Common sense loses to ideology in House budget proposal

North Carolina is facing a budget crisis. I get that. What I don’t get is the proposed slashing of so many worthwhile programs when a relatively simple answer – not a panacea, mind you, but a stopgap way to provide salve to some of the bloodletting – is available.

What I see is ideology running roughshod over smart governance. Sorry, but that’s the truth about the current House budget proposal.

I’ll tell you why objectivity is impossible for me. This budget slashes programs that are very important. As Rep. Ray Rapp said, we’re “eating our feedcorn” with the current House prospoal.

My wife’s a teacher. I know how hard she works all day and then for a couple of hours amost every night, and all I hear is constant criticism about public education. I also know my own children have received pretty good schooling in those public schools.

Back in the day, I was able to attend college without having to rely totally on loans partly because of grants that provided aid to those from disadvantaged households. Among the cuts proposed by House leaders is a reduction in the amount the UNC system needs to meet the needs of students who can’t afford college. This comes after tuition at our public universities has risen nearly 200 percent in the past decade.

Children who are entering school and are at risk will be told to go find help elsewhere because it won’t be funded in this year’s budget. And the teachers in second and third grades won’t have assistants to help. According to one news report, the House budget on public educaiton would place North Carolina 46th in the nation in per pupil spending. Ridiculous.

Community colleges will get a 10 percent cut and the university system a 15 percent cut. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources works every day to protect the state’s land, water and air resources. It would lose hundreds of jobs. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, “GOP leaders have long felt that DENR has given business too hard a time with permitting, and that it’s full of liberal tree-huggers. Those tree-huggers have fought for decades … to protect our natural wonders that are valued not just by residents buy by the millions of tourists who have spent tens of millions of dollars on Tar Heel soil through the decades.”

And there’s much more that anyone who can read the newspaper or do a Google search will easily find. I agree that in this business climate the state needs to reduce spending. But if we keep the state’s current sales tax rate intact – which most won’t even notice — and don’t reduce it by the penny the House GOP leadership is advocating, then we cut the budget shortfall nearly in half, from somewhere near $2 billion down to $1 billion. With it we save jobs, protect education and the environment, and still make big cuts in spending.

But the anti-tax ideology is trumping common sense. Shameful.

Justice will be painful, but so was Aubrey’s short life

The Jan. 10 death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn was an unspeakable tragedy, one compounded by the questions surrounding both the cause of death and the potential cover-up by employees of the Swain County Department of Social Services.

At this time, two needs are paramount: a speedy and thorough investigation by the SBI and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office; and just as important, an unwavering commitment to seek the truth — however ugly that might ultimately be — among Swain and Cherokee leaders trying to sort through familial and personal allegiances during the investigation of what could be a very serious crime.

Aubrey’s short life was beset by problems from the beginning. Her single mother, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is in jail awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge. The mom left her infant to live with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, when the baby was just months old. Both law enforcement and Department of Social Services had been called to Powell’s home several times prior to the winter night in January when Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee hospital cold and lifeless.

Swain law enforcement authorities investigating Aubrey’s death became suspicious not just of the cause of death but also of the activities of Swain DSS. It took DSS five weeks to turn over their case files on Aubrey to law enforcement. According to warrants, a DSS worker admitted falsifying reports in order to cover up the agency’s missteps in looking into Aubrey’s death. How high up the DSS chain of command the possible cover up goes is what the SBI and Swain law enforcement authorities are still looking into after seizing DSS files and computers.

There won’t be any winners as this case proceeds. Powell may be guilty of neglect or abuse in the child’s death, and DSS employees may also be guilty of crimes. Families and friends in Swain and Cherokee are lining up on opposing sides. County commissioners in Swain have asked for the resignation of DSS board members, and three of them have quit and done so while criticizing commissioners. The five DSS workers named in the criminal investigation have been banned by Cherokee from working on cases involving children on the Qualla Boundary.

