Magistrate cuts cause consternation for cops

A state plan to eliminate a part-time magistrate in Highlands is being roundly condemned — and resisted — by Macon County law enforcement leaders and government officials.

Slashing the positions in the name of savings has been likened to a cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face measure. Good on paper, perhaps, if you’re sitting in Raleigh trying to make the numbers add up.

But inane if you’re among those who live in this region and drive the 10 winding mountain miles between Franklin and Highlands — a trip that costs cops and deputies an hour each time they need to charge someone with a crime.

The loss of two magistrates in Jackson County, reducing the number from five to three, is posing problems for the court system there, too, and has prompted official requests that the cash-strapped state Administrative Office of the Courts reconsider the cuts. The last time Jackson had just three magistrates, it was 1979 and the sheriff’s department had 14 employees, said Clerk of Court Ann Melton. Today, Jackson County’s sheriff’s department has 78 employees.

The magistrate situation is OK in Haywood and Swain counties for now, with Haywood standing at five magistrates and small Swain at three, Chief District Judge Richie Holt said last week.

But in light of the cuts in Jackson and Macon, Holt has been forced to reduce the amount of time magistrates in those two counties are available to book suspects, issue warrants and the like. Law enforcement is very unhappy about it, Holt said, and the public is often forced to wait for a magistrate to appear.

There is supposed to be a magistrate on duty 24 hours a day, Holt said. “With three in Jackson County, do the math — we just can’t do it. It’s not possible to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage,” he said.

Magistrates are on-call for law enforcement when they aren’t physically in their offices.

Elimination would take place in the fall of 2012. Macon County will lose another fulltime magistrate in Franklin, too, in the name of state savings, but it’s the part-time position in Highlands that’s causing the heartburn. That’s because if the elimination happens, Highlands would be left without law enforcement protection while officers make the drive down the mountain to obtain a magistrate’s services in Franklin. Or, more town officers or county deputies would need to be assigned to protect southern Macon County.

Most likely at a much higher cost than what the state is proposing to save, Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell said. The magistrate in Highlands costs the state $20,000 a year.

“In Raleigh, it looks like 15 minutes (between the towns). It’s actually a 40-minute drive,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. And that, of course, doesn’t figure in the amount of time officers and deputies spend on individual cases — that could be hours, not minutes; and in the case of mental-health patients, days and not hours.

 

What do they do?

Magistrates have legal duties in both criminal and civil cases. In many instances, a citizen’s first contact with the judicial system comes via a magistrate. The magistrate determines if, and to what extent, additional action is needed when a police officer or a citizen says that a crime has been committed. Duties include issuing arrest warrants, search warrants, subpoenas and civil warrants. Magistrates conduct bond hearings to set bail and conditions of release when someone is charged with a criminal offense, among many other duties.

Source: N.C. Magistrates Association

Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

Next spring, voters in North Carolina will voice their opinions on gay marriage when a constitutional amendment banning the practice will appear on the spring primary ballot.

The question isn’t whether gay marriage should be allowed; it’s already outlawed in the state. But the amendment would entrench the legal ban on same-sex marriage, giving it a much more unassailable legal footing by putting it in the state constitution.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he voted to put the measure to the people as both a campaign promise and a personal commitment to what he called the traditional family, not as an anti-gay tactic.

SEE ALSO: Opinion: It should not be so in America

“That’s not my intention at all. I just think that traditional marriage has been under assault for the last 30 or 40 years in our government, and I think that it’s paramount that we reestablish that in our society,” said Davis. “I think that traditional marriage is the bedrock of our society.”

The amendment got on the ballot after a three-fifths majority vote in the North Carolina House and Senate two weeks ago. In both chambers, all voting Republicans voted yes to a ballot initiative, while all voting Democrats cast no ballots.

North Carolina is the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the outcome of this vote could signal which direction the state is headed in the future, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University.

“What the outcome is going to signify to a lot of people what kind of state North Carolina is,” said Cooper. “North Carolina has always kind-of enjoyed this reputation of being a progressive state in the South. I think that signifies something in the state, we’re kind-of a purple state — we go for Obama, we aren’t for gay marriage but we don’t have a constitutional amendment against it.”

And that progressive, half-and-half reputation is about to be challenged with the spring primary ballot.

It could have bigger political implications, too, for the November election next year. Davis said the reason the initiative is on the primary ballot rather than waiting for the general election in the fall was a concession to Democrats.

Cooper says putting the issue on the primary ballot could give much more right-leaning Republicans the wins in the primary, as voter turnout for such a religiously charged social issue is expected to skew towards a more staunchly conservative demographic.

As for the amendment’s chances at success, Cooper says they look pretty good.

“I think it’s going to have a lot of support,” said Cooper. “Nationally and in North Carolina, younger people are the ones who support gay marriage, and we know that younger people are the ones who don’t often turn out to vote.”

In fact, data collected between 1994 and 2009 by Columbia University graduate students shows that, across the country, approval of same-sex marriage responds inversely to age: the older you are, the less you approve of gay marriage, and vice versa. If a vote on the issue were put to only those Americans 65 and over, no state would allow it. In the most gay-marriage-friendly state, Massachusetts, only 35 percent of seniors endorsed it.

