Fine print: May 2012

Another trickle-down theory
By G.D. Gearino

Years ago, I asked my longtime Raleigh News & Observer colleague Tim Stevens, who has spent his lengthy career covering high-school sports, why he never moved up to the bigger stage of college athletics, where there’s more glory and exposure. His answer, both wise and sensible, was because high school is the last time anyone plays solely for the love of a sport. Afterward, at the college and professional level, that purity of purpose is much diminished as other things intrude — money, mostly.

II remembered that answer when I later found myself working on a big project for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. The more I talked to local-government officials from around the state, the more I understood that a similar principle applied: that the last time anyone runs for office in the sole hope of serving the public is at the local level. Beyond that point, money and ego taint the water. One would hope that the purity of purpose you find on the local political level would trickle up. Instead, the bad stuff increasingly trickles down — the imperiousness and the endless reminders that we are the ruled, which are the hallmarks of Washington-level politicians. Let us count the ways common sense and good judgment are disappearing from local politics these days.

Consider the city of Raleigh, whose administrators have declared that anyone who takes recyclable goods from the curbside and commits the unspeakable crime of delivering them to a recycling center before the city can do so must face justice. Apparently it is preferable to spend tax money to collect recycling rather than have someone else do it at no cost to the public. The reason, of course, is that the city gets $30 for every ton of material that it recycles. Naturally, that’s also why anyone else wants to collect recycling — because they need the money, probably desperately.

Then there’s the situation facing my office landlord, who found himself competing with a public agency in the commercial real-estate market. Among the buildings he owns (which include the one containing the Raleigh outpost of my employer, North Carolina Lawyers Weekly) is an office structure in Durham that was in the running to land a regional mental-health agency as a tenant. Instead, the agency opted to lease space in a building owned by Triangle Transit, a public body that has the blessing of the General Assembly to levy taxes to support its operations. Those operations now apparently include commercial real estate, using tax dollars to undercut private landlords to attract tenants.

I don’t need to explain all the ways in which this is wrong, but my landlord feels the need to: He has hired an attorney, whom he described as a “promising young constitutional lawyer,” to represent him. (That lawyer is former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, by the way. Promising, indeed.) But why does a business owner have to pay a lawyer to instruct local government that it shouldn’t use a man’s tax money against him in the marketplace?

The situation is even more absurd in Wilson, the city that used public money to build a broadband Internet and cable-television system to compete with New York-based Time Warner Cable Inc. When the city later decided it needed even more public money for its system, it applied to the federal government for a $19 million grant. Time Warner — under the naive belief that Wilson’s public officials understood that public records are required to be open to the public — asked to see the grant application. But as The News & Observer explained a couple of months ago, Time Warner’s open-records request was briskly rebuffed, and for a reason so ludicrous that it’s hard to imagine how Wilson’s lawyer made it with a straight face: Release of the documents would threaten homeland security. Because, you know, if terrorists learn how to offer HBO to the masses at a tax-subsidized bargain price, they could use that knowledge against us. How long would it be before we were getting cable service from Al Qaeda?

A judge finally ordered the city to release the application, and when that happened, the city dropped all pretense of being concerned with homeland security. It didn’t want to share the information simply because city leaders believed it would put them at a competitive disadvantage with Time Warner. This from the same people who sought to use public money and pervert open-records law to put Time Warner at a competitive disadvantage.

Local politicians are learning too well the lessons and techniques of Washington. How long will it be before I find out the quarterback at the high school a couple of blocks away has an endorsement deal?

G.D. Gearino is editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. Email him at dan.gearino@nclawyersweekly.com.