Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bill James' surprising vote for county manager

Here's an interesting twist related (sort of) to the Kim Ratliff story. Mecklenburg commissioner Bill James says he was the only Republican and one of only two white commissioners to initially vote for Harry Jones, who is black, as county manager back in 2000.

James tells us he was the swing vote, joining with three black Democrats -- Jim Richardson, Darrel Williams and Norman Mitchell -- and white Democrat Lloyd Scher in a closed-session 5-4 vote to name Jones county manager. Four others -- Democrats Parks Helms, Becky Carney, Maggie Markey and Republican Tom Cox -- initially voted for other candidates, James says. Eventually the board came together and voted unanimously for Jones.

James, known for making controversial racial comments over the years, has raised concerns, along with many others, over Ratliff telling WBTV that she wants to hire someone other than a white male to replace Jones, whom the board ousted last month. "The point of this walk down memory lane," James said in an email, "is to point out that while Kim sees fit to exclude white males, I was actually one of only two white members that actually supported a black candidate."

Ratliff now says she'd welcome any candidates and that her words were taken out of context. It was an inappropriate comment, to be sure, and commissioners will discuss the legal ramifications with County Attorney Marvin Bethune on Tuesday.   

-- Taylor Batten


What exactly did Kim Ratliff say?

It's beyond debate that Mecklenburg County commissioners Vice Chairman Kim Ratliff made an inappropriate comment. But what exactly was it? After days of news stories, that's not entirely clear.

Ratliff talked to WBTV last week and again this week about the commissioners' search for a new county manager to replace the ousted Harry Jones. WBTV reported that Ratliff said the new manager should be "a non white male." That led citizens to complain that, among other things, Ratliff was openly saying she didn't want a woman to be the next county manager.

But the video in which Ratliff said that is not on WBTV's website. In the video currently up on WBTV's website, the station starts with Ratliff in the middle of an answer. She says: "... someone outside of that, whether it's a black female or a Hispanic female or a Hispanic male, but just someone who is not a white male."

"Not a white male" and "a non white male" are not necessarily the same thing. The first disparages white males, but welcomes all other applicants, including females. The second was taken by many residents to mean Ratliff wanted a minority male to be county manager, and females need not apply.

WBTV's Coleen Harry tells me Ratliff said both. But the "non white male" quote in the original story prompted reactions that could have been avoided by hearing Ratliff's more complete answer, which was made in the same interview.

In follow-up interviews with WBTV's Harry, Ratliff said she would like the new county manager to be a woman. That's less inconsistent with her first interview than it originally seemed to some.

Regardless, Ratliff made a significant and offensive mistake by saying the new county manager should be "someone who is not a white male." We'd love to be a fly on the wall when County Attorney Marvin Bethune tells commissioners in closed session this coming Tuesday what legal ramifications there may be, if any, from Ratliff's remarks.

-- Taylor Batten

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mayoral Power Rankings, 3.0

The race for Charlotte mayor might be taking a somewhat unexpected turn. Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell told the Observer's Steve Harrison moments ago that he's likely to run for the office. If he does, the Democrats suddenly have a primary on their hands as Mitchell would join Mayor pro-tem Patrick Cannon in the race to replace Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Who will be waving happily to supporters on Election Night? Last month, we gave you our inaugural Mayoral Power Rankings - the candidates we think have the best shot to be Charlotte's 56th mayor. There's been some movement since then, with Cannon joining Republican Edwin Peacock as declared candidates, and others (state Rep. Ruth Samuelson and former county commissioner Jennifer Roberts) saying no thanks to a mayoral run.

And what of N.C. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, who said earlier that he was "favorably inclined" to run for the job? He's been quiet since, and we're hearing he's cooled some on the idea.

All of which leaves us with the Mayoral Rankings 3.0. Remember, these are not endorsements. They're not necessarily who we think should have the best chance in November. Also, expect the list to keep changing as folks decide they want in or out of the race, and as the campaign heats up.

