Journalism 101

This week’s edition of the Lake Norman Citizen (or as I like to refer to it, LKN Tax the Citizen) once again demonstrates why it can accurately boast of being “the only experienced, professional, legitimate news outlet in the Lake Norman region.” If you’re an aspiring journalism professional who wants to learn how to get politicians to do what you want while still maintaining the pretense of being an objective journalist, you definitely need to read this week’s Citizen.

See, when you’re supposed to be an objective journalist just reporting the facts you have to work extra hard to maintain that pretense of objectivity so you don’t reveal to your readers that you have just as many biases as they do. For example, at the Citizen they have to work to hide their utter disdain for conservatives and their even greater disdain for any effort (usually) by conservative politicians to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. So when the Huntersville town board initially deferred a vote in April and then later voted 3-2 against the proposed revised agreement with the Carolina Rapids during the May 1, 2017 board meeting, the objective journalists at the Citizen went to work right away to ensure the vote went the way it was supposed to next time.

Lay the groundwork in the Horse’s Mouth section for how great the Rapids organization is and how a deal with them shouldn’t be about the money (remember, it’s Parks and Rec, not Parks and Revenue) after some board members had the audacity to ask questions about the proposed agreement during the April 17 board meeting. Check.

After the May 1 vote against the agreement, run a one-sided article highlighting all of the supposed benefits of extending the Rapids agreement without providing any perspective on how much it costs taxpayers to operate Barry Park every year or any information about how much revenue the Rapids reported on their Form 990 last year. Check.

The week before the May 15 board meeting, write a super clever editorial (and I mean like Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing clever) that people will think is about actually cleaning a house, but in reality is about cleaning house at Huntersville town hall, that attempts to accuse the fiscally conservative majority on the board of not acting fiscally conservative enough and cite the Rapids vote as an example. Check.

Then, when Commissioner Boone, one of the original dissenting board members, does the right thing and places the agreement back on the agenda for the May 15 meeting so the board can finally vote the right way – in the May 17 issue, run cover photo on the print edition with celebratory soccer players and text above the photo stating Town, Rapids back in business; credit Commissioner Boone as being the driving force behind saving soccer in Huntersville and quote him in not one, but two sections of the paper (along with a nice headshot in the print edition!); conveniently leave out that the other “fiscally conservative” board members also voted for the agreement to avoid any favorable print for them in an election year; and write a Leslie Knope-esque editorial as a reminder to other politicians that they better not try to cut any money from parks and rec again. Check.

Continue to rake in advertising dollars from parks and rec affiliated partners and area sports leagues (including the ones who engage in viewpoint discrimination which we just turn a blind eye to even though we’re journalists). Check!

And that’s how you journalism.

But hey, I’m just some guy on the internet so what do I know.

Eric

Huntersville Board agenda – May 15, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5:45pm. You can view the agenda or download the full agenda packet here. You can watch a live stream of tonight’s meeting at the town’s Ustream page here. I can’t cover every agenda item so I always encourage residents to review these agendas and discuss any items of interest with the mayor or a board member because even a single motivated resident can make a difference on how the votes turn out on some of these.

It’s not formally on the agenda, but it will be interesting to watch for any discussion related to the recent reports of the former mayor receiving benefits from a local country club and whether any benefits received violated the town’s code of ethics.

Public Hearings:

Conduct a public hearing to receive public comments on the proposed budget for FY 17/18. Hopefully a few residents will show up to remind the mayor and board it’s been a year since they voted down a tax cut proposal. [See the June 6, 2016 minutes here.] When the mayor voted against lower taxes last year he said we just need another year to work towards the goal of lower taxes and that it would be his goal to cut the tax rate over the course of the next year. Well it’s next year and the proposed budget doesn’t lower taxes. Let’s see if the mayor can still reach his goal before the board votes on the budget next month.

Other Business:

Renew motion approving first amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. It’s only been two weeks since this item was voted down at the last board meeting, but it has already been placed back on the agenda at the request of Commissioner Boone. No changes at all have been made to the language of the agreement, but apparently the questions Commissioner Boone had about the agreement have all been answered since the last meeting so he requested it be brought back for a vote. I look forward to Commissioner Boone sharing the answers to the questions he received since last meeting with the taxpayers who will continue to subsidize soccer in Huntersville when this agreement is approved tonight.

Even though Commissioner Boone may have had his questions answered, I still have a few unanswered questions since I last wrote about this issue here.

– Why hasn’t the town board requested clarification of the vague and ambiguous language in the Rapids agreement and the town’s co-sponsorship policy?

– If the Rapids are already paying more than they are obligated to as a co-sponsor to secure a right of first refusal on the fields at Barry Park, why not find out what the true value of their right of first refusal is by re-negotiating the terms of the 2008 contract instead of simply accepting the first offer from the Rapids?

– The Rapids reported revenues of over $1.9 million and paid their executive director $112,889 last fiscal year according to their most recent Form 990. Why exactly does an organization with close to $2 million in revenues need taxpayers to subsidize their field usage?

– Since one of the justifications for subsidizing soccer is because it’s for the children, how many of the approx. 1,700 Huntersville “residents” the Rapids claim as members are over the age of 18?

