Huntersville PD – just the facts ma’am

The column below originally appeared in the Herald Weekly on July 28, 2016. I have included two documents: the HPD crime stats memo and the retainer agreement with the private law firm used by HPD. No investigation was ever done by the Town Board in response to this column. Maybe certain board members will be willing to ask tougher questions during the budget process this year since it is an election year in Huntersville.

Eric


The following disclaimer is being issued at the outset to ensure it is not missed by readers who are inclined to suffer from confirmation bias or by those who may not always make it to the end of my columns. Criticism of certain aspects of administration at the Huntersville Police Department is not criticism of law enforcement in general.

To those who would question my decision to pen a column that even hints at criticism of local law enforcement given recent tragic events, I would respond by asking why is it left to a part-time opinion columnist to ask these questions and present these facts to Huntersville residents? Why did none of your elected officials in Huntersville publicly question the information provided to them in a June 1 memorandum from the HPD before voting on June 6 to approve a million-dollar increase in the police budget over last year’s budget?

The following facts are presented without comment for the consideration of The Herald Weekly readers:

• $10,599,808 was approved for HPD in the fiscal year 2015-16 budget; Commissioners Melinda Bales, Rob Kidwell and Danny Phillips voted against this budget.

• $11,630,826 was recommended for HPD in the 2016-17 budget (the approved budget has not yet been published online, so the final approved numbers may vary slightly); Commissioners Mark Gibbons, Charles Guignard and Phillips voted against this budget.

• Commissioners Gibbons, Guignard and Phillips supported an alternative 2016-17 budget voted down on June 6 that would have lowered the property tax rate and would have offset this tax cut, in part, by reducing the requested police budget increase by approximately $400,000. Commissioners Bales, Dan Boone and Kidwell voted against this alternative budget and all cited the cut in the requested police budget as a reason for their vote.

• HPD provided year-to-date crime statistics to the mayor, town board and town manager in a memorandum dated June 1 (see below), five days before the budget vote on June 6, that showed zero rapes in 2015 and five in 2016 through May 29; this memorandum showed violent crime has risen 30.43 percent from 2015.

Bi-weekly 6-1-2016

• Thus far, I have been provided with four out of the five incident reports for the rapes in 2016; one incident report is still being withheld by HPD. One incident report describes a rape that allegedly occurred in 2004, and two have been cleared by the district attorney after prosecution was declined. The two cleared rapes show clearance dates in March and April 2016, before the June 1 memorandum was provided to the board.

• Removing these three rapes from the violent crime stats would result in a violent crime increase of only 17.39 percent instead of 30.43 percent (assuming the one incident report still being withheld also shows a date in 2016).

• My initial request for public records related to the 2016 rapes was denied by HPD despite public records law to the contrary, see NCGS §132-1.4(c); I was provided three incident reports only after I pressed back and cited this law.

• HPD retains a private law firm in Greensboro – Smith Rodgers, PLLC, separate from the town attorney, for real-time tactical legal needs at a cost to taxpayers of $18,070 (see retainer agreement below) for a one-year period. This private law firm has contacted me about my routine request for records.

Smith Rodgers 2016-2017 K

I sent another request for records to HPD on July 15 for all reported rapes, sexual assaults and/or other sexual offenses reported in 2015, but I have not yet received a response. Is it possible a rape was reported in 2015 for an incident that occurred in a prior year, or were rapes reported in 2015 but ultimately not prosecuted by the district attorney like the two in 2016? Just more questions that should have been asked publicly by your elected officials in Huntersville.

Finally, I’m pleased to report the BearCat was delivered last weekend, coincidentally just in time for National Night Out. We should all sleep a little sounder tonight with this tool at HPD’s disposal.

Records requesting (in NC) made simple

The column below originally appeared in the August 18, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. My offer still stands to provide a records request template to interested individuals – just send me an email. I currently have two pending records requests – one with Huntersville regarding Police Dept. insurance revenues and one with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools regarding the “Government Relations Professional” (aka lobbyist) position recently filled by Charles Jeter. I’ll be sure to post any relevant information obtained here at the site.