Justice, when it comes, will be painful — but less so than the short life of young Aubrey. The one ray of hope, in the end, is that what will emerge from this unnecessary tragedy are lessons that might save the life of the next innocent child placed in a similar situation.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Make open government a part of constitution

In this country, the people own the government. It’s ours. End of debate.

That’s something we can all be thankful for. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly is attempting to enshrine this simple fact in the state constitution. We would encourage readers to write, call or email your lawmakers asking them to support it (Sen. Ralph Hise, who represents part of Haywood County, is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill).

The legislation – House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 67 – would put an amendment to the state constitution on the 2012 ballot for voter approval. The wording is yet to be finalized, but in essence it would make access to government records and meetings a right under the North Carolina Constitution.

The need for the amendment is something those of us in the press probably appreciate more than most. Every few days we get stonewalled by some public official when requesting documents that are a matter of public record. Sometimes there is a legitimate question of what is a public record and what isn’t, but other times it’s just a petty display of power by someone who holds access to the information.

Worse, every year new bills are introduced in the General Assembly that, taken en masse, would seriously compromise the ideal of open government that is a cornerstone of our republic.

“Every year we see it, whether it’s another attempt to erode access to 911 tapes, or to protect conversation between public sector lawyers and their clients about stuff that neither should be able to hide,” said John Bussian, the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association.

The Republican leadership in the General Assembly is supporting the constitutional amendment. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston representative, is a co-sponsor of the House bill.

“We need to do this so that open government truly is a right rather than a privilege,” LaRoque told The Raleigh News and Observer.

The primary opponents of the bill are lobbyists for local governments, school boards and sheriff departments. They oppose a provision that would require a two-thirds majority for any exceptions to the open records and meetings law. However, we believe that any necessary national security or other important exception would easily garner enough support to garner a super majority. And in fact, we think it’s critical that any exception that blocks access to open records be able to win the support of two-thirds of members of the General Assembly.

The timing of this debate couldn’t be better. This week, March 13-19, is Sunshine Week. A coalition of groups from around the country is encouraging government at all levels to maintain openness. This amendment would add a new gravitas to the sanctity of open government in North Carolina, and we hope it shows up on the ballot for a vote of the people.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

What happened to all the big, sweeping ideas?

Growing up, I knew America was the country of grand ideas carried out from the moral high ground. We could put a man on the moon, we could end institutionalized racism, fight a war on poverty and try to wipe out air and water pollution. It was part of our national identity.

Those days are gone. Those sweeping programs and ideas that galvanized almost the entire country just aren’t around today. Banality and boorishness rule in the current state of politics, and problems fester for decades.

This realization hit me after I received an email from Brent Martin. Brent is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, and he’s based in Sylva. We published an article in last week’s edition by Martin that called attention to the Weeks Act, federal legislation approved 100 years ago on March 1 that authorized the creation of the our national forests (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3359-nantahala-pisgah-national-forest-turns-100).

Here’s an excerpt from that article: “... But drive or walk anywhere in the Western North Carolina region and you will likely see beautiful forested mountains. I think we will have these for years to come, and this is due to the vision of many who came before us over one hundred years ago. This gives me hope.”

Virgin forests from Maine to Alabama had been cut over by 1911, leaving a swath of environmental and cultural destruction unknown in America to that point. The purchase of these devastated lands from timber companies was a sort of first step in land development regulations, a way to make use of the country’s resources while adding a new layer of federal protection through ownership.

I haven’t done the research, but can only assume the Weeks Act did not pass without some squabbling about the government takeover of private property rights (amazing how some things never change).

Can we ever do something like the Weeks Act again, find the political will to do something so big and so good?

I had this same kind of sinking feeling about our national spirit a little while after attending space camp with my son when he was in the fifth grade. We spent two days in Huntsville, Ala., learning all about U.S. space exploration from the Mercury missions up through the shuttle. And we heard talk about a manned Mars mission NASA was planning, and we left intrigued and inspired, and I saw the wonder of a 10-year-old thinking about space and planetary travel.

Over the ensuing years, though, we read how the idea was scrapped and how there just wasn’t enough money. A big, sweeping idea finds itself on the scrap heap.