– How many other “non-profit” organizations using town park facilities pay for a right of first refusal?

– Does a right of first refusal violate the objective of the town’s co-sponsorship policy ensuring all citizens equal opportunity and participation opportunities?

– Can the town guarantee the Rapids aren’t abusing their right of first refusal as outlined in their 2008 contract with the town [see below] which, according to paragraph four, states that other co-sponsors and general public users of the [Barry Park] field space must be accommodated and the [Rapids] shall not exercise its right of first refusal for the purpose of excluding or substantially excluding other co-sponsors or the general public?

Rapids 2008 K

– How much does the town lose every year respectively on each park (or, is there a park that actually makes money?) and what, if anything, is being done by the Parks and Recreation Dept. to minimize these losses?

– Finally, why are recommended salaries for the Parks and Recreation Dept. up $121,885 over last year’s adopted budget when we have a Parks Director who isn’t merely ambivalent about his department generating revenue, but who is actively hostile towards the notion?

Discussion on Old Jail renovation project. There is no clear indication in the summary about what the discussion will focus on; the only thing included in the agenda packet are two invoices totaling $31,725 apparently related to renovating the Old Jail so it will be safe for tours. Surely the discussion isn’t going to be a request for taxpayer funding for these renovations? Let me suggest to anyone interested in learning more about the Old Jail visit this informative page at the CharMeck Historic Landmarks Commission’s website, or just watch any episode of the Andy Griffith show featuring Otis to get a sense of what a day in the life of the Old Huntersville Jail was like.

Eric

Huntersville Board Agenda – May 1, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5:15pm. You can view the agenda or download the full agenda packet here. You can watch a live stream of tonight’s meeting at the town’s Ustream page here. I can’t cover every agenda item so I always encourage residents to review these agendas and discuss any items of interest with the mayor or a board member because even a single motivated resident can make a difference on how the votes turn out on some of these.

Pre-meeting:

Presentation of preliminary budget. I heard the interim town manager speak at a recent mayor’s luncheon and he said he was hoping to deliver a budget without a tax increase. With all the savings being touted by the mayor in 2016 thanks to some fiscally responsible decisions, let’s hope Mr. Vincent is actually able to present a budget with a tax decrease.

Public hearings:

Petition #TA 17-02 by University City Church to modify the zoning ordinance to increase the number of times an illuminated/electronic sign can change in a 24-hour period. In case you weren’t aware, article 10.7.1 of the Huntersville zoning ordinance currently only allows messages on signs to change a maximum of one (1) time per 24-hour period. Two local churches have applied for a text amendment that would allow signs to change up to twelve (12) times per 24-hour period. After discussing with the Huntersville Ordinances Advisory Board, it appears the applicants agreed to lower that number to six (6) times per 24-hour period – which the Ordinances Advisory Board agreed with.

This may seem like a minor item, but it’s such a perfect view into the mindset of a planner. The staff recommendation (pg. 13/179 of the agenda packet) would be to oppose the applicant’s request, but staff would allow for two (2) sign changes every 24-hour period. One of the reasons for their recommendation – “Lack of Need – staff does not find it necessary for [sign] messages to change more than two times per 24-hour period.” Ah, well that settles it then, if staff doesn’t find it necessary then clearly staff has considered the needs of every existing and future business or organization that may ever have a sign with changeable copy in Huntersville and decided there could never be a situation where a sign changing more than twice a day could provide a benefit or competitive advantage to that business or organization, or that any such benefit or competitive advantage is clearly outweighed by enforcement or safety concerns.

Planners with such knowledge and foresight of the inner-workings of every existing and future business or organization in Huntersville clearly deserve a raise.

Other Business:

Consider approving First Amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. And now to the biggest item on tonight’s agenda in my opinion. This agreement amendment was brought to the town board at their last meeting just two weeks ago on April 17 – you can watch the lengthy discussion beginning at approximately the 39:45 mark. A motion to defer the decision for 3 months was made by Commissioner Boone and seconded by Commissioner Phillips, but a substitute motion was made by Commissioner Kidwell and seconded by Commissioner Bales for a 2 week deferral instead. The substitute motion passed 4-2 with Bales, Kidwell and Gibbons supporting (Commissioner Guignard abstained which is recorded as a vote in favor) and so the item is already back on the agenda.

[An aside. This item is seeking to amend an agreement entered into between the town and Carolina Rapids/North Meck Soccer Club in 2008 and yet the original agreement wasn’t included in the agenda packet. Why not just include the 2008 agreement for interested residents to review so they can have as much information as possible in rendering an opinion on this item? The agenda is generally made available to the public sometime around mid-day on Thursday – town board members receive their agenda packets earlier. Maybe a resident sees the agenda by Thursday or Friday and maybe they send a records request to a board member or town staff for the 2008 agreement and maybe that record is provided before Monday’s meeting. Does this really leave sufficient time to review the information and form an opinion and then discuss an item with a board member before the vote? In the interest of transparency and giving residents as much information as possible in a timely manner, I would suggest the town provide more background documents in future packets.]