Eric


Have you ever been unable to find an answer to a question you had about your local government? Have you ever wondered what official town business your elected officials were discussing via email? Have you ever wondered how much in travel, lodging and meal expenses your elected officials were charging when attending out of state conferences? I used to have similar questions that kept me up at night until I discovered Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes on Public Records. Now I can send off a records request in no time at all! By the end of this piece hopefully you too will be able to quickly and easily request the answers to these and many more questions from your local government.

A public record in NC is defined in NCGS §132-1(a) as all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of NC government or its subdivisions. §132-1(b) goes on to outline the position that public records are property of the people so the people should be able to obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise provided by law.

The default position outlined in §132-1(b) means that if any public agency denies your request for records they have to specify an applicable exemption – simply denying or ignoring a request is insufficient. For example, if your local police department declines your request for incident reports related to crime statistics cited by them in a report to the local town board ostensibly because they are protecting victims of crime, you can respond by citing to the exemptions outlined in §132-1.4(c) which specifies information that must be provided.

Drafting a records request in NC does not require you to hire a lawyer or have any special expertise. The law is designed to provide everyone easy access to government records in a timely manner. A request can be made orally or in writing and there is no specific format a written request has to take, i.e., it can be a simple email or even a handwritten note. You do not have to disclose the purpose or motive for your request pursuant to §132-6(b). And you do not have to appear in person to obtain records if those records exist in an electronic medium pursuant to §132-6.2(a). Most records can easily be scanned and emailed these days, although some historical documents may necessitate an in-person inspection. §132-9 even provides legal remedies for anyone denied access to public records.

Chapter 132 is worth reading in full and can easily be found with a quick internet search or at the NC General Assembly website. Two other great online resources for anyone wanting more information on records requests or government transparency are the UNC School of Government and the Sunshine Center of the NC Open Government Coalition. The Coates’ Canons blog at the UNC School of Government is a great place to start any local government related research and their staff are always willing to answer questions via email or phone.

Open record laws help to keep all levels of government accountable. But it takes an engaged citizenry to take advantage of these laws. If you have ever wanted to submit a records request but didn’t know how, I will gladly provide any interested reader a records request template upon request. Most of my requests are directed towards Huntersville (and have all been timely responded to thanks in part to Town Clerk Janet Pierson), but the same laws apply in Davidson and Cornelius as well. Sometimes you will be surprised what information a simple records request can uncover, but you’ll never know until you ask.

Random thoughts

This column originally appeared in the Sept. 29, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. I’ve included the services contract below between Huntersville and Huntersville Fire Dept., Inc. – I’m going to try to start including source documents whenever possible here at the site since this was something I couldn’t do at the paper.

Eric


Some random thoughts and questions on topics in and around Huntersville a la the great Thomas Sowell (Google him, kids).

• Two questions about the recently announced Lake Norman Transportation Commission replacement, the North Meck Alliance, composed of officials from Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. Why did Huntersville taxpayers fund the LNTC for years if apparently town officials are now meeting without any cost to the taxpayers? And how long before our elected leaders will be advocating for a new, salaried executive director for this North Meck Alliance?

• Did you know the Huntersville Fire Department is not actually a department of the town but a nonprofit corporation that contracts with Huntersville to provide fire, rescue and other emergency services? The most recent service agreement (see below) between Huntersville and the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. was signed in October 2012 for a period of five years. This contract will be up for renewal next year during an election year. It will be interesting to see whether any current town board members advocate for a competitive bidding process for fire services prior to agreeing to a renewal of the current agreement. 

Fire services K

• The most depressing aspect of the presidential election isn’t the candidates we have to choose from, but how many individuals seem to believe the next president will have a greater impact on their lives than the impact each individual can have on his or her own life. Start learning more about your local government prior to municipal elections next year if you want to make a difference in an election with real impact on your life.

