Here is Cotham's letter to commissioners:

Dear Fellow Commissioners and Commissioners-Elect:

I write today to ask you for your vote for Chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.

On November 4th, the voters of this county sent a clear and unequivocal message.  Their overwhelming support for my candidacy reflects a mandate for my style of no-nonsense leadership – a leadership style that puts people ahead of party and policy ahead of power.

You are, of course, not formally bound by their vote of confidence.  But when it comes to choosing your Chair, the people’s voice should matter.  If the Board of County Commissioners were an appointed board it would make sense to vote among ourselves for a leader without considering the voice of anyone else.  However, our Board is elected not appointed so the clear message from the voters should be respected and not ignored.

It is no coincidence that my candidacy received such support at a time when voters are deeply frustrated with politics as usual.   Voters are hungry for elected officials who can put aside partisan politics and make the tough decisions that good government requires.  Families and business leaders want us to remember that they are paying the bills. They expect us – rightfully – to work together and show each other respect, even when we disagree on the issues or have personality clashes. 

They’ve seen me do just that.  They’ve seen me do my homework, make tough decisions, build relationships, watch out for their tax dollars, be visible in the community, work “across the aisle” and produce results.

If you honor me with the opportunity to serve as your Chair, I will be an inclusive leader who respects your voice, just as I respect the people’s voice.  You and I may disagree, but I will respect your opinion. The people are tired of bickering and unprofessional comments. I believe we are better than that.

 I will be an inclusive Chair, working with you, our community stakeholders, other governmental bodies (including our legislature), and our staff to solve the many challenges ahead and to move our county forward.  I will always listen to the people.

As your Chair, I will continue to be visible throughout our community, building the relationships that are critical to effective governance and progress.  I will ask the tough questions, without fear of the answers.  I will advocate for all, not just the few.  And I will continue to answer when called by upset citizens, our elected officials, reporters, and county employees.  Like you, they all deserve respect and a receptive ear.

Although I’ve spent many years working in the background for political candidates, it was fewer than three years ago that I went from campaigning for others to campaigning for myself.  Governing is tough.  It doesn’t always go as smoothly as we would like.  But the people have placed their trust in us and they expect us to respect their votes and represent them professionally.

For the more than 146,000 voters who cast their votes for me, many of whom waited hours to vote, I respectfully ask for your vote as Chair.


Pat Cotham


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ann Clark goes 'full Hillary' on question about CMS' top job

Will she or won't she? That's the question of the moment when it comes to acting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Ann Clark, the veteran administrator who assumed the duties of the school system's top job early this month after the school board voted to accept Heath Morrison's resignation.

Clark has been around the school system some 32 years, and was a finalist for the superintendent's job in 2012 when the board instead picked Morrison. She was the steady, reliable insider who rose through the ranks. He was charismatic outsider, a national Superintendent of the Year winner. But he flamed out here under the weight of a report from the school district's general counsel that said his fiery temperament had stoked a "culture of fear" among employees.

The board asked Clark to lead the district on an interim basis, but hasn't decided whether to pursue a national search for a permanent replacement. The board didn't even officially name her the interim superintendent. At a press briefing Thursday, reporters asked her the inevitable question: Do you want the job permanently?

She went into full Hillary Clinton mode.

"Everyone's clear that I applied for the superintendent's position two and a half years ago, but I'll be honest, I've really not had the opportunity to hit pause on the day to day operations of the district in the last three weeks to really be thoughtful about what the next step is in my leadership journey. Nor have I had the chance to talk with the board. I'm hoping I'll have that time over Thanksgiving break to really be thoughtful. But I'm just clear my task right now is to move us forward. And that's what I'm doing."

Ann Clark is "being thoughtful" about applying for the top CMS job in the same way Hillary Clinton is "being thoughtful" about deciding whether to run for president in 2016. Which is to say Clark clearly wants it and has likely already decided to pursue it -- she's just not ready to spell it out publicly yet.

Ann Clark addresses the media Thursday
A couple of points are already clear, however. One is that the school board can't afford to take a breather right now. They must surely be tempted, after these tumultuous few weeks, to step back and collect their thoughts while Clark steers the ship. But they need to decide, sooner rather than later, whether they will launch another national superintendent's search, or if they're inclined to give the job permanently to the always-reliable, if not flashy, Clark.

Comforting though her presence must be, Clark cannot fill the gaping leadership void left by Morrison's departure without the full weight of the office behind her. Every directive she gives the staff comes with an asterisk, subject to change by the next permanent superintendent.

And speaking of asterisks, there's a second point that must be made. Morrison's departure has left a cloud of questions around Clark. General counsel George Battle's report quoted Clark as saying Morrison created the "culture of fear" among the staff.  Asked about that by the Observer's Andrew Dunn, Clark declined to say whether that quote was accurate or whether she brought any concerns about Morrison to the board or to Morrison himself.

She cited Morrison's separation agreement, approved by the board, which includes confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.  We understand there are legal issues involved here. But public confidence in CMS and the board has been badly dented. If Clark decides to announce for the job, and if the board wants to give it to her, those questions must be addressed somehow.

But for now, board members seem desirous of a break from the problem. At their meeting Wednesday, they didn't take up the issue of next steps in the search for a new superintendent. Chairwoman Mary McCray said the board already knows its next steps -- teaching and learning, as outlined in CMS' overall strategic plan.

That's fine. But you need a CEO to implement that plan -- one who isn't distracted by questions about whether the job is his or hers to keep. The board would be wise not to let another meeting pass without addressing the issue.

-- Eric Frazier

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Snitch? Charlotte Disturber? George, that hurts...

A good rule of thumb: When politicians start lashing out at colleagues and others, they're usually feeling defensive about something. When it's Mecklenburg commissioner George Dunlap, it's also a reminder that good manners aren't a requirement for public office.