One of my good friends, a bright guy who always thinks out of the box, says our country’s great opportunity in this century is with energy. Spend every penny on cutting our dependence on oil, figuring out the most efficient renewable sources while making energy reduction — mass transit, better cars, better light bulbs, etc. — the number one national priority.

If we could turn that corner on energy, we could save those same forests Martin wrote about while also leading the way through this century that is certainly going to create unimaginable challenges for industrialized countries.

Anyone think we will be the country to lead the way? Can we get going before Brazil and China leave us in the dust? Right now we’re taking baby steps while letting crazy despots ruling oil-rich Arabian kingdoms determine the fate of our economy.

I’m an optimist at heart, always will be. Can’t help it. So maybe the reality is that every generation doesn’t get the opportunity to think big. Maybe that post-World War II generation or two learned lessons that helped them change society. Maybe we haven’t learned those lessons, or perhaps we’re just bogged down in the fast-changing, overwhelming information age that leaves too much to comprehend.

Our challenge? Perhaps it’s the more mundane task of picking our way through a minefield of seemingly trivial stuff, setting the stage for a big show for our kids. We have to figure out how to keep our government from going bankrupt (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare). We have re-draw the lines defining the proper reach of government (taxes, regulations, unions) in a free and democratic society. We have to determine how much influence the largest corporations the world has ever known will have over governments and personal lives.

Perhaps working through these issues will re-shape a new identity that will define America in the coming century. The optimist in me is hoping that is indeed the case.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Budgets and politics clashing across the land

Politics and state budgets aren’t usually that interesting, but this year that’s not the case. Ideologies are clashing as lawmakers struggle to find a way through this recession, and we will all be affected by the outcome.

North Carolina and Wisconsin are very different states but share a similar problem — a budget crisis like that facing states across the country as stimulus funding dries up and tax revenues are still down. Fortunately for us who live in the Tar Heel state, our leaders are dealing with their problems in a very different fashion.

In last week’s edition, we published a cover story examining how the state was looking at this year’s Golden LEAF allocation as one extra pot of money from which to stem an expected $2.4 billion budget shortfall. The money is a continuing payment from the massive lawsuit brought against tobacco companies by 45 states.

Gov. Beverly Perdue does not support raiding the Golden LEAF money. She has sent a budget to lawmakers that will lead to a raft of cuts, including cutting thousands of state jobs, but she says she won’t reduce teaching positions. A story in The Mountaineer newspaper this week had local lawmakers predicting the possible closure of the prison in Hazelwood and significant cuts to community colleges and a cost shifting that will force public schools to come up with money for transportation and text books (meaning teachers could be cut despite Perdue’s promises).

Amid this climate, what is the state to do? Even the Democratic governor’s budget will hurt local communities while keeping alive a sales tax that was due to expire. Almost every GOP lawmaker in the General Assembly ran on the promise to sunset that tax, so the Republicans — who control both chambers of the state legislature — have to either make deeper cuts or find new money. And that is what led to the proposal that money from funds like the Golden LEAF may be diverted for at least a year.

After our story ran last week, newly elected Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, called to say our story was good in pointing out the budget position the state finds itself in. Now, however, everyone has to look for creative ways to find a fix.

“What if the Golden LEAF money were re-distributed to, say, the Rural Center,” suggested Davis, saying this was just an example of the kind of thinking that needs to happen in the General Assembly. His point was the money would still come back to the rural communities who need it, but that the $1.6 million in administrative costs could be saved.

So what’s going to happen in Raleigh come June when the rubber hits the road? Unfortunately, I believe some sacred cows will be gored in the name of fiscal responsibility. Personally, I think a one-year diversion of funds going to some granting agencies is not a bad idea. I also think pay cuts for higher-paid state employees is not out of the question.

I would rather look at those options rather than cutting classroom teachers, raising tuition, and hamstringing the community colleges. We can only hope that with compromises a fair spending plan can be developed.

•••

In Wisconsin, the plan to take away the bargaining rights of unions is just shortsighted, an idea that will do much more harm than good.

