Road Worrier

Professionals back engineer over activist

Staff WriterApril 5, 2011 

A professional engineers licensing board says Kevin Lacy, the state's chief traffic engineer, was right to blow the whistle on a North Raleigh neighborhood activist - but it has dismissed Lacy's charge that the man illegally practiced engineering without a license.

Lacy took heat for sparking an investigation after David N. Cox filed a traffic analysis on behalf of his neighbors in a homeowners group. They were fighting the state Department of Transportation's refusal to approve new traffic signals at two intersections as part of a Raleigh city project to widen Falls of Neuse Road.

Critics across the country, from local residents to Rush Limbaugh, accused Lacy of trampling a citizen's right to petition the government.

In a split ruling last week, the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors concluded that, as Lacy suspected, the eight-page report Cox submitted was indeed a work of engineering as defined by state law. More later on what that means.

But the board dismissed the charge against Cox. It was unable to discover who - Cox or someone else - actually wrote the report.

Cox knows the answer, but he isn't talking. He did not reply to the licensing board's letters or speak to its investigators.

"Which is his right," said Andrew L. Ritter, the board's executive director.

Cox works as a computer scientist. He and his neighbors did plenty of talking over the past couple of years as they fought city and state officials on the Falls of Neuse project.

After a consultant hired by the city concluded that the traffic signals were not warranted, the North Raleigh residents responded with their own sophisticated analysis.

No author was named on their report, which was filled with tables, drawings and traffic jargon. It said simply, "Submitted by the Residents of North Raleigh."

Cox distributed it by e-mail in October to City Council members, legislators and members of Congress.

After Lacy asked the licensing board to investigate in December, Cox and his homeowners group denounced him in a press release.

Cox's lawyer declared victory Monday. "Obviously we're pleased that there will not be any attempt to prosecute Mr. Cox for exercising his free speech rights," attorney Mark McGrath said.

Lacy was happy, too.

"It looks like they said I did what I was supposed to do," Lacy said. "A lot of people do not understand the obligations we have as public officials and public engineers."

No 'turf protection'

The board enforces standards intended to protect the public from people who falsely present themselves as licensed engineers and from engineers who break the rules, Ritter said.

Engineers are required to put their names and their professional seals on all their work. And they are required to report possible violations - as Lacy did, Ritter said in a letter last week to Cox.

Non-engineers are not supposed to engage in sophisticated engineering analysis when they write something or address a planning board or other audience, Ritter said, just as non-lawyers are not supposed to give legal advice.

The standard is not clear-cut - it boils down to whether something looks like engineering work in the eyes of other engineers. Under the law, you can be found in violation even if you never claimed to be an engineer.

The consequences are minor, Ritter said. If the board had concluded that Cox was the author of the report, it would simply have written him a letter asking him not to do it again. Repeat offenders could, in theory, be referred to a district attorney for prosecution of a misdemeanor.

Professional standards aren't just about protecting professionals' jobs, he said. Public safety is at stake when engineers design buildings, roads and airplanes.

"This board isn't in the turf-protection business," Ritter said. "The board is in the public protection business. This report was submitted to DOT to influence a traffic engineering decision."

Lacy said that when residents disagree with a decision about a traffic signal, a road design or a speed limit, he often invites them to make their case by commissioning their own professional engineering study.

When he read the Falls of Neuse report in October, Lacy told Cox by e-mail that it did not seem to have been written by a licensed engineer because it was not signed by one.

Cox replied, "I believe that we have some very competent Ph.D.'s and equally competent engineers."

Ritter cited that exchange in his letter to Cox. He said other engineers agreed that the report appeared to have been written by engineers.

"We are still interested in who wrote that report," Ritter said Monday. "Since we determined that it was [engineering work] and it was submitted to a public body to influence their decision, we'd like to know what engineers Cox is referring to in his e-mail to DOT."

McGrath said the report was drafted by Cox and other members of the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners Associations - none of them engineers.

"They weren't trying to masquerade as engineers," McGrath said.

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