LETTERS / Dear Mr. Chairman, Watauga Is Not Your Playground

Published Friday, May 3, 2013 at 9:53 am

Dear Editor,

Hello again, your newly anointed Oracle of Boone here (inside joke) with some thoughts about the giant mess this fight between town and county has become.

So it’s no secret what my opinions are concerning the corruption on display by the county against the town of Boone. One look at many a comment section on HCP or the Democrat makes it clear. 

All one has to do? Just look at two pretty little words.

Bribe: Money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust.
For example: the revenue increases promised by Chairman Nathan Miller to towns who support the tax changes; changes which were agreed upon in “closed door” meetings that took place behind the backs of others.  Most notably, County Commission members Welch and Kennedy.  Yet somehow, Chairman Miller is doing business on behalf of the county?

Kickback: A return of a part of a sum received often because of confidential agreement or coercion.
In this case, the benefitting towns promised to “return” some of the tax revenue they would be gaining to the county.  Since Chairman Miller’s initial accounting was in error, this plan to punish Boone was also set to cost the citizens of Watauga County $1.1 million dollars in lost taxes.

Now, I want just one person on the side that supports this change to try to justify this, try to defend this, and try to tell me how exactly this scheme doesn’t meet those very definitions.

Then again, this brand of behavior that can say no it isn’t? Par for the course now. Just more of the same moral hypocrisy the Anti-Boone crowd is displaying these days, including this lovely refrain.
“The town wants to have a closed meeting!  What are they hiding?!”

First off, let’s snag a bit from this link.  
(http://www.ncleg.net/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/HTML/ByArticle/Chapter_143/Article_33C.html)

Specifically § 143‑318.10.
e) Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions held pursuant to G.S. 143‑318.11. Such minutes may be in written form or, at the option of the public body, may be in the form of sound or video and sound recordings. When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.

Let’s add the most recent letter from the town to that.
https://www.hcpress.com/news/in-most-recent-letter-town-manager-calls-sales-taxwhs-sale-very-complicated-and-sensitive-legal-matter-private-mediation-is-only-workable-method.html

It states that the results of any closed meditation would be fully disclosed, along with time, for public input and comment.

So to anyone who says that the town of Boone wanted to “hide behind closed doors” to keep their actions a secret, guess what?  You were privy to the minutes of those actions, you got time to go comment on those actions, and there would have been a record, just like any other meeting.

So once again, I find myself asking the Closed-Door Parrot Brigade: “How is Boone trying to hide anything from you?”

In my obligatory nod to the West Wing today, I give you this clip.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=85dKvletfSo&NR=1

Ten-word answers.  Or questions, in this case.  Such as “What is the town of Boone trying to keep hidden from us?”  It makes for good politics, but what it doesn’t do is solve problems or explain complex issues.  Which—lord knows—this tax fight has become.  So after you whine and moan about “mean ol’ Boone” keeping secrets from you, what’s the next ten words to solve the problem?

Or shall we keep the level of discourse at “Wriggle wriggle on the wall?”

PS: By the way, Chairman Miller? You aren’t just the chairman of the people who agree with you either.

Now, here’s my next three questions, and I invite anyone on the other side to answer.

1) If Chairman Miller was engaged in official meetings on behalf of the county to discuss changes to the tax structure, where are those minutes?

Oh, but I forgot: they weren’t official meetings.  Chairman Miller was just having conversations with others
———-
https://www.hcpress.com/news/time-is-of-the-essence-for-negotiations-between-watauga-and-boone-regarding-sales-tax-ball-and-miller-both-cry-foul.html
“Never did I meet with three or more commissioners of any town or municipality,” Miller said. “I simply met with them and said this is what I am thinking, what are you all thinking.”
“They are crying foul, but they are clearly wrong. Andy Ball has no clue what he is talking about,” Miller added. “I am tired of being called a bully and unethical. I am doing everything within the confines of the law, and I can clearly delineate the law.” 
———-
Again, there’s a fine line between legal and ethical, Mr. Chairman.  Please explain to me how you can negotiate changing the tax value of the entire county with other towns using your position on the board, yet at the same time, you’re just plain ol’ Nathan having lunch with some buddies and saying “Hey, you know….if I just happened to do this….what would y’all think?”