For those following the situation up there, the GOP governor wants public sector employees to begin paying some of their own money into their retirement and health insurance plans. In a state where the average teacher salary is about $75,000 per year, this seems a reasonable proposition.

On the other hand, he also wants to take away the collective bargaining rights of the union. The employees have agreed to the pay concessions, but they are protesting in the streets to protect their bargaining rights for the future.

As the economy has soured and we’ve lost manufacturing jobs in this country, unions have been painted as a big evil. The union groups that once were credited with standing up for the little guys and winning concessions from factory owners are now painted as the cause for the flight of manufacturing to the Third World.

Despite sometimes unsavory actions by union leaders and despite sometimes unreasonable demands for workers who make more than most working-class folks, I still believe strongly that unions play an important role in the American workplace.

As income disparity widens, unions remain a voice for the working class. As the workplace changes, unions continue fighting for benefits and fairness. Taking away their voice is just wrong, and that’s exactly what the Wisconsin governor wants to do.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Vindication for HEP, a little satisfaction here

This is a very odd business, the telling of the news. It’s even more odd as part of an independent media operation. You work weird hours, meet all kinds of  people, find yourself in lots of odd places and odd situations, and adhere — oddly enough — to an old-fashioned principle of right and wrong. That means we tell stories, but we also take up causes.

The problem — in business as in life — is that right and wrong are not always black and white. So sometimes you find yourself out there on the skinny branches all alone, about to fall, the ground a long way down but holding on to the gut feeling that you’re on the right track.

Such is the case with The Smoky Mountain News and our reporting on Haywood Regional Medical Center’s problems. That coverage started back in 2004, long before any of our brethren in the media were seeing — or at least reporting — on the problems at the hospital. We could have left it alone and not put resources into the story, but it seemed apparent to us that the hospital serving Haywood’s citizens was in a downward spiral. We felt it was important to discuss this with the community.

I bring this up now because of a legal verdict announced this week. Our newspaper and others are carrying reports that an emergency room doctors group — Haywood Emergency Physicians — has won a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center. The suit stems from the firing of the doctors back in December 2006, when many of the accusations that eventually made headlines in all the regional media were spoken in a public forum for the first time.

Most know of Haywood Regional Medical Center’s demise and near closure, and of its resurrection and new life as part of MedWest with Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County. All three hospitals are now under the umbrella of a management contract with Carolinas Medical Center based in Charlotte.

It was a legal notice in the Feb. 22, 2008 Asheville Citizen-Times — two years after the firing of the emergency room docs — that alerted the community to HRMC’s near-death experience. Here’s a line from that notice, for those who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the story: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that Haywood Regional Medical Center is not in compliance with the conditions of participation  ….”

Problems that led to no Medicare and Medicaid money also led most major insurers to drop the hospital. That basically meant no money coming in. That precipitated a whirlwind of media coverage and change, including the resignation of HRMC CEO David Rice and the head of the HRMC board, the near closure of the hospital as patient numbers dropped almost to zero, and the public disclosure that hospital administrators had created an atmosphere of fear and manipulation that had employees afraid to point out problems or sound alarms.

Four years before this crisis, many physicians had told us that things were bad at HRMC and getting worse, that the administration was not working with physicians but manipulating them. We published stories with anonymous sources — extremely rare for any for any credible news organization — and called into question management decisions. When orthopedists and then anesthesiologists left en masse in 2004, we pointed out problems those docs and others were having with administration. We kept up the reporting in 2005 and 2006.

What did it get us?

Well, our largest advertiser — the hospital — simply went away, dropped us like a rock. Ouch. We wrote it off to the cost of doing business and moved on.

It got worse, and a little odd. I got a call one day from the previous CEO David Rice telling me that our newspaper racks were on the loading ramp in back of the hospital and that I could come pick them up. HRMC was banning The Smoky Mountain News from its property. Sounds a little like Hosni Mubarak and the current media clampdown in Egypt. That’s what we thought, but pleas to hospital board members didn’t get us very far.

