Pennygate

Ethics? Ethics, and transparency, for that matter, are for the little people, Penny Rich seems to believe.

At the May 23 Town Council meeting, in which she petitioned council to lift the alcohol ban from 523 E. Franklin St., Rich argued that the former museum belonged to “all the people.” And by that she evidently meant “caterers,” and by “caterers” she must have meant her own business. During the lengthy discussion that night on whether to change the ordinance before council had thought about how the vacant building would be used, Rich never mentioned that she had snagged a catering gig to be held three weeks later that included a cash bar for more than 100 people and needed a venue.

Rich argued that being able to serve alcohol would make the site more attractive to private parties. Allowing alcohol would enable the town to charge upwards of $100 an hour, she said, rather than the $20 per room other indoor sites on the Parks & Rec’s list charge.

So what did Rich pay for the space in which she was paid several thousand dollars to cater? My request for that information is being treated as a public records request and has been forwarded to the town’s Public Arts staff, who oversee events at 523 E. Franklin.

And did Rich hire the police officer she said was required at catered events where alcohol is served? Rich has been uncharacteristically silent on questions about the June 12 retirement party she catered. She did not respond to my email to her.

At the May 23 meeting, Rich said, “There’s no reason for the building to be sitting there without making money.” But the site was plenty attractive without alcohol. The building hosted some group’s event nearly every day before and after the ordinance change to allow alcohol, yet none seem likely to serve liquor: a butter sculpture workshop, the Autism Outreach Playgroup, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Mothers Club, the Spiral Scouts. Rich’s catered party looked to be the only event where alcohol was served in the two months following the ordinance change.

Granted, the Code of Ethics the Town Council adopted in November last year doesn’t specifically rule out a council member petitioning for an ordinance change that would allow her to reap financial gain, but Rich’s behavior smells like deviled eggs left out too long on the buffet. Her integrity has shriveled like a Vienna sausage forgotten on the steam table.

Laurin Easthom said she wished she had known of Rich’s personal interest in the petition before joining the 7-1 vote to pass the ordinance. (Matt Czajkowski was the lone nay vote; Sally Greene was absent.) “Had I known she was personally going to take advantage of the relaxing of rules on alcohol in that building by hosting her own event with alcohol,” Easthom wrote in response to an email I sent to council members who voted to approve, “I would have brought it up in the meeting because what one council member does really affects us all, because the council voted for it.”
– Nancy Oates

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38 Comments

  1. John Kramer

     /  August 18, 2011

    Wow, good one. It will be interesting to see what else comes of this. I hope you have your body armor on and your spam filter at high alert, I am sure you will get some good missiles coming in from her supporters!

  2. DOM

     /  August 18, 2011

    Oh, my.

  3. Scott Maitland

     /  August 18, 2011

    Bad form Penny. She should have let it be known or recused herself. However, what’s the problem with alcohol being served? It would make the venue more attractive for events and thus more of a money maker. And I am sure that the town can operationally work out details for the support needed to host a community fundraiser vs. a sorority party.

  4. Michael

     /  August 18, 2011

    Politician. Multiply this position by a 1000 and she could run for Congress…

  5. Nancy Oates

     /  August 18, 2011

    Scott, my objection isn’t to alcohol per se. At the time Penny presented the petition, the only use for the building under consideration was as an art gallery for UNC students. As UNC goes to great lengths to discourage underage and excessive drinking, I thought it would support that message by showing that art shows could be enjoyed without alcohol. (UNC undercut its message by allowing alcohol in its new luxury boxes at Kenan Stadium, though alcohol is banned everywhere else in the stadium.) And if Penny had been upfront about why she wanted the petition approved right away that night, instead of being “received and referred” as all other petitions are, it would have shown more integrity on her part.

  6. Jean Rodez

     /  August 18, 2011

    Who was it who said, “it’s hard to get a man (woman, in this case) to understand something … when their salary depends on not understanding it”?

