Why Pennygate matters

When I worked as a cashier in a grocery store, I was not allowed to check out my mother. Store policy. Thirty years later when my son worked as a cashier at a different grocery chain in a different state, the policy at his store was that cashiers couldn’t check out any of their relatives. The grocery stores wanted to clear themselves of even the appearance of impropriety. Which is why, when I went shopping one Sunday night and saw that my son was the lone cashier, I had to take my cart full of groceries through the U-Scan. And the person supervising the U-Scan didn’t say, “Oh, just this once, in this special circumstance, you can go through your son’s line.” She understood the policy built trust between the business and its customers.

The appearance of impropriety is why Penny Rich’s silence about her catering gig when she argued so passionately for an ordinance change lifting the alcohol ban was out of line. Had she prefaced her petition by saying, “I’m a caterer, so this may seem self-serving, but I think there’s a need for another place in town to hold catered events with alcohol. In fact, I’m catering a dinner in a few weeks, and if the ban is lifted, I’ll have the event at the 523 building.”

Instead, she tried to sneak it through the consent agenda. Just like Bill Strom and colleagues tried to do with an ordinance that would have had taxpayers paying for council members’ health insurance benefits for life, had Matt Czajkowski not questioned it and convinced others on the council to rethink their original votes.

Part of the impetus behind council adopting a code of ethics was to restore voter confidence in the council after Strom, who had purchased an apartment in New York, waited until after the candidates’ filing date to announce that he had left town and wouldn’t return to council in the fall. That way he could work behind the scenes to have a like-minded person appointed to the seat; voters didn’t have any say in the choice.

Rich was elected with taxpayers’ funds through the Voter Owned Election program. That makes transparency in her actions all the more important, so taxpayers don’t conclude that she used their money to get elected to a position she could use to her own financial gain.

We need to have confidence that our elected leaders are making decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the community, not what benefits the council member most.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. John Kramer

     /  August 22, 2011

    I could not agree more. I am surprised she has made no effort to discuss this.

  2. Scott Maitland

     /  August 22, 2011

    Great article. However, the store’s policy is a standard theft prevention policy that has nothing to do about trust between the customer and the store and everything to do with preventing an employee from taking advantage of discretion to the benefit of his/her family member and to the detriment of the store. In that way, it is even a better analogy.

  3. More good points. I would just add that this article also reflects my strong opposition to so-called Voter-Owned (really Taxpayer-Extorted, per Gary Gaddy recent blog) election funding. Most important, unlike state and federal public campaign funds where taxpayers may or may not check off a few dollars of their regular tax payment to go to a public campaign fund, in Chapel Hill the taxpayers get no choice, which has been found unconstitutional in one state and probably will go to the US Supreme Court eventually.
    I further object when any elected decision-maker votes for unusual funds and then takes them himself or herself. This particular Town Council member, a business owner, raised funds with her own supporters for one campaign, but took the public tax-money funds the next campaign after voting for them. Even without that kind of background situation, I continue to have the opinion that in a town the size of Chapel Hill, a candidate who cannot present himself or herself to residents with the reasons he/she is running for office is probably not going to be an effective decision-maker for the town.
    To be clear, I repeat that I do not oppose voluntary public campaign funds, like the state and federal tax-return check-box opportunities, but I do oppose the Chapel Hill involuntary taxpayer fund grab, and I hope the NC legislature will rescind this trial two-election mis-step.

  4. runner

     /  August 22, 2011

    As I understand it, the Chapel Hill voter owned election law was approved by the state legislature for only 2 voting cycles. I doubt that the current state legislature will renew it.

  5. John Kramer

     /  August 22, 2011

    So this brings two questions to mind:
    1. How many of you Chapel Hillians voted for her last time
    2. How many of you will vote for her next time?