I was sitting in a state House committee meeting the other day when the mayor of Sanford, a polite soft-spoken lady named Cornelia Olive, appeared hat in hand with a humble request.
The town of Sanford and the Lee County school board had been running their community pretty well for decades, without a lot of fuss or nasty political fighting, she said. But a bill had been introduced to turn town council and school board elections into partisan affairs. None of the local elected officials had asked for it, she said. None had been consulted before hand. Nobody had even been given a chance to study it.
Did Sanford really have to go to partisan elections?
Yes, mayor, partisan elections you must have, the lawmakers replied.
Well, if that was the case, Mayor Olive said, could you at least put it to a referendum of local residents?
No, mayor. Such things were impossible. Case closed. The measure passed the Republican-controlled House in a party-line Republican vote.
Such scenes are played out time and time again in the halls of the Legislative Building these days.
Welcome to Raleigh the home of big government conservatives.
Matters of trust
For years we heard conservatives say that the government closest to the people governs best. But they were talking about Washington. When it comes to Raleigh, the new Republican majority has not hesitated to use state power to advance their own agenda even if it means disregarding local sentiment.
Most people still believe in local community control. A recent national poll conducted by Mason-Dixon found that 37 percent of those interviewed put the most trust in their local governments, as opposed to 22 percent in their state government and 12 percent in the federal government. Among Republicans, the local lean was even more pronounced.
But that is not how this legislature has been governing. Consider some examples of big-government conservatives:
• The Raleigh City Council and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue worked out a lease deal, which included many community leaders who had been working for years to transfer the ground of the old Dorothea Dix mental hospital into a city park. The Senate Republicans said Sorry, we dont like the deal, and are currently in the process of blowing it up.
• For decades, Charlotte has run Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The legislature is now seizing control of the airport and setting up an independent regional authority. Raleigh knows best.
• Ashevilles water system is likely to be under the control of a Metropolitan Sewage district without compensation, despite protests from the city. Raleigh knows best.
• Consider the Big Gulp bill filed by three North Carolina lawmakers. They are seeking to block any North Carolina city or county from adopting a New York-style law banning the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. Regardless of the merits of the issue, why is the legislature dictating to towns what laws it can pass regarding soft drinks? Raleigh knows best.
• Legislation has been introduced that would bar local communities from restricting proposed modifications and additions to cell phone towers. Raleigh knows best.
• A bill that stalled last year in the Senate would have restricted cities and counties from keeping guns out of their recreation facilities. The residents of Chapel Hill and Kinston could not possibly have more different views about this. Raleigh knows best.
• The legislature has moved to pre-empt local communities on a whole range of growth-related issues such as annexation, extraterritorial jurisdiction zoning and communities making homebuilders adhere to design standards.
The risk of criticism
All of these issues can be debated on their merits. But in every instance it is big-government conservatives in Raleigh dictating to local communities.
If someone questions the power of Raleigh over a local community, there is often blowback. As Sarah Ovaska of N.C. Policy Watch reported, Republican Rep. Mike Stone of Sanford became irritated when a local radio talk show criticized his effort to turn Sanford elections partisan.
The show aired on an FM radio station affiliated with Central Carolina Community College. Stones office sent an email questioning the stations radio programming, budget and source of funding. The radio program was pulled.
It just wont do to have anyone criticizing the wisdom of the central government. After all, Raleigh knows best.