The price of doing right

Art Pope tried to buy his way into the university and failed. So Pope, the DickNancy Oates Cheney of the McCrory administration, took another tack: He pressed the N.C. General Assembly, which has appointed several Republican cronies to the UNC System Board of Governors, to push out the system president, a man revered for his integrity, wisdom and even-handedness and a Democrat, to make room for Pope to replace him with a puppet who will do Pope’s bidding.

Do I know any of this for a fact? Of course not. But by this time next year, I feel confident I’ll be able to say I called it.

When I heard the news Friday that President Ross had been given a year to clean out his desk and move on, I felt as though darkness had won. When what’s best for the political elite trumps what’s best for the common good, all seems lost.

I fear we’re heading down that path in the development decisions town leaders are making. Residents I talk with resent Town Council and town manager decisions that build housing to attract only wealthy tenants in town temporarily while middle class and working class residents are squeezed out. Residential development costs taxpayers; residential property taxes go up, so even residents who have no mortgage face ever-increasing property taxes.

Town manager Roger Stancil and town economic development officer Dwight Bassett seem to believe growth can continue ad infinitum, that there is no inflection point at which growth switches from being beneficial to becoming detrimental. Such a point exists, but a majority of council members act as though it doesn’t. They ignore the bottom 99 percent on the wealth continuum in favor of the top 1 percent who will benefit from rampant growth.

Who benefits from the private equity deals of Village Plaza Apartments, Timber Hollow and Obey Creek? The investors who put up the money initially, flip the deal and scurry away with their profits, leaving ordinary residents to subsidize those investors through increased property taxes to pay for infrastructure, energy-efficiency rebates, services and increased debt service.

Tom Ross, as president, made some decisions that displeased the Board of Governors, such as restructuring Elizabeth City State University, which has a predominantly non-white student body, to enable it to remain open though the BOG wanted it closed. Ross led with wisdom and heart, doing what was best for society as a whole. Perhaps that cost him his job. But he leaves with the respect of the majority of the people of North Carolina.

Will a majority of council members have the courage to do what’s right for their constituents, even if it means they fall out of favor with the developers who give so generously to their campaigns?
– Nancy Oates

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33 Comments

  1. Cam

     /  January 19, 2015

    Just to be clear the maximum contribution a non family member can make to a council campaign is $300.
    Your suggestion that our current council has been bought by developers says a lot more about you than it does about the council.

  2. DOM

     /  January 19, 2015

    Wow. Quite a stretch, even for you. Associating our town council members’ decision-making to Art Pope’s agenda. That stinks.

  3. many

     /  January 19, 2015

    ……and I don’t “scurry”, profits are directly deposited into my brokerage account.

  4. Don Evans

     /  January 19, 2015

    Guys,
    How else would you view council efforts that favor developers over the community, ignore consultants’ recommendations on cost-benefits, denigrate actions by residents to inform and improve the decision making and are contrary to staff recommendations?

    Either someone’s not paying attention here or is playing a game.

  5. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 19, 2015

    Meadowmont and Southern Village added well over a billion (with a B) dollars to the tax base, with the result being increases in the county, Chapel Hill town, and CHCCS district taxes…

    … to pay for additional schools; additional fire and police stations, greatly increased road maintenance, solid waste disposal, and personnel for each of those categories, health care and pension for increased personnel, and more administrators to handle all of the above. I might have left out a category or two, but I trust other readers might remind me of what they are.

  6. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 19, 2015

    If you look at a tax history of a home that has not been altered (new pool, added a wing, etc.) so as to change its assessment base, and take into account the increase in value of such a house over time, you can see that the rate of property tax went up first as Southern Village, then Meadowmont came on-line.

    People want to live in Chapel Hill, especially because its public schools are pretty darn good, but also because it’s quite green, has a downtown, culture, and the growth here has not yet created the property tax burden newcomers remember from the west and east coasts. And crime rates are fairly low, possibly because it’s not as dense as elsewhere, and local residents tend to be involved in doings and happenings here.

  7. Terri

     /  January 19, 2015

    “Elizabeth City State University, which has a predominantly non-white student body”

    Elizabeth City State University is one of 10 historically black colleges (HBCU) in North Carolina, and one of four in the UNC system. HBCUs were originally established to educate African Americans, back in the days before integration. Shaw University (Raleigh) was the first HBCU (1865) in the South following the Civil War.