Worse, none of the other media was following. We thought that once news started getting out about what was transpiring at HRMC, others would surely begin reporting. Well, they didn’t, at least not until February 2008 and the beginning of the public crisis.

The docs who use to make up Haywood Emergency Physicians, by winning this lawsuit, are vindicated. Those doctors said long ago that they were done wrong, and they also complained that their situation was not unique. The hospital administration was creating serious problems. It turns out that they were right on.

Vindication isn’t something newspapers should consider in choosing what to cover, but I’ll admit to some professional and personal satisfaction in how this story has played out over the last seven years since we started reporting on it. There’s a healthy relationship between the medical community and the hospital administration. Many hospital employees are telling us that their professional situation is vastly improved.

More importantly, citizens who need access to medical care are still able to get it right here in the communities we call home. There was a point in the not-too-distant past when that was very much in doubt.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Mistake is a reminder to tell it like it is

“… but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and I.”

 

See the mistake in the sentence fragment above? Hear it? I bet most people don’t, and I suspect that 10 years from now even fewer still will spot it.

But at least two readers caught my grammatical faux pas from two weeks ago and felt they should let me know about it. Others probably read it and just laughed at my goof. To be honest, I’m embarrassed to have made the mistake.

The rule is that when the object of the preposition is a personal pronoun, it should be “me” and not “I.” So the correct wording should have been “but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and me … ingrained in … me (not ingrained in … “I.”) Now you hear it? Of course.

No excuse for such a mistake, and I’ll attribute it to deadline writing. I know the rule, but I also sometimes forget it. Like a word whose spelling I can’t commit to memory, and so I know it is wise to look it up when using it.  Effective writers, I tell people, know their weaknesses and when to use their crutches. That’s why editors are so important.

 

The permanence of print

This little episode, however, brought to mind several reasons regarding why I think newspapers still have a future.

In many ways, print newspapers have become a bit staid in a digital age when information can soar around the globe in a few hours. However, staid can also mean serious, solid and steady. That also translates into credible, and every single serious newspaper still around guards its credibility like a mother protecting her children.

And our readers expect us to get it right. When we don’t — whether it’s a mistake in grammar or a factual error — they let us know, and we in turn let you know that we got it wrong. Again, every credible newspaper wears its mistakes on its sleeves.

How often do you see that in digital media? Most of the reporters and editors and designers at digital sites certainly care about their integrity, but there is also the constant need to move on, to get the next post up and the next story finished in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle in which they operate.

Right now, most digital media sites are understaffed and poorly financed because the successful business model for them — with a few notable, rare exceptions — has not been developed (especially at the local and regional level). That means they are more than likely under even more pressure to churn out stories and copy.

 

The digital age is upon us

This is not meant as a criticism of Internet news. To the contrary, every print media company is scrambling to stay abreast of the fast-changing digital news business. As creators of unique content and storehouses of troves of historical information, I’m betting that we will be able to continue to make a successful business of providing information in whatever platform becomes profitable.

But I do tire of hearing that print is dead as a doornail. It’s pretty obvious to me that right now people have learned to get their information —news and advertising  — from a variety of sources. That includes print, digital, television, and probably several other new devices that are being developed in some garage or college dorm room right now.

But for some readers, print still holds a kind of integrity that the new media — as exciting and whizbang as it is — can’t touch. We know times will change, and all I can promise is that when it does, we plan to be there.

 

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Hagan, Senate wrong on DREAM Act

Few things are as maddening to me as when politics gets in the way of doing the right thing. That’s just what happened in the U.S. Senate last week when the DREAM Act failed to pass.

Worse, the Senate vote emboldens those who want this country to be governed by fear, afraid of immigrants, gays, minorities, liberals, the federal government, and all those other imaginary boogies that they claim are trying to take America from them.

