By Gordon Anderson
Republicans talk a good game about local control during campaign season, but the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent moves show they’re interested in anything but. Commentators across the state have decried moves that attack, undermine and remove local control, whether it’s from the Charlotte airport, the Asheville water system or the Wake County Board of Education.
Until this week, Sanford and Lee County didn’t seem to be targets. But a trio of bills introduced in the past week by one of our representatives, Republican Mike Stone, make clear we too are in the cross hairs of a legislature that thinks we can’t handle our local affairs on a local basis.
House Bill 490, introduced Monday by Stone, would end nonpartisan elections for the Sanford City Council and the Lee County Board of Education. Stone told the Sanford Herald Tuesday that citizens across the district requested change (and have been doing so for years), indicating a clamor for the further creep of partisan politics into local elections. Since Stone’s past two campaigns were about job growth and government shrink, that’s pretty hard to swallow. It’s an issue that’s garnered zero public discussion, at least over the past decade. More likely, this bill is about the Lee County Republican Party’s success record in local elections.
Stone, himself once a member of the city council, and Charles Taylor represent the city’s only Republican presence in recent years. The school board actually boasts a Republican majority, but that majority is regularly at odds with the county GOP’s leadership. The primaries partisan elections will require may offer the local GOP hope that candidates loyal to local leadership prevail in knocking out Republicans who go off the reservation. If this is the bill’s aim, it doesn’t seem likely to work.
The city of Sanford has more registered Democratic voters (8,088) than Republicans, Libertarians and unaffiliated voters combined (6,941) .Likewise, Lee County has 16,151 Democrats to just 9,941 Republicans, 8,008 unaffiliateds and 97 Libertarians. Local Democrats seem nearly unanimous in opposition to the bill, but it may lead to repeats of the Democratic successes Lee County saw in 2012. Sanford’s other representative in the state House, Democrat Deb McManus of Chatham County, actually represents more of Sanford than Stone does. She doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about the bill.
The same day, Stone filed House Bill 491, a measure to change the way our county’s schools are policed. Lee is one of a handful of counties in North Carolina to have its own school police department. The bill would eliminate that department and hand responsibility for school resource officers to the county sheriff. To be fair, this is the only bill of the three generated by a request from a local board (the Lee County Board of Commissioners). And it doesn’t seem the changes would be sweeping – money saved by the school board on resource officers would be offset by increases in the sheriff’s budget. This is likely aimed at the local GOP establishment’s goal of dominating other boards by whatever means are available. Stone seems willing to oblige.
Finally, Stone has introduced House Bill 512, a measure to help Republicans build a majority on the Central Carolina Community College Board of Trustees. Stone’s bill would strip the school board of its four appointment to the Community College board and hand them to the GOP-led Board of Commissioners. Of the three bills, this seems like the most like a bald power grab. The school board has a vested interest in CCCC, as does the board of commissioners, and there’s been no public discussion indicating that the status quo isn’t working. The balance of power as it stands should be acceptable to all stakeholders.
Taken together, these bills show that Stone’s priorities are misplaced. While we continue to struggle with unemployment and budgetary constraints, our representative in Raleigh is availing himself of the opportunity to dabble in local partisan politics. It’s a shame.