There are 39 states that favor same-sex marriage more than North Carolina, and of the 10 behind it, most are southern states.

What the amendment’s passage would mean for North Carolinians is as yet unclear. Opponents have spoken against it for a number of reasons, calling it anti-gay and a distraction.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was incensed that the General Assembly spent its time and money in the closing days of the legislative session on what he said is an unnecessary measure.

“North Carolina already has a law banning same sex marriage and has had it for 15 years. The law has not been challenged in the courts, but if it were, and a federal court ruled against it, the statute and/or constitutional amendment would be null and void,” said Rapp, in a legislative update. “We spent $150,000 to bring legislators to Raleigh for three days to vote on one constitutional amendment that was not reviewed by one of the House Judiciary Committees, is already a law but will cost even more money to put on the ballot in next May’s primary ballot.”

Before the chambers closed for the year, the issue was hotly debated on both the House and Senate floor, and in the eight months leading to the vote, things will likely get contentious in the public.

Davis said he’s already gotten a massive deluge of calls and emails from both sides of the debate.

In a June study assessing the legal implications of a constitutional amendment, UNC School of Law professors said it would throw into question the benefits and protections same-sex couples now enjoy under non-marriage partnerships such as civil unions.

The study said the dilemma lay in language that was “problematically vague.” An amendment would dictate that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

But that’s not what’s in the law now, and not what’s ever been there before.

The law professors found that might cause problems with health insurance, end-of-life issues such as wills, along with child custody and domestic violence protections for both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples alike.

Davis said this is not the intention.

“I think that they still have legal rights at their disposal to protect them and they can have a civil union,” he said. “It’s just not called marriage.”

It should not be so in America

Editor’s note: North Carolina legislators have voted to place a proposed constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage on the ballot in the May 2012 primary (see related story). The Smoky Mountain News asked Marilyn Jody, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University and the author of a memoir dealing with her experiences as a lesbian and as a teacher, to write about her feelings on the action by legislators.


By Marilyn Jody

This week I wrote a letter to all the members of my family, telling them that once again it would be necessary for me to speak out in public. And Joanne called her children to ask if they had any reservations about being exposed, once again, as children of a lesbian mother.  

We were referring to the simple fact that we had been asked to write a response to the decision of the North Carolina legislature to place an anti-gay amendment on the ballot. Once again we were reminded what it means to live your life in fear. Would our family suffer? Would we suffer because we were speaking out against discrimination, because some people still don’t understand?

It is difficult to say to people I know and respect, people of conscience and good will, that voting to deny the civil rights of any group of people is wrong. The Constitution was written to protect those rights. Most people in this state and in this country already believe that. But when convictions about same-sex marriage, a matter of personal belief, come into conflict with belief in “liberty and justice” for all, the result is a painful conflict of conscience. We have freedom of the press; we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech; we have the right to privacy. We don’t have the right to deny others those same rights. Not in America.

SEE ALSO: Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

Same-sex orientation is not a choice, anymore than being left handed is a choice. I know that as I know I have brown eyes. But that isn’t the question. How to live within that reality is a choice that Joanne and I have had to make over and over again in our more than 70 years of life. We have chosen to live in a sacred, committed relationship, one that began more than 50 years ago.

We were married in Massachusetts three weeks after same-sex marriage first became legal in this country, a civil contract that is only symbolic, since we still have none of the rights and protections for our family that heterosexual couples have. We live with the reality that North Carolina law already excludes us from legal protections that are given to other parents and step-parents. As a mother and grandmother, Joanne continues to live with the fear that her children and their families could be hurt because of who she is, who we are.

That should not be so in America.

For most of my life, I lived in silence, in fear that my family would reject me, that my friends would desert me, that I would lose my job, even that I might be accused of criminal behavior or be physically assaulted. It was not until I taught a class on gay and lesbian literature at Western Carolina University that I was emboldened to write a book about that fear, the same one my students were still forced to endure as Joanne and I had done our whole lives.

In that book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, I wrote about the hurtful experiences my students encountered simply because they had enrolled in the class — the young man, now homeless, whose mother had rejected him when he told her he was gay, who told him she prayed to God to let him die rather than live in such sin. I wrote about the students I had known who committed suicide because they had been taught to hate themselves, taught by their families, their churches, their schools, and their government.

That should not be so in America

In writing and publishing a book about my life, I hoped to save others from some of the injury done to me and others by prejudice and misguided conviction. That is still my hope in writing this article. Given the choice, most people of faith would never choose to allow their beliefs to harm or hurt others.  

But this proposed amendment to the Constitution does do harm — to our state, to our families, to all our lives.  Same-sex marriage is already prohibited in North Carolina by state statute. What the proposed amendment does is further the political cause of a limited few and mislead fair-minded people into voting to rob ordinary people of the dignity and respect accorded to every other law-abiding citizen of this state. Millions of dollars will be spent on political ads in North Carolina over the next few months, promoting discrimination against people whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority. Many young people will be reading and listening, feeling despair, not hope for their future. This amendment will do nothing to protect our families; it can destroy them.      