    Upton Sinclair, who I believe I’ve correctly quoted above, also said, “man is an evasive beast, given to cultivating strange notions about himself.” Is it any wonder, especially since we’re addressing entitlements for insiders and elite?

    Too many “can operationally work out the details” in these – “and thus more of a money maker”- situations.

  7. Nancy Oates, You are doing a great service to Chapel Hill by following such “blessed” shenanigans here in “the southern part of heaven.” You keep on keepin’ on, good lady!

  8. Ed Harrison

     /  August 18, 2011

    The petition was presented, and then received and referred, on May 9. It came back to Council on May 23. Nancy, I sent you documentation of these dates.

  9. John Kramer

     /  August 18, 2011
  10. Don Evans

     /  August 19, 2011

    Ed,

    I can’t believe that you could be so tone deaf to this issue as to fall back on the typical bureaucrat’s defense — it passed through all the staff and council hoops, so it was just fine.

    Are you saying that if someone in the town staff or on the council does it, it is always all right? Sounds to me as if you have lost your moral compass. Please don’t ask Penny to help you find it.

  11. Ed Harrison

     /  August 19, 2011

    I am simply correcting the facts regarding dates. The petition came from CM Rich on May 9, and was received and referred *by unanimous vote* on that date, to come back on the 23rd. I am not a “bureaucrat,” so that’s irrelevant here. As with almost all “conflicts of interest” involving elected officials, this should be clarified as a “perceived” conflict. Actual conflict of interest is very narrowly defined in state law, which is what applies here. As someone who has now held two elective offices for over 20 years, I’ve been fully educated in that for some time now. I have recused myself only once in that entire period, in 2004-05 for one land use case, and it was extremely helpful to my household and reportedly to the applicant that I did so.

  12. Nancy Oates

     /  August 19, 2011

    Ed, the point is when Penny pushed so hard to lift the ban, she didn’t bring up her interest in the ordinance change. The only idea for how the building would be used was as an art gallery for students (and openings are often catered). She should have been upfront about the potential for her business to profit from it.

  13. ph. johnson-sledge

     /  August 19, 2011

    The only thing sadder than Ms. Rich keeping her self interest secret fom her fellow councilmembers, is Ed Harison’s defense of such behavior. Since when is honesty and
    integrity something we can’t look for in our elected officials? Slimy is slimy, no matter how you characterize it Mr. Harrison.

  14. Anita Badrock

     /  August 19, 2011

    I think this is so much ado about nothing. It’s not as though this was the only space available for a private event. There are other places to rent where alcohol can be served. You have given absolutely no evidence that Councilmember Rich’s catering contract depended on getting this particular motion passed and having the event particularly in that location. In fact I could argue that we should thank her for encouraging her clients to rent that space and letting the town benefit from the revenue.

    This is akin to saying that, for example, Councilmember Matt C. should not advocate for better bicycle lanes or improving existing meeting spaces because he might use one someday. Or that Councilmember Pease shouldn’t advocate for more library book purchases because he might read something in them that he could charge a client for.

    I hope that other Town Council members will rent the space if they want to host a party–and encourage their friends to do so—alcohol or no alcohol. As long as they pay the going rate, I think it is in fact a commitment to support the town by using the facilities and paying for them.

  15. Terri Buckner

     /  August 19, 2011

    I believe this particular space was removed from the list of town facilities that can be rented, due to safety/maintenance issues, shortly after the alcohol discussion. As I recall, Matt voted no but that was because he was asking for a long-term plan for how the facility was going to be used before they made policy decisions.

  16. Ed Harrison

     /  August 19, 2011

    I can’t see where I’m defending anyone’s behavior. I am clarifying matters, such as dates when events happened, and the significance of using certain terms in regard to public officials. People are welcome to perceive conflicts of interest. Anita Badrock has made a point on that.

    In the meantime, I have to stop commenting, as I need to leave for another state to visit my immediate family, none of whom are able to travel anymore.