The rankings:

1. Patrick Cannon - D: Mayor pro-tem has solid support in important Democratic communities and has won citywide multiple times. He's controversial, though, and some key Democratic figures don't much like him - certainly not as much as they like Mitchell. Cannon helped himself with Democrats, however, by voting this month for Charlotte's streetcar extension, which he previously opposed.
2. James Mitchell - D: Mitchell is well-liked by the party establishment in Charlotte, and he's been behind popular efforts to bring the Charlotte Knights uptown and establish a new minority- and gender-based hiring program for city contracts. He's never run in a city-wide race, however. Does his District 2 popularity translate?  
3. Edwin Peacock - R: The highest ranking Republican and former City Council member is the GOP establishment candidate who has crossover appeal. Thus far, no Republican has emerged to oppose him, and time is running short for someone new to declare and put together a legitimate campaign. If a Republican does enter, look for it to be a grassroots conservative.
4. Becky Carney - D: Carney may see an opportunity for a primary victory if Cannon and Mitchell split the black vote. She's a legit candidate on her own - a state rep and former county commission vice chairman who has grassroots standing and support. She'd be a force with the female vote.
5. Dan Clodfelter - D: Has he cooled to running? He's a longtime state senator who might bring crossover appeal, but political observers say his time in Raleigh would be a drag on his name recognition. That's what campaigns are for, however. 
6. Malcolm Graham - D: A wild card. State senator and former City Council member wants Mel Watt's congressional seat, but Watt's confirmation to the Federal Housing Finance Agency continues to look iffy. If Graham pivoted to the mayoral race, he'd bring a strong network of support.

Monday, June 24, 2013

An open mind about the next Mecklenburg County manager?

Sometimes you've got to chuckle, or at least smile, (some would sigh or cry) at the antics of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. Members seem to be perpetually explaining themselves for making comments they shouldn't.

It's commission Vice Chair Kim Ratliff's turn this time as she's being called on the carpet for her statement to WBTV that in her opinion the county needs as the next county manager a "non-white male who can have good working relations with all people."

She said "the person coming in has to be a strong candidate who is able to deal with conflict resolution, who is diverse, who has an open mind and who is able to engage everyone in the process."

That last part about someone with "an open mind and who is able to engage everyone in the process" will seem like a laugh-out-loud moment to many, given Ratliff's steadfast support of former county manager Harry Jones. Jones was fired last month in large part because he failed to do those things. The most stunning example was his dismissal of the need for an independent audit of the county's massively flawed property revaluation that will now cost millions to rectify.

Jones called the audit "neither necessary nor appropriate," saying a review would serve no purpose. Only after commissioners proceeded with the audit did he relent.

And Ratliff herself acknowledged that Jones did not speak to some commissioners though she added that some commissioners didn't speak to him either.

So her own words do make it curious why she was so doggedly in favor of keeping Jones on.

But it's her words describing who should be the next county manager that are getting her in hot water now. In an email correspondence over the weekend, a resident questioned her objectivity, noting "the county's Board Policy in the HR manual clearly states that you will not engage in unlawful discrimination with respect to all aspects of County employment policy and practice including with respect to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap and age."

Ratliff wrote back, saying her comments were meant to convey her feeling that a woman "could be the next county manager. "I believe in WOMEN hands down," she wrote, "which is the point I was making in my comments... Why do men feel entitled to be in leadership roles... My point is simple; the next Mecklenburg County Manager must be diverse and understand the diverse make-up of our citizens..."

Hold on, commissioner Bill James chimes in.

He answered in an email that he thinks the "person that is selected should be the 'best qualified person for the job.'" But he added that "statistically, it would be highly improbable that the individual selected in an impartial manner would have the same makeup as the previous manager."

"If that occurs," he wrote, "it would be evidence that the process was not impartial... The idea that two managers in a row would have exactly the same characteristics while representing a small percentage of the overall populations of possible managers is 'very improbable.'"

Ummmm. What's that about best qualified?