Perhaps some of you have followed the debate on immigration. This bill would have created an arduous but attainable path to U.S. citizenship for those who as infants or small children were smuggled across a border and who have now graduated from high school and have at least two years of college or want to serve this country in the military and fight against the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The great majority of these immigrants have never had another home other than the U.S., did not come here of their own free will, and want nothing except to work, pay taxes, and be citizens of the only country they know.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, who was one of five from her party to join Republicans and help kill this bill. She claims on her website to be “for North Carolina families, our military and veterans.”

I happen to be a member of one of those North Carolina families, and I think Hagan’s stand on this issue is dead wrong. My father was raised the son of a textile mill worker before joining the military, and my mother was raised in a North Carolina coastal town where she worked on farms as a child. They both valued hard work, honesty and the American “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy that included a heavy emphasis on education. They overcame many disadvantages, but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and I.

I don’t understand this fear that immigrants may somehow take a job one of my children may need or want. To the contrary, I’m glad we have people here who value those same traits passed to me from my parents. This bill is not about some underclass that wants to take advantage of the system. To the contrary, it is about young people who want to attend college, serve this country, work and pay taxes.

If anyone — an immigrant who may have just attained legal status or a kid from down the street — bests one of my children as they work to attain their dreams, then the message isn’t that we need to block that other youth’s path to success. To the contrary, the lesson is that my kid needs to work harder and do better. You don’t blame the person who succeeded.

By my thinking this goes straight to the core of what most of us believe about America. We have an economy and a national philosophy based on the belief that capitalism, competition and a kind of Darwinian social system will end up bringing out the best in all of us and create the best society. If that’s true, then it is also true that we want all the smartest, hardest-working and best-educated immigrants in the world as part of the mix. We can’t open the door to every immigrant, but we need to roll out the red carpet to the best and the brightest and the hardest working. This bill was going to open a path to citizenship for just those immigrants.

But we’ve become timid and scared. Yes, there is terrifying drug violence and gang warfare along the Mexican border. Yes, we have illegal Hispanic immigrants using our social service system and health care system and our education system. Yes, Caucasians will become a minority sometime in the next half century.

This bill, though, was not about any of that. It was about those who were once small children who through no fault of their own were brought here by their parents. They are as American as our immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents, raised in a society that teaches that those who stay out of trouble, work hard and are smart can attain whatever they want.

Except, it seems, a path to citizenship.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Jackson’s new leaders have room for improvement

A bit of a stumble out of the gate can be forgiven among newcomers in any endeavor, but that stumble also means more intense scrutiny is likely to follow.

That’s exactly what happened with the new Jackson County commissioners, and voters are surely hoping there are better times to come.

A perfect storm of factors — bad economy, controversial county manager, and the pre-election Tea Party surge, among them — led voters to sweep every incumbent up for election out the door in the Jackson County commissioners race.

Citing those factors and others as a reason for the victory is not meant as a criticism of the new commissioners. The three  — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — obviously impressed a lot of voters they came into contact with. Americans have a near religious fervor regarding the will of the people, and that will expresses itself every time we hold an election. It’s winners take all, and that’s just the way it is.

No, critics of any newly elected leaders would be advised to wait until those leaders take office — or at least begin making decisions — to start finding fault. In Jackson County, that didn’t take very long.

First was the way the retirement of Ken Westmoreland was handled. There was little doubt Westmoreland and the new board would not see eye to eye, and that his tenure as county manager was, for all intents and purposes, over. And as Westmoreland himself told this newspaper, a new board “has every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team …. I don’t understand why (Jack Debnam) felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”

Westmoreland is referring to Debnam’s leak to the local media that Westmoreland had decided to retire, and Debnam saying the county manager had done so of his own volition. Westmoreland denies that it was his decision. He said Debnam put it to him like this: “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”

So one of the two men is dead wrong, which means someone is lying. Let’s just repeat the earlier assertion, that this wasn’t handled very cleanly.

There are also a couple of other issues with the early work of the new board. It changed the starting time of one of its monthly meetings to 2 p.m. That means any working folks are excluded. That doesn’t send a very good message.

