Bill calls for city-government ethics disclosures

Jun. 18, 2014 @ 07:41 PM

A “regulatory reform” bill pending in the N.C. House would force elected officials in the state’s largest cities to file the same sort of ethics disclosures state officials have to.
The provision applies to any city with a population of more than 75,000 people. That appears to take in about 12 North Carolina cities, including Durham.
A related provision in the draft would bar elected officials in those cities from appearing in taxpayer-funded advertisements and public-service announcements, save in cases of “local, state or national emergency.”
The disclosure requirement has attracted the attention of the N.C. League of Municipalities, a lobbying group for city and town governments. It questions why the provision only targets large cities.
“If we’re going to reform our local-government ethics laws, those changes should apply to other parts of local government,” said Paul Meyer, the league’s executive director. “If these changes are essential, they should be essential for other levels of government.”
Meyer was alluding to the fact the ethics section of the bill as written exempts county government and smaller cities from its demands.
The N.C. General Assembly had previously required local officials who sit on the rural and “metropolitan planning organizations” that drive planning for road and rail projects to fill out the disclosure forms.
For Durham, that means Mayor Bill Bell, City Council members Diane Catotti and Steve Schewel, and County Commissioners Ellen Reckhow and Brenda Howerton have already had to send disclosures to the State Ethics Commissions.
The disclosures list an official’s property and stock holdings, employment interests and other sources of income. They also detail an official’s ties to charities and other nonprofit groups that do business with government.
Bell voiced no objection Wednesday to the extension of the disclosure requirement.
“I’ve done it, so I don’t have a problem with it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t “know what’s behind” the House’s interest in expanding disclosure.
The mayor reserved comment on the no-appearances-in-ads provision, saying he’d “have to look at it” and doesn’t know what it involves.
The move comes as the state’s largest city, Charlotte, deals with the continued fallout of a bribery scandal involving former Mayor Patrick Cannon.
Cannon resigned in March – only a few days short of four months after taking office – following his arrest by FBI agents. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to taking payments from a strip-club owner whose club was being displaced by an extension of Charlotte’s light-rail system.
Meanwhile, the involvement of politicians in taxpayer-funded ads has been controversial since former Gov. Mike Easley, while still the state’s attorney general, appeared in a series of public-service announcements warning against different types of consumer fraud.
Republicans argued that Easley was using the messages to boost his statewide name recognition, in anticipation of running for governor.
Durham’s Office of Public Affairs has featured City Council members mostly in messages appearing on the city’s government-affairs cable-TV channel, said Beverly Thompson, the office’s director.
“That’s not consistent, it’s here and there,” Thompson said, citing as an example the office’s promotion of the recent “e-Town Hall” question-and-answer session for residents about the city budget.
Meyer discounted the possibility of a partisan motive behind the bill’s disclosure provisions. “Whenever we’ve had any changes in our local-government ethics laws, it’s never been about that,” he said.
But the large cities the bill targets are led, by and large, by Democrats, and the General Assembly since 2011 has been majority Republican.
Democrats hold the mayor’s office in 10 of the 12 affected cities, Durham included. Of the others, a Republican is the mayor in Fayetteville, and Concord’s mayor is politically unaffiliated.
A commentator who leads the conservative, GOP-linked John Locke Foundation, John Hood, in a November article for one of the group’s publications pointed out that the Republican base at the local-government level is primarily in small towns and in county office.
Conflict-of-interest complaints have surfaced in a few recent Durham elections.
Some of Bell’s mayoral opponents have called attention to his job as chief operating officer of the UDI Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that regularly deals with city government.
And in 2009, a challenger tried to make hay about former City Councilman Mike Woodard’s job with Duke University, Durham’s largest single employer.
In neither case, however, did the issue gain traction with voters. Woodard, now a state senator, secured 86 percent of the vote in his 2009 race.