Commisioners hire lobbyist

Published 1:11 am Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fearing the effects of state budget cuts on Beaufort County’s coffers and its services, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Thursday voted to hire a lobbyist to represent the county’s interests in the state Legislature.

“When you’re fighting for your community, you accept all the help you can get,” said board Chairman Jerry Langley. “This is a way of making sure Beaufort County can get the representation it deserves.”

The commissioners were divided Thursday on two issues currently being discussed by state lawmakers č the diversion of tobacco-settlement money and drug testing for recipients of public assistance.

The commissioners voted 5-1 to hire Joe McClees of McClees Consulting Inc. of Oriental, for a fee of $15,000 to represent Beaufort County before the General Assembly through December.

Commissioner Stan Deatherage cast the sole dissenting vote. Commissioner Hood Richardson, who was present for part of the meeting, left before that vote was taken.

Among the past and current clients of McClees Consulting are the Humane Society of the United States, National Rifle Association, N.C. Agribusiness Council Inc., N.C. Fisheries Association Inc., N.C. Portable Toilet Group, N.C. Sporting Dog Association and the Smokeless Tobacco Council Inc., according to information provided by the firm.

Deatherage questioned why the county would need to pay a lobbyist since a member of the N.C. House of Representatives is from Beaufort County.

Rep. Bill Cook, a Beaufort County Republican, has been responsive to county concerns, but hiring a lobbyist would give Beaufort County advantages in the coming months, County Manager Paul Spruill told the board.

While the N.C. Association of County Commissioners advocates on behalf of issues that affect counties statewide, those issues of local concern are not handled by the association’s lobbyists, Spruill said.

A lobbyist in Raleigh would give Beaufort County a daily contact with lawmakers who are debating issues of specific concern to the county and eastern North Carolina, Spruill said.

Those issues include recent efforts to divert tobacco-settlement money to help close a state budget gap now estimated at some $3 billion, efforts to increase or implement fees charged for riders on the state’s ferries and efforts to implement various environmental regulations on coastal counties, Spruill said.

But some members questioned č given the increasingly partisan political climate in Raleigh č whether that lobbyist will be able to make a difference.

Commissioner Al Klemm said that, based on recent votes, all members of the Legislature appear to be “sticking together” along partisan lines, and he questioned how effective a lobbyist would be in breaking through that barrier.

“I don’t really know how effective Joe McClees can be,” he said.

Langley countered that it would be worth the effort.

“If we go down, we need to go down fighting,” Langley said.

In a related matter, the board approved 5-2 a resolution presented by Commissioner Robert Cayton in support of the Golden LEAF Foundation and its dedicated funding.

Commissioners Deatherage and Richardson cast dissenting votes.

Cayton said discussion by powerful urban lawmakers to divert Golden LEAF funds “is an attempt by 14 counties in the central part of the state to put a foot on the throats of the people of eastern North Carolina.”

Richardson questioned the effectiveness of Golden LEAF economic development efforts.

“This thing has funded some awful projects,” he said. “It is a system of legal corruption.”

The board also was divided over a resolution proposed by Richardson in support of a bill requiring drug testing for applicants of public assistance.

The board approved the resolution by a 4-3 vote along party lines with Commissioners Ed Booth, Cayton and Langley, all Democrats, casting dissenting votes.

The bill, which has been referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, would require all applicants for public assistance to submit to substance-abuse screening. Applicants who fail the screening would be required to undergo substance-abuse treatment.

Richardson said the measure would ensure that recipients of taxpayers’ money would not spend that money on drugs. Booth said he feared the measure would hurt the state’s children by cutting off needed money to their parents.