Interestingly, the term section of the agreement in the packet for tonight’s meeting has been revised since last meeting. The new term language would appear to provide a 5 year agreement with an option to renew for another 5 years instead of the straight 10 year agreement originally proposed. I would assume this revision is being offered to assuage the concerns of a few board members who raised questions about the length of the proposed 10 year term. But, if you read the revised language below carefully it is a conditional option at best and the Rapids should have no problem meeting the bare minimum condition.

“The Town may terminate this agreement at the end of the first five years, if the Rapids do not have a min. of 600 Huntersville Residents playing within their organization in the spring season and in the fall season. The determination of a Huntersville resident is defined in the Town’s Co-sponsorship Policy. In the event of such termination, the remainder of the Field Usage Fees and the Capital Reserve Fee shall abate and no longer be payable.”

So IF the Rapids don’t have a minimum of 600 Huntersville RESIDENTS playing within their organization in the SPRING AND FALL SEASON at the end of the first five years the town MAY terminate the agreement. I know we already have too many lawyers in politics, but it’s times like these I wish Huntersville had a lawyer on the board.

The co-sponsorship policy [see pg. 5/6 below] defines a resident as: 1) has a Huntersville address, or 2) is a Huntersville taxpayer, and/or 3) lives within the Huntersville ETJ. Wait, so nothing about being 18 or under? I thought the town using taxpayer money to subsidize soccer was all about the children? And what is a Huntersville taxpayer? Are we to assume this refers to property taxes only? What if someone stops to eat at a Huntersville restaurant and pays the prepared food tax or if they stay at a hotel while traveling through town and pay the hotel tax – should these people be considered a Huntersville “resident” as defined in the co-sponsorship policy?

Hville PRC co-sponsorship policy

Where did the 600 figure come from? During the April 17 meeting, the figure 1,700 was tossed around as the approximate number of Carolina Rapids members from Huntersville (out of approx. 4,300 total members). So why such a minimum number of RESIDENTS needed to trigger the additional 5 years under this revised language? Further, which Spring and which Fall season is the town supposed to use to calculate these 600 RESIDENTS? Could this just be 300 RESIDENTS in each season for a combined total of 600, or 600 total RESIDENTS in both seasons for a total of 1,200 RESIDENTS? From what I can tell the Rapids’ Fall season doesn’t even begin until sometime in August. The end of the first 5 years of the agreement would be on or about August 3, 2023 so would the town be expected to estimate the number of RESIDENTS in the Fall 2023 season, or would that be RESIDENTS from the Fall 2022 season and the Spring 2023 season?

Since it now appears obvious neither the staff nor a majority of the current board, including the mayor, have any intent on putting use of Barry Park out for bid despite Commissioner Phillips making this suggestion at the April 17 meeting, might I suggest leasing the entire facility to Carolina Rapids? Commissioner Kidwell has already suggested as much during the April 17 meeting when he attempted to distinguish the Rapids agreement from the HFFA management agreement starting at approx. the 1:05:00 mark. I’m paraphrasing here due to the audio quality, but he said, “You have to compare apples to apples… with HFFA the contract was to pay a company to run a facility for the town, this is the exact opposite. We’re not asking them to come out and run the field for us, Rapids are saying we basically want to lease the property from you for this term…” [I hope Commissioner Kidwell corrects me if I have misrepresented his remarks.]

Let’s accept his argument for now that this situation is distinguishable from HFFA (except that HFFA has cost taxpayers even MORE money than Barry Park…), if all the Rapids are asking is to lease the property from the town, why not just let them assume the lease and all obligations for managing and maintaining Barry Park? The original lease from the County does not prevent the town from subletting the property based on my reading – the county simply requires prior written consent [see paragraph 13 of the lease below]. Let me submit to you the reason the board won’t make this suggestion tonight, and the reason the Rapids would politely decline the offer even if the board did, is because operating expenses for Barry Park currently run the town approx. $146K annually, which is approx. $95K more per year than the Rapids would be paying for the first 5 years of this new term and approx. $90K more per year than what they would be paying the second 5 years of the new term, assuming no increase in field usage rates by the town.

Barry Park lease

If, like Commissioner Kidwell, you were under the impression the soccer being played at Barry Park covered all costs for the town, go ahead and rid yourself of that notion. Skip ahead to the approx. 1:06:20 mark to hear Commissioner Kidwell and Parks Director Michael Jaycocks engage in what may be the greatest exchange in the history of local government. Kidwell to Jaycocks re: Barry Park – we break even, right? Jaycocks – Oh no… Kidwell – not even close? (uncomfortable laughter) Kidwell – Why not?

Why not indeed.

A few other quick observations for anyone still reading at this point.

Thomas Finlay, Executive Director of the Rapids, was right to question why the board was just now raising concerns about this agreement when the Parks and Rec Committee voted on this issue last June and the board has been presented with information about the amended agreement going back to late 2016 and through the first few months of this year. But, the board missed a great opportunity to respond when Mr. Finlay quipped that he thought it was “parks and rec, not parks and revenue” at the approx. 1:11:00 mark. Maybe tonight someone can ask Mr. Finlay what the Rapids’ revenue was last year because I’m sure the Rapids don’t pay their employees with hugs and high fives.

