state property a mess
(This editorial originally appeared in The News &Observer.)
The N.C. Commission on State Property hasn’t done its job very well. And contrary to some past bureaucratic snafus, the Legislature appears ready to pull the plug on this one.
Because in addition to not doing much — the commission has never produced a sale — it appeared to be the special baby of Jim Black, the disgraced former state House speaker now awaiting sentencing on public corruption felonies. Black supported the group’s formation, and its executive director is the son of one of Black’s fundraisers. The other full-time employee used to work in his legislative office. And the director, Patrick H. Bell of Gaston County, was given an ethics reprimand from a deputy attorney general. In other words, the property commission has had symptoms of being almost entirely political. That’s not acceptable in a group dealing with public property.
What the group was supposed to do sounded all right — identify and make recommendations to the State Property Office about surplus state land, to help sell the land and put the money back in the public kitty. But in one case those connected to the commission apparently pondered selling land next to the State Fairgrounds that might well be needed for expansion. At the other extreme, a farmer offered twice the tax value of a piece of property in Alamance County that the N.C. National Guard said it planned to use — only nothing had been done with it in 15 years. The commission wanted to sell, but the Guard was able to block the move.
A boondoggle of an agency, a group marked by bad decisions and inaction — call it what you will, but some state lawmakers want to call it off and they’re right. (Through a spokesman, Governor Easley agrees.) Legislation filed would end the commission. Instead, a nine-member panel would be created to do the job the commission was intended to do — and actually do it.
The panel would be part of the state Department of Administration. It sounds plausible, though the Legislature may want to look as well at the State Property Office, and whether some efficiencies can be found there. There must be a rational decision-making process, as free from politics as possible. Legislators should not look at this, shrug their shoulders, and write it off to Black’s manipulations.
For one lesson here, in so much as it’s related to Black, is that the placement of friends and those who are politically connected through contributions and the like is not appropriate with agencies dealing directly with public property. There are political appointments throughout state government, of course, but given the nature of its business, the commission should have been more carefully shielded from the influence Black exerted.
The new agency’s mission must be accomplished in public, through clear lines of authority that will reveal to the public how a specific decision was made and who made it and the reasoning behind it. That is the least the people should expect, and in fact demand.
There may be some who would view any parcel of state land held in reserve as surplus, to be dealt off as soon as possible to the private sector. Others would err on the side of holding onto state property in the off chance that it may someday find a public use. Striking a balance between those perspectives is a challenge — but one that must be met strictly with an eye toward doing right by the state’s taxpayers and the government’s public responsibilities. Stirring political connections into the mix is asking for trouble.