• Why is it that certain media outlets insist on referring to riots as protests? Some media outlets even elaborate and label what occurred in Charlotte last week as “angry” or “violent” protests. Why were police officers in “riot gear” if it was just a protest? Even if the “it was a book” narrative is later discredited by evidence (similar to the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative discredited by the Department of Justice report on the Michael Brown shooting), has this narrative now become irrefutable fact in the mind of the protesters and their sympathizers? And how long before we begin to see articles in credible publications praising the rioters for all of the economic development opportunities they created by destroying so much property in Uptown? Just think of all the glass makers who will benefit financially when they are paid to repair all the broken windows in various Uptown businesses. Not to mention all the police officers who will benefit from being paid overtime. And the defense lawyers who will get paid to represent all of those arrested during the mostly peaceful protests.

• Finally, if the recent solicitation ordinance passed by a 4-2 majority of the Huntersville town board is really all about safety, why is an exemption allowed for applicants with at least $2 million in liability insurance? Don’t the lives of people who work for organizations with just enough insurance liability coverage matter too? Since this ordinance was passed ostensibly to ensure the safety of those soliciting contributions and not to raise revenue for the town, I expect town board members to push for the application fee to be a mere $1. Commissioner Rob Kidwell cited the recent death of a homeless man soliciting on an off-ramp in Charlotte as a reason this ordinance was needed. If it is up to the town government to ensure people don’t get run over while soliciting on interstate off-ramps, is it also up to town government to ensure those people have enough money so they don’t need to beg to begin with?

There is no “but” in free speech.

The column below originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. Funny thing, when my editor emailed to inform me my columns would no longer run in the Herald she actually wrote, “I’m all for freedom of speech and opinions, but not when it affects our funding that enables us to write those opinions.” I like to think her parting words were an intentional homage to my rigorous defense of free speech a month earlier, but I have my doubts.

Since this column appeared I’ve been following the plight of Dr. Jordan Peterson in Canada. If you’re interested in the free speech debate, I would encourage you to follow him on twitter (@jordanbpeterson) or you can watch the free speech debate he participated in back in November on his youtube channel. Protections against compelled speech may be stronger in America than in Canada, but remember, the protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think in terms of free speech absolutism.

Eric


Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of “I’m all for free speech, but …” during a two-minute hate over the latest outrage of the day? Do you know anyone who thinks it is a criminal offense (it isn’t) to engage in “hate speech”? Or have you ever seen anyone on your social media platform of choice place blame a speaker for acts of violence done by others in response to mere words uttered by that speaker? Unless you live a life of quiet solitude in a houseboat on Lake Norman, the likely answer to all three is Yes.

I am a free speech absolutist. I do not believe there is any line that can be drawn between speech that is acceptable and unacceptable because, ultimately, that would mean someone should be given power to decide when that line is crossed; I have yet to meet a person I would trust with such power. 

I am also not a child and do not need to be protected from the words or ideas of other adults no matter how much I may disagree with them. But, I do realize my outlook on speech is shaped by my own experience, which differs greatly from the safe-space seeking, trigger-warning needing, constantly offended group of future leaders currently being churned out by our high schools and colleges. The protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think as I do.

Laws prohibiting certain speech are unnecessary when violence or threats of violence are enough to silence a speaker. From Socrates to Galileo to civil rights protesters to Salman Rushdie to Charlie Hebdo in France, there have always been those willing to use violence or the threat of violence to silence their opposition rather than face them in the arena of ideas. We can now add Huntersville to this ignominious list.

Longtime Huntersville residents Ashley and Sean McMillan live on Beatties Ford Road and have had a hay bale on their property facing the road for the past five or six years that they often decorate. They decided this year to show their support for the Trump/Pence campaign by painting “Vote Trump 2016” on the hay bale. Ashley said this is the first time they have decorated the hay bale with any political message,. On the morning of Friday, Sept. 30, they awoke to find their car broken into with Ashley’s gun and other items stolen, and the hay bale vandalized with a red slash through the Trump sign.

Ashley told me she immediately repainted “Vote Trump 2016” onto the hay bale the morning of the vandalism, but later the same day decided to paint over it with a simple heart since the family was about to leave town for a few days leaving the house unattended. She is still supporting the Trump/Pence ticket but made the decision against taking a public stance again to avoid subjecting her family to further criminal acts. Her message to Herald readers, “We need to come together as a community and not judge each other on political beliefs alone.” 