  8. Fred Black

     /  January 19, 2015

    Five HBCUs in the UNC system: NCCU, A&T, Fayetteville State, Winston Salem State, Elizabeth City

  9. Nancy

     /  January 21, 2015

    Cam —
    If you string enough $300 contributions together, it begins to add up. Not to pick on George Cianciolo, but between the last campaign contribution reporting date and Election Day 2013, Cianciolo received $300 donations each from 6 out-of-state investors in Caves Valley Partners (a real estate investment company investing in Obey Creek), 2 $300 donations from East West Partners, and 2 more from Resolute, builder of all Perry’s East 54 buildings. That’s $3,000 from people with an interest in Obey Creek. Oh, and Aaron Nelson kicked in $250 last minute. That $3,250 is more than some candidates raised for their entire campaign. And due to the timing of the donations, none of this information was available to the public until after the election.

  10. Fred Black

     /  January 22, 2015

    Gosh Nancy, you didn’t acknowledge my $50.00 gift! If the public doesn’t know who contributed what, you need to head up a campaign contributions reporting initiative to improve the process and get the media to join in. Also, are you aware of any credible research that connects contributions to local candidates and future votes? This was debated heavily the last time we put limits on individual contributions, but is there any science here or is it just feel good stuff?

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  January 22, 2015

    I trustGeorge to be a good and honorable public servant, but money is a serious problem in our electoral process. I don’t understand why Nancy is being criticized for this. I suspect, if asked, Cam and Fred, maybe even Dom, would claim Citizens’ United should be overturned. To ignore the possibility that money can play a part in local issues just sounds naive to me.

  12. David

     /  January 22, 2015

    Fred asks, “Also, are you aware of any credible research that connects contributions to local candidates and future votes?”

    An author named Retnasaba attempted to study the question scientifically. He examined whether campaign contributions caused corruption in the public finance industry of the early 1990s, using an event study methodology. Specifically, he examined the response of municipal bond issuers to the sudden cessation of campaign contributions from underwriters that occurred following the banning of campaign contributions in 1994.

    He found that after campaign contributions were banned, municipalities were much less likely than before the ban to choose “negotiated issues,” which are more profitable for underwriters but more costly to the issuing municipality, than “competitive issues.”

    From the article: “The results show that, as would be expected in the presence of corruption, the use of negotiated bonds dropped suddenly following the banning of campaign contributions. Results imply that about one-third of municipal bond issuers (measured by value) acted corruptly, willing to switch from their natural preference for a competitive issue to a negotiated issue in order to gain the opportunity to realize a private gain in the form of campaign contributions. The results display a high degree of statistical significance and are robust to the selection of the event window.”

    It’s not proof, but I think it rises to the level of credible research.

    Retnasaba, G. (2006). Do campaign contributions and lobbying corrupt? Evidence from public finance. Journal of Law, Economics, and Policy. Spring 2006, pp. 145-185.

  13. Fred Black

     /  January 22, 2015

    David, I’m aware of that 90s study, but don’t think its a good match. Do you see a connection between votes and campaign contributions in our towns?

    Terri, money creates perceptions. To some, perceptions are reality. We still have nothing to show we have contribution-driven votes. I think we have traditionally had honorable elected officials and their votes don’t always match up with the dollars that they received. I still await data to the contrary.

  14. Don Evans

     /  January 22, 2015

    Fred

    I swear, if Nancy wrote that the sky was blue, you’d disagree with her and ask her for documentation!

    If George is that naive or doesn’t have enough political sense to refuse contributions from the folks on whose projects he is likely to vote, then he deserves the perception problem.

  15. Fred Black

     /  January 22, 2015

    Don, I see that discussion is not desired or different opinions appreciated. Where is the criticism that has you so angry? Please point it out.

  16. Terri

     /  January 22, 2015

    Fred,

    I agree that money creates perceptions. It wasn’t a problem at the national or state level until it became one and then the ones who won their offices with that money were the ones who didn’t want the problem fixed. I don’t see a problem with acknowledging that money in politics creates conflicts of interest. Maybe not in every case, maybe not on the town council at this time. But the opportunity is there.

    Of greater concern to me right now is how voters make sense of the actions of elected officials. It’s easy to say change is inevitable, but when change occurs, people need context, they need to understand why or they will look for alternative explanations. In the absence of any explanation from CH elected officials for the dramatic turn around in their attitudes toward development, I don’t see how anyone can be shocked that some people (not just Nancy) are going to wonder how much influence money is having on that radical and unexplained change.

  17. many

     /  January 22, 2015

    “Do you see a connection between votes and campaign contributions in our towns?”

    One clue might be the amount of campaign donations that are related to a specific project expressed as a percent of total contributions, campaign costs covered and trended over the last few campaigns.

    But wait! That would mean the ’90s study is a good match.

  18. David

     /  January 22, 2015

    The excerpt below is from Weisbard (2008), Yale Law Journal 188.2, p. 379.

    “There is widespread concern over the problematic practice of using campaign donations or gifts to “buy access” to elected leaders. If those advocating one side of an issue have greater access to public officials, as those who make larger contributions generally do, this additional access increases their potential to influence legislative outcomes.

