Sunday sampler, open government edition

Yes, I know it’s almost Christmas and N.C. newspapers have many Christmas stories on their front pages. Key word: almost. Meanwhile, newspapers are doing their jobs, trying to get government to be transparent.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has been all over the investigation into the former county manager and how she appropriated/spent taxpayer money. Now the paper has requested information on payments to her life insurance policy and thousands of dollars spent on gift cards, among other things. The county attorney denied the public records requests, saying the information was part of a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, in Fayetteville, the Observer wonders aloud if a closed meeting of the City Council to consider a baseball stadium parking deck and a deal with the county to build a joint 911 center was legal.

All I know about either of these cases is what I read in the newspapers. I do have years of experience in four different North Carolina cities observing governments trying to keep their actions under wraps. It’s not good for democracy, and newspapers are to be applauded for seeking more information.

Asheville: Can you replace your thumb with your toe? Doctors did it to a Bryson City woman, and the Citizen-Times tells the fascinating story. “The big ‘moment’ is when we’ve got clamps on the artery and so far the toe is transferred, but it’s still white — it’s not alive,” Lechner said. “When you let that clamp off, and you see that thing turn pink…”

Greensboro: I was hoping this profile of Rep. Ted Budd would not be on the front page because it’s a weak, one-sided ode to Budd and his service. He represents much of my liberal city, including me, and he’s an arch-conservative. The paper couldn’t find a single dissenting voice? On the other hand, the paper does celebrate the A&T Aggies football team for finishing the year undefeated!


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: First ,the UNC Board of Governors tries to kill a university center that it thinks is too liberal. Next, members are discussing the need to establish a conservative center for diversity of thought. (Diversity as it is generally known – skin color – they don’t much care about.) Bear in mind that just last month conservative Sebastian Gorka spoke without incident at UNC. “We are trying to address a problem that seems to be endemic in higher education all across the United States in that the universities seem to be moving toward a mono-culture,” Knott said in briefing a board committee last month. “There’s a lack of diversity in viewpoint, intellectual viewpoint.” I wonder how much time the BOG members who are interested in this have spent on campus, given that they’re passing judgment on what happens there.

Raleigh: The N&O also writes about how religious freedom has gone too far. OK, that’s my conclusion based on how simple it is to get a religious exemption to avoid a state-required vaccination to enroll children in kindergarten. “The statement doesn’t need to be prepared by an attorney, signed by a religious leader or notarized. No form is needed. The statement doesn’t go to the state for review or approval. Alan Phillips, an Asheville-area lawyer who counsels parents all over the nation on how to exempt their children from vaccine requirements, said that, under the N.C. rules, ‘You don’t even have to believe in God.’” Make sense? No.

Carteret County: Time is running out to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The Carteret County Times-News puts that on its front page because it’s important to the paper’s readers. It helps, too, because the Trump administration doesn’t want citizens to know of the deadline. “Individuals looking to save, like Ms. Hull, or update their existing coverage, get covered for the first time or the first time in a long time, have just a few days left to do so.”

Greensboro: Life ends in a flash for five people; lives are altered for dozens others as a result. The News & Record reviews the lives of five people killed in a two-car collision in September. One car with three people fleeing the law; the other with two people on their way somewhere. Compelling, sad story.


Sunday sampler

Lots of Christmas parades and holiday-related stories on the front pages of N.C. newspapers today.

Raleigh: Readers of this feature likely know I’m no fan of the big fat thumb the GOP legislature has placed on the scales the last seven years. It continues, as the N&O notes. Now the legislature wants to intervene in a criminal case involving the Moral Monday protesters. If people ever wondered about the heavy-handed tactics of a bullying government, this is where they’d look.

Charlotte: The Observer continues its investigation into safety at North Carolina prisons, this time focusing on shoddy and inadequate communication equipment. “In interviews with the Observer, more than a dozen current and former prison employees described a potentially life-threatening problem: The two-way radios that officers are issued often don’t work properly, leaving them without a crucial safety tool.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times features an AP story about the rapid growth of private and religious schools in which state tax money helps pay tuition. “Program opponents say the savings accounts take money from public schools that districts can’t afford to lose. Little time was offered for legislative debate about the savings accounts this year. There’s no published study yet comparing academic outcomes for students in the North Carolina programs compared to public school students. ‘There’s no accountability to the taxpayers that these programs are actually producing what they’re supposed to,’ said Leanne Winner with the North Carolina School Boards Association.”