Please contact the Huntersville Police Department at (704) 464-5400 if you have any information that could lead to an arrest in this matter.

Our public discourse suffers whenever people like the McMillans are forced into silence by violence or engage in self-censorship to avoid criticism because they hold less than popular opinions. This applies equally to all you miscreants who steal or destroy campaign signs every election cycle. It’s against the law, and it’s only indicative of your inability to engage in reasoned debate so just stop with the sign-stealing.

Nothing I have said here in defense of free speech is new or unique, but these things bear repeating from time to time. You can read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (specifically Chap. II) or “Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch, or search “Hitchens Freedom of Speech” on your podcast app, for a much more eloquent commentary on the virtues of open debate and unfiltered discussion.

Huntersville Board Agenda – Dec. 19, 2016

There is a town board meeting tonight at 6:30pm. You can read what’s on the agenda here and you can watch a live stream of the meeting here. Rick Short does a good job at his blog of covering agenda items for Davidson board meetings so I decided to attempt the same for Huntersville. If you want to review the full agenda packet including supporting documents, you can download a copy by clicking the “Full Packet” link at the town’s agenda and minutes page. I can’t cover every 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.

Other Business:

– Item E: The board will be debating whether to adopt a new ordinance prohibiting domestic animals to be tethered unless attended by a competent person AND eleven (11) conditions are met. I still have questions about why this new ordinance is even needed since Huntersville already penalizes abuse of animals under 94.36, but the tethering ordinance language has at least been revised so that a violation will not result in jail time. [Update: This measure passed – not surprisingly.]

– Item G: The mayor is pushing for approval of a new interlocal agreement with Davidson and Cornelius to form the “North Mecklenburg Alliance.” I wrote about this briefly in my Sept. 29, 2016 Herald column. This new advocacy group is unnecessary – the three mayors are already free to get together anytime they choose to talk about how great the Red Line is going to be once they can finally figure out how to actually pay for it. But, as currently drafted, the real problem with this agreement is the “Chuck Travis clause” in Article 6(b) that allows the towns to not authorize the Alliance to represent their interest before any legislative body. This is backwards. It should be the Alliance that has the obligation to request authorization from the towns before being able to advocate a position before a legislative body, the towns should not have to take action to ensure the Alliance does not advocate a position that town opposes. [Update: This measure – surprisingly – did not pass after the mayor voted against in order to break a 3-3 tie with Commissioners Boone, Kidwell and Gibbons voting in favor, and Commissioners Bales, Guignard and Phillips voting against. Commissioner Bales raised a valid concern – what happens if Huntersville gets outvoted by the other members on an issue, say supporting the Red Line? We’re the larger town, why cede such authority to two or more smaller towns?]

Consent Agenda – An aside, Huntersville consistently has more items on their consent agenda than Cornelius or Davidson. This is problematic from a transparency standpoint because it makes it possible to avoid debate and a separate, recorded vote by each elected official on controversial items.

– Item F: As part of the consent agenda, the board will be voting to approve a budget amendment recognizing insurance revenue in the amount of $6,311.72 and appropriating this revenue to the Police Dept’s insurance account. [Update: Chief Spruill stated at the meeting this specific appropriation was the result of a patrol car hitting a deer. I will be sending a records request for more information.] 16 of 23 meetings this calendar year have included a similar item on the consent agenda totaling $46,668.95. No information or documentation is ever included in the agenda packet explaining the basis for this insurance revenue. I’m not sure how Cornelius or Davidson deals with these appropriations because this item rarely, if ever, seems to appear on their agendas.

Commissioner Boone began the practice of asking Chief Spruill to explain these appropriations at the Jan. 19, 2016 meeting, but apparently the board has dispensed with this practice because another explanation has not been requested since that meeting to the best of my knowledge. At the Jan. 19 meeting, Chief Spruill explained the specific appropriations on that agenda were related to a motor vehicle accident involving an officer and a hit-and-run causing damage to a parked police vehicle. Hopefully the board will get back to requesting more information on these items or at least require more information to be included in the agenda packet to improve transparency.