I wrote a letter to my representative in Raleigh this week, thanking him for voting against placing the anti-gay amendment on the ballot. And I wrote to the Bishop of this Diocese of the Episcopal Church, the church I belong to, thanking him for signing the statement of church leaders in North Carolina opposing this effort to violate the civil rights of North Carolina citizens. I was truly grateful that I could actually speak freely to both state and church on the subject of my rights as a citizen and as a person of faith. That had not always been possible. But that could change if the ballot box is used as a weapon against a minority whose rights are at stake.

That should not be so in America.

(Dr. Marilyn Jody, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, has taught literature and writing in multiple university settings that range from Ohio, Indiana, and New York to Alaska and the People’s Republic of China. She is a speaker on gay and lesbian issues in a variety of venues, including national conferences, schools, colleges, and churches. In recent months she has done signings of her book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, at City Lights Book Store in Sylva and Malaprop’s Book Store in Asheville as fundraisers in support of equality for the LGBT community. Her partner, Joanne Cleary, is a retired teacher and coach, the mother of two children and grandmother of four. She has been an activist in support of LGBT rights both in North Carolina and New York for more than 40 years.  Marilyn and Joanne were married in Massachusetts in 2004, three weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in any state, 48 years after they first met.)

State prisons, county jails play musical chairs with inmates

Counties with jail beds to spare will soon be able to make a little cash housing state prison inmates.

Under a new program introduced by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year, minor criminals with short sentences won’t be housed in state prisons anymore. The new measure will mean more heads in local jails and, for some counties, a little more money in local funds, too.

Currently, county jails hold inmates charged with a crime and awaiting trial. Once sentenced, they are shipped off to state prison, unless their sentence is less than 90 days, in which case they serve the short time in the jail.

But starting next year, county jails could end up housing inmates with sentences up to 180 days who would have otherwise ended up in the state system. It will only apply to prisoners convicted of misdemeanors; felons will still go into the state system.

Essentially, it’s a logistical move, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. They’re the group that’s going to manage the project.

“The legislature believes that there is available capacity in the county jails, but we’ve never had a mechanism to match up the heads with the beds that are available,” said Caldwell.

The program is completely voluntary. Local sheriffs don’t have to take on the prisoners if they don’t want to.

But for those who do have extra room, they’ll get paid to house these prisoners that would have otherwise ended up in the state’s prisons. How much counties would get is not yet known, according to Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.

“The payment structure has yet to be determined, whether it’s a flat rate or something else,” said Acree. But, he said, what is certain is that on January 1, the department of corrections will get out of the business of housing misdemeanor criminals.

It’s welcome news for some counties that have new or unfilled jails where empty beds are eating up money.

“If you’ve got a county that has beds sitting vacant, there’s a certain amount of cost built into that bed anyway, so the cost putting an inmate in there is incremental,” said Caldwell. “We think that those sheriffs who have vacant beds would be glad.”

Especially if it means they can make a little money to cover their jail overhead.

Originally, state lawmakers wanted to save money by dumping the misdemeanor criminals on counties without compensating them, an idea bandied about for several years, said Caldwell. Several other states already do it.

But clearly the state’s sheriffs didn’t like the idea unless it came with money to cover the inmates room and board.

In the current scenario, the state is still projected to save a bit of money. They’re closing four small, minimum-security prisons, including the Haywood Correctional Facility, which will cut some costs.

And the state will increase court costs starting this month to cover the cost of housing prisoners.

Statewide, the changes should affect between 5,000 and 6,000 inmates, said Caldwell. It’s hard to really pin down an exact annual number of those that could land in county jails — those with sentences between 90 and 180 days with misdemeanor crimes.

On one day in March when he took a tally, there were 1,700 inmates who fit the bill, and he figures that’s about average.

In Haywood County, there were 14 inmates convicted in 2010 who match the criteria. Jackson County had four, Macon County had eight and Swain County only two for that year.

So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for smaller, rural counties.

But in Wake County, the state’s most populous, there were 296 convictions in 2010 that would have to be housed locally somewhere under the new rules. And portioning those out could be a boon to empty jails.

Eventually, Caldwell sees this program giving counties an incentive to build bigger jails than they may need, theoretically paid for by prisoners other places didn’t want.

Currently, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association is figuring out how many beds there are in facilities around the state, then contracts will be signed before the program goes into effect at the beginning of next year.

Meth lab cleanup costs sloughed onto counties

In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.

The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.

More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.

Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.

In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.

The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.

During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”

In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.

Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.

The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.

Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.

Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.

Paddling on the decline, but still alive in WNC schools

In North Carolina, it’s illegal to hit a prison inmate. You can’t hit a child in a day care center. Military officers can’t hit their subordinates. In workplaces, nursing homes, hospitals and elsewhere, hitting is forbidden. It is even illegal to hit an animal.

But in the state’s public schools, there’s no ban on hitting, because North Carolina is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment to be used in schools.

The practice, once common, has fallen out of favor, but there are still 38 school districts out of 115 in North Carolina that allow kids to be punished with the paddle.

