A new $12 million entrance road for Southwestern Community College got preference over other road projects in the region in recent years, partly thanks to support from the right friends in the right places.
Conrad Burrell, the chairman of the SCC board of trustees, advocated for the road not merely as a representative of the college, but also from inside the N.C. Department of Transportation. For more than a decade, Burrell has simultaneously served on the SCC board and as this region’s representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, which holds sway over what roads get built.
Burrell holds one of 14 coveted seats on the state DOT board. His position allowed him to steer what road construction in a 10-county area from Haywood west.
Burrell three times voted to give the road funding during state DOT board meetings. The road has received $680,000 since 2007 for planning and design. Construction is slated to start the second half of next year.
Burrell’s support of the project did not legally constitute a conflict of interest, however. Under state law, a conflict of interest exists only when a public official or their immediate family member stands to benefit financially. In this case, Burrell is not paid to serve on the SCC board, nor does he gain financially from the new road.
At every DOT board meeting, board members sign a statement that reads: “I do not have any financial, professional or other economic interests in any of the projects being presented on the Board of Transportation meeting agenda.”
In an ethics training workshop for DOT board members in February, Burrell said he specifically asked about this issue.
“From the legal standpoint there is not a conflict and I am not benefiting from anything,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he began to wonder about it after the SCC board recently named a new building in his honor. The new entrance road will lead past the doorstep of the $8 million building bearing Burrell’s name.
Norma Houston, a public law expert with the UNC School of Government, led the ethics workshop.
“I remember him being very concerned about whether it was a conflict of interest,” Houston said, adding she was impressed that he asked.
“Did he somehow use his position of office as a DOT board member to help secure funding for the new road that would benefit the college?” Houston said. “Under the state ethic act, that is not a violation because there is no personal gain.”
The most he may have gained was his name on a building, which he may have gotten anyway. At a recent groundbreaking for the building, fellow college trustees praised Burrell for his contributions to the college, specifically citing his role in securing a new entrance road for the campus.
Houston said those in public positions still have to be concerned about the appearance of conflict, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition.
“The question I always pose back is when the law doesn’t clearly say ‘no’ and you are left with the question ‘should you still do it?’” Houston said.
That’s when Houston recommends a little soul searching.
“Would he still have advocated for this project, would it be good for the community and good for the college, even if he didn’t serve on the board? That helps frame the individual’s thoughts on the ethics side of the discussion,” Houston said.
In this case, Burrell says he would. The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus.
“Even if I hadn’t been on the college board, I think this is absolutely a safety issue,” Burrell said.
Jack Debnam, the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, has questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important compared to other road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials last week to share his concerns and learn more about the new road.
“I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room,” Debnam recounted. “I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Burrell has served on the DOT board for 10 years. His current term expired in January. He is willing to be reappointed for another term, he said, but the governor has not yet taken action.
Making the grade
DOT board members used to have great leeway in deciding what roads got built in their respective geographic areas. In fact, that was the primary role of the DOT board.
“We relied on them to tell us what was important in the division,” said Van Argabright, the western manager for the transportation planning. “The priorities were in their head, so to speak.”
In 2007, the state moved toward a more formal and objective method of ranking road construction. Projects are now graded on a point system. Local leaders are asked for input, which in turn earns points for a project.
“But back then you didn’t have a way to score,” Argabright said. Thus the power lay almost entirely with the DOT board members.
The SCC interchange landed on the state’s priority list in 2007, just before the new system was implemented. So there was nothing unusual about Burrell, being the region’s DOT board member, asking for a project to be funded even if he had a personal interest in it.
Argabright said the SCC entrance road seems like a valid priority.
“It certainly seems to me trying to help a community college is a pretty good thing,” Argabright said.
The new SCC entrance road isn’t the only project DOT has pursued in recent years that benefits the community college. A new road that leads past SCC’s Macon County campus is currently under construction. The existing road to reach the SCC campus in Macon is a narrow, dead-end, two-lane road. It will be widened and straightened, providing a better caliber road, and extended to tie into U.S. 441 so it is no longer a dead-end, a project carrying a price tag of least $13 million.
Both were on a short list of priority road projects that local DOT leaders tried to protect from state budget cuts.
Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county DOT division based in Sylva, advocated to keep the SCC road projects on track despite others being delayed in the face of state budget cuts.
In April 2009, after reviewing a revised timetable for road construction, Setzer wrote in an email to a state engineer: “There are 39 projects with the schedules being delayed …. Of the 39, we see seven projects that the original schedule should be maintained.”
The new entrance to SCC’s Jackson campus and the improved road to SCC’s Macon campus were among the seven.
In another email a few days later, Setzer asked road engineers if they could get the roads designed in time should the money materialize as hoped.
“These two projects are being evaluated for schedule due to funding shortages. These are high priorities for Division 14. Division 14 is evaluating options for keeping these projects on schedule and delaying others. I need to know if the funding is made available, can you deliver these projects,” Setzer wrote. “Please let me know as soon as you can. I do not want to trade another project’s schedule for these and then not let them on time.”
Setzer said that the roads were not given preferential treatment per se. Given the funding constraint, the DOT was forced to choose which projects to keep on track and which to delay— but that doesn’t mean the SCC roads moved ahead of others in line.
“There is a difference between accelerating schedules versus maintaining schedules,” Setzer said.
Debnam questioned whether the roads were the best use of limited road building money.
“That’s $30 million of our division’s money that has gone into two glorified driveways,” Debnam said in an interview.
Debnam shared his disdain for what he claimed was preferential treatment for the SCC roads during a county commissioner meeting Monday. He even came prepared with a blown up map of the project.
Before Debnam could get started, Commissioner Joe Cowan stepped in.
“This report is not on the agenda,” Cowan protested. “If we are going to have this we need to have someone from DOT to tell the other side of the story and I object.”
“Well, they can come next time,” Debnam said.
Debnam told the audience at the commissioners meeting that they should all wonder about “the real purpose of this road.”
“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said.
“I don’t think anybody can become an authority on DOT projects after becoming a commissioner for only five months,” Cowan said after Debnam’s presentation.
Ryan Sherby, a liaison to the DOT for the six-county Rural Planning Organization, said the process for road building is complicated. There may well be “more pressing transportation needs” than the new SCC entrance, he said. But some projects are more complicated to design, cost a lot more money or have right-of-way hang-ups.
“This one may not be the best project in Jackson County that could have been pursued, but this is a doable project,” Sherby said.