Thursday, May 30, 2013

Naked Power Walking and other X Games events

ESPN will be in Charlotte next week to scout the city as a possible Summer X Games site. As the Observer's Jonathan Jones reported last weekend, ESPN officials will be checking out Charlotte Motor Speedway June 4 and 5. If the X Games were to come to Charlotte, the speedway complex would host many of the events.

Social media are buzzing with the recruitment of the X Games to Charlotte. The Queen City is one of four finalists to host the games for three years beginning in 2014, competing with Detroit, Chicago and Austin, Texas.

Supporters have created a Facebook page to show Charlotte's backing for the games as well as a Twitter account. A petition has been posted at, urging people to sign to show their support. It had about 300 signatures as of this morning.

Tweeters are having some fun with the whole thing. Using the hashtag #xclt, Charlotteans are tweeting tongue-in-cheek ideas for what X Games events would be uniquely fitting for Charlotte. Among the possible competitions: Naked Power Walking; Driving to a Charlotte Destination Without a GPS or Map; and Going to Amelie's at Midnight Without Looking Like a Hipster.

Our suggestion for a uniquely Charlotte X Games event: Bruton Smith vs. Jerry Richardson in a dash for cash.  What's yours?

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Harry Jones speaks out

Ousted Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones never got his say the night county commissioners voted to fire him. Immediately after the 6-2 vote on May 7, Jones asked to speak but commissioners' Chairman Pat Cotham cut him off. Given Jones' 22 years with the county, many in the community saw that as mean-spirited and unnecessary.

Now, Jones has written to the Observer editorial board, offering a statement "which reflects what I would have said if given the opportunity on the evening of May 7th." He acknowledges that "we have not been and never will be perfect," but says he's proud of all he and his team accomplished. He also hints at what's next for him.

Here is Jones' letter:

It has been an honor and a privilege for me to serve the citizens of Mecklenburg as County Manager.  When I reflect on my tenure I can think of so many great things we accomplished because people in government, in business and our citizens worked together to make this county a better place to live, work and recreate.  To my critics I offer that I respect your right to hold public officials accountable.  We have not been and never will be perfect.  I would also offer that when reasonable people consider the magnitude of the operations conducted by county management they will acknowledge there will be challenges and disagreements from time to time. 

I am proud of what was accomplished during my almost  13 years as County Manager.  I am particularly proud that I have left our county in good financial order and with very capable people in positions of leadership.  To my former employees I want you to know that I have great respect for you and genuinely appreciated the opportunity to serve with you in administering to the needs of our county.  To the current Board and to all past Board members with whom I was associated I thank you for the opportunity to serve as county manager and thank you for your service to your county.

I now enthusiastically embrace the next chapter of my life.  I look forward to continuing to raise awareness and resources to fight cancer and in particular, pancreatic cancer.  I consider myself very fortunate in my recovery and attribute it to spiritual and medical intervention and the incredible love of family and friends who have supported me.  I now look to inspire others who face similar afflictions to help them find the inner courage and strength and above all else, hope, in their effort to find their way to good health.  I also will seek opportunities at the local, regional and national levels to participate in helping this and other communities find solutions to the inevitable challenges that can arise.  I leave with no regrets and appreciate the opportunity to offer these final thoughts at the conclusion of my career as County Manager for Mecklenburg County.

Harry L. Jones, Sr.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Gun group goes after UNC's president

Let's see if we can figure out the logic behind a new set of radio spots released today by gun group Grass Roots North Carolina.

The ads attack University of North Carolina system president Tom Ross for his position on House Bill 937, which would allows handguns on UNC campuses as long as the weapons remain locked in a vehicle. Ross, along with every chancellor and every police chief on UNC campuses, thinks that would pose a risk to public safety.

So GRNC is deploying 60 radio spots in Greensboro, Raleigh and Asheville - along with a news release this morning - harshly criticizing Ross for ... not doing enough to protect students?

The radio spots note that UNC Chapel Hill students have suffered 35 sexual assaults in three years - a rate far higher than the national average for college campuses - and that UNC is under federal investigation for underreporting sexual assaults. The news release goes further, bringing up a recent robbery at knife point near N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum, along with crime reporting issues at Elizabeth City State University.

"UNC can't protect us, and Ross won't let us protect ourselves," says a co-ed sounding voice in the ad.

