Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Berger on Economic Development & Other Scandals

Last week, New Hanover County Commissioner Brian Berger called a hurried press conference in order to share his thoughts with the community regarding the county's economic development policy, in light of the strategic planning session the county commission recently completed with the Azimuth Group; a Texas firm hired by the county at a cost of $36,000 to taxpayers.

The press conference, which was held at the government center, was advertised virally through email mere hours before the conference was to take place. Several media outlets and 15-20 citizens gathered to hear the newly elected commissioners thoughts. Berger generally covered the traditional methods of economic development employed by the county, and talked of other issues brought up in the strategic planning sessions. Commissioner Berger also shared his ideas regarding the creation of a task force to oversee and make recommendations pertaining to the way in which money and resources are deployed to outside firms in the name of economic development.

However, the media template quickly became something altogether different. Berger sent the word out about the presser through a third party; who had a last minute death in the family; and so word didn't reach the rest of the commissioners until an hour or two before the conference was to begin. One was out of town and the others had previous engagements, and could not make the event. Several dissatisfied emails made their way to Mr. Berger's inbox courtesy of his colleagues regarding the last minute notice. Smelling blood in the water - or at least hoping for such - the local media quickly focused on this as being the story. Headlines like "Berger irked other commissioners" and other such dramatic titles were quickly dispensed. The uncanny sense of selective reasoning that the media displays all too often took hold in a desperate effort to sensationalize rather than report.

Politicians' faces are a familiar scene to almost every engaged American. Turn on Fox News, CNN, ABC News, or any other 24 hour news outlet, and one cannot miss the panels and interviews consisting of various elected officials weighing in on the topic at hand. Such media appearances are coordinated hurriedly and without much fanfare. Calls are placed to officials' offices, and staffers coordinate the interview sometimes within hours of air time. However, one step notably absent is the approval of other fellow officials that serve in similar capacity. A Congressman from Georgia may be a guest on one show - but it is understood that his appearance was coordinated without the consent or even knowledge of other members of Congress. However, this has never been an issue.

Here at home, Commissioner Jason Thompson makes regular appearances on talk radio and other media, but doesn't "clear" these actions with his fellow commissioners - nor should he have to. Chairman Jonathan Barfield regularly sends out an email newsletter to citizens - and the content included is from him and him alone. No other commissioners have any hand in it. But when Brian Berger makes a showing in the media without the approval of his fellow commissioners, it's frontpage news - why?

Brian Berger was elected after an unconventional campaign. Berger is an unconventional candidate. He believes in unconventional things. He fights very unconventional fights. He doesn't fit the mold of what we have traditionally had as county commissioners. He replaces one of the longest standing good ol' boys of all time - Bill Caster. In short, Berger rocks the boat; and having him running around knocking over apple carts without the consent of those who want to micro manage and control his every action simply won't do. Berger makes the status quo uncomfortable - and the last thing they need is for him to appear rational, in charge, and bearing  good ideas. How dare he share new "unapproved" ideas without others' allowance - nevermind that he clearly stated he was there to speak on his behalf alone, and did not speak for the board as a whole.

Chairman Barfield recently unbelievably offered the local media the chance to "partner" with the county commission; whatever that means. At first glance, one would interpret this as being some sort of deal with the devil where news is filtered through a government lens, and only articles appearing friendly to the government "cause" would pass muster. Barfield's mentality in this regard should hardly be viewed as one even in tune with the purpose of the media - so forgive me if I entirely shrug off his position on such things.

If the press was interested in actually reporting instead of creating, then the taxpayers and citizens of this city and county would be aware of our current economic development policy, and the extravagant cost to taxpayers for less than mediocre results. For instance, page 83 of the current adopted budget for New Hanover County states that a total of $5.48 million of taxpayer funds have been given away to outside economic, cultural, and recreational agencies just since 2009! The budget for the city of Wilmington reveals that a half a million dollars has been given to Wilmington Industrial Development (WDI) since 2008; not to mention millions given to other hidden organizations in the name of economic development.

Our local unemployment rate was hovering at and around 10% two years ago. Today, our unemployment rate hovers at around 10%. Millions and millions taken from local taxpayers to fund these so-called economic development agencies, who are completely unaccountable to the taxpayer, and we have nothing to show for it. In fact, Mayor Bill Saffo has recently said that "we are in a jobless economic recovery". Somebody needs to communicate to him that without jobs, there is no economic recovery. The CEO of WDI makes over $300,000/year funded by you and I against our will or consent. In contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is paid $186,000/year for negotiating and executing US foreign policy.

With our local governments perennially whining about shortfalls and deficits come budget time; the time is long past due where we need to evaluate our local economic development policies and procedures. Organizations receiving taxpayer funding should be subjected to a stringent set of regulations in order to continue to receive funding. An audit conducted by a reputable out-of-state firm that goes back at least 10 years in scope; and that reports on the political implications of the public funding received by these agencies is a good start. To sign your name to a petition to put guidelines in pace and hold these agencies accountable, click here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/wilm-transparency/

These issues need to be brought to the public's attention; but as long as we have a local media corps more interested in tabloid journalism and sensationalism, don't bet on it. 


  1. Has Berger released his cell phone records? I suspect not.

  2. Yes, all public records, are public records. WWAY and Chad Adams have been disingenuous in seeking Berger's personal communications which are considered private under all public records laws. No matter who paid for or owns a cell phone or computer, any communication regarding "public business" is a public record that must be available for media and public scrutiny.

    Calls of a private nature ("Honey, pick up milk at the store") are not public records under NC law. Scott Pickey and the tabloid "ratings whores" at WWAY and the Big Talker must have nothing to report of newsworthy interest so they came to the county for berger's personal messages that have nothing to do with public issues. It's his own business his family and not yours or mine. It just shows how pathetic WWAY has become and the big talker lying about the whole cell phone story. Berger is human and never claimed to be perfect...like john edwards and bill clinton. he's just a normal guy who has been raising two children since their father abandoned them...none of our business. And none of yours. Get a life!

  3. BS any use of a company paid device is open to company review. Check your legal precedents again try understanding why emails and other items are open to review by the employer. Personal communications may not be made public but they should be paid for and I am sure Berger is not queueing up to pay for his personal use.


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