Why not just charge the Rapids $20K more instead of setting up a reserve fund for Barry Park? Why is a reserve fund needed when the park loses money every year? Wouldn’t a reserve fund be more appropriate if the park was MAKING money? And what would this reserve fund even be used for – would it be restricted to infrastructure and maintenance at the park, or could it be used to pay employee salaries or other non-park uses?

Obviously, the Rapids don’t use Barry Park 100% of the time, but why not at least charge the Rapids based on the percentage of time they do actually use Barry Park – in the 80-85% range based on Mr. Jaycocks’ estimate. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to capture some additional revenue by charging them for their actual use of the field so the park doesn’t lose quite as much money every year?

How is it fair to tax all residents in order to subsidize one sport? Roads and police are necessary for all residents, but is soccer? What if your kid is into badminton or chess or martial arts or gymnastics or golf or diving (wait, scratch that, we already subsidize diving here in Huntersville…), would the community be better off subsidizing these instead? One could possibly make the argument that soccer is the last sport in need of subsidizing because it’s already one of most popular sports in the world – wouldn’t it be better to help out one of the less popular sports?

Why did Mayor Aneralla seem so confused around the 44:45 mark about the possibility of putting this contract out for bid and around the 1:03:30 mark when he said he was still trying to figure out what questions needed answering about this issue? The mayor seemed to understand the need to put out the HFFA management contract for bid so it was curious to see his apparent confusion when the same issue was being discussed about “management” of Barry Park.

When questioned by Commissioner Gibbons about the proper subsidy level for recreational fitness at approx. the 52:15 mark, Mr. Jaycocks demonstrated his mastery of the reduction ad absurdum fallacy by telling the board from a profit standpoint they could keep raising prices until they see people stop using the facilities – even though no one on the board was suggesting anything of the sort. While Mr. Jaycocks may not have any incentive to earn a profit because it’s not his money he’s giving away, the taxpayers may feel otherwise.

How is this deal any different than the much-aligned recent attempt by the Bruton Smith family to have taxpayers fund an MLS team in Charlotte? The Smiths wanted taxpayers to build and maintain the facility – which they would have graciously allowed the city/county to use like four times a year – while they got to control the team and the profits. Here, the Rapids enjoy the use of Barry Park during much of the year, which the town has to pay to maintain, all while profiting from member dues. I guess the board would draw the line if the Rapids wanted taxpayers to build them a 20,000 seat stadium at Barry Park…

Finally, why is it so hard for people who campaign as conservatives to actually govern as conservatives? (says the random guy on the internet who has never had to actually earn votes…)

Eric

Why is Huntersville funding North Meck Crime Stoppers?

Before we get to that question, you’re probably wondering what North Mecklenburg Crime Stoppers (“NMCS”) even is. I was wondering the same thing the first time I heard of this group earlier this year on Thursday, January 26 when Huntersville commissioner and current NMCS board member Dan Boone referenced NMCS during the first day of the town board planning retreat. You can read more about this group at their website and in their articles of incorporation attached below. Interestingly, Huntersville isn’t even mentioned in the articles of incorporation they filed in 1990 (the only document found at the Secretary of State’s website). 

NMCS filing

As part of a review of the town’s financial policy during the retreat, the funding of outside organizations was discussed under section B. of the policy. Subsection 5. of section B. stated, “It is the Town’s policy not to fund requests from outside organizations which provide social services or services which are county-wide in scope.” Discussion then followed about whether the town’s new outside organization policy was in line with the language in the town’s financial policy. The current town board unanimously approved a new policy [attached below] regarding funding outside organizations during their May 16, 2016 meeting. It was during this discussion of funding outside organizations at the retreat when Commissioner Boone asked, “What about crimestoppers?” I searched the town’s budget and was unable to find any line item for anything labeled “crimestoppers” so I sent an email to the town asking for more information.

External agency funding

The town’s finance director told me the town issued $1,000 to NMCS in FY ‘17 paid from the police contract services line item in the budget. Ok, so now I at least knew where in the budget to look. Upon review, the “contract services” budget line item in the police budget (see p. 63/162 here) totaled approx. $584,741 in FY 16/17 – so slightly more than the $1,000 that was paid to NMCS. This amount is not broken up into individual line items totaling $584,741, however, which is just an easy way for government to disguise its spending from taxpayers. Knowing the town board had approved a new policy regarding funding outside organizations in May 2016, I was curious when this $1,000 payment was issued since NMCS was not one of the external agencies that made a public request to the town board during the FY 16/17 pre-budget work sessions to the best of my knowledge.

The town’s finance director further advised the FY ‘17 payment was issued on or about August 5, 2016 – well after the board approved their new policy in May 2016 – and the payor was the Town of Huntersville, not the Huntersville Police Dept. The town also made a similar $1,000 payment to NMCS in FY ‘16. I do not know how long Huntersville has been issuing payments to NMCS, but I do know the payment issued at least for FY ‘17 should have been governed by the town’s new external agency funding policy. Did the town comply with its own policy when it issued $1,000 to NMCS in August 2016? Did NMCS submit a written application for this $1,000 grant? What “public purpose” or “vital service” does NMCS provide and is this $1,000 grant serving to primarily benefit the residents of Huntersville? Has the town ever audited NMCS to ensure grant funds were being used for the “public purpose” being provided by NMCS? And are there other external agencies bypassing the town board and receiving funding directly from town departments?