That would work, logically, if House Bill 937 did much to help students protect themselves. But because the bill requires that a gun be locked inside a vehicle, it offers little deterrence against rapes and robberies. What it would do, Ross says, is increase the possibility of guns getting in the wrong hands from car break-ins, which are prevalent on college campuses.

We agree. We're also sure that the underreporting of sexual assaults and other crimes - a legitimate issue - has pretty much nothing to do with guns on campus. Unless you're interested in just taking a shot at someone who disagrees with you. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mayoral Power Rankings, Version 2.0

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx had a smooth confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. His nomination for Secretary of Transportation is likely to get approved, and Charlotteans will be voting for a new mayor come November.

Who will be waving happily to supporters on Election Night? Earlier this 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 one candidate (mayor pro-tem Patrick Cannon) officially joining the race, and a couple (state Rep. Ruth Samuelson and former county commissioner Jennifer Roberts) saying no thanks to a mayoral run.

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 made his run official this week. Has solid support in important Democratic communities and has won citywide multiple times. He's controversial, though, and if state Sen. Malcolm Graham doesn't have a congressional seat (Mel Watt's) to run for, Cannon's path gets more challenging.
2. Dan Clodfelter - D: Yes, he's only saying he's "favorably inclined" to run for the job. But the longtime state senator brings crossover appeal, even if "expanding the sales tax" isn't a great platform these days. If he gets in, he'll challenge Cannon in these rankings.  
3. Edwin Peacock - R: The highest ranking Republican and a former City Council member. He's the establishment candidate who also has crossover appeal, and thus far, no grassroots conservative has surfaced to oppose him.
4. Becky Carney - D: State rep and former county commission vice chairman has grassroots standing and support. Would be a force with the female vote, and many males, too.
5. Malcolm Graham - D: State senator and former City Council member has a strong network of support. He wants Mel Watt's congressional seat, but Watt's confirmation to the Federal Housing Finance Agency looks dicey.
6. John Lassiter - R: Smart and earnest former councilman. If he decides to run, he shoots up this list. But he probably won't.
7. Michael Barnes - D: He was standing by Cannon's side at Cannon's announcement this week, suggesting he's not mounting a run of his own. 
8. David Howard - D: City Council member looks likely to run for re-election to his council at-large seat, but he'd have significant support if he jumps into the mayor's race.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Former Gov. Jim Martin backs Harry Jones

Former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin is coming to the defense of ousted Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones. Martin, a Republican, writes in a letter to the Observer that Jones was a "scapegoat" for a failing board. He concludes by saying that Jones "was a giant among Lilliputian pygmies."

Here's Martin's letter:

Harry Jones is a decent and honorable gentleman. I had not met him
until a few years ago when he recruited me to chair a 35-member ad hoc
Committee for School Building Solutions. By 32-3, we recommended
policies and procedures to relieve overcrowding in suburban schools
and renovations for outdated inner-city facilities. Since then, I have
come to admire him and value his dedication. He deserved better than
to be dismissed in such a callous fashion.

As a former Mecklenburg County Commissioner (1966-72), I fully
understand the authority and responsibility of the elected Board of
Commissioners to oversee and employ the County Manager. Harry always
knew that he served "at the pleasure of the Board," and that any
mistakes or errors by any County departments ultimately were his
responsibility. As they added up over time, that made him a convenient
scapegoat for the Board. Rather than acknowledge and repair their own
mistakes, it was easier to blame Harry, knowing he was too decent and
professional to blame them.

It only added insult to injury for the Board to deny him the courtesy
of a farewell statement and even the right to retrieve his personal
belongings from his office. Instead, he was treated as if he was a
danger to the realm. Led by an inexperienced Chair driven by personal
pique, the Board acted in a dishonorable a manner.

Like the legendary Gulliver, Harry Jones was a giant among Lilliputian

Jim Martin

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why the New York Times likes Mel Watt

The New York Times backed U.S. Rep. Mel Watt's nomination to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in an editorial today. The Times argues that Watt, a Democrat from Charlotte, has a keen understanding of both what the banks need and what underwater borrowers need as the housing market tries to right itself. Watt, the paper says, would "take a smarter, more forceful approach" to mortgage relief than the current director, Edward DeMarco, has.
Watt, the paper concludes, "has what it takes to explain and carry out policies to help revive credit and provide long overdue assistance to homeonwers."  

The Times' editorial is below. The Charlotte Observer backed Watt's nomination last week.