Only 17 used it last year, and only a handful of times compared to some other states, but the option still exists for teachers and administrators who find it effective. Haywood, Macon and Swain are among those that use it. Jackson and the Eastern Band do not.

Starting this school year, however, the choice falls into the hands of parents, who will be able to opt-out of corporal punishment for their child.

A bill just passed by the N.C. General Assembly requires school districts to get parent permission for corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year, a right already given to parents of students with disabilities last year.

Before, the only parental involvement required was notification. Schools had to let parents know they’d done it, but not necessarily before, and they certainly didn’t have to ask permission.

Allison Best-Teague of Waynesville is one parent who will be taking the state up on that offer.

She doesn’t use that kind of discipline in her own house and is glad she can now have a say in what happens to him at school, too.

“I’m actually against it for the school system overall, so I’m very glad to have the option to opt out for my child,” said Best-Teague. “I really think the bigger problem is that the state is still allowing it.”

Best-Teague now runs Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, but she was once the director of KARE, a Haywood County anti-child abuse organization.

In her role there, she helped parents learn how to deal with disciplining their children. In all the methods she worked with, she never saw corporal punishment listed as an option.

The new state law is a win for groups such as Action For Children, a statewide policy group that advocates for the eradication of corporal punishment in North Carolina schools.

“It has helped that the legislature has voted on this, it has changed policies,” said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow with the group. “It means that the school district’s that are still allowing it will have to reassess their position on this.”

And in Haywood County, that’s certainly true. It has been used extremely sparingly in Haywood — only 16 times out of student population of more than 7,000 between 2008 and 2010. This past school year, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte estimates fewer than 10 instances of paddling in the county’s schools.

“It’s just not used very often and when it is, it’s by parent request,” said Nolte. None of his schools, he said, ever suggest it to parents. But they might comply if a parent asks for it.

Now, however, the new state law might lead Haywood to end corporal punishment all together for fear of sending the wrong message to parents, Nolte said. The school system would have to send permission forms to the parents of all 7,000 students, creating the false public perception that corporal punishment is commonplace, Nolte said.

Nolte said the decision will be up to individual principals. But he doubts many will choose to send that paper home.

“It’s not worth the trouble or the message to have that option available for five students,” he said.

The result will likely be a de facto end to corporal punishment in Haywood.

The issue is expected to be on the agenda at Macon and Swain County school board meetings this month, if not to look at a ban, at least to discuss the new regulations.

To what end?

In Western North Carolina, there are a number of districts that still allow corporal punishment. Haywood, Macon, Swain, Graham and Transylvania counties are still on the list, as are Burke and McDowell. Jackson County banned it in 2001, and Cherokee and Clay counties have stopped over the past three years. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians school system does not use corporal punishment, either.

Even among chronic users, however, the numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years.

Burke County, for example, paddled 325 kids in the 2008-2009 school year. The next year, it was only 93.

Macon County was much the same: 71 in 2008-2009, but just 30 the following year.

School officials and advocates such as Vitaglione chalk this up to increased awareness and changing times.

“I really think it’s probably a form of discipline that has aged out,” said Nolte. “It’s probably timed out in terms of its broad scope effectiveness.”

Dan Brigman, Macon County’s superintendent, concurs.

“Based on historical data, that’s what I’m seeing,” said Brigman. “I think corporal punishment is effective somewhat on a few students, but in most instances it’s a temporary disciplinary measure and if it impacts long term behavior, that’s a question.”

And that view is essentially a watered-down version of what groups such as Action For Children have long been saying.

“Over the last two decades, study after study has come out regarding school discipline, and none have found that corporal punishment is effective, and by that we mean in ongoing student behavior,” said Vitaglione. “Whatever indicator you use, there’s no correlation in using corporal punishment and improving any of those other outcomes that you’d like in schools.”

And the literature seems to back up that outlook.

Studies in places such as Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of School Psychology have noted little if any long-term changes in how students act because of paddling.

The debate over corporal punishment, though, is unlike other contentious issues in one notable way: it’s pretty difficult to find a strong advocate on the other side of the ideological divide.

There are plenty who have taken the findings as ammunition for their vocal campaigns against the practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a position against it. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch teamed up in 2009 on a study and subsequent campaign that decried the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. Urban clothing pioneer Marc Ecko has launched a crusade called Unlimited Justice, a play on his Ecko Unlimited label, that seeks to ban physical punishment in all 50 states. There are numerous regional and local groups who have set up opposition.

But on the other side, it seems that there are only a few school administrators who will make a defense for it, and even then it’s half-hearted and with some pretty strong caveats.

“It works on some occasions, on other occasions, that’s not the answer for it,” said Bob Marr, Swain County superintendent.

It could be, as Nolte said, that the practice is just trending out, fading in deference to a more modern perspective.

The touchy legal ramifications probably don’t hurt, though.

While North Carolina hasn’t really faced court challenges over corporal punishment, it is also pretty low in the numbers rankings.

Take Mississippi. In 2009-2010, Action For Children estimates there were 38,000 instances of corporal punishment in that state’s schools. Fellow Southern states Arkansas, Texas and Alabama were similarly inclined, their numbers reaching into the tens of thousands. In comparison, North Carolina’s approximately 700 instances are hardly in the same league.