    “Empirical studies have shown that there is some evidence that contributions affect legislative outcomes.

    “See, e.g., Richard L. Hall, Equalizing Expenditures in Congressional Campaigns: A Proposal, 6 ELECTION L.J. 145, 160 (2007) (“[A] little access can go a long way, depending on the group’s lobbying strategy. Access often gives a group or individual or industry the opportunity to subsidize the legislative effort of busy members on issues where member and group have coincident interests.”);

    “Thomas Stratmann, Some Talk: Money in Politics. A (Partial) Review of the Literature, 124 PUB. CHOICE 135, 144, 246 (2005).”

    Fred, is it your position that individuals who contribute to a candidate’s campaign with the expectation that the donation will, directly or indirectly, increase the likelihood that the candidate, once elected, will make decisions favorable to the donor are actually wasting their money?

  19. David

     /  January 22, 2015

    Fred, as long as we’re trawling the literature, do you know whether there have been any published studies that have failed to find evidence that campaign contributions influence voting behavior of local elected officials?

  20. Fred Black

     /  January 22, 2015

    David, in contrast to the elections covered in those studies, in “our brand of politics” where incumbents hardly ever loose, high dollar media isn’t used, and under 4K votes can win a seat, money doesn’t have the same impact. A few years ago there was much discussion because a prominent developer gave several candidates money, even one who doesn’t tend to support his projects. Over the last few years, how often do we have 5-4 votes like we did in the 90s? Most of the votes recently seem to reflect a Council with a great deal of agreement. So what does one get for their money if the five or six top-finishing candidates (who usually raise the most money) would have done the same things anyway?

  21. David

     /  January 23, 2015

    Fred,

    The fact that incumbents hardly ever lose suggests that campaign contributions will be most effective when candidates are running for open seats. We happened to have two this last time around, and I’m guessing that some votes over the past year that were of great financial significance to folks in the real estate sector, such as Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek, would have gone differently had Amy Ryan and Loren Hintz been elected instead of George and Maria.

    I don’t believe for a minute that George, Maria, or any Council member votes the way they do in order to benefit campaign contributors. They vote for what they think will best serve the Town’s interest. But CMs don’t formulate their views of the public good in a vacuum. Do those who contribute to a Council Member’s campaign help shape the CM’s views about what sort of policies best serve the town’s interest, or do donors simply contribute to candidates who they believe already share their own policy preferences?

  22. DOM

     /  January 23, 2015

    So, what this all boils down to is a major concern that our town leaders are small-minded enough to be swayed by a $300 donation…

    Wow, guys, give it a rest.

  23. many

     /  January 23, 2015

    DOM, The concern is cumulative donations at the legal limit from several individuals that represent the same interest. These donations are augmented by”soft” money often from the same interests that comes to the candidate transitively from the party, leading to “our brand of politics”.

  24. Diogenes

     /  January 24, 2015

    When a number of current and former Council members advocated and approved campaign expense subsidies, pompously entitled “voter owned elections” which were subsequently found to be unconstitutional, the argument for it was that it would reduce the impact of money in Chapel Hill political campaigns and in particular “bundling”. Sally Greene cited her own experience with several developers offering her money as a reason for needing “voter owned elections”. Where are those same voices now? Which sitting Council members have never taken contributions from Roger Perry, East West partners or any of their affiliates?

  25. Nancy

     /  January 25, 2015

    Without doing an exhaustive search, I recall that Ed Harrison and Matt Czajkowski did not receive any money from Perry, his progeny, his company or affiliates.

  26. Terri

     /  January 26, 2015

    Neither did Jim Ward who didn’t accept any financial contributions.

  27. Nancy

     /  January 26, 2015

    Ah, the same three council members who did not vote for the version of form-based code that omitted provisions for affordable housing and energy-efficient buildings.

  28. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 26, 2015

    So is DOM’s comment that one should not pay no never-mind to the effect of contributions, or that one should just get over the effect of contributions on members’ voting?

    DOM?

  29. Fred Black

     /  January 26, 2015

    Is there correlation-causation confusion?

  30. many

     /  January 26, 2015

    Think of it more as an uncomfortable correlation-causation coincidence.

  31. Diogenes

     /  January 27, 2015

    The premise of those who supported Voter Owned Elections was that money influences the outcome of elections and that Chapel Hill would not only take a step to eliminate the influence of money on local elections but also lead the way at the state and local level. No longer would the likes of Art Pope be able to influence outcomes. Four years later the argument from some in Chapel Hill seems to be that money doesn’t influence outcomes in Chapel Hill — just elsewhere. That’s quite a distance traveled in a mere four years. Perhaps the most apt term to is situational ethics!

  32. Terri

     /  January 27, 2015

    Excellent point, Diogenes.

  33. many

     /  January 27, 2015

    videri quam esse

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