Mr. Watt, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

There are many reasons to be bullish on housing. Valuations, affordability and supply and demand are moving in the right direction. But there are also causes for concern. Home sales and home prices can rise only so far given today’s high level of unemployment and low level of wage gains. And millions of homeowners are still in financial distress. At the end of 2012, some 11.3 million homeowners — nearly one-fourth of all those with a mortgage — still owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, according to Moody’s Analytics. Of those, three million are currently in or near foreclosure.
Against that backdrop, President Obama has nominated Representative Melvin Watt, a Democrat of North Carolina, to be the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the overseer of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
As a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, Mr. Watt has long been a champion of homeownership and credit availability. Before credit standards were abandoned in the lending of the bubble years, careful efforts by Mr. Watt and other policy makers had prudently expanded homeownership to middle- and low-income families, without the negative consequences of the subprime era. Reviving those successful efforts, while averting the dangers, should be a priority for the next director of the agency.
As a representative from North Carolina, whose district includes parts of Charlotte, the home of Bank of America, Mr. Watt is also aware of the needs and demands of banks. He has been criticized for taking campaign donations from the financial industry, though, sadly, it is hard to find a politician who doesn’t accept special-interest money. But Mr. Watt has shown a willingness to act in the public interest — and to compromise skillfully across the aisle. During debates over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010, he was instrumental in passing core mortgage reforms, including rules to improve and enforce underwriting standards to protect borrowers and the public from reckless lending.
The question, of course, is whether Mr. Watt can be confirmed in a Senate where Republicans block nominees for the sake of doing so. For some time, many Republicans have insisted that the most important housing issue is the privatization of Fannie and Freddie, which have been under government control since their bailout in 2008.
The debate over the future of Fannie and Freddie is legitimate, but premature. Currently, Fannie and Freddie and other federal agencies guarantee about 90 percent of new mortgages. Banks and other private sector lenders are simply in no position to fill that role anytime soon.
A confirmation hearing should focus on the real, near-term priorities for Fannie and Freddie, especially the need to ensure the flow of ample mortgage credit and to provide relief to hard-pressed borrowers.
The current acting director, Edward DeMarco, has been slow to clarify mortgage issues that impair the banks’ willingness to extend credit. He has also stood in the way of principal reductions for underwater borrowers, saying that writing off principal would be against the taxpayer interest. Mr. Watt’s record indicates that he would take a smarter, more forceful approach to mortgage relief. Research by the Congressional Budget Office confirms that principal write-downs would save the government money and reduce foreclosure and delinquency rates.
Mr. Watt has what it takes to explain and carry out policies to help revive credit and provide long overdue assistance to homeowners — if only the Senate will give him the chance.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mark Sanford's titillating race draws to a close

The titillation factor in the Mark Sanford/Elizabeth Colbert Busch congressional race that's decided Tuesday is high. And that's not because Sanford's Argentine mistress-turned fiancee is spotted along the campaign trail or that his ex-wife, the woman scorned and maybe a bit embarrassed by the secret tryst that became public laugh fodder, has hauled him into court for trespassing.

 Well, maybe that is part of the titillation.

But a new Public Policy Polling survey of the special election for South Carolina's 1st Congressional Seat  is providing tantalizing tidbits of its own about the district's voters who go to the polls tomorrow.

Among them, Sanford has battled back from being 10 points down in the polls two weeks ago to edge ahead of Colbert Busch by 1 point. That puts the poll numbers within the margin of error and the race at a dead heat - though this is a heavily Republican district, and more Republicans might in the end vote for Sanford but are too reluctant or embarrassed to acknowledge it to a pollster.

In any event, PPP pollsters say the race may come down to who the district's voters dislike more. No that's not a popularity contest between Colbert Busch and Sanford. Said PPP president Dean Debnam: "At this point it's just a question of whether voters are more put off by Mark Sanford or the Democrats in Washington."

In fact, the pollsters think Sanford has evened the contest by using Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy  Pelosi as his proxy opponent, rather than stick to targeting Colbert Busch. That's because Colbert Busch beats Sanford handily on favorability stats: This poll has her at 50 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable. Sanford is at 43 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable. And Sanford doesn't best Colbert Busch much on being about right on the issues in this conservative district - she's at 43 percent; he's at 48 percent.