Also how is it these informal meeting were not clear violations of the open meetings law? (Article 33C, statutes 143‑318.9-18 of the North Carolina code)

Specficially § 143‑318.10.  All official meetings of public bodies open to the public.(highlighting mine)

d) “Official meeting” means a meeting, assembly, or gathering together at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body. However, a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering together of the members of a public body does not constitute an official meeting —unless called or held to evade the spirit and purposes of this Article—

And informal private meetings can also not be used to set public policy without violating that statute either Mr. Chairman. As you’re trying to conduct county business without getting it on record as an official meeting. Of course since you never met with a “majority”? All nice and legal isn’t it? Right there skirting the edges once again.

The phrase “Have your cake and eat it, too” comes to mind, as does the fact that once again, it seems Mr. Miller decided to keep it to the letter of the law, if not the spirit.  And all for the purpose of keeping what amounts to unofficially-offered bribes (as Nathan) in return for support at an official vote (as Chairman Miller) out of sight.  Of course, this is all done with “non-binding agreements”.  (Did Nathan Miller or Chairman Miller agree to these as well?  Who am I talking to now, Sybil?)  Which means, of course, should the other towns decide they want to keep all the money, there’s not a thing the county can do about it.  Although we would get the added entertainment of watching Four Eggers try to untangle the legal knots of both Watauga and Beech being his clients, and both fighting over that money should the town not agree to return it.

Anyway, let’s ask another couple of questions.

2) If you want to go into a right royal snit over the town of Boone trying to hide its actions from the citizens of Watauga County, why is there a rather stunning lack of indignation and outrage when Chairman Miller did the EXACT SAME THING?

Do as I say, not as I do.

3) Again, let’s have some honesty.  If a Democraft member had hidden his actions this fully, to the point that Republican members didn’t discover county business was being done until those members read about it in the newspaper, or the exact way Welch and Kennedy had to find out: how fast would the Watauga GOP’s 101st Pitchfork Brigade be screaming bloody murder?

Do as I say, not as I do.

And if you want another clear cut example of that? Let’s  bring up part § 138A‑32 of the State Government Ethics Act.

(a) A covered person or a legislative employee shall not knowingly, directly or indirectly, ask, accept, demand, exact, solicit, seek, assign, receive, or agree to receive anything of value for the covered person or legislative employee, or for another person, in return for being influenced in the discharge of the covered person’s or legislative employee’s official responsibilities, other than that which is received by the covered person or the legislative employee from the State for acting in the covered person’s or legislative employee’s official capacity.

To which I ask this: if those who had these backroom….oh, excuse me….”indirect” meetings with Nathan (not Chairman) Miller,  and he just happened to mention, “Hey, your town and everyone in it could really benefit from this change, what do you think about it?” (Let’s see the graph, everyone! https://www.hcpress.com/img/Town-graphic.jpg).  And then the town officials seem more than willing to offer their support to this change, given the obvious financial benefits.

Could someone please explain to me how that doesn’t qualify as a covered person (council members of the towns) indirectly accepting something as value (increased tax revenue) for themselves (in terms of a larger budget for town services) or another person (the citizens of their towns benefiting from said increases) in return for being influenced in their responsibilities.  (The resolutions in support of the tax change.)

Oh, that’s right….they (and Nathan Miller) aren’t covered persons under 138A, which is probably why the county Democratic party just recently passed this:

12. RESOLUTION TO INCLUDE COUNTY & MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS IN THE DEFINITION OF “COVERED PERSONS” AND “PUBLIC SERVANTS” UNDER NC GENERAL STATUTE, CHAPTER 138A, “STATE GOVERNMENT ETHICS ACT”

If that looks familiar to anyone, it might be because a similar resolution was proposed at the county Republican meeting.  But according to the accounts on HCP from lead dissenter Deborah Greene (and Mrs. Greene, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here): when Nathan Miller, who according to her was “not familiar” with the ethics laws, asked Four Eggers about this resolution being needed, the response was that the commissioners had to have 2 hours of ethics education each year and had to adopt an ethics policy.  Four Eggers also admitted that he was not familiar with the rules and sanctions that state officials were subject to, and went on to say that the other commissioners could object if another commissioner was acting unethical.