  17. Don Evans

     /  August 19, 2011

    Ed

    When you voted for Penny’s provision, did you know she had a catered event planned?

  18. John Kramer

     /  August 20, 2011

    LOL the apologists are out in full force!

  19. DOM

     /  August 20, 2011

    I think you need to give Penny a chance to tell her side of the story.

  20. Mark Marcoplos

     /  August 20, 2011

    This seems pretty trivial. Penny had one event scheduled there. This wasn’t some behind-the-scenes plan to reap profits over a long term. Her arguments for the change stand on their own merits. The town gets more revenue and local businesses stand to benefit modestly from the policy change. It looks like she was made aware of the positives that could come from a policy change while looking into booking the venue. I thought that there was a commitment to make Chapel Hill more business-friendly. This kind of trivial attack just discourages people from making suggestions for potential improved policies.

  21. runner

     /  August 20, 2011

    Mark,

    All she had to say when she petitioned the Council was…”and, I am planning to use that facility as a catering site”.

    Yet, she must have felt that that information was either irrelevant or detrimental to the petition. Because, if she felt this bit of information was positive to her petition, she would have mentioned it.

    Only she can answer that question. And, I doubt she’ll come on this site to explain her thinking.

    Either way, she should have provided that information at the time of the petition. And, yes, this is a minor topic. But character is character, no matter the size of the issue.

  22. John Kramer

     /  August 20, 2011

    Well said, Runner. Not sure where Mr. Marcopolo got his ideas about how this went down, but he provides no evidence to support his theory. I like your explanation much better, it is based in fact and not conjecture.

  23. Mark Marcoplos

     /  August 21, 2011

    Just watched the Town Council video of this discussion. It is striking that such a simple matter that could generate more revenue for the town is blocked so ubtusely by Matt Cz. I doubt he does this for all such items that could generate a little more revenue for the town. It seems pretty clear that he is wasting a lot of time on a very trivial matter and that he is basically playing petty political games. The other Town Council members surely know that Penny is a caterer and that she has an interest in this. With all of the challenges facing the town, it looks silly for Matt Cz to be treating this simple change that would add a little revenue as an issue that he feels worthy of town staff utilizing valuable time getting speculative data on how much revenue the town might get, who might use it, etc.

  24. runner

     /  August 21, 2011

    Nice try Mark. You need to get back to the gym and work a little more on your pivoting skills.

  25. John Kramer

     /  August 21, 2011

    Maybe Matt C knew what she was up to and tried to block her without exposing her COI out of respect. Matt C is a straight up guy and that sounds like a reasonable explanation to me. I am not at all surprised by the liberal left’s efforts to explain away this obvious conflict of interest, after all she is one of them.

  26. Elliot

     /  August 21, 2011

    Kramer writes:
    ” I am not at all surprised by the liberal left’s efforts to explain away this obvious conflict of interest, after all she is one of them.”

    I knew if we waited long enough, someone would blame this on Obama.

  27. Terri Buckner

     /  August 21, 2011

    I agree with Runner that Penny should have made the disclaimer publicly when the petition was being discussed, but I don’t think this one incident says anything about her character. She’s still relatively new to council, and given this post and the Herald’s decision to put it on today’s front page, I’m sure she has learned a lesson the hard way.

    While I personally don’t think this issue rises to the level of an ethics violation, I appreciate Nancy raising it. In the absence of a fully-engaged press, we need individual citizens to serve as watchdogs and that is what Nancy has done. We need more people who are willing to research such issues and bring them forward for public scrutiny. Who knows when the next minor infraction could be something serious?

    Mark M–I think it was right for Matt to question this petition. I’m still baffled as to why everyone else voted for it. At the time of the discussion, there was no plan for how to use the facility (and within a couple of weeks it was taken out of public usage), no good estimate for what it was going to cost for the renovation, etc. So why put a policy in place that could, potentially, bind the council’s hands in future planning? I doubt that it would, but I think those who have watched and listened to Matt over the past several years have learned that his concern is process and minimizing the number of policies that are enacted for “feel good” purposes only. The consultant’s report on LUMO seems to back up his concerns.

