Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gravely Accountability to Taxpayers? Not So Fast...

$50,000 in taxpayer money to entertain sailors and wine and dine Wilmington's social elite? Sure - no problem. Accounting for where exactly that money went, what it was used for, and if any of it is left over? Good luck with that.

The issue is not with the US Navy; nor is this in any way a commentary against our fair city being honored with commissioning a new Naval Destroyer. This is about the political implications at the local level regarding this event.

It bears repeating, that Louise McColl, Chair of the Gravely Commissioning Committee, and incidentally campaign manager to both the head of our city government, Mayor Bill Saffo; and county government, County Commission Chair Jason Thompson; was easily granted $25,000 each from both governments for entertainment purposes related to the commissioning, which occurred this past Saturday, November 20. In the wake of this event, it has proven quite difficult to find out exactly what taxpayer money was used specifically for.

In an email to county and city leaders, your humble blogger made an official request for a complete accounting of  what taxpayer money was used for:

Mr. Thompson & Mr. Saffo:
Since both of you saw it fitting and necessary to give 50,000 in taxpayer dollars to your campaign manager for the Gravely commissioning, I am formally requesting a line item statement of all expenditures that said money was used for, along with receipts; and a statement of how much money is left over, and what happens to it. 
I assume that your respective managers had the foresight to request that such records be kept for auditing purposes. Taxpayers and citizens are entitled by law to know where every dime of their money goes.
Thank you.
Mr. Thompson, apparently irritated by such a request, responded as such:
You are right. There is a process prescribed by law to get said information. I suggest you follow it. If you need assistance with said laws please advise. 
 After a couple of emails parrying back and forth, Thompson had this to say:
Actually we gave the 25k to the friends of the battleship nonprofit. Louise McColl didn't get anything from us.
According to county documents, this simply isn't the case. The County Commission agenda item specifically references the USS Gravely Commissioning Committee was to receive the $25,000, as seen here:

Not only that, the funds used were contingency funds, set aside for emergencies and so forth. Apparently the official definition for "contingency" has been expanded to include pub crawls, steak dinners, dancing, mini-golf, movie passes, and ballroom galas.

After being confronted with clear evidence that it was the USS Gravely, not the Battleship North Carolina that received the funding, Thompson re-stated his position with:
Where does it say we paid Louise McColl? Until you ask or comment about something in the world of reality I for one am done discussing this topic with you. 
The animosity toward a lone citizen merely requesting that taxpayer money being used for an outside function be accounted for, is quite apparent. It seems that the chosen few inside the well-protected political fold can easily obtain subsidies from taxpayers; and subsequently be guarded against having ever to account for what exactly that money was used for. Unfortunately, the law is on the side of the hidden political interest - not the people. Greg Roney of the General Assembly Research Division, explains the law in an email:
An organization which is recognized by the IRS as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code must make its federal tax returns available for public inspection. The federal tax returns would include information about expenditures. The organization does not have to provide public access to its books and records. The IRS has a helpful discussion on public disclosure at the following web site:,,id=96430,00.html. If the organization is incorporated in North Carolina under the North Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act, then North Carolina law requires disclosure to members of the organization.
The local news media has been silent on the entire issue, until WECT reported yesterday:

WECT was referred to Louise McColl, the committee chair. While she was not required to report back on the committee's spending, after repeated media requests, she notified the New Hanover County budget department that she would provide documentation.
From: Louise McColl []
Sent: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 9:16 AM
To: Griffin, Cam
Subject: Re: gravely
It will be at least 3 weeks. I will let you know what the 25000 went toward. Have them contact me/Dave
Phone calls to McColl were not immediately returned. Late Tuesday night she replied that she would not be available for an interview until all invoices had been returned. She briefly discussed the large expense that putting on such an event incurred and promised that her company, McColl & Associates did not "make a penny" off of the event.
Until McColl's itemized budget comes in, no one can be sure, specifically, which activities and expenditures public money was used for. At her city council presentation, McColl listed a variety of activities such as fishing, the pub crawl and volleyball for the sailors. However, various other expenses involving transportation, food and security could also be on the list.
Full Article:

Unfortunately, McColl has the law on her side by remaining silent. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the committee's expenditures do not have to be disclosed to the public. However, this law should absolutely not apply to taxpayer money. If public money is given to an organization of any type, the public should have absolutely every right and opportunity to see where every single dime of their money goes. At least one member of the NC General Assembly has expressed interest in taking a closer look at this law, and possibly changing or modifying it to allow for full disclosure of taxpayer funds.