Translation?  The foxes are guarding the hen house.  Since the only people who can police the county commissioners are the commissioners themselves, after their annual two hours of ethics training, of course.  Which, again, makes Chairman Miller’s actions legal in terms of the law.  Then again, I guess it is rather easy to delineate the law when the law doesn’t cover you, or when you get to write the laws yourself.  

And if we decide to bring up the Legislative Ethics Act? (N.C.G.S Ch. 120, Art. 14) It also has a word or two about bribery.

§ 120‑86.  Bribery, etc.

(b1)      It shall be unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly, to threaten economically another person in order to compel the threatened person to attempt to influence a legislator in the discharge of the legislator’s duties.

We’ve been told that the tax change is being used as a political tool to convince the town of Boone to change the UDO.  The plan seems to be punishing Boone’s citizens economically in the hopes of influencing them to vote against the current Democratic members on the council.  Does that count?

As for Four Eggers trying to give legal cover to Perry “I have no conflicts” Yates?  Since he’s not familiar with the statutes, allow me to provide them.

§ 138A‑36.

(c) A public servant shall take appropriate steps, under the particular circumstances and considering the type of proceeding involved, to remove himself or herself to the extent necessary, to protect the public interest and comply with this Chapter, from any proceeding in which the public servant’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned due to the public servant’s familial, personal, or financial relationship with a participant in the proceeding.

And the above says more than merely personal financial gain to him or his wife, which is Mr. Yates’s excuse.  It also says “close family ties or personal relationship”; something Mr. Yates certainly has.  

Also, a fun fact I learned from a friend who was researching this: the term “extended family” only applies to blood relatives.

So, direct father involved = legal conflict of interest.
Father-in-law = not legal conflict of interest under the law.

Of course, said friend also put it best when he said, “The guy is clearly in a ‘conflict of interest’ situatuion based on common sense, but unfortunately he is not in ‘conflict of interest’ based on legal definition.”

Even though he’s married to the daughter of the man who is at the center of this entire mess.  And even though he’s entangled with that family in too many ways to count, up to and including a vote to punish Boone with this tax change because that developer is in conflict with them. As admitted by Chairman Miller when he referred to the tax change as a “political tool” to influence Boone regarding the old WHS sale.

Again, I ask it….nay, I DARE it: could someone out there please tell me how Mr. Yates isn’t a living, breathing conflict of interest when it comes to anything regarding the Templeton family?

That’s just the hypocrisy side of it, no less; shall we get down to the lies as well?  Let’s start with the best one.

The AHTF changes somehow prevented the sale by preventing Phil Templeton from building what he wished; that being his stated intent for housing along with something such as a YMCA or other commercial ventures.

Lie: Templeton’s attorneys requested specific exemptions from the AHTF for the old WHS lot, since it’s zoned B-3 mixed use.  And once again, I pose a challege to any person who feels like it, to name even one part of this change to the UDO that prevents Mr. Templeton from doing exactly that.  Here’s a hint: you won’t find one.  Provided, of course, your plan was to build apartments and commercial in a mixed use lot.

(http://www2.wataugademocrat.com/News/story/County-accepts-old-WHS-offer-id-009621)

But how does….

“If all goes as planned, the project could provide housing for ASU students and a “large number of good-paying jobs” for local residents, Templeton said. High Country residents as well as tourists would have a wider selection of products and services and would benefit from significant tax revenues.”