In Mississippi, however, three suits were brought against school systems for corporal punishment in 2010.

One, a gender discrimination suit brought by a male high schooler, is still working its way through the courts. Two others were money damages suits brought against a single district. The students in those cases were 11 and 6.

In Tennessee, a high school basketball player brought a case against his coaches for what the player said was excessive use of paddling. He lost on appeal, as the court said the action was disciplinary.

That sticking point is one of the key objections of anti-corporal punishment activists.

In North Carolina, teachers and administrators are immune from any prosecution over practicing physical discipline unless the child needs medical attention.

Even then, said Vitaglione, he’s not encountered a parent willing to prosecute.

“There have been a few instances where we’ve heard of a child being injured, but we have not had a family who was willing to participate in filing a suit,” said Vitaglione. “In part they feel intimidated, in part they feel guilty on their own. We, frankly, are loathe to get into that as well. We would prefer that the decision be made in the school board room or in the legislature.”

The legislature, however, is unlikely to enact an outright ban anytime soon. Bills with such proposals were defeated in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This most recent bill leaves the choice in local and parental hands, and both lobbyists and legislators anticipate that it will stay that way.

“Probably not,” was Rep. Ray Rapp’s, D-Mars Hill, answer, when asked if he saw a blanket ban coming anytime soon, although Rapp himself does not support corporal punishment. “I would say that most legislators may have strong feelings one way or the other on it, but they’re content to leave it to local jurisdictions.”

Action For Children says they’ll take what they can get, but statewide elimination is really what they’re pushing for.

One of the main reasons is oversight. There really isn’t any. The state has hitherto not required any reporting of corporal punishment statistics, nor have they handed down any guidelines on how, when or why the discipline can be meted out.

In Haywood County, it’s a principals-only policy. In other school districts, teachers, teacher’s assistants and even substitute teachers are allowed.

Without more careful oversight, say advocacy groups, some sections of the student population may be getting a disproportionate share of the corporal punishment.

Nationally, that ACLU-Human Rights Watch study found this to be the case for students with disabilities. They found those students twice as likely to be hit than the general student body.

Rapp believes that’s partly why it’s on the decline, and why lawmakers were spurred to action on the issue over the last few years.

“Without the strictest supervision and care, you can easily find yourself in court,” said Rapp.

In North Carolina, the districts that allow spanking and paddling are quickly dwindling. Gaston County eliminated it a few months ago. Vitaglione expects Greene County to follow suit at their school board meeting next week. The issue came up at Monday’s Swain County School Board meeting, where the board decided to send the forms to parents this year and revisit the question later.

Macon County’s school board is scheduled to discuss it later this month, if not to consider a ban, at least to look at new regulations.

Nationwide, the trend is also towards extinction for the disciplinary tactic. Most major urban areas have long since outlawed it — New York City schools have had a policy against it since the 19th century.

States that still allow it are mostly in the South, with a few dotted around the rural west.

Internationally, the United States is alone among developed nations in still allowing it in schools. Many developing nations — Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Malawi, Namibia and many others — also forbid it.

Though a nationwide ban seems as unlikely as a state proscription, it’s more plausible that de facto bans will become more widespread, as legislation like North Carolina’s recent bill become more commonplace.

Locally, school administrators say most parents think it has already long been phased out anyway.

“I do think the new law probably makes it impractical to even have as an option,” said Haywood’s Bill Nolte. “Do you want to sent home 7,000 sheets of paper for something you may or may not even do? What’s the practicality in that?”

By air, by land and by water: General Assembly rolls back environmental protections

Back in January, a group of environmental advocates gathered for after-work beers at Craggie Brewery in Asheville where they heard a sobering message from one of their green-minded compatriots. In just a couple weeks, new leadership would take the reins of state government in Raleigh, and things probably weren’t going to be pretty on the environmental front.

“That has certainly been born out in spades,” said Julie Mayfield, who was the invited speaker that week at Asheville Green Drinks, a standing meeting for those in the environmental community.

While they were bracing for less-than-friendly legislation from the new Republicans majority, Dan Crawford, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said they were “shocked with what we got.”

SEE ALSO: Loss of regulators means fewer inspections, say environmentalists

“To see the environmental assault that took place this session was quite surprising,” Crawford said. “It is like a game of whack a mole — there are all these new laws popping up that we’ve been trying to fight. I call this the 87-day war on the environment.”

Keeping up with the so-called assault was more than a one-person job. Close to 2,000 bills were introduced this session, and the League of Conservation Voters flagged about 200 to watch. Crawford’s group pays for a bill tracking service to keep on top of what’s being introduced or amended.

But that wasn’t what made this year one of the worst in history for environmental lobbyists.

“It was very hard to get the ear of our legislators on anything related to the environment,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. “There was very little interest from the leadership or bill sponsors to hear concerns from counter viewpoints.”

When the writing was on the wall and there was no hope of stopping a bill, they at least tried to lessen its blow.