In her email response reported above, it looks as if McColl is only planning to account for $25,000 of the $50,000 that she was given, and reluctantly at that. Organizations and committees should be not only willing, but absolutely forthcoming with their books regarding taxpayer money. It's the least they can do to since the good taxpayers have funded their operations. Citizens being treated harshly or vilified for demanding transparency and accountability regarding what their money is used for is completely unacceptable.

UPDATE: In an email from New Hanover County Manager Bruce Shell, I was told that the county has requested an accounting for their $25,000 portion given to McColl, and that I will be copied on that once it is received. No word still from the City of Wilmington. WWAY has now joined the fray:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Airlie Authority - Preservation Easement Hides Bigger Agenda

In just a few short days, the issue of an Airlie preservation easement has appeared on the radar, and generated a much public interest. The Wilmington Watcher exclusively reported to you from the New Hanover County Commissioner's agenda briefing meeting concerning the discussion the commissioners had regarding the issue. After concerns were addressed by Jonathan Barfield, Jason Thompson, and to some degree, Bobby Greer, the resolution passed unanimously at Monday's 2PM meeting of the New Hanover County Commission.

In an email from Commission Chairman Jason Thompson last week, after the agenda briefing, the Wilmington Watcher was told that "I felt like there were four no votes as presented." However, at Monday's meeting, all concerns suddenly quieted - the resolution had no difficulty receiving a unanimous five vote passage.

The final version of the resolution had some minor adjustments. Language that stated that the county would maintain the facilities in as good or better condition than they are now - was changed to simply reflect "as good condition". However, the primary concerns present in the resolution still remain intact. The Airlie preservation easement resolution still lays significant groundwork in establishing complete authority over Airlie in the hands of the Airlie Foundation, even though the county owns the land, and taxpayers fund Airlie's operations.

What is most noteworthy about Monday's meeting, is that after a public outcry to table the issue until the new commissioners could take their seat, no commissioner listed this as a concern before his vote. The Airlie resolution was carefully crafted by the Airlie Foundation and Ted Davis, and strategically placed on the agenda just in time for the last meeting featuring Greer and Caster - a safe vote for the wishes of the Foundation.

Also noteworthy, is that before the item was discussed, Ted Davis put on a pre-arranged production with County Attorney Wanda Copley by asking her if he had a conflict of interest in the issue, since he serves on both the Airlie Foundation and the county commission. After a long-winded explanation wrapped in what seemed to pass as legal definition, Copley said no. Not overlooked was the fact that Davis conveniently omitted the real issue that is a definite conflict. The issue of his being a member of the Corbett family, who sold Airlie to the county, and who still controls it. Copley never made any attempt to address this in any way.

After mildly manipulating the language in the resolution to appease certain commissioners and their faux concern, the resolution had no trouble gliding through. Public comments were not arranged until after the meeting when all votes had been taken, and commissioners were safe from the pressure of the public's will in rendering their decisions.

The effects of this resolution will keep the money flowing in from taxpayers to the Airlie Foundation - which is not forthcoming with their books; and how much of public funding is used to host out-of-work actors and wine and cheese galas so the local social elite can parade through, noses high, and appease their sense of civic engagement. Any attempt to reverse the decision would require a majority vote by the commission to undo the preservation easement - which would certainly cause a public backlash. Who would want to be responsible for removing Airlie from preservation status? However, such would be the only way to save the taxpayers money in tough times. With the resolution, the Airlie Foundation wields the unprecedented power over Airlie, and is relieved of any obligation or incentive to seek outside funding, or become self-sufficient in its operations.