 

 

On the vote to replace Rep. Charles Jeter

The column below originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. Mr. Jeter has been back in the news recently when it was reported in the Charlotte Observer CMS hired him as a lobbyist at an annual taxpayer funded salary of $91,000. How exactly a lobbyist produces $91,000 worth of value to the taxpayers isn’t explained in the Observer article. The Daily Haymaker has questioned this use of taxpayer funds since Mr. Jeter isn’t yet a registered lobbyist and is actually prohibited from even registering as a lobbyist until the “later of the close of session as set forth in G.S. 120C-100(a)(4)b.1 in which the legislator served or six months after leaving office” per NCGS 120C-304(a)(2).

Despite being in extra innings at the moment, the current session in which Mr. Jeter served before resigning is likely to end before the six month mark after he left office – which, if you calculate it based on when he formally resigned with the Board of Elections, August 9, and not when he informally notified party leadership of his intention to resign on July 25, would mean Mr. Jeter isn’t even able to register as a lobbyist until on or about February 9, 2017. Were there no other qualified candidates considered by CMS who could start work immediately? I have sent a records request to CMS in an attempt to find this out and will report back when/if I receive a response.

Funny how neither one of our local weekly papers was able to find space to cover this issue this week – but what do I know, I’m just another one of those outlets for fake news online pandering to the un-informed masses.

And my offer to provide a records request template to anyone interested in submitting their own records request still stands. Just send me an email.

Eric


How did we ever find outlets for our self-righteousness before social media?

My current social media platform of choice is Twitter, which at least keeps self-righteousness and virtue signaling limited to 140 characters (although Twitter’s increasing culture of censorship has me looking for an alternative platform).

The latest non-toll related online social media outrage du jour took place last month after the vote to replace former state house representative Charles Jeter.

Mr. Jeter notified Republican party leadership of his sudden intention to resign on the morning of July 25, citing personal reasons. He did not provide formal notice of his resignation to the state board of elections until the afternoon of Aug. 9 – 15 days later. There has still not been any explanation provided by Mr. Jeter for the 15-day delay in providing formal notice of his resignation to the appropriate officials at the board of elections. He has declined requests for comments via Twitter.

Why is this 15-day delay important? Because rules allow the Mecklenburg County Republican Party to nominate and vote on a replacement candidate in the event of a resignation, but only after notice has been given to the appropriate officials. The vote to replace Mr. Jeter did not occur until Aug. 17 – the same night, coincidentally, a vote took place to nominate a replacement for former Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherford County. Mr. Hager, by comparison, gave appropriate notice of his resignation on or about Aug. 12, and the replacement vote promptly took place a week later.

The candidate nominated to replace Mr. Jeter on the November ballot, Danae Caulfield, has a severely limited number of days to campaign before the election putting her at a distinct disadvantage compared with her Democrat opponent, who has reported raising over $100,000 this election cycle. The 15 days Mr. Jeter delayed in formally resigning did nothing to increase her electoral odds. [UPDATE – Caulfield did end up losing the election by approx. 3,676 votes. Could this margin have been overcome with more time to fundraise and campaign?]

You would have assumed wrong if you assumed the social media outrage referred to at the outset was directed at Mr. Jeter for his delay in formally resigning. Instead, Facebookers took to their keyboards to furiously vent about the Mecklenburg GOP executive board and Justin Moore, the nominee voted to replace Mr. Jeter for the remainder of the current term.

You see, this was just another example of the GOP elites conspiring to trample anti-toll conservatives by not voting for Mr. Jeter’s primary opponent from earlier this year, Tom Davis, even though Mr. Moore has also always opposed the I-77 toll plan.

Mr. Davis was apparently entitled to the replacement vote, according to some posts, because he nearly defeated Mr. Jeter in the primary. According to this logic, these same individuals would be expected to support Sarah McAulay and Jill Swain to be nominated for town board or mayor in the event of an absence since both were runners-up in the last election – an unlikely scenario.

