Freshly anointed members of the state’s newest policy board, the Mining & Energy Commission, spent their maiden meeting Thursday floating such nonstarters as holding public meetings on Sunday and voting by secret ballot.
It was a sobering baptism in the subtleties of government work for the 15 commissioners, some of whom have never sat on a government board.
At a 3 1/2-hour orientation and planning session for the state’s newest commission – informally known as the fracking board – staffers from several state agencies offered pointers on how to avoid running afoul of state ethics laws and sidestepping situations that could lead to litigation. The list of Thou-shalt-nots included not sending private emails to other commissioners, not accepting gifts of any value, and not distributing free books to fellow commission members.
A few bristled at the restrictions, but said they will follow state policy on conflicts of interest and public disclosure. The standard treats all emails as public, whether sent or received, even to commissioners’ personal email accounts.
“You get a little taken aback when someone threatens you that you can’t communicate with each other,” said Commissioner James Womack, who is a Lee County Commissioner and a former Army intelligence officer. “If we have to reveal information that the public sends us in confidence, then the public needs to be warned that such communications might cause someone to lose their job or lose their ability to make a living.”
The Mining & Energy Commission will meet for the next two years to write three studies and create regulations to govern the safe exploration of natural gas. Some have served on public commissions before, but a few were visibly taken aback that practices common in the business world and political realm are strictly verboten in government.
The state legislature voted to legalize fracking – a method of extracting natural gas – but no exploratory drilling can take place until the commission puts rules in place. The state is believed to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, mostly concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.
The commission’s grunt work will be done by the staff of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The agency is still working to fill the three vacancies that will do the heavy lifting: an environmental program supervisor, a hydro geologist and an environmental senior specialist.
The commissioners are appointed by the governor, speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem. Three are state employees who serve ex officio, meaning that whoever holds that particular job is the designated commissioner. All were picked based on their experience and expertise, but some are navigating the byzantine rules of government ethics for the first time.
“It’s a first for me,” said Commissioner Vikram Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. Rao said he created a separate Gmail account so that he can turn over all data for public records requests without compromising his personal email that’s not related to the commission.
Commissioner George Howard, who runs a Raleigh environmental mitigation firm, disclosed to state attorneys Thursday that he bought multiple copies of a new book on the subject of natural gas exploration. As it happens, the book’s author is Rao.
Howard had hoped to give the copies to other commissioners, to help them get up to speed on the subject, but he was promptly warned his plan would violate the no-gifts policy.
Stuck with more than a dozen copies, Howard’s only legal route is to sell Rao’s book to commissioners at a fair market value, said James Gulick, deputy attorney general for the N.C. Department of Justice.
At the commission’s next meeting, on Sept. 28, the panel will vote to select a chairman who will guide the members for the next two years during contentious hearings and debates.
Commissioners instantly expressed consternation: They don’t know who’s who and don’t have any basis on which to vote for a leader.
Can they swap info by email? Answer: No.
Can they pick up the phone and talk to a commissioner who might want to be chairman? Answer: Yes.
With that matter out of the way, Commissioner Charles Holbrook, a retired geologist from the Chevron Corp., offhandedly suggested the commission take a secret ballot to pick a board chairman.
Heads in the room started shaking in a collective rebuke: There are no secret ballots here.
After the meeting, a wiser Holbrook reflected on his innocent gaffe.
“My first thought was to protect the pride of the individuals who may not get enough votes,” he said. “I was just trying to avoid any humiliation.”