Road Worrier

DOT engineer gets national scorn

Staff WriterFebruary 15, 2011 

A state transportation official is being rebuked in letters and e-mail messages from across the country for his charge that a North Raleigh man practiced engineering without a license when he filed a report backing a neighborhood push for new traffic signals.

Kevin Lacy, the state Department of Transportation's chief traffic engineer, asked a professional licensing board in December to investigate David N. Cox. Lacy cited "engineering-level work" in an eight-page analysis, filed by Cox, that disputed an engineering study backing Lacy's refusal to approve two signals on Falls of Neuse Road.

In e-mail to The News & Observer, DOT and the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, critics have accused Lacy of suppressing citizen dissent.

"This is America, not Russia," said John Dendy of Roswell, Ga., formerly of Raleigh.

"It reminds me of my aunt who won't give anyone her recipe for cabbage rolls, because somehow it will diminish her specialness," said Ann Blumenthal of Buellton, Calif., the mother of two engineers. "Ridiculous. And Mr. Lacy is making a fool of himself."

Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh took up the attack Monday in a 90-second distillation of populist outrage. Lacy was using government power "to stomp on a citizen who dares disagree," Limbaugh said.

"Mr. Cox is apparently guilty of being smart," he said. "He says his group's request for traffic lights was simply to make their neighborhood safe. American citizens petitioning their government are threatened for intelligently making their case."

Lacy said in an earlier interview that he had advised Cox and his neighbors to hire an engineer for their work. He said they should not have done it on their own. He declined comment Monday.

The Cox report used maps, diagrams and traffic projections to rebut the findings of an engineering consultant hired by the city of Raleigh. The cover page said it was "submitted by the people of North Raleigh." It was not marked as the work of engineers, but when Cox distributed it by e-mail in October, he called it an "independent analysis" supporting the case for traffic signals.

Technology blogs and populist websites have spread the North Carolina story. A magazine for engineers interviewed state officials last week. Andrew Ritter, executive director of North Carolina's engineering examiners board, said his counterparts from six other states asked him about it at a recent conference.

Ritter and Greer Beaty, a DOT spokeswoman, said Lacy is supported by professionals who understand the need to guard the public from being misled by phony engineers.

"Kevin did what he believed in his core was the right thing to do," Beaty said.

Lacy and other licensed engineers are obligated by law to report possible violations.

"That professional responsibility is high," Ritter said. "If they call us, we'll tell them, 'You don't have to make the judgment. We'll make the judgment. Send it over.' "

The North Carolina board is an independent agency financed with fees paid by engineers and surveyors. Most of its cases involve people who represent themselves as engineers without having a professional license - a misdemeanor in North Carolina.

Ritter said it's possible for the public to be misled even where there is no explicit claim that an engineer produced the work. A ruling in Cox's case is expected in three or four months.

Cox said he hoped the licensing board would clear his name.

"The right to free speech and the right to petition the government are fundamental rights," Cox said Monday. "My sixth-great grandfather died in 1776, fighting for freedom in this country. A lot of people have made that sacrifice, so I can understand all the emotion."

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