LOOKING BACK AT 2013: Legislative action has local effects

Jan. 05, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

The North Carolina General Assembly made waves in 2013.

The state legislature, led by a Republican majority and enjoying generally solid support from an executive branch led by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, made sweeping changes. Supporters cheered the increase in fiscal and moral conservatism, but opponents gathered in massive numbers for the Moral Monday protests.

And although the goings on in Lee County didn't make national news like the action in Raleigh did, they were still highly contentious. Leading the local changes was Rep. Mike Stone, a second-term Republican who represents Harnett County and parts of Lee County.

Stone was busy this past session, writing several local bills and remaining deeply involved in statewide discussions on natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing.

Partisan elections

One of his local bills switched the Sanford City Council and Lee County Board of Education from non-partisan boards — meaning that officials can't run as a member of a political party — to partisan ones.

Most of the members of those boards were not pleased, accusing Stone of surprising them with the changes and being hypocritical by using his state position to craft local policy. But he defended the bill.

"Many citizens of Sanford and Lee County asked for this change, and have asked for such a change for years," Stone told The Herald in April after the bill was introduced. "Elected officials serve at the pleasure of the voters. I am confident that local leaders will embrace the citizens' wishes with a positive attitude."

The city council and the school board passed resolutions against the bill, but to no avail. The school board called Stone's tactics "highly improper, discourteous and a violation of trust and his fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Lee County" in a 4-3 vote, even though five members were, at the time, Republicans like Stone.

The school board still has not had an election under the new rules, but the city has. In it, no Republican challengers won — and no Republicans even tried to campaign for mayor or for one of the three council seats up for grabs.

So while the law didn't immediately increase the power or scope of the local GOP, it may have increased the party's ideological purity. Many have called it a way to weed out Republicans In Name Only (RINOs) — which may be attested to by the school board. In the months since the bill past, three of the five Republicans on the board switched parties.

School safety

Partisan elections weren't the only mandate handed to the school board by Stone and the legislators who supported his bills. The board was also forced to hand over responsibility for campus safety from the school district to the Lee County Sheriff's Office.

School board members complained at the time, but now both school and sheriff's officials say security has been fine. The schools also have more student resource officers than in the past.

Hydraulic fracturing

Though not a specifically local action, Stone joined forces this summer with Moore County Republican Rep. Jamie Boles to tone down a natural gas development bill proposed by fellow Republicans. Stone said his conscience led him to vote against his party because even though he supports drilling for gas, he thought the bill in question would have allowed too much, too soon.

"There's quite a number of us that believe fracking can be done safely in North Carolina, and there's people who don't," he told The Herald in July. "But I think it's important to make sure we have the best rules in place."

CCCC

That's not all he was up to. The legislature passed another law introduced by Stone to remove all the members of the Central Carolina Community College board of trustees who were appointed by the Lee County school board — all of them Democrats or unaffiliated voters — from office and split those seats up among the Lee, Chatham and Harnett school boards.

The trustees in question (Chet Mann, Jan Hayes, Tony Lett and Norman "Chip" Post) sued the state and the college to not be removed before their terms ended. The case is ongoing, with the state arguing they were technically appointed illegally.

Rabin and McManus

But for all the attention focused on Stone, he wasn't even the local representative with the biggest story in 2013. Rep. Deb McManus (D-Chatham, Lee) was arrested in December and charged with embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the state via her husband's Siler City medical practice, where she was the bookkeeper.

McManus resigned her seat the day she was arrested but she is, of course, considered innocent until proven guilty. Yet if she is found guilty of fudging the business' state income tax numbers, it would be a lesson in hypocrisy: McManus supported higher taxes and blasted the GOP for budget cuts which were brought about, in part, by low tax revenue.

Compared to his two compatriots in the N.C. House, local Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-Lee, Harnett, Johnston) kept a relatively low profile. His pet project, a bill to allow school employees and community volunteers to carry guns in schools, never made it out of committee. But he was given power not always afforded a first-term official, being named to a half-dozen committees and serving as vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.