The board also moved the public comment session of its meeting to the very end of the agenda. I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended hundreds of public meetings over the years, and they are, well, somewhat less than riveting. To make citizens who want to talk hang around until commissioners have finished their business is, well, a bit rude. Let the public have their say and then leave. They aren’t paid to be there, but commissioners are.

As I said early on, even elected officials deserve a bit of a pass on early mistakes. What citizens want is sound, thoughtful leadership. Only time will tell if this is what they got.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The bottom of the ticket is next to sink into the slime

It’s Election Day (or very early morning, actually) as I sit to finish this, and the theme of the day was uttered a few weeks ago by a guy running for a local office: “I don’t care if I win or lose, I just want this to be over,” he said, referring to the campaigning.

And who can blame him. Anyone who has watched television or opened his mailbox lately has been barraged by advertising that is, in a word, slimy. The problem with political campaigns is that the advertising has all turned into a game of making up negative issues to attach to your opponent rather than standing for something yourself. It’s not about someone’s ideas, smarts or qualifications. It’s about making the populace fear the opponent’s intentions.

Take Sen. John Snow (even if he lost Nov. 2, he still gets the title) and his race to keep his N.C. Senate seat, for example. A few days before the election, a mailer went out from the North Carolina Republican Party that said he was willing to give a convicted child murderer “another chance.” Snow was upset, saying the ad relied on race-based fear tactics, showing the African-American convicted of the crime in a menacing pose.

His opponent decried the attack ad but said the information was factually correct. Snow supported a law that would allow judges to commute death sentences to life without parole if it was proven that racial bias was used in sentencing.

Now, some of those reading this probably know John Snow. If the former judge and prosecutor is soft on criminals and, as the ad claims, “too liberal,” well, grass ain’t green and the sky isn’t blue. The ad is just a load of bull.

 

Getting local

Let’s call it slime creep. We’ve watched for years as presidential and congressional advertising campaigns turned nasty, negative and dirty. Now our state campaigns — at least those that are close — are exactly the same, just a slew of negative spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

I fear what is coming next. If you look through our newspaper and the rest of the community papers around the region, you’ll see political advertising for county commission and school board seats that is, by comparison, quaint: “Running on my record, not away from it,” says one ad; “This is the reason I stand for a limited government with low taxes,” says another.

These are people who stand for something, and are asking voters to support them because of their position. The ad attacking Snow, on the other hand, tries to raise doubts and fear in the voter that a bad guy might win. It’s the politics of the 21st century.

My fear is that in the next election cycle, these very same negative tactics will slip down to the most local of campaigns. We saw winds of it this year in Jackson County, where sitting commissioners were set up as the reason for everything that’s wrong with this country. It didn’t escalate to the out-of-control level, but there was some relatively nasty stuff being thrown around.

Bare-knuckled politics is fine. Most of us prefer elected leaders who possess a certain degree of toughness and who will stand up to adversaries. Tough but fair is fine, but it requires a large dose of integrity to fight fairly. Once you wade into a brawl, it is very tempting to step over the line and start throwing sucker punches or doing whatever it takes to win.

 

Talk-show mentality

A football coach I grudgingly admire uses the same comeback when reporters ask questions he doesn’t like: “It is what it is.” It’s also an apt point to keep in mind when assessing today’s political climate.

The evening network news shows and most newspapers — subtly biased, but factual — have been replaced as news sources for the masses by TV and radio talk show hosts and the web. Those programs and blogs might provide good information, but it has to be consumed with a more discerning filter. Whether you prefer Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, you just have to know the difference between news, analysis, opinion and straight-up bias.

But that’s what we have. And so it is OK to rip someone to shreds over something that is marginally true or something that is completely irrelevant. It’s OK to falsely accuse a politician, as long as it keeps your ratings high or gets you elected to that same office. Or, as happened with Sen. Snow, for the opposing political party to send out a mailer that a retired judge and prosecutor wants to give another chance to a convicted child rapist and murderer.

I too am glad this election is over, but I’ve got a feeling the next may be even more tawdry. And, I fear that it all is running downhill to the local elections. I hope I’m wrong on this one.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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