But when you throw Washington Democrats into the mix, those polled skew much more Sanford's way. Barack Obama is at 54 percent unfavorable on his job performance, right where Sanford is on the public's opinion of Sanford. Pelosi is even higher at 61 percent unfavorable. And Sanford comes out way ahead of Pelosi in a head to head match-up. The public has a much higher opinion of him than of Pelosi - 53 percent to 37 percent.

So, it should come as little surprise that Sanford took to debating a cardboard cut-out of Pelosi last month. South Carolina pols - you gotta love 'em.

Some pundits say Sanford has a good chance of winning Tuesday, and that could help Democrats. Read the Washington Post's rationale for that one. He has started getting vocal Republican support that had been lacking. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite, endorsed him last week. And so did Sen. Tim Scott whose seat is being filled in this special election. S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to a vacated U.S. Senate seat. Sanford had been yearning for the endorsement of Scott, also a tea party favorite.

But the PPP poll indicates the high profile endorsements might not mean much. Haley has endorsed him but the poll shows twice as many voters say they are less likely to vote for him because of the endorsement. 12 percent more likely to vote for him, 27 percent less likely. Scott's endorsement made 21 percent more likely to vote for Sanford and 24 percent less likely. Sen. Lindsey Graham's endorsement made 18 percent more likely to vote for him and 25 percent less likely.

Maybe the only endorsement that could have really boosted his numbers was ex-wife Jenny Sanford's. She has a higher favorable rating than Sanford or Colbert Busch in this poll - 54 percent and much lower unfavorable numbers - 19 percent. But judging by her pursuit of the trespassing charge, set for a hearing on Thursday, she clearly was not in the mood to give him her nod.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The X Games in an anti-skateboard city?

Charlotte resident Robert Kutrow, 19, has noticed tension between skateboarders and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. Here's his take on the situation:

Charlotte’s skateboard culture, though under the radar for many Queen City residents, has been growing rapidly for the past decade. In fact, Charlotte Motor Speedway is a finalist to host the 2014 X Games competition.Charlotte’s South End area, specifically Camden Avenue, functions as something of a central hub for the city’s skate culture. The neighborhood is home to Black Sheep Skate Shop, a prominent skate outfitter and a meeting ground for local skaters. Shop owner Josh Frazier says many nearby businesses support the “color and diversity” skaters bring to the area.

Not everyone agrees. Residents of nearby condominiums have repeatedly expressed frustration with the noise and danger the skaters present. Skating can cause significant property damage and poses a hazard to other pedestrians, according to CMPD Police Attorney Judith Emken. In 2008, skaters caused an estimated $35,000 in damage to a sculpture outside uptown’s Mint Museum.

This difference in opinion has led to heightened tension between skaters and CMPD. Skateboarding in any roadway is banned in Article I, Sec. 14-3 of the city’s ordinance. While skating on sidewalks is OK, making contact with the street is a class three misdemeanor. It is grounds for seizure of the skateboard and a $250 fine. The skateboard can be reclaimed only after the case is closed.
This happens fairly frequently in the South End area and other areas uptown – so frequently that many skaters feel persecuted.

According to shop owner Frazier, when skateboards are seized, some police officers present the skater with a choice: pay the $250 fine, or the seized board will eventually be destroyed. The boards are actually sold at auction by the police department like any other unclaimed property. Since a brand new skateboard costs about $100 less than the fine, many skaters simply buy another board, continue skating and take their chances that the case gets thrown out.

Skaters have only one city-operated and sanctioned skate park, Grayson Skate Park on Beal Street, which is considered outdated and inferior to other popular but illegal spots uptown.  The city’s other skate park, Methodist Home, was recently permanently closed.
Hosting the X Games when the city’s native skate scene stands at odds with police, residents and the municipal government feels darkly ironic. Frazier hopes to see the construction of a new, updated skate park in the area. If you don’t want kids skating in the streets, he says, you have to give them somewhere else to go.

Using tax dollars for such a project is far-fetched, but perhaps businesses could partner with Parks and Rec to make it happen.
In the meantime, however, citing and fining skaters seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Processing these citations is costly, and is simply not enough disincentive to skaters. Without skating in South End, many businesses would lose a significant portion of their client base.

CMPD Police Chief Rodney Monroe is an outspoken proponent of the idea of community policing, described on the CMPD website as “engaging citizens as active partners in problem identification and crime reduction.” The implementation of a community policing strategy in South End would serve to end the “Us vs. Them mentality,” and foster communication between skaters and police, rather than further embroiling tension between the city and an expanding, creative skate culture.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How to move a bill without the votes

Need to get a bill out of committee but don't have the votes? Not a problem! Simply follow N.C. Republicans' razzle-dazzle system for getting around those nitpickers who think the majority rules.