The people of New Hanover County were patronized with a huge money grab and power shift cleverly shrouded as a "preservation easement". The Airlie Foundation is unelected, and therefore unaccountable to the public, so the public can easily be shut out from all inside occurrences, spending, and budgetary decisions by the Foundation. Surely there will be a couple of washed-up actors on hand at a soirée thrown in Ted Davis' honor for his unrelenting work securing "free" money for the Corbett family and the Airlie Foundation. The other commissioners will certainly be invited as well, for seeing the light and bowing to the wishes of those with whom their power is derived, and who they owe their political careers. They have served their masters well, as the emptiness of taxpayers' wallets will attest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

BREAKING: NHC Commission to Vote on Binding Resolution to Tie Taxpayers Hands to Airlie Indefinitely

In an unbelievable move at the county commissioner's November 10 agenda briefing meeting, item #17 on the November 15th meeting of the New Hanover County Commissioners attempts to rush through a binding preservation easement between New Hanover County and the Airlie Gardens Foundation. Commissioner Ted Davis, Jr., did not mince words when he said that he thought it was important for the board to go ahead and pass this before the two new commissioners take their seat. "No offense to Mr. Berger or Mr. Catlin", Davis said.

Clearly acting in typical lame duck session form, Davis sees more of a chance of passing this resolution with Bobby Greer and Bill Caster, long-time proponents for taxpayer funding of Airlie Gardens. "This is what the citizens want us to do," said Davis.

What wasn't discussed was that Ted Davis, Jr. is cousin to Albert Corbett, of the infamous Corbett family, the same Corbett family considered to be Wilmington royal elite; and the original sellers of Airlie to New Hanover County.

Davis is acting as head cheerleader for the resolution, and did not issue any plans to recuse himself from the vote due to the obvious conflict of interest. In fact, when Commissioners Barfield and Thompson weighed in with reservations on the issue, Davis coolly replied that the Foundation would like to see this passed, and is requesting a unanimous decision of the commissioners.

The resolution, which can be found below, creates a binding deed of trust with the Airlie Foundation, in which gives complete control of the property to the Foundation. It also allows the Foundation to hold the county legally responsible for its funding. When the Airlie Foundation was originally constituted, the expressed intent of it was to seek out and obtain other sources of funding to sustain the gardens.

This current resolution attempts to remove any incentive for the Foundation to ever seek any alternative sources of funding, and ties Airlie Gardens to the taxpayer of New Hanover County indefinitely. State law prohibits a county commission board to bind future boards to anything, but being that this is actually a legal binding document, i.e. deed of trust, preservation easement, they may have found a loophole. The resolution also mandates that the county maintain the property and its resources at the same or better condition as they are now.

Ironically, several commissioners at the meeting kept repeating the sentiment that "this is what the citizens want us to do" - however, the citizens duly elected two new commissioners just over a week ago, and therefore it would seem that the public would rather the new board handle controversial issues such as this. This is a clear case of a lame duck session trying to force through a binding and lasting resolution that will tie taxpayer's hands to fund a project indefinitely.

Davis and the Airlie Foundation have a profound vested interest in the passing of this resolution. This would give the power completely to the Airlie Foundation (although the county purchased the gardens from the Corbett family) as to the fate of Airlie. In addition, the Foundation has complete legal authority to hold the county responsible for taxpayer funding. If the county decides it can't afford to fund Airlie in the future, there are legal repercussions that the Foundation can seek against the county.

This resolution is a bad deal for taxpayers, and a clear conflict of interest for County Commissioner Ted Davis, Jr. Commissioners Barfield and Thompson attempted to show some backbone and issued reservations, but were promptly put back in their place by Davis when he notified them of the Foundation's wishes. An air of reverence and fear descended upon the two dissenting voices, and collective support for the resolution was restored.

The public has expressed that it would like to see Airlie protected. But never has anyone in the public expressed the desire for a binding resolution and deed of trust that spans into the indefinite future, binding taxpayers forever. The public likes the idea of the Foundation constantly seeking alternative sources of funding, and there has been a loud cry for Airlie to become self-sufficient. For the commissioners to proclaim that they are doing with this what the public wants, without giving the public sufficient time to even become aware of the issue, or what is in the document is preposterous. It is obvious that Davis and the Foundation fear that the public would understandably not support this motion, would reject it outright, and that time is definitely not on their side. This why they seek to rush this through immediately, before the next commissioners meeting December 6, when Brian Berger and Rick Catlin take their seats as the two new commissioners.