“It is better to drink the poison that makes you sick than the poison that kills you,” Crawford said. “There were many times in the session that we went down fighting.”

What environmentalists have dubbed rollbacks, however, others consider needed reform. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said environmental regulations in the state have run amok, and it is time to reassess many of them.

“For myself and my kids and my grandkids, I want clean water and I want clean air as much as the next person. But regulation, in my opinion, some of it is onerous and in some cases it is counter-productive,” Davis said.

The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has overturned a host of environmental policies. Some bills are a direct answer to request from industry, like a repeal of the state’s toxic emission standards specifically sought by Evergreen paper mill in Canton. There’s even the vaguely worded “Act to amend certain environmental laws,” a catch all where legislators seemingly inserted fixes to address pet peeves of constituents — from increasing the size of dams that need a state permit to lifting the ban on incinerating plastic bottles.

Meanwhile, new rules are being blocked from going on the books. Bills in the General Assembly have barred any new environmental rules that are more stringent than federal limits. And environmental agencies can no longer set their own policies.

“The more regulations we have means more regulators and the more hoops we have to jump through, so I think it is time to take a breather and sit back and examine them,” Davis said.

Sometimes, environmental rules bear an uncanny resemblance to a make-work program for regulators. Davis pointed to emission limits for arsenic imposed on Jackson Paper. As soon as one target was met, regulators raised the bar.

“It ensures their job for one thing. If all these goals are met, then we have to find another goal to impose on people,” Davis said. “Frankly, we have a lot of business in the United States that just says The heck with this. I am moving to Malaysia or Mexico or China where we don’t have to deal with these issues.’”

But Gary Wein, executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, doesn’t want to see the state move backwards in its environmental protections.

It may make it easier for industry to operate, but society will bear the cost in the long run, said Wein.

“We are still cleaning up messes from 50 to 60 years ago when there were no environmental regulations,” Wein said.

On the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, a scenic beauty and a healthy environment is vital not just to tourist but a healthy second-home economy, said Michelle Price, director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.

“I think a lot of folks come to North Carolina because of the environment,” said Price. “If we are not protecting our environment, they will go somewhere else.”

George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant in Haywood County, said the environment is actually valued by companies.

“When businesses are looking to relocate, they are looking for places with high quality of life and the environment is part of it,” Ivey said.

Crawford said he doesn’t know how long it might take to undo the anti-environmental policies promulgated this session. If a new legislature takes over next election, it’s doubtful they would burn precious political capital restoring environmental policies.

“The environment is not the only area that has been attacked by this General Assembly. There are plenty of other things that have to go into the fix bag,” Crawford said.

The environmental community is pinning modest hopes on a governor’s veto, but was selective in which bills it is looking for help with.

“It would be unrealistic to ask her to veto everything. We are one interest group of many and she has her hands full,” Crawford said.

Read on for a snapshot of a few of the budget cuts and bills that environmental advocates are fretting over.

 

Senate Bill 781

This is environmentalists’ public enemy No. 1. Environmental agencies would lose their ability to enforce regulations and adopt rules, instead placing that power with the General Assembly and falling back on federal standards.

“The regulatory authority of our state agencies is under assault by this bill,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The General Assembly would have to sign off on anything that resembles an environmental standard, from designating trout streams to determining emissions standards for factories.

“It really handcuffs the ability of agencies to do their job,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The Wildlife Commission couldn’t even adjust innocuous hunting laws, like setting a new opening day for squirrel season, since it classifies as a “rule making” by an environmental agency. Bean said the General Assembly probably doesn’t realize exactly what they’ve bitten off.

“There would be a bottleneck initially and they will have to undo some of this because it will be so unworkable,” Bean said. “Program by program, they are going to have to have broader authority reinstated.”

The bill, which passed both chambers, is billed as “regulatory reform.”


Backseat to federal standards

An environmental provision in the budget forbids new environmental rules that are stronger than federal minimum standards. North Carolina has several environmental laws that go beyond the bare minimum required at the federal level.

“Here in the west, trout buffers, the Clean Smokes Stack Act and the Ridge Law have made an extraordinary difference in our environment,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the WNC Alliance. “If the philosophy is, we should only protect the environment to the extent the federal government tells us we should, we wouldn’t have any of those things.”


Catch-all regulation rewrite

House Bill 119, a loosely titled act to “amend certain environmental and natural resource laws” is chock full of technical rule changes that provide loopholes and exemptions from environmental permits. One of the many changes in the bill would allow even larger dams to be built without a permit, doubling the threshold for how big it must be before triggering state oversight.

In Jackson County, when an earthen dam on the golf course of Balsam Mountain Preserve collapsed three years ago, it sent a torrent of muddy water downstream, wiping out the aquatic ecosystem and filling the water with sediment for miles downstream. That dam was barely large enough to need a state permit, but even at its size wrought major environmental damage when it collapsed due to faulty design.


Loss of conservation funding

Less money for conservation this year means special tracts of lands won’t get protected but instead will be sold for development.

“We have interested land owners with high-quality, high-priority lands, but the grant money is not there to protect those assets so they remain at risk of development, losing the potential to be a source of fresh food, fresh water, food production, scenic views, flood protection, all of those values, even tourism,” said George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant and grant writer in Haywood County.