Maybe commissioners should take a breather from commenting on possible candidates before the applications come in. That would make it far easier for the public to actually believe in their objectivity, and that the best qualified candidate indeed gets the nod. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mecklenburg tax hike not a done deal?

Updated 1:19 p.m. with Ridenhour's response to Fuller.

Mecklenburg County commissioners continue to battle over their $1.7 billion budget today, just 24 hours before what is normally a routine rubber-stamp approval of a budget hashed out in previous weeks.

Commissioners took a series of straw votes last Tuesday, tinkering with interim County Manager Bobbie Shields' recommended budget and tentatively approving a 2.35-cent tax rate increase. The final vote is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) night.

In an op-ed in Saturday's Observer, Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour blasted some of the board's Democrats for what he considered irresponsible spending and a flawed process. "There was zero fiscal sanity," Ridenhour wrote. "There was no process."

Now, Democrat Trevor Fuller is responding. In a letter to the Observer, Fuller says Republican commissioners "have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during the meeting." The Republicans failed to offer any plan for cutting the budget, Fuller said, and he's offended by their "contrived outrage."

Republican Bill James responds to Fuller this morning. He suggests the board delay tomorrow night's budget vote and take another stab at cutting spending and eliminating the proposed tax hike. James proposes cutting $7 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and saving $4.8 million by eliminating pay raises for county employees, among other cuts.

Below is Fuller's letter, followed by James', followed by a response this afternoon from Ridenhour to Fuller.

Trevor Fuller's letter:

To the Editor of the Charlotte Observer:

Ever since our straw vote budget session last Tuesday, my Republican colleagues on the Mecklenburg County Commission have been griping publicly about the budget.  In fact, they have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during our meeting.  In fairness, I am compelled to respond to these attacks.
At the outset, I acknowledge that this response may come across as partisan.  But it is difficult to take these after-the-fact criticisms seriously when Republicans effectively abandoned the budget process, and when they themselves were responsible for substantially more spending than the Democrats.
To hear my Republican colleagues tell the story, they were a budgetary Don Quixote, tilting at out-of-control spending and fighting the good fight to prevent a tax rate increase.  The truth is that Republicans were responsible for increasing the budget to the tune of about $750,000.  Is that the “fiscal responsibility” they’re talking about?  The total amount of spending offered by Democrats amounts to a grand total of $584,000, which is a mere 0.03% of the overall budget.  And this is what the Republicans are complaining so loudly about?  Meanwhile, Democrats were responsible for $2.2 million in cuts.  The result is that Democrats reduced the budget by a net $1.6 million.
Now, my Republican colleagues bemoan the fact that the budget contains a small tax rate increase, and act as if there was nothing they could do to stop it.  The evidence will show that we spent nearly four hours discussing and debating the budget.  In that time, Republicans offered only three budget cuts.  Even if every one of those cuts had been approved, we would have been nowhere near the “tax rate neutral” budget that Republicans contend we should have adopted.  So where was the Republican plan?
Rather than offering a plan, one Republican commissioner left the meeting halfway through.  If Republicans had not precipitously abandoned the budget process, we might have had fruitful discussions about areas in the budget that could be cut.  In fact, I was led to believe that my Republican colleagues and our board chair were having extensive discussions about the budget, and I was looking forward to considering the ideas they had.  I expected to hear those ideas sometime during our straw vote session.  But after their fellow commissioner left, the Republicans offered not one single budget cut for debate.  Not one.
Republicans cannot now complain about a process that they deserted.
Moreover, their bomb-throwing is not conducive to civil public discourse.  For sure, our colleagues’ contrived outrage plays very well in certain quarters.  Rather than complain after-the-fact, Republicans should have had the fortitude at least to fight for the so-called “fiscal sanity” they now crave.  Instead, they abandoned ship.  Then, to obscure their dereliction, they cast aspersions upon those who did participate meaningfully in the process.
In short, interim County Manager Bobbie Shields recommended a responsible budget.  Our adjustments made that recommended budget even better by lowering the proposed tax rate increase, and by doing our best to meet the needs of this community as fully as possible.
Cheap shots have never accomplished anything.