I decided to reach out directly to NMCS in an attempt to answer some of these questions. There is no email or phone number listed on their website, so I sent a request for information using the contact form box on the Contact Us page. I received a response from David Rochester, currently listed at the NMCS website as their Vice Chairman, on Feb. 3 and responded the same day by asking for a list of NMCS tips leading to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 since the last “case file” listed on their website was from 2014. I clarified my request on Feb. 4 for a list of NMCS tips leading to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 where NMCS agreed to pay a reward, along with the total amount of each reward paid.

Two days later on Feb. 6 I received the following response from Mr. Rochester. “Generally, but not always, the North Meck Crime Stoppers Board of Directors votes regarding a few various types of Awards at each Monthly Meeting. Most of these are Confidential and Anonymous, as they involve C.I.’s in gangs or cartels, School Students, and Citizens afraid of revenge. Our website is currently in transition to a new designer, and will be enhanced, containing only Public information. Other Public information about us can be found in various press releases Re: “shreds”, Med-Drops”, “National Night out”, etc. where we volunteer our labor. Thank you for your interest. As a 501(c)3 we are able to accept tax deductible donations if you are inclined to contribute.”

I followed up this non-response with another inquiry asking whether NMCS was willing to provide me the requested information without disclosing the identity of the recipients – a fair request I thought given that NMCS already provided public information about at least one reward recipient under the “Case Files” section of the website. And about their website, the only other “case file” with information about a tip leading to an arrest, the “Jan. 13th incident at Birkdale,” appears to have been on the site since at least November 2013 according to internet archives so it’s impossible to even determine what year this “Jan. 13th” tip refers to. One thing is obvious, NMCS clearly isn’t using any taxpayer money to pay for anyone to regularly update their website.

When NMCS finally gets around to updating their website, might I recommend they also revise the following language at the bottom of their home page. “North Mecklenburg Crime Stoppers is managed by an all-volunteer board and is supported entirely by charitable donations.” [emphasis mine] Taking money from taxpayers could possibly be considered forced charitable donations, but it is the last thing I would ever consider charitable.

On Feb. 7, I received an interesting response from Mr. Rochester who asked, “What Law Enforcement Agency do you work for and why do you want our anonymous information.” For the record, I do not work for any law enforcement agency. I informed Mr. Rochester of this fact on Feb. 7 and then asked when we could speak over the phone. I did not receive a response to this email.

On Feb. 12, I sent another email to Mr. Rochester asking which municipalities besides Huntersville contribute financially to NMCS and how much each contributes respectively. He responded the same day, “Last year we received financing from all the Law enforcement Agencies in our territory: Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, and Davidson College Police.” He declined to provide me the funding information for the other municipalities so I sent them requests directly. Davidson provided NMCS $1,000 in June 2016, but said they had not budgeted any funds for FY ’17. Cornelius provided NMCS $2,000 in FY ’16, but I was told this was because they didn’t receive an invoice from them for FY ’15, and they would likely contribute another $1,000 in FY ’17. Chief Sigler of the Davidson Campus Police advised that the University had declined to release information about NMCS funding levels in response to my request.

I emailed Mr. Rochester again on Feb. 21 to ask if anyone at NMCS would be interested in answering any questions for a piece I was writing; he responded the same day and said, “I’ll ask them.” I have never heard anything further from Mr. Rochester or anyone at NMCS and I still have no idea how many, if any, NMCS tips lead to arrests in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and whether NMCS agreed to pay a reward, along with the total amount of each reward paid, for said tips.

So, who cares if the town gives a mere $1,000 of taxpayer money every year to a group with crime stoppers in the title, right? I mean if crime is being stopped in North Mecklenburg for just $1,000 a year, that’s only like three cents a year when you spread it over every taxpayer in Huntersville so why waste time writing all these words about such a small amount of money? (Hint: google concentrated benefits/dispersed costs)

For one thing, because it’s just another real world example of one of my favorite quotes – the easiest thing in the world is spending other people’s money. But, more importantly, because no other local media outlet reporting on Huntersville (particularly not any of the experienced, professional, legitimate type news outlets in the Lake Norman region) would ever waste this much ink on a single $1,000 appropriation out of an operating budget of over $30 million. Well this is how you wind up with an operating budget of over $30 million – $1,000 at a time.

I welcome a response from anyone affiliated with, or anyone supportive of, NMCS to justify why Huntersville taxpayers should continue to fund this organization. I also welcome any comments from current or former elected officials in Huntersville explaining why they have allowed money to be taken from Huntersville residents for years to fund NMCS, how NMCS has benefited Huntersville residents, and whether they intend to allow money to continue to be taken from Huntersville taxpayers for the benefit of NMCS. It is an election year after all.

Eric

Huntersville Board agenda – April 17, 2017

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm – the pre-meeting starts at 5pm. You can view the agenda or download the full agenda packet here. You can watch a live stream of tonight’s meeting at the town’s Ustream page here. I can’t cover every agenda item so I always encourage residents to review these agendas and discuss any items of interest with the mayor or a board member because even a single motivated resident can make a difference on how the votes turn out on some of these items.