The next meeting in which this resolution is to be voted on is scheduled for Monday November 15, at 2 PM at the old courthouse downtown, in the commissioner's chambers. Please write your commissioners and urge them to table this until the new board takes their seat, and the public has sufficient time to weigh in and issue their thoughts on the matter.

Email addresses for the commissioners are:
Agenda 2010 11-15-Airlie Easement

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

McColl's Navy: The USS Gravely Commissioning

As reported in the Wilmington Watcher, Wilmington City Council kicked in $25,000 to Louise McColl's PR firm for the entertaining of sailors, crew, and "dignitaries" affiliated with the forthcoming commissioning of the USS Gravely here in the Port City. Not to be outdone, and certainly no surprise, the New Hanover County Commission has followed suit as well, with their contribution of $25,000 to McColl, for a grand total of $50,000 for entertainment expenses.

McColl, campaign manager for Mayor Saffo, Councilwoman Tomey, and County Commission Chairman Jason Thompson had a relatively painless time obtaining the loot. In the case of the city, as previously reported, the agenda request for the funds was officially asked for by Mayor Saffo, according to City Manager Sterling Cheatham's agenda request, on behalf of Ms. McColl; certainly sparing her the time and effort necessary to put forth such a request. 

In the case of the county, the agenda item to approve the funds was also unanimously approved, after a dazzling presentation by the Co-Chair of the Gravely Committee, Captain Dave Scheu (See the agenda here: McColl lurked behind the scenes, and had no obvious involvement in this request; although in the case of the city's funding, she initiated the original request letter to City Manager Sterling Cheatham. 

One of the most obvious of unanswered questions is why was this project never put out to bid by either local government entity? McColl simply assumed the role of Chairwoman for the committee, easily got the funding, and the rest is history. The lesson here seems to be that it really does pay to sit on many public boards, and also serve as political consultant and campaign manager for as many local political figures as possible. When the time comes for a financial shot in the arm, your charges will certainly no doubt come to your rescue and deliver the funds without delay.

The entire event, though it may be a shallow, emotional, feel-good sort of honor; is being touted as an economic savior, by city and county officials alike. WWAY reports:

County finance director Avril Pinder says the money spent on the USS Gravely commissioning is a return on investment and it will make a huge impact on the local economy. Pinder says every time you spend one dollar, it is spent 2.5 times in our community. It's called the multiplier effect. Based on $1.5 million in sales tax, that would mean the community would generate $3.75 million.
WWAY Article

The question of the veracity of the funny math used in such equations aside; how does general fund taxpayer dollars spent in an elite circle of political allies ease any burden on the taxpayer himself? We have no reason to believe that Wilmington would not have been chosen anyway, even if the local taxpayer was spared from footing the bill. The United States Navy probably spends $50,000 on toilet paper every 4 minutes - certainly they could have easily paid for this event.

The truth is that we didn't give them the chance. McColl and her army of expensive self-assigned do-gooders were there from the get-go promising goodies and perks all under the thinly veiled guise of "economic development". A portion of the money spent by visitors during this event will find its way into local shops and businesses, no doubt. But the tax rates and burden to the taxpayer will remain the same - if not increase given recent history. The money generated will have to be used to pay down a looming tax bill. This money winds up in the same hands - politicians - no matter how you cut it. More money to spend on boondoggles, unnecessary projects, and soirées thrown by political insiders. The taxpayer's burden is in no danger of lessening in any way, and will surely ultimately increase as more and more of the public treasury is wasted on frivolous items. Politicians often use terms like "return on investment" to ease the public's concern - when they really mean a political investment, where the spoils return to from whence they came. Taxpayers will always be on the short end of that stick.

When questioned about the public's support of the funding on The Big Talker 93.7FM's Morning Beat with Chad Adams, Chairman Jason Thompson self-assuredly stated that the people elected him, so by extension, that equates to public support of this and every decision that he renders. Thompson apparently believes that his elected position insulates him from any accusations of bad decision-making or poor leadership while serving on the board.