 Bill James' letter:

Trevor -
It is always possible to change the budget tomorrow evening and eliminate the tax rate increase. We have done it before.
Or….. we could do what Gaston County did and defer action from tomorrow night for a week or so until the NC General Assembly determines priorities. Gaston deferred a budget vote until the 28th.
Based on the various votes I made (to cut the budget) it didn’t seem to me that the 5 Democrats had any interest in reducing the budget to achieve a tax rate neutral budget. In fact, several ‘new’ programs were added that had been rejected by County staff. One health group hired a CPA that wasn’t a CPA. While Dumont and George would like to claim that they ‘fixed’ that with a restricted contingency; such action doesn’t fix incompetency. A Board that hires a CPA that isn’t one and doesn’t realize that until the audit is basically finished is incompetent and unworthy of a six-figure government grant. A Board that wants to hand out $1,200 for a lunch (and EVERYONE knows that is what it is) is hardly serious about financial accountability. A board that decides to increase a line item by $50,000 without any request from anyone is hardly doing proper ‘due diligence’. Ultimately,  fiscal responsibility means saying ‘no’ to your ‘friends’ (and all of those funded were the current ‘friends of Democrats’).
There are a variety of ways to balance the budget.  Handing out money Boss Tweed style however is not a propitious start towards fiscal sanity. If the Board can just raise sales tax revenues and then hand it out to special interests; it shows a lack of fiscal restraint and a lack of concern for the beleaguered taxpayer.
However, I am more than willing to find reasonable cuts to the budget to balance it. I had a balanced budget that evening. It seemed to me that the 5 Democrats were on a roll handing out money to the favored few and I believed then and now that was wrong.
To show that I had worked up a balanced budget (which I did with the Chair) attached is a PDF. There are options in this budget so that if some cuts are not preferred, others could be used. I am more than willing to work towards that goal but my impression of the straw voting was that the 5 Democrats (excluding Pat) had zero interest in being fiscally responsible.
If a majority is willing to work towards a tax rate neutral budget we can defer the vote tomorrow and have a straw vote session at the end of the week and revisit some of those matters.

(Click on chart below to see larger version)

And finally, Ridenhour's response:


I am not sure to whom you are referring when you state, “they have been more vocal in the newspaper than they ever were during our meeting”. As I recall, and the online video shows, all three of us were vocal participants during the meeting.

You reference the $750K increase to CPCC for which Karen advocated, and you suggest that as an example of Republican irresponsibility (you stated, “is that the ‘fiscal responsibility’ they’re talking about”).  Perhaps you have forgotten that Karen made that motion AFTER George made a motion to increase the budget for CPCC to the tune of $2.5M? I would say that Karen’s motion was an excellent example of bi-partisan compromise, something which was sorely lacking Tuesday night.

Perhaps that is why some Democrats don’t seem to understand fiscal responsibility. It is not a simple spending equation, where more spending equals less fiscal responsibility. It is a matter of HOW tax dollars are spent. Are you suggesting that increasing spending to CPCC by $750K is less responsible than the blatant disregard for the budget process by handing out tax dollars to favored projects? Surely you jest.

It is interesting that you state that the Democrats increased spending by $584,000 is “a mere 0.0003% of the overall budget”.  Tuesday night Karen showed that the Republicans’ proposed cut to CMS’ increase (which was still an increase over last year) would have resulted in a “mere”  0.005% cut to their overall budget, and some Democrats were shocked that we would dare suggest such a thing.

I was very disappointed Tuesday night. You and I were seated next to each other, and at the break you said to me, “I think Commissioner Ridenhour thinks we’re spending like drunken sailors”, to which I replied, “well, now that you mention it…” I know, based on that conversation and others, that you, too, were concerned about spending and taxes. Yet you did not show any support for substantial cuts which could have averted the tax hike. I would have far more faith in the Democrats’ supposed desire to avoid a tax hike had they not supported adding several additional organizations to the budget. At least that would show the public, “we’re raising taxes, but only because we need to fund CMS so they can support the growing community”. Instead, the message is, “we’re raising taxes to support CMS…and a host of other new organizations, many of whom did not satisfy our process requirements to receive funding”.

