Durham loses seat on state transportation board

Feb. 05, 2013 @ 07:13 PM

For the first time in eight years, Durham won’t have a hometown appointee on the state Board of Transportation to ride herd on projects like the planned East End Connector.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s staff announced this week that he was replacing Durham lawyer Chuck Watts and nine other members of the board, which oversees the work of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Watts’ designated successor is Mike Smith, a Raleigh developer who’s president of Kane Realty Corp. The appointment becomes official only after consultations with legislators.

Local officials had asked McCrory to retain Watts, but the lawyer on Tuesday said he was always going to be “happy either way.”

McCrory’s predecessor, former Gov. Beverly Perdue, sought “to take the politics out of the role and make it more of a policy-oriented board,” Watts added. “Assuming they continue that idea about [its] role, I can’t imagine [the change in delegates] making that much difference.”

McCrory’s decision affected 10 members of the board whose terms were expiring early this year. Nine other members whose terms are supposed to run until 2015 remain, for now.

But existing state law allows the governor to remove Board of Transportation members whenever he or she wants.

And in the N.C. Senate, Republicans who control the chamber have proposed a law that would in essence fire the current members of five similar boards, the most prominent being the state Utilities Commission and the Environmental Management Commission.

The bill as yet doesn’t affect the Board of Transportation, but the bill’s sponsors made no bones about their desire to see more Republicans filling state appointive posts.

To accomplish that, their draft signaled a willingness to wipe out staggered-term provisions that in some cases date from 1965 that are supposed to provide a check on gubernatorial or legislative power.

McCrory’s Board of Transportation appointments hewed to the more-Republicans theme, as the 10 he named included eight members of the GOP. An unaffiliated voter and a Democrat rounded out the slate. Existing law requires that at least three board members have to be registered with a party that isn’t the governor’s. McCrory is a Republican.

State Board of Elections records show that all 10 of his appointees had given money to either McCrory’s 2008 or 2012 campaigns for governor, or both.

Collectively, they supplied $46,779, which doesn’t count any donations to the McCrory campaign from family members or associates.

Watts didn’t donate any money to Perdue or McCrory.

His predecessor, Durham lawyer Ken Spaulding, in 2000 gave $250 to former Gov. Mike Easley’s campaign. Spaulding served on the board from 2005 to 2009, under an appointment from Easley.

Smith, who couldn’t be reached for comment, like Watts and Spaulding will hold the board’s Division 5 seat. The division covers Durham, Wake, Granville, Person, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties.

The seat shuffle also affected the Division 7 seat, which among others covers Orange County. For it, McCrory replaced a Greensboro lawyer, Michael Fox, with a Greensboro contractor, Dwight Stone.

Durham’s eight-year hold on the Division 5 seat was unusual given that Wake, population-wise, is by far the division’s largest county.

But Durham is predominantly Democratic, and local groups like the Spaulding-financed Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People are key to Democrats’ statewide get-out-the-vote effort.

The division’s population disparity traditionally made it “very hard to make sure Durham County as well as other counties within Division 5 were able to get some of their roads completed,” Spaulding said.

Smith arrives on the board with a track record that suggests he’s pro-transit. His firm is behind Raleigh’s North Hills project, a large mixed-use development that’s “multi-modal in approach” when it comes to accommodating different types of conveyances, Regional Transportation Alliance Executive Director Joe Milazzo said.

Kane Realty is a member of the alliance, a pro-transit business group that helped marshal support for recent transit-tax referenda in Durham and Orange counties.

Milazzo voiced no unhappiness with the appointment. “The folks we’ve had to this point, Chuck Watts and his predecessors, have done a nice job representing the region,” he said. “I’m sure Mike will do the same.”