Tonight’s agenda is light, but I did want to comment on one item.

Other Business:

– Item B. Consider approving  first amendment to the Carolina Rapids agreement. Carolina Rapids (formerly known as the North Meck Soccer Club) is based out of Cornelius and offers youth and adult soccer leagues to Huntersville and non-Huntersville residents. Carolina Rapids is in the 9th year of a ten year contract with the town for field usage at Barry Park – the current contract ends in August 2018. Barry Park is the large park/soccer fields on the west side of Huntersville beside Barnette Elementary. The proposed amendment to be voted on tonight would extend Carolina Rapids’ use of Barry Park for another ten years until August 2028.

I had three questions upon review of this agenda item: why is the board set to vote on an amendment to a contract sixteen months before it ends; is it really prudent to enter into a long term contract with a single business given the continual growth of youth sports leagues in this area; and has the town requested or received bids for field usage from any other soccer leagues besides Carolina Rapids?

The Parks and Rec committee voted 7-1 to approve the recommendation to amend the existing agreement during its June 15, 2016 meeting. There was no discussion of other bids in the minutes from this meeting. I’d welcome any feedback from any PRC members from that time regarding why they chose to vote to approve this amendment and whether any discussion of other bids took place.

I criticized the prior town board for rushing through the renewal of the management contract for HFFA before an election when that contract didn’t end for approximately another 8 months. Maybe a member of the current board can explain why they shouldn’t be subjected to the same criticism if they vote tonight to approve a renewal/amendment of the Carolina Rapids contract sixteen months before it ends.

This town board recently did the right thing by asking for bids on the management contract of the HFFA. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply when deciding whether to sign a long term agreement for “management” of the soccer fields at Barry Park? Youth sports is big business, to be sure at least one other area soccer league would be interested in submitting a bid for long term usage of the valuable asset managed by Huntersville Parks and Rec.

Eric

Huntersville PD and traffic checkpoints

The Huntersville Police Department (“HPD”) conducted a general traffic roadside safety check on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 from 10-11am on Verhoeff Drive near Seay Drive. I was made aware of this checkpoint after I spoke with a resident who was stopped while driving their two kids to swim at HFFA and had their car searched by HPD. I don’t normally travel through that part of town mid-morning during the week so I was curious why HPD would decide to set up a checkpoint on Verhoeff Dr. for just one hour during the middle of a workday – almost as if it was just a spontaneous decision. Was this checkpoint reasonable and is this really the best use of HPD resources?

North Carolina law is pretty clear on checkpoints (see NCGS § 20-16.3A) so I sent a request on March 12 to the town and HPD for more information. I requested HPD provide records or information related to: HPD’s written checkpoint policy; number of officers and the duration of the checkpoint; any report resulting from the checkpoint including any citations or tickets; the most recent time a checkpoint was conducted at this location prior to Feb. 28; and the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint. Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill promptly responded to my request on March 13 and provided the information below.

HPD Checkpoint Reply

From Chief Spruill’s response, we learned that HPD is in compliance with NC law by having a written checkpoint policy as well as a written authorization form outlining the checkpoint plan that must be completed prior to conducting a checkpoint. According to the resident I spoke with who was stopped, HPD also complied with NC law by having a least one vehicle at the checkpoint with its blue lights in operation; however, the resident thought they were approaching a crash site because there were no other indications a checkpoint was ahead. We also learned only three citations were issued during the hour-long checkpoint – although I don’t yet know if all three citations were issued to the same driver. [Interestingly, these citations did not appear in the police blotter in the Herald Weekly for the week of Feb. 28, nor do these citations appear in a search of HPD’s RAIDS online program.] I am still waiting on a response to the subsequent request I sent to HPD on March 15 for copies of any incident reports related to the three citations issued. And I am also still waiting for a response to my questions about why “other” was selected under the planning checklist for how the Communications Center was notified and when was the most recent date/time HPD conducted a checkpoint at this location.

Even though it appears HPD complied with the basic requirements of NCGS §20-16.3A on Feb. 28, an NC court reviewing this checkpoint would still have to determine the reasonableness of the checkpoint. Shea Denning at the UNC School of Government wrote a blog post in 2015 summarizing a recent NC case dealing with the reasonableness of checkpoints. (If you’re really interested in NC checkpoint law, Jeff Welty’s more thorough checkpoint paper can be read here.) Many people would argue it’s never reasonable for law enforcement to stop law abiding citizens without a warrant and without any reasonable suspicion, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. HPD would likely argue the checkpoint was reasonable because it resulted in three citations being issued and did not significantly impact traffic. I would like to know whether elected officials in Huntersville think issuing three citations (two of which were for minor moving violations) is sufficient justification for violating the liberty of the individuals who were stopped and questioned without a warrant and without reasonable suspicion and were not issued citations?