Dunlap had another one of his outbursts Monday. In a post on his Facebook page, he called fellow Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham a "snitch on the board."  He also questioned her ethics and leadership and said that she "can't be trusted."

Cotham, of course, is an at-large commissioner who was the leading vote-getter in November's election. In every election in the last quarter century, the leading vote-getter is named commission chair for at least a year. But current chair Trevor Fuller is lobbying to keep the job, despite finishing in third place, 22,000 votes behind Cotham. Dunlap and four other board Democrats don't want Cotham to have the gavel, and they're feeling some heat.

Dunlap also is apparently still upset that former Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones was dismissed by the Cotham-led board last year. In his Facebook post, he said that Cotham was doing the bidding of the "Charlotte Disturber," which wanted Jones fired.

He got part of it right. The Observer's editorial board had long believed that Jones should be replaced, as did many others, including six of Dunlap's fellow commissioners. Dunlap might be disappointed to learn, however, that Cotham didn't call the Observer for approval or permission. (He also might be disappointed to learn that we kind of like "Disturber." It's part of what we do.)

If Dunlap were an editorial page reader, he'd know that although we endorsed Cotham - and Fuller - we've also been sharply critical of her for shutting fellow Democrats out of Jones' dismissal and other board discussions. Dunlap complained mightily about that, too, but he didn't seem so bothered this summer when he and four Democrats forgot to tell board Republicans and Cotham about the quarter-cent sales tax referendum they had crafted for a vote.

Normally, Dunlap being Dunlap is not news, but this time it's part of a larger tension on the board regarding who should be chair. Dunlap and the other Democrats know well the precedent of the leading vote-getter receiving the chair's gavel - in 2010, Dunlap actually asked the rhetorical question "Under what circumstances does the third highest vote-getter become the chair?"

Now, Dunlap and the Democrats have a laughable answer - that they adopted a policy last year stating that board members can elect the chair. Translated: We're ignoring the will of the people because we adopted a policy that said we can ignore the will of the people.

That policy was unnecessary. Commissioners were never bound by the people's vote when determining the board chair. They were just smart enough to acknowledge it and abide by it.

They should again. We don't expect that of Dunlap and some others, but we do of Fuller. He could put an end to the silliness by declining the chair and throwing his support behind Cotham.

Fuller didn't do that last year and looked opportunistic because of it. That probably contributed to his finishing ahead of only Republicans this month in a predominantly Democratic county. The people have a way of reminding you that they count. The commissioners - all of them - should listen.

Peter St. Onge

(This post has been updated to reflect that in every election for the past quarter century, the leading at-large vote getter is named commission chair for at least a year.)  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gov. Jim Hunt pumps up the faithful

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, North Carolina's most noted champion of public education, threw some red meat to a crowd of advocates in Charlotte this morning.

Hunt raised N.C. teacher pay from the dumps to the national average during the last of his four terms in office. So he has the credentials to talk about the state's current embarrassment on teacher pay. He gave a nod to the teacher pay raise the legislature approved this summer but pointed out that "Veteran teachers who have spent their whole life teaching our children, they received a mere pittance and lost their longevity pay."

N.C. teacher pay is below that of South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, Hunt told the MeckEd breakfast crowd. He told the story of a friend whose daughter could take a job as a first-year teacher in South Carolina paying $41,000 -- the same amount she would make after teaching in North Carolina for 15 years.

North Carolina's low pay is driving teachers out of the profession, Hunt said. The number leaving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has nearly doubled over the past four years, he said, and enrollment in UNC schools of education has plummeted.

"Where will our future teachers come from?" Hunt asked. "Will we have enough good teachers?"

Hunt laid out Charlotte-Mecklenburg's proud history on education -- from leading the way on desegregation to helping create public school kindergarten in North Carolina -- and said education leaders need to build on that now.

He urged the community to support the quarter-cent sales tax referendum on this fall's ballot.

"You can be the best school district in America if you work at it," Hunt said.

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, September 22, 2014

Long Leaf Pine gets license plate

N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley joined a packed room full of recipients of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine at The Levine Museum of the New South on Sunday. And he had some news for them. A special license plate is now available to state troopers and other law enforcement, designating their honor.
Brawley said in jest that it could prove helpful if a recipient got stopped by law enforcers.

Probably not.

But Brawley was right in acknowledging that the Order of the Long Leaf Pine designation does recognize a lot of public and community service that is significant and worthy of taking note of. That's what happened Sunday at the reception at the Levine. It was the brainchild of well-known community activist Theresea Elder and was coordinated by former district court Judge Nancy Norelli, UNC Charlotte's Jennifer Harkey and Levine historian Tom Hanchett.

Among the recipients who showed up were former Commerce Secretary Howard Haworth (in Republican Jim Martin's administration) who is also chairman emeritus of the North Carolina State Board of Education.

The Levine event was the first ever gathering of recipients of The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state's highest civilian honor.

The award was created in the 1960s during Gov. Terry Sanford's administration and is given by governors to those who have done great service to their N.C. communities or the state, or those who have significant achievements in their lives. The certificate dubs the recipient an “ambassador extraordinary.” Some well-known North Carolinians lay claim to being part of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. Among them are evangelist Billy Graham, poet and entertainer Maya Angelou, artist Bob Timberlake and Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

The award is truly egalitarian though, honoring teachers, community leaders as well as politicians and famous N.C. residents. On Sunday, the broad swath of civicly engaged and community-minded honorees were represented.

Phillip Fisher, who founded The Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society, said a statewide reception is being planned for next year. Fisher has compiled  a list of the more than 15,000 recipients after discovering the state had not kept a comprehensive list of recipients.

-- Fannie Flono