Sunday sampler

Last Sunday’s front-page stories didn’t impress me, and I posted nothing. Today, things are different

Charlotte: If you are in jail in Mecklenburg County, you can no longer have in-person visits with family — video only. Dehumanizing? Yes. “Studies show that inmates who have visitors are less likely to return after their release. But inmate advocates, and the correction industry’s trade association, say video should be deployed in addition to personal visits – not replace them.”

Fayetteville: Both the Observer and the Wilmington Star-News feature an AP story about how Chemours is handling the chemical that flowed into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for thousands. Short answer: With silence. “Chemours’ zipped-lip strategy is likely a defensive crouch against the threat of costly lawsuits at a time when its financial future looks bright, said Geoffrey Basye, a public affairs consultant and former Federal Aviation Administration spokesman under President George W. Bush. Bond rating agency Moody’s has upgraded its opinion of the company and Chemours’ stock price has more than doubled since the start of the year.” Nice.

Fayetteville: The House tax bill removes the tax credit for downtown development. “The federal historic preservation tax credit program allows developers to obtain a cash infusion early in their process of renovating an older property. The money can help pay their construction costs or other expenses and provide equity for loans to complete the projects, several in the industry said.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has a broader story about the tax plans, what they are, and who the winners and losers would be.

Greensboro: In southeast Greensboro, people awaken to shots fired. Not every day but often enough. The News & Record examines the city’s likely record-breaking homicide rate. And for its readers — who are predominantly white — it’ll be eye-opening. “The violence has cost Greensboro the lives of 35 men and four women — 34 African Americans, four Caucasians and an Asian. The victims range in age from 18 to 54. One woman was strangled and a young man was struck by a vehicle. Gunfire killed the rest.”


Sunday sampler

Asheville: The GOP legislature has a pattern of meddling in municipal government, and this story in the Citizen-Times is yet another illustration of the bullying tactics Republican legislators are using to force their partisan agenda onto cities. I like this story because the Democratic senator who lives in Asheville calls the sponsor of the law – who lives in Hendersonville – out on his bullshit. (A bonus: The GOP lawmaker called the Democrats comments “possibly perfidious,” forcing most readers to their dictionaries.)

Charlotte:  Can’t pay your court-ordered fine? You get put in jail. At taxpayer expense. Judges in Mecklenburg County are going to do something about that, holding hearing to determine a defendant’s economic status before levying a penalty. “On any given day at the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 300 people – 18 percent of the average daily inmate population – are locked up solely because they failed or can’t afford to pay fines or other monetary penalties attached to their criminal cases, according to county figures.”

Raleigh: The academic-athletic scandal at UNC will never die, will it? “UNC-Chapel Hill’s accreditor says it will look into statements the university made to an NCAA panel at an August hearing that showed support for classes at the heart of a long-running academic scandal that involved a disproportionate number of athletes.Those statements, made behind closed doors in August and recently disclosed by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in its decision not to punish UNC, appear to contradict a promise UNC made four years ago to the accreditor that the classes would not be counted towards graduation.”

Lenoir: News-Topic editor Guy Lucas will also become publisher. Guy says on Facebook that he has forfeited his soul. I doubt that. His dignity maybe.

Sunday sampler

Tuesday is Election Day, which means that many newspapers front pages featured election previews. Thank god for newspapers because without them I don’t know where you’re going to get the information in an easier to use format. (Not here, that’s for sure.) And it means that the page 1 real estate is limited for good enterprise stories. Here are two:

Raleigh: So much of what the state legislature has done in recent years has been partisan hackery that it would be a useful exercise for the editorial board at the News & Observer to rank them. Messing around with the state judiciary has to rank toward the top. (You know that when legislators bitch about activist judges, they mean they don’t like their rulings. No surprise the legislators don’t like judicial rulings as they’ve lost many lawsuits over the past six or seven years.) The N&O reviews the most recent of the legislature’s attack on the judiciary, and the pushback by some judges who better understand the state Constitution.


Sunday sampler

It’s a good day to be a state newspaper reader.

Charlotte: With words and video, the Observer tells a stark story of how dangerous prisons are. Reading the list of guards and employees killed within prison walls is painful. And part of it is danger of the state’s own making. “In prisons across North Carolina, severe staff shortages endanger officers and inmates, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. At some prisons, including Pasquotank and Bertie, more than one of every four officer positions was vacant last year, state data show.”

The Observer also reminds us that it’s not just national elections that attract dark money — local elections get it, too. Great. “HB2 and the national prominence that that put on Charlotte gives groups more incentive to play here,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “They see how local decisions can be relevant to their national agendas.”