The resident I spoke with who was stopped provided some additional details about their experience. After being asked to provide their license (but not their registration), the HPD officer at their driver’s side window noticed two young children in the back seat and asked for consent to check the car seats. The resident hesitantly gave consent and then before they realized what was happening two different officers opened both the passenger and driver’s side rear doors and began inspecting the car seats and shoulder/lap restraints startling the two young children who had no idea what was taking place or who these strange adults were. The resident was eventually allowed to leave the checkpoint after being detained for a few minutes, but only after being chided by one officer and advised that the resident should attend one of HPD’s upcoming car seat safety checking stations – even though both children were properly restrained. [HPD has been conducting these car seat safety checks for the last year or so in partnership with the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. and Safe Kids CharMeck.] Is this really the kind of interaction HPD wants to have with law abiding residents just trying to go about their already busy day?

An aside – if asked for consent by law enforcement to search your vehicle or residence, you can and should ALWAYS decline consent for any search. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people (even criminals who knowingly have contraband in their car or residence) still give consent to search for many different reasons, but you do have the right to just say no.

When most people read about checkpoints in the paper they’re reading about late-night checkpoints resulting in arrests for DUI and drug offenses, not mid-morning checkpoints on a minor thoroughfare in Huntersville. Then again, if HPD considers this type of mid-morning checkpoint stopping law abiding residents going about their busy day to not only be reasonable, but an efficient use of resources, maybe we should all get used to the idea of being stopped for general traffic roadside safety checks during the middle of our busy workdays in Huntersville.

Eric

Protectionism 101: HB 279 and the regulation of Fantasy Sports

[TL;DR warning – this is a long one.]

I usually stick to writing about local issues at this site since I feel I can have the most impact in and around Huntervsille, but occasionally the General Assembly will motivate me to write about something outside of the confines of Mecklenburg County. Last week, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour alerted me to just such an occasion when he commented about HB 279, or the “Fantasy Sports Contest Act,” on his facebook page. I, for one, am glad the majority party in Raleigh is finally taking action to protect all North Carolina residents from the scourge of unregulated fantasy sports. Because if there was a single overarching reason voters returned Republicans to the majority in Raleigh last November, it was definitely to grow the size of state government by enacting more paternalistic regulations.

Becki Gray wrote a column at Carolina Journal last week asking a very reasonable question, “As hundreds of bills are filed in the General Assembly, I ask: What problem are lawmakers trying to solve?” I asked myself the same question about HB 279 – what problems are the sponsors of this bill trying to solve? The answer wasn’t readily apparent so I decided to email the fourteen sponsors of the bill and ask them what problems they were trying to solve and why NC needed to regulate fantasy sports? I haven’t participated in fantasy sports in a few years, and I have never participated in the growing phenomenon known as daily fantasy sports, so maybe I just wasn’t aware of the problems that needed solving by state government.

Rep. Jason Saine (R), a primary sponsor of HB 279, promptly responded to my email (and cc’ed the bills other primary sponsors) with an outline of their justification for the legislation. He wrote in part, “It is important to note that without a legal definition and parameters, other states have seen confusion regarding fantasy sports.” As evidence of this confusion he linked to an April 2016 news story about an opinion by the office of the Attorney General in Tennessee that fantasy sports contests constituted illegal gambling under TN law. TN became the third state to regulate fantasy sports when the governor signed a bill into law later that same month.

The current version of HB 279 is five pages long. If the primary concern of the bill sponsors is that an NC court could rule fantasy sports to be gambling, it seems like the concise language contained within the proposed section 78E-9 of the bill would be sufficient by itself to address this concern. Section 78E-9 states fantasy contests are not to be considered gambling under NC law. Problem solved, right?

I haven’t seen much written yet in the mainstream press about this bill since it was filed other than a short piece in the N&O last week, but I have read two opinion pieces. Both writers, Nic Haag in the Lincoln Herald and Keith Larson in the Charlotte Observer, raised excellent objections to HB 279, many echoing my own objections to this bill. HB 279, as currently written, is nothing more than another manifestation of protectionism that unnecessarily imposes arbitrary restrictions on competition.

Another concern I have (a concern also expressed by Commissioner Ridenhour in his facebook post) that neither of the other opinion pieces referenced is the overreach potential of this bill.  If the intent of the bill sponsors is only to offer consumer protections to fantasy players and not to regulate small fantasy leagues amongst friends/family/co-workers involving small sums of money (or even no money), why not clear up that ambiguity in the bill? The bill states no fantasy contest shall be offered in this State unless the operator has been registered with the [Secretary of State]. A “fantasy contest” is an online fantasy or simulated game or contest… and an “operator” is a person or entity that offers fantasy contests to members of the public.

There does not appear to be any language in the bill clearly setting forth the intent for it to only apply to fantasy sports companies operating a web based platform as opposed to fantasy leagues amongst friends who happen to use an existing web based platform like Fantasy Draft, Yahoo, etc. Without clear language setting forth the intent of this bill to exempt small leagues involving friends/family/co-workers, I could easily see the Secretary of State’s office or another state agency attempting to require registration and the registration fee for a group of friends/family/coworkers based on the ambiguous definitions of fantasy contest and operator – and I could easily see a court upholding such an attempt unless changes are made to the existing bill language.