  28. runner

     /  August 21, 2011

    Terri,

    Each person brings their own personal history of knowledge, experience and decision making ability to anything they do. I see the combination of those traits as one’s character.

    Something went wrong with Ms. Rich’s handling on this matter. You may chose to see this as her lack of experience on the Town Council. I see it as a matter of her character.

  29. How edifying-a comment on someone’s character from someone with no name.

  30. Cam Hill, that is

  31. runner

     /  August 21, 2011

    Yeah, you should know Cam. Weren’t you the guy who secretly created a PAC one week before the last election just to send out a mailer badmouthing Matt C? CHARACTER!!!

    If this website changes its policy on screen names, I’ll consider using my name.

  32. Terri Buckner

     /  August 21, 2011

    Why do I keep feeling like I’m in a kindergarten playground? Every discussion ends with someone calling someone else names or throwing insults. Talk about a character issue……

  33. Mark Marcoplos

     /  August 21, 2011

    Couple of things:
    The issues raised in Cam’s electon mailer were never refuted. The responses were “righteous indignation” without substance, sound & fury without clarity. If you want to rewrite history, at least give us the facts that we never got at the time.
    If anyone watches the video, it’s pretty clear from Matt Cz’s body language & expressions that he is playing a poltical game.
    And I have to repeat – if the consent agenda was passed passed, the Town stood to make a little more money, local businessess might make a little more money, and no-one would have reaped insider profits. We should be looking for ways to help local commerce rather than playing obtuse poltical games. Matt Cz should just call it like he sees it instead of being vague and coy. Watch the video – it says it all. No wonder Chapel Hill has an anti-business reputation with the faux posturing of people like Matt Cz.

  34. Terri Buckner

     /  August 22, 2011

    Mark–if one of Matt C’s friends had produced and paid that sum of money for a mailer slamming Mark K, you and all the other political insiders around here would have been screaming bloody murder. I didn’t watch the video–I watched the live action. There was nothing vague or coy about Matt’s position. He stayed true to the theory that he has promoted since taking office. The fact that you and I see this differently doesn’t make either of us right, but it does highlight the fact that labels, rather than behavior, shape the way people think about politics, even on a local basis.

    Regarding your last sentence: Chapel Hill had an anti-business reputation long before Matt joined the council. From my observations, that reputation has improved, marginally, since he was elected. It’s refreshing to hear Mark K starting to adopt some of Matt’s positions.

  35. Don Evans

     /  August 22, 2011

    Mark

    Cam was cited by the Board of Elections for issuing an illegal mailer. He was fined. He had to run an apology in The Chapel Hill News. His mailer lifted sections from a Daily Tar Heel editorial and used them out of context (a popular tactic by most major political parties seeking to tar a candidate), in some cases actually reversing the meaning of a phrase. So I feel my righteous indignation was somewhat justified.

    Not exactly the sort of political campaign behavior one would expect in this liberal bastion.

    And if you’re scanning videos of council members’ body language, check out the rude and dismissive behavior toward petitioners and fellow council members that Penny and Sally exhibit. I am constantly amazed that Matt has the heart to hang out with that bunch, let alone try to talk some sense into them on town issues.

  36. John Kramer

     /  August 23, 2011

    Thanks, Don Evans for setting the facts straight. The liberals in this town really like to paint things differently.

  37. Mark Marcoplos

     /  August 24, 2011

    Don – not to run it into the ground, but I have seriously never seen credible refutations of the points raised about Matt Cz in the mailer. I just haven’t. Someone please point me toward it if you wish. Indignation and puffery is fine, but give me facts. If someone gives them to me, I’ll review them fairly. An election commission infraction – first I heard of it – does not qualify as refutation of content of the mailer.

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