Many were upset with Mr. Moore for not running for both slots, to finish the term and get on this fall’s ballot, since an incumbent running in November would have been more likely to prevail. But Mr. Davis made clear prior to the Mecklenburg GOP meeting on Aug. 17 he did not intend to run for the ballot slot (and, in fact, did not run for the ballot slot), and I have yet to hear the same criticism leveled against him.

If you really want to effect change locally, you have to show up to your party’s annual precinct meeting at a minimum. It will be interesting to see how many of those expressing their outrage online actually show up to be counted at next year’s precinct meeting.

An addendum: I received a few emails asking for records requests templates after my most recent column on public records. This led me to think there are likely other members of the public who want more information from their local government on various public policy issues or elected officials. So, if you’re interested in obtaining information related to a specific public policy or elected official, send me an email with details and I’ll consider whether to follow up with my own records request.

Huntersville still waiting for change

The column below originally appeared in the November 17, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. I will be adding past Herald columns here at the site to create a searchable archive while I work on some new content.

Eric


Elections have consequences… or, at least they used to. No, I’m not talking about the election for president last week because that election will most definitely have some profound consequences. A year after Huntersville voters overwhelmingly elected a new mayor and town board, there have yet to be much in the way of consequences at town hall. Maybe it’s expecting too much of politicians to vote for meaningful change when it isn’t an election year.

The new mayor and town board had the opportunity to lower taxes this year, but Mayor (John) Aneralla and Commissioners (Melinda) Bales, (Dan) Boone and (Rob) Kidwell voted in opposition

Total budget expenditures increased overall, and the police department budget alone increased by almost $900,000. There have been no board-directed personnel changes. An ad hoc oversight committee was formed in January to oversee the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics Center, but no report on any recommendations has been presented at a town board meeting. The contract for the Bearcat armored vehicle was not canceled, and now the town has a 13-year-old used armored vehicle it has to pay to upgrade and maintain. 

 The recently approved new fire department building is already almost half a million dollars over the original budget presented, and yet still passed by a 4-2 vote.  And the mayor is already attempting to reverse what has been one of the few changes made, leaving the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, by pushing for Huntersville to join a reformulated regional planning group.

Even though there has been dissension amongst the board members on many of these items, it’s hard to argue that the current mayor and town board have done much to change the status quo.

Most notably, construction of the toll lanes is continuing unabated despite the new mayor and board unanimously adopting a resolution requesting termination of the toll contract and after receiving assistance from local legislators. If the tolls are now all but a foregone conclusion, what is going to motivate the anti-toll voters to turn out again next year? Voters eventually need something to vote for once the anger and frustration subsides over what they were voting against.

With regards to the anti-toll voters, some closing words on anger and civility. This presidential election produced an excessive amount of commentary on the need for greater civility and less anger in politics. Elections at all levels are as divisive as they are because of what is at stake – both real and perceived. How are Republican voters supposed to act civil when they believe the government is taking the fruits of their labor by force for illegitimate purposes, or that the next president will attempt to make their families less secure by working to repeal protections afforded by the Second Amendment? Conversely, why should Democrat voters not be angry when they think members of the other party are engaging in racial discrimination by enacting voter ID laws or hurting the poor by not expanding Medicaid?

Toll opponents have received their share of criticism over their tone, some of it warranted, most of it not. But people can be passionate (especially online) when they feel their livelihood is at stake or they have been lied to. Of course, if you’re looking for civility online you’re looking in the wrong place. Politics in the past weren’t as civil as people like to recall (anyone remember Burr shooting Hamilton or the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings?), and future elections likely will not be as civil as people hope.

 If you are really interested in improving the discourse surrounding our elections, both nationally and locally, you should be working to make government smaller. A smaller government is less likely to redistribute your income or violate your natural and civil rights, which would in turn decrease the importance of elections and increase the level of civility surrounding politics. It probably also wouldn’t hurt to turn off the nightly cable news circus and maybe read a book instead. And just avoid social media completely for the next four years if at all possible.