Consider this hypothetical. You and your friends have run a fantasy league every football season for years, you charge a $25 buy-in, and use Yahoo’s online fantasy platform. This season two of your friends can’t participate and you want to replace them to keep the same number of participants in your league so you send out a quick social media post on your social media profile open to the public for anyone interested in joining your league to contact you. Are you now an “operator” offering a “fantasy contest” to members of the public requiring you to register with the Secretary of State?

I also received a response from Rep. John Bradford (R) to my question about what problems the sponsors of the bill are attempting to resolve. Rep. Bradford wrote in part, “The key concern for states, like NC, have been whether daily fantasy sports operators are collecting money from the general public, because that is the conduct where there is risk of harm… These operators create jobs and revenue in NC.” I have yet to be provided with evidence from any of the bill sponsors of any actual harm suffered by a fantasy sports participant in NC.

Regarding the “jobs and revenue” justification for this bill, maybe someone can point me to the bills filed by Rep. Bradford (or any other bill sponsor) seeking to legalize drugs and prostitution on the same basis.

Why not allow the fantasy sports companies to police themselves and let the market sort out what consumer protections may or may not be needed? This unregulated market seems to have worked out pretty well so far in NC. Fantasy sports have been around in some form or another in NC for at least 15 years – and that’s being conservative. The bill sponsors may argue daily fantasy sports are different, but HB 279 as written makes no distinction between season long and daily fantasy contests. The fact that the bill sponsors can’t come up with a single instance of a fantasy sports operator defrauding or otherwise causing financial harm to an NC resident over the past 15 years should tell you all you need to know about this bill.

To further bolster their support for this bill, both Reps. Saine and Bradford have pointed out that the industry supports oversight and regulations like HB 279. As I pointed out to Rep. Saine, I don’t think that helps their argument. It only reinforces the perception that this proposed legislation is nothing but protectionism being pushed by current market participants to erect barriers to entry for future competitors.

Rep. Saine attached the two letters below in his email as evidence of industry support (he also posted them on his twitter feed) and Rep. Bradford wrote the following in a facebook comment on March 9, “NC companies operating in this space specifically asked for legislation to clearly separate fantasy sports from gambling activities.”

FantasyDraft Support
FSTA NC Support

 

So, which “NC companies” are Rep. Bradford referring to? He doesn’t specify so I am going to assume at least one of them is the company that wrote a letter in support to Rep. Saine, Fantasy Draft, LLC. Who is Fantasy Draft, LLC? In the timeless words of local radio personality Tremaine “QCB” Sloan, I had never heard of them.

Fantasy Draft, LLC (“Fantasy Draft”) lists a Cornelius, NC address on their letterhead. They have a corporate logo on the top of the building at that address as well as roadside signage and they are listed on the company directory on the first floor of the building. They’ve been featured in stories at the Charlotte Observer and Cornelius Today. A quick perusal of the “Press Box” page of their website shows Charlotte, NC on all of their bylines. A story from November 13, 2014 on their site announcing their launch states that Fantasy Draft is based outside of Charlotte, NC. The story goes on to state, “The investment group behind FantasyDraft is led by Charlotte-based entrepreneur and business owner Robert Stevanovski and includes senior individuals at The Jordan Company, a private investment firm, with more than $8 billion in committed capital among others. Stevanovski owns several businesses that have generated over $3 billion dollars in revenue over the last five years.” Mr. Stevanovski is one of the co-founders of ACN, LLC based in Concord.

Interestingly, when you run a property search of the Cornelius address listed by Fantasy Draft it shows the owner as West Catawba Ave, LLC. The managing member of this company according to filings at the Secretary of State is Pasicor, LLC. The manager of Pasicor, LLC is Robert Stevanovski according to filings at the Secretary of State. One of the other tenants in the building with Fantasy Draft is Xoom Solar. Xoom Solar is a subsidiary of ACN, LLC.

Based on the above, it would seem obvious Fantasy Draft is an NC company. But, over at the Secretary of State’s website, I was unable to locate Fantasy Draft when I performed a corporate name search (you can perform the search here). Just searching the word “fantasy” in the corporate name search brings up approximately 140 results, 26 of which appeared to be related to fantasy sports in some manner, but no Fantasy Draft. I also attempted a search based on company officials and was still unable to locate Fantasy Draft. I then did a search online in the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds assumed names database (you can perform the search here) just in case they were operating as a d/b/a or an assumed name and still found no results.

After searching online it appears Fantasy Draft is incorporated in Delaware and has filed as a foreign limited liability company in Mississippi (where fantasy sports legislation has already been signed into law) with its principal office in Cornelius, NC. The question for the bill sponsors is whether a physical presence and employees in NC is alone enough to consider Fantasy Draft an NC company. There is nothing wrong with incorporating in Delaware and filing to do business in other states, however, it does not make Fantasy Draft an NC company in my opinion. Whether Fantasy Draft is a foreign corporation transacting business in this state without a certificate of authority pursuant to NCGS §55-15-01 is another question entirely.

To be clear, I reject the premise that the state should be involved with regulation of fantasy sports. But, because of the number of bill sponsors (14) and because it’s a bi-partisan bill, I recognize HB 279 has a good chance of passing the House and heading to the Senate. Let’s hope before it does some other members of the House or members of the Senate can scale this bill back and limit it to simply preventing fraud and abuse and maximizing competition.

Eric