Land trusts rely on state trust funds to help with the cost of preserving special places. But this year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — the primary source of money for land conservation in the mountains — has been cut from to $11.5 million from last year’s amount of $50 million, and a precipitous drop from historic levels of $100 million up until two years ago.

“It really has been a bumpy ride for Clean Water (trust fund),” said Gary Wein, executive director for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Wein was working with a landowner in Jackson in hopes of protecting a tract of several hundred acres, but the loss of incentive funds will likely sideline the effort.

Another project to improve trout habitat in the Cullasaja River will be stopped in its tracks as well. A two-part plan was hatched to cool down the water, which was unnaturally warm and unable to support trout.

A channel flowing through the Cullasaja golf course would be redesigned from its shallow, slow-moving course to a deeper swifter one. And, the flow coming off a reservoir would be altered so the river runs out of the bottom of the pond where the water temperature is cooler instead of flowing off the top.

Other pots have been reduced too, like the Farmland preservation Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

New town of Fontana Dam springs up in the middle of nowhere

It doesn’t take long to survey North Carolina’s newest town; perhaps five minutes, tops.

There’s the swanky Fontana Village Resort, the community’s sole employer. Just down the road are an ice cream shop, laundromat, post office and gasoline station. There’s a combined general store and outfitter where tourists can purchase their T-shirts, ballcaps, refrigerator magnets, beer and that Smokies gift-shop standard, the iconic black-bear figurine.

That’s pretty much it.

Fontana Dam, despite officially encompassing 250 acres, isn’t even a one-stoplight town — it’s actually a town of stop signs, a blip of urbanity within a huge swath of federally held forestlands.

The General Assembly earlier this month agreed Fontana Dam could incorporate.

This is a company town in every sense of the word. It existed initially to accommodate the workers and their families who helped build Fontana Dam during World War II; and later, to serve Fontana Village Resort and the 100,000 visitors who make their way each year to this remote spot.

“We are a half an hour from any other group of people,” said Theresa Broderick, breaking briefly from greeting and checking in new arrivals at the front desk of Fontana Village Resort to chat. “If you don’t like your neighbors, you’re in trouble.”

During the warm months, about 140 people work at Fontana Village Resort. Come winter, however, the staff drops to a core 45 or so. Officially, just 33 fulltime residents call the new town of Fontana Dam home, including Broderick.

 

The nuts and bolts of incorporation

It took community unity and a concerted push to get the incorporation approved by the General Assembly. That vote followed literally years of efforts, said Mack Tallent, a lawyer in nearby Robbinsville who has been handling the town’s legal matters.

Tallent believes Fontana Dam’s unusual circumstances — being on federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lands — gave legislators pause.

Unusual it might be, but the situation is not unheard of: Tallent pointed out that there are military bases in the eastern part of North Carolina where municipalities can be found, like Fontana Dam, situated on federal-land holdings.

Craig Litz, one of the town’s newly appointed interim council members, said the option for Fontana Dam to be a township was contained in original land leases with TVA. It just took this many years to actually make that happen.

This is not about opening the door to selling legalized alcoholic beverages, Litz emphasized. People can already buy beer and such through Fontana Village Resort, if they want to, though Graham County itself is dry.

Fontana Village Resort has supported the incorporation efforts, including offering the use of its events hall both for town council meetings and an election polling site in the fall.

The attorney said that sometime this week, Fontana Dam would have its first town council meeting. The interim board will be sworn in, a town clerk hired and an attorney officially appointed  — probably Tallent, though he was careful to emphasize the town can hire anyone it pleases. His firm, McKinney & Tallent, already represents Graham County’s other two municipalities, bringing a certain level of municipal legal expertise difficult to find elsewhere in a county of fewer than 8,000 people.

It’s fun, the 44-year-old attorney openly acknowledged, to help create a town from scratch. After all, how many people ever experience such a thing?

Though, interestingly, Graham County had another town form within the past couple decades.

Robbinsville was incorporated in 1893. It was joined by the Town of Santeetlah, which incorporated in early 1989 after a developer more or less abandoned the infrastructure of what was then called Thunderbird Mountain.

State grants and assessments on the properties allowed Santeetlah to build a water system; roads were also repaved. A volunteer fire department and community center were built, and a decade later, in 1998, a town hall in Santeetlah was dedicated.

Fontana Dam hopes to follow suit. In November, the new town will hold its first election. But Fontana Dam “needs to be up and running” by then, Attorney Tallent said.

That means creating a budget from scratch. And it means sorting out what Fontana Dam will get in tax payments from Fontana Village Resort. That’s just one of the many issues facing this new town, Tallent said.

 

Why incorporate?

Interim Mayor Tammie Dees had just come off working the third shift at Fontana Village Resort. She was clearly tired, but still excited to be talking to a reporter about her new town.

Dees’ accent tags her as having growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Turned out she was raised not too far away, on Cochrans Creek in Graham County. As a child, Dees and her family used to travel over to Fontana Dam to see movies. There was a theater in the community in those days.