….turn into 

“We can’t work with the town because of those pesky regulations, a bond requirement and conditional permitting process.”  That last one is something that would have been required for the lot, even if the AHTF didn’t exist.
(http://www2.wataugademocrat.com/attachments/2013/04/swkcsOpen_Letter_to_Commissioners.pdf )

Of course, this letter is, again, based on the premise that the Templetons were planning a mixed use development in the first place.  Look at the timeline.  November 13, 2012 was when the county accepted the offer.  At that point, we see the intent stated for a mixed use lot (see above link about the county accepting the deal).  It wasn’t until the AHTF passed (February 19, 2013), complete with Templeton-requested exemptions, that problems with the sale developed.  And in every news story, the problems seem to center around issues with “adequate assurances”, “building in phases”, “1/3 residential until all commercial is built”.  The lie is that 125% of the cost is the only requirement to meet adequate assurances, and all the other legalese that’s been argued ad nauseum since, complete with the April 4th letter by Chairman Miller blaming Boone’s regulations, and the above letter where Mr. Templeton announces his pull out of the deal.  Again, still stating that all the problems have to do with regulations on a mixed use lot.

Note the date there: April 8, 2013.

So why is it four days later, on April 12, that we have this letter from Deal and Mosley, sent to the town and county (though not made public until the media got a copy) that states Mr. Templeton was trying to negotiate a purely residential sale of half the old WHS property, which he desired then and desires now (demand…excuse me… “suggestion” #1 of the letter) to be zoned R-3?  (https://www.hcpress.com/img/Letter-and-chart.pdf)

Now, there’s only one way the AHTF could possibly affect things: someone would have to want to build only residential apartments; say, in a lot zoned R-3 instead, which is mentioned in this letter as the issue with the R-3 request.  However, this runs rather contrary to the ongoing printed and public arguments across multiple letters, which state an intent for mixed use and regulations.  This R-3 scheme seems to have been the Templetons’ game plan all along, as evidenced by the above letter stating that the R-3 request started in January, which was a full month before the AHTF changes passed.  Said letter also seemed to state that Mr. Templeton wasn’t planning on building anything himself.  Instead, he was trying to negotiate a sale of one parcel to an entirely different development company, get it zoned R-3, flip the land without one building going up at his expense, and probably make a profit on his entire $19 million purchase.  Possibly without having to build the mixed use he’s been promising us all along?  And if that’s the case, it raises quite an interesting batch of questions.

Such as: how does one even negotiate a sale of one piece of land to others –before– he’s even agreed to buy the property from the county?

Or: why did the county push to have the entire lot zoned B-3 for a more attractive sale, when the Templetons apparently had no desire to build on a B-3 lot, but instead wanted to sell half the lot to another company with it zoned R-3?

How about: why did Mr. Templeton state a desire for mixed use in November to the Democrat, when this April 12 letter looks to state that housing alone, or the intent to provide land for others to build housing on, was his intent all along?

When did these negotiations with other developers actually start?

If this was his plan, then why did Mr. Templeton attempt to get exemptions for a mixed use lot when he had no intention of actually building mixed use?

If this was his plan, did the members of the county commission know about it beforehand?  The April 12th letter states negotiations to zone the south side of the old WHS to R-3 started in January.  So, why are we only hearing about it now?

Why was this never mentioned in any arguments by the county against the town of Boone?  All we heard was how it would affect a mixed use lot, which of course the AHTF doesn’t, unlike the hidden R-3 proposal.

Why do we hear in public that the AHTF regulations are what is preventing mixed use building, only to see in private discussions that the real issue with it seems to be the R-3 request?

Why was there no mention of this in Mr. Templeton’s public letter on April 8, complaining that the problems over regulations and the 125% requirement on a mixed use lot were the reason that he pulled out?

Regarding this lie as well, why is it that we never hear two other things:

Why is it that no one brings up the phrase from the UDO changes “or purposes of this alternative by example only and not by way of exclusion”, which means that the 125% is merely an example?  The Templetons could provide a different means of adequate assurance, but again, that would require them to discuss it with the town of Boone, something which has yet to occur.

Why is it that we never hear Mr. Templeton mention that the section of the UDO which contains the 125% “example” (175 B-2) wasn’t even written by the Affordable Task Force in the first place?

Is his public line just cover for a failed private deal?