You mention that, “Republicans should have had the fortitude at least to fight for the so-called 'fiscal sanity' they now crave". We did, repeatedly. Yet our concerns and objections were summarily dismissed. But it is not too late to change course. We will meet tomorrow night, and hopefully we can find the courage to make some cuts and spare the citizens of Mecklenburg yet another tax increase. People of all political affiliations expect better from us than what happened last Tuesday.

This weekend I was washing my car, and my elderly neighbor stopped me. “Matthew, why are y’all raising my taxes this year?” “You’ll have to ask the Democrats about that one. We [Republicans] tried to prevent taxes from going up”, I replied. “But Matthew, I’m a Democrat!” 

Matthew Ridenhour
Commissioner, Mecklenburg County District 5

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Obama must address Verizon spying immediately

Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but he's right on the money on the Obama administration's latest abuse of technology.

The National Security Agency is indiscriminately collecting the private phone records of millions of Americans every day, the Guardian newspaper reports. Gore, the former vice president, called that "obscenely outrageous." It absolutely is, and President Obama needs to speak to it immediately.

The Guardian published a court order revealing that the NSA has been collecting millions of records from Verizon on a daily basis since April. The records show the phone numbers of both the person making and the person receiving the call; how long the call lasted; when it was made; location data and other unique identifiers.

The White House has offered no on-the-record explanation of this massive overreach. Obama should address the American people today, explaining how it could be acceptable to conduct such an overly broad sweep of Americans' private information, and why people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing should be part of the sweep.

He might also explain how the effort jibes with something Obama, then a U.S. senator, said in 2006 when criticizing the Bush administration (which Slate reminds us about this morning): "Americans fought a revolution in part over the right to be free from unreasonable searches - to ensure that our government couldn't come knocking in the middle of the night for no reason. We need to find a way forward to make sure that we can stop terrorists while protecting the privacy, and liberty, of innocent Americans."


The action might be legal under the Patriot Act. But the act is intended to allow the obtaining of records of specific terror suspects. This court order is far broader, including local calls between American citizens.

The administration will argue, no doubt, that the effort is required to gather intelligence on possible terrorist plots. While that's obviously vital, it does not make any and all spying by the U.S. government on its own citizens appropriate. Coming on top of the administration's secret seizure of phone records of scores of Associated Press journalists and combing through the personal emails of a Fox News reporter, this initiative reveals that unaccountable government agencies some time ago crossed the line in violating the privacy of everyday Americans.

-- Taylor Batten

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Charlotte's next mayor: The first poll

Here's a reminder of how much the political landscape in Charlotte has changed in the past 15 or so years: The Republican front runner in the race for mayor sent out a news release this morning boasting that ... he trails by two points.

The release came from Edwin Peacock, the only Republican to declare thus far. The poll he's citing, from Telopinion Research, says he is in a statistical tie with Democrat and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, the only Democrat to declare. The numbers: Cannon 36, Peacock 34, Undecided 30.

Clearly, it's a wide open race - and it's early. So it might seem odd for Peacock to feel the need to declare his campaign's legitimacy. He also was the first to raise his hand for the job - just hours after Mayor Anthony Foxx said in April he wouldn't run again - so there may be a bit of overenthusiasm at work here. 

There's also this: Conventional wisdom and demographics tell us that it'll be difficult for a Republican to win in November. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1 in Charlotte - 49.9 percent to 23.2 percent - and blacks make up 37.4 percent of registered voters, up from 25.7 percent in 2000.

In 2009, that shift helped Foxx become the first Democrat to win the mayor's race since Harvey Gantt left office in 1987. Foxx cruised with two-thirds of the vote in 2011. So Peacock's race update, unusual as it might be, is an acknowledgment: Any Republican has a hill to climb this time around.

Peter St. Onge

(h/t to the O's Gavin Off for 2000 voting figures.)