She takes her new duties seriously.

Residents of the community, Dees said, “have put faith in me to try to get the town off the ground.” She isn’t sure whether she’ll actually run for election in November, but Dees clearly plans to put her heart and energies into Fontana Dam until then, regardless of future political decisions.

Dees said Fontana Dam plans to hire a town manager and clerk; long-term, residents want municipal fire and rescue services and police. Town residents also want Fontana Dam to oversee municipal infrastructure that’s already in place: a sewage and wastewater plant, disposal system, a water treatment plant, solid waste pick up and disposal, paved roads and electrical systems.

That is actually more than many small towns in WNC can offer. Dillsboro has a part-time employee — Webster, none.

Being officially incorporated should allow Fontana Dam to tap state funding these other municipalities take for granted.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Dees said. “We’ve been operating as a town since the 1940s — I think it is about time.”

New database puts criminal files at law enforcement fingertips

Law enforcement officers and court officials are being trained on how to use a new $17 million state database that pulls together everything known about a criminal to the screen of a laptop.

Officers using the system will know who and what they are dealing with upon arrival at a traffic stop or crime scene. State Controller David McCoy said during a training session in Franklin last week that he is certain the Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS, for short), will save lives.

Officers and court officials from Jackson, Macon and Swain were at the Franklin training. Similar teaching efforts are under way across the state.

In addition to integrating data, the new system provides an “offender watch” to alert officers and others who might need to know when there is a change in status. For instance, when a warrant is issued on an offender, or if a particular suspect is due in court, officers can receive email alerts.

The database is massive: 41 million files on 13.8 million offenders in North Carolina.

Previously, officers and court officials were forced to search up to seven different systems for the same information, McCoy said. Now, files including the state’s Administrative Office of Courts, the Department of Corrections and sex-offender registry have been merged.

Privacy issues have been considered, and were at the forefront of the database design, the state controller said. Public records on regular Joes and Janes in North Carolina have not been co-mingled with that of criminal offenders.

“And even for bad actors we don’t want to violate anyone’s rights,” McCoy said.

Sondra Phillips, who works in the data integration section of the state controller office, emphasized the system was built using on-the-job suggestions by officers and court personnel. Warnings on an offender come up immediately to help protect those working in the state’s law enforcement field, she said.

Federal agencies also are gaining access, she said, including the FBI, immigration officers and the U.S. Marshals Service. For its part, by June of next year, Phillips said North Carolina hopes to jump through the necessary security hoops to bring national alerts into the state system — such as missing people and wanted suspects.

The Office of the State Controller was selected to rollout the project after building and launching a $100 million payroll system for North Carolina.

The new criminal database will cost taxpayers $8 million a year to maintain.

State budget showdown: Perdue vetoes budget, but GOP poised to override it

Governor Beverly Perdue nixed the $19.7 billion state budget put on her desk by the General Assembly Sunday, winning herself a place in state history.

She is the first governor to veto a budget since veto powers were granted in 1997, and she told lawmakers that education was the impetus for her action.

“For the first time, we have a legislature that is turning its back on our schools, our children, our longstanding investments in education and our future economic prospects,” said Perdue in a statement and speech last Sunday.

Perdue’s veto is unlikely to hold, however. The GOP is expressing confidence that it has the votes necessary to override her historic thumbs down. Five House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the budget, enough to override the veto if they continue bucking their party. Republicans have a tight enough grasp of the Senate not to need Democrat help for an override vote in that chamber.

Perdue posited that the budget as-is would cause “generational damage” by cutting funds to K-12 schools, preschool programs More at Four and Smart Start and elderly care.

It takes a super-majority of 60 percent to override the Governor’s veto.

In the House, that means 72 votes. There are 68 Republicans in the House — four short of what’s needed to buck the Governor’s veto. But five Democrats had previously sided with Republicans in voting for the budget, and Representative Phil Haire, D-Sylva, doesn’t think those five Democrats can be persuaded to come back to their own party.

“Some of them were promised something in the budget,” Haire said.

Haire personally voted against the budget proffered by Republican leadership.

“I think it is going to have a devastating effect on North Carolina, and it will takes us years to regain the status where we are now,” said Haire.

In the Senate, there are 31 Republicans compared to 19 Democrats, one more than needed to meet the super majority criteria.

The Governor and Democrats in the legislature are pushing to keep a 1-cent sales tax that Republicans want to eliminate. Keeping the extra sales tax, say Perdue and other Democrats, could raise $900,000 to fill the more than $2 billion funding gap facing the state.

Haire doubts Republicans will capitulate on their position on the sales tax.

“Not no, but heck no. If they do that they renege on their whole campaign promise,” Haire said.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said keeping the sales tax, billed as a “temporary measure” when it was put in place two years ago, is non-negotiable.

“It expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it. If the legislature wanted to have a penny sales tax, they’d have to introduce a bill and vote on it, and that’s just not going to happen,” said Davis.

With Republicans unwilling to compromise on the sales tax, Perdue’s veto, if it stood, would accomplish little but a prolonged stalemate.

“The first of July you get to a shut down if you don’t have a budget,” Haire said.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.