And if there was a plan for housing by itself instead of mixed use, why was that not mentioned at the most recent county commissioner meeting where the tax change was voted on?  Why, at that meeting, was Chairman Miller still stating (4 days after he would have gotten a copy of this letter) that Templeton’s intent was “mixed use”?

Was Chairman Miller “misinformed”, or was he lying?  If he was lying, then who was he lying for, and what was the purpose of that lie? 

Here’s our answer to that one. 
http://www.goblueridge.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19777:miller-responds-to-town-of-boone&catid=1&Itemid=157

“Unfortunately, it appears that the Town Council has decided to play the fiddle while Boone burns.”  Quoted from Watauga Commission Chairman Nathan Miller, who also said, “But unlike Emperor Nero, the citizens of Boone will have the chance to vote these people out come November.”

And once again, we see what this is all really about.  It has nothing to do with what’s good for the county, and everything to do with the petty political agendas of people like Chairman Miller and the Templeton family against the town of Boone.  This is evidenced once again by demand #2 in that April 12th letter; a demand that basically states, “Let us build our residential how we want, and then when it’s done, we promise we’ll submit a plan for what we want to build on the commercial lot.”

Now, where has the town of Boone heard that before?

“Oh, and we don’t want to deal with any other pesky regulations like steep slope either.  Oh, and give us 100,000 gallons per day of more water, please.  After all, it’d be such a shame if the sale couldn’t go through right; it would make Boone look horrible!” 

And why should Boone care about lines such as the tax revenue this will generate? Given that the county just further stripped away any sales tax revenue that would be made in the town, from the town.

More and more, this looks like a deal that was done in bad faith (at best), or an underhanded setup to attack all the town regulations the Templetons have been fighting for years now (at worst).  Either that, or it’s an attempt to devalue the property further by throwing a fit over regulations that they aren’t actually being forced to follow.  Provided, of course, that their intent was mixed use and not something else.

My next prediction as your resident oracle?  Watch the county try to devalue the old WHS lot, watch the Templetons make a new offer to get the land at a cheaper price, and watch the county commissioners blame Boone in their continued attempts to score political points with people’s lives.

Win/win all around, right?

As for you, Mr. Chairman?  The town didn’t start this fire, you did, when you decided to start flinging matches around the county with your hidden and unethical bribes.  When you decided to set the dangerous precedent of using tax money as a weapon against those who disagree with you, all in the name of trying to bully other towns into doing what you wanted.  When you decided that the lives of 17,000 citizens of Boone AND Watauga County, along with $2 million dollars in vital services to the town, can be pieces on your political chessboard.  When you think being chairman makes you the emperor of Watauga County, so you can just do whatever you want in those “smoke-filled rooms” as you backroom-deal however you want, and bend the law right to the breaking point; ethics be damned.

This fire is one of your own making, Chairman Miller, and if anyone should be held accountable for their actions, it’s you, sir.  You don’t want to be called unethical or a bully?  Here’s a tip: stop acting like one.  Your position does not give you the right to treat Watauga county like your own personal playground, and certainly does not give you the right to play these dangerous games with the services people are depending on.  

The sense of entitlement on display by you is sickening. As is the fact you seem to have once again forgotten that the Watauga county line does not stop at the Boone town limits.

And the fact that you’re using the WHS sale and the tax change to settle personal grudges with people like Mayor Clawson, while the citizens of Boone get caught in the crossfire?  The fact that you think you can just bully Boone, and the town isn’t going to fight back?  The fact that you apparently think punishing the citizens for the crime of voting in Democrats is somehow going to further your cockamamie plan to make the town vote Republican in the next election? All by forcing Boone to raise it’s taxes and cut back services so you can score political points down the line?

Talk about a joke, talk about a public disgrace, and talk about time for these games to end.

http://www.goblueridge.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19665:county-follows-up-on-threat-to-town&catid=1&Itemid=157

“During his comments about the conflict between the Commissioners and Town Council over whether to have a public or closed meeting, Chairman Miller stated; “We’ve had a high stakes game of poker going recently.”  The question now is: Are all bets in or are there still more cards to be played?”

Yeah….I’m not going to hold my breath on that last one, either.

Jesse Steele

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