Monday, August 11, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- Chowan’s Citizens Deserve Answers Now

Article by Bob Steinburg
- Edenton, North Carolina: Cradle of the Colony

Monday evening, August 3, was typically hot, steamy and humid in eastern North Carolina. It seemed even more so in Edenton, especially if you were one of an overflow crowd packed into the antiquated Swain Auditorium to hear options available to Chowan County residents for dealing with the hellish financial crises that arose just over one week ago. It was almost as if I and the others in the auditorium were in a time warp, playing extras in the 1962 movie classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck.

In that movie Atticus Finch (Peck), a young idealistic attorney, defends a young black man charged with rape but who against all odds is ultimately found innocent in a racially prejudice Depression-era small southern town.

It appears Cliff Copeland, the former 29 year Chowan County manager who retired in mid-June may need someone like Atticus to defend him, depending on how the investigation into this county’s financial woes continues to play out.

If Chowan County government and some of its citizens have their way, Copeland will be the fall guy. And after listening to the Chowan commissioners recently-hired attorney John Morrison there appears to be ample evidence that Copeland, at the very least may have been negligent. Preliminary indications seem to suggest he may have failed to carry out the directives set forth by the sitting county commissioners in 1998 as to how they wanted the $29 million proceeds from the sale of the county’s hospital handled.
The commissioners at that time “mandated” that only 75 percent of the interest earned could be available for the county’s general fund. The remaining 25 percent plus the principal would remain in the investment account insuring Chowan’s financial “endowment” would continue to grow.

With all due respect to Mr. Morrison or any other attorney the county might have hired for their investigation, it could be difficult to be completely objective when the folks who should be included in the investigation are the very ones who are paying you to conduct it.

Morrison apparently got the message after last Monday’s meeting when the folks didn’t seem to be buying what he was selling. He referred to Chowan’s new county manager Peter Rascoe this way: “If there are any heroes left in this tragedy, it’s Peter Rascoe, your new county manager.” There was a mixed reaction from the audience on this and other statements he made implying limited or no apparent culpability on the part of others. The next day Morrison, with the approval of Commissioners Chairman Ralph Cole, sought out District Attorney Frank Parrish to intercede. Parrish has since asked the State Bureau of Investigation to launch a probe into Chowan’s fiscal crisis.

Rascoe may indeed end up being a hero in all of this, but we don’t know that yet. Before being named Chowan’s new county manager in June, Rascoe served as Chowan’s county attorney for four years along with being the county’s special projects manager. He was one of only three applicants interviewed for the job to replace Copeland.

In researching the posting for the position for Chowan County’s new manager, I could only find a single link through the North Carolina association of commissioner’s web site. Rascoe was hired without any previous experience as an assistant or full-time county manager other than working in the Chowan county manager’s office where he occupied the second floor. Rascoe now finds himself faced with a financial debacle that would test even the most seasoned county manager. Chowan residents can only hope that Rascoe is not in over his head.

John O’Donnell, one of the citizens who rose to speak Monday evening moved to Edenton several years ago. He’s a retired attorney who was with the state Attorney General’s office in Maryland. O’Donnell stressed the importance of conducting an “independent investigation” that would include looking into signoffs, invoices, contracts, e-mails and all audit functions-in other words a complete and thorough investigation of each and every aspect of county management’s activities for at least the last five years.
And speaking of audits, Steve Biggs, an Edenton town councilman, rose to defend J. P. Timberlake III, who has been conducting Chowan County audits for 30 years- almost the same length of time that Copeland served as Chowan’s county manager. He was paid handsomely for these duties - $30,000 last year.

But 30 years of county audits performed by the same individual for the same county manager may have become too comfortable an arrangement.

Since the 2001 Enron scandal, a growing number of companies, non-profits and governmental agencies are rotating their auditing firms every three to five years in on-going efforts to protect themselves from financial irregularities or malfeasance. Chowan County government apparently didn’t see the need to follow suit.

Many folks here are angry at the possibilities of an additional loss of jobs, cuts in county services and higher real estate taxes. One gentleman even suggested Chowan trim personnel and salaries from the top of their hierarchical ladder down.

The county commissioners, who to date have been less than heroic, should immediately pass a measure reducing the salary for Rascoe and others at the top of the county pay scale by an amount at least equal in percentage to the tax increase they are considering for Chowan’s citizens. County commissioners should also forgo their $500 per month stipend, as some have already done, for the balance of the year. These actions would not only begin to show solidarity with the suffering and pain of their beleaguered constituents, but would be the first serious signs of contrition from many of those directly or indirectly responsible for Chowan’s fiscal crisis.

I have a problem with one party rule. Each time I have heard about this problem in Chowan County I have had the same reaction. One Party Rule is alive and well in Eastern North Carolina.

If we were able to investigate some of the other Counties in this area, how likely is it we would not find some examples of the same kind of hidden waste and corruption? It is there just below the surface every time one party rule goes on for too long. We have had one party rule here in Eastern North Carolina for more than 100 years.

There are some good people in the Democrat Party, but one party rule allows for bad actors to corrupt the process. That is why America has always worked well only when there are two parties seriously contesting for political power.


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