A couple of Republican legislators have volunteered to demonstrate how it's done. First up, please welcome .... Sen. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County. He's the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

On Wednesday, his committee spent 45 minutes debating a bill on renewable energy. Right now, utilities such as Duke Energy are required to have 12.5 percent of their retail sales come from renewable sources by 2021. The bill would essentially end that program, reducing the requirement to 3 percent and eliminating it in 2023.

A similar bill was voted down 18-13 in a House committee last week. That was a mere speed bump, thanks to Rabon's ingenuity. Following the debate, Rabon called for a voice vote, despite protests from bill opponents who wanted a show of hands to be counted. The voice vote was evenly split, those who were there say, so Rabon simply declared that the bill had passed. At least a half dozen Republicans voted with Democrats against the bill, and both sides say they would have won had Rabon counted the vote instead of just listening to it.

But voters will never know whether it had the votes or not, and that's the beauty of the Republicans' approach. For another shining example of how to do it, please welcome ... Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County.

Tucker, co-chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, hosted a debate last month over a bill that would let local governments pull their legal notices from newspapers and run them only on their government web site. The committee was divided, and Tucker called for a voice vote. The margin was razor-thin one way or the other, so Tucker declared -- voila! -- the bill had passed. Whether it actually had the support of a majority of committee members, the public will never know, because Tucker refused to count the vote and declared the meeting adjourned.

Savvy, eh?

A Senate rule (unlike House rules) prohibits roll call votes in committee, which is a screwy rule. But the rules permit what's called "division," in which each committee member raises his or her hand as a "yea" or "nay" vote.

But that would mean actually counting the votes. And we all know how inconvenient that can be.

-- Taylor Batten


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mel Watt: 'Fox' or 'thoughtful policymaker'?

Weeks ago, we thought Mel Watt had a better chance of joining the Obama administration than Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. Turns out the president was lasering in on both.

President Obama follows up on his nomination Monday of Foxx as transportation secretary with Watt's nomination today to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The long-time N.C. congressman's name has been pushed by many, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for a post with the Obama administration. Critics have complained about a lack of diversity at the top levels of the Obama administration. The Foxx and Watt nominations blunt that criticism.

Watt's nomination predictably is getting mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, mostly along party lines. The Washington Post's Plum Line and Post Politics, the Huffington Post, Politico, and Bloomberg News weigh in. The National Journal includes a take on what would happen to Watt's seat, in his odd- shaped district, if the nomination goes through.

Watt is the scheduled speaker at the annual Law Day luncheon here in Charlotte on Thursday.  We'll look forward to what he has to say. Watt was the first African American president of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association in 1988-89, and a longtime member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Watt would replace Ed DeMarco, acting head of the agency since 2009.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, said he "could not be more disappointed in the nomination... This gives new meaning to the adage the fox is guarding the hen house."
 On the other hand, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, a first-term Democratic senator from Massachusetts called Watt "a thoughtful policymaker with deep background in finance and a long record as a champion of working families." She urged his confirmation.

North Carolina's own first-term U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger had this to say: "Congressman Mel Watt is a good man and a dedicated public servant. After decades in Congress, I'm sure he's ready for a new challenge and I wish him all the best in his new role. Mr. Watt's best service would be to responsibly and efficiently reduce the federal government's role in the housing market, freeing taxpayers from expensive bailouts brought about by handing out mortgages with lax credit requirements."

Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research and Trading LLC in Washington, said in a note to clients that Watt would face “a very steep climb to confirmation.”

Some things people might not know or have forgotten about Watt:

  • He and Eva Clayton became the first two African Americans elected to Congress from North Carolina in the 20th century when they were elected in 1992.
  • Watt practiced law for more than two decades with a focus on business law.
  • He served in the state Senate for one term.
  • Watt was a mentor and neighbor of Anthony Foxx when he was young. Foxx's grandfather Jim Foxx was a well known political activist who worked with Watt and former Mayor Harvey Gantt.
  • Watt and Gantt are long-time friends. Watt was campaign manager for Gantt when he ran for mayor in the 1980s, and when he ran and lost against Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate in 1990.
  • After Watt won his congressional seat, his district became the focus of a long redistricting fight that would end in Watt's favor.