Fayetteville: Most college basketball fans are aware that high school private schools can attract top high school players. Private schools and public schools have different rules when it comes to students participating in sports. The Observer examines that and whether it gives private schools an unfair advantage.

Greensboro: N.C. has some of the best, least expensive public universities in the nation. Despite that, more and more high school students are going out of state to college. The News & Record looks at why. And there are a number of reasons. The top out-of-state destination surprised me: Liberty University. The other surprise for me was that of the top 10 destinations, four were online schools. It’s a good piece.

Raleigh: Maybe the UNC Board of Governors should read the News & Record’s story. The N&O takes a hard look at the politicization of the board. “The entanglements have led to questions about the board’s independence and its ability to make decisions in the best interest of the 225,000 students enrolled in the university system. Faculty leaders have voiced opposition about the board’s intervention into campus and academic matters in recent months.”

Carteret County: Last week I praised the Daily Courier for stripping a story across the top of the page about enrollment for Obamacare beginning Nov. 1 for Obamacare. This week, I praise the News-Times for the same thing: making health care an important news judgment issue. If the Trump Administration is not going to let people know about health care options, the news media should. Commendable.

Sunday sampler

Good stuff from N.C. newspaper front pages today.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has two good ones. First, a piece about how 10 county employees got more than $2 million in pay bonuses over the course of three years without a word of public discussion. “Contracts and vaguely worded budget ordinances approved by commissioners show former Buncombe County manager Wanda Greene, now the subject of a federal investigation, exercised broad authority with little direction to implement extra pay.”

The second story is about a prisoner in the county jail who died after apparently ingesting meth. Two unidentified witnesses to the death say the official version of the events in the jail is wrong and that the prisoner’s life could have been saved. Her death is tragic. Meanwhile, thanks to the General Assembly, “Video surveillance was taken that day, but it is not a public record under North Carolina law.”

Raleigh: Meanwhile, the N&O follows its outstanding jail deaths project with a story about inmates in serious physical distress but remained behind bars. “Dr. Marc Stern, a former medical director for Washington state’s prisons, said when jails struggle with inmate health care, the cause is usually traced back to funding.”

Charlotte: Seventy-three people are homicide victims in Charlotte so far this year.  “Victims were business owners, parents, veterans and students. The victims have a median age of 29. More than 60 percent are black men. And at least three-quarters were killed with a gun.Some were trying to get their lives back on track after getting involved with crime; some were just barely starting their lives. Nine victims so far were younger than 20.” The Observer intends to tell their stories and asks the community for help. Commendable.

Forest City: The Daily Courier has a strip story across the top of the page about enrollment beginning Nov. 1 for Obamacare. I congratulate the paper for making health care an important news judgment issue. If the Trump Administration is not going to let people know about health care options, the news media should. Commendable.

Winston-Salem: The Journal localizes “#MeToo.” “Paige Meltzer, the director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University, said the “Me Too” movement has united men and women in the uphill battle against sexual assault and changing societal mentalities.”


Sunday sampler

Greensboro: When BH Media bought the News & Record, there was thought that it was doing it not for the love of the newspaper business, but for the value of the land the newspaper building sat on. The News & Record writes a long piece about the possible sale of that land, and its role in downtown development. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute calls it a win-win for the paper and the city. I say, that’s only true if the money goes back into the paper, rather than to corporate stockholders. That’s a big if.

Both the Fayetteville Observer and the Wilmington Star-News have one-year anniversary stories on Hurricane Matthew. The papers, particularly Fayetteville, have been aggressive in keeping attention on the victims of the hurricane.”A year later, the legacy of Matthew scars every part of the region. Entire blocks of homes remain gutted, their owners enduring the aggravation of governmental red tape. Economic relief has been slow and inadequate, with more than 2,000 eligible homeowners in eastern North Carolina waiting for additional aid. Many families continue to pay mortgages on homes they can’t live in, while also paying rent on temporary places.”

Related, a few students in one of my classes wrote about Windsor, N.C., which has been flooded several times in the past 20 years, including by Hurricane Matthew.

Asheville: Want to see how not to handle government salaries? Read the story in the Citizen-Times about a former county manager who received a six-figure check that maybe she doesn’t deserve. Of course, few involved are talking because the public records request was released as part of a Friday news dump.


Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Like people, churches live and they die. The News & Record tells the story of a 101-year-old Greensboro church – Florida Street Baptist – that is closing its doors at the end of the year. It’s a story about people, people who were baptized, got married and attended funerals in the same church. And it’s a story about religion, as people are opting out of church attendance, a trend that is growing across the nation.

Yep, one story. But maybe it’s just me.