This week’s column

Shipwrecked.

Here’s the link at the Indy and here’s the text:

Shipwrecked

By Kirk Ross

By all accounts I’ve read, Floyd Lupton was a good man. Lupton, who died in May of last year, was chief of staff for 26 years to Congressman Walter Jones Sr. and the go-to guy for Eastern North Carolina.

According to a tribute written upon his death by the congressman’s son and successor, “If anybody wanted to know the definition of public service, all they would have to know is Floyd Lupton, because he exemplified exactly what a public servant is. Never, not one time, did he seek anything for himself. His only concern was the people of the 1st District of North Carolina.”

In 1994, shortly after Lupton retired, Gov. Jim Hunt honored him by naming one of the ferries that cross the Neuse River from Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach after him. Unfortunately, the vessel and a good man’s name were commandeered by the State Ports Authority during this month’s tall ships celebration for a little VIP tour-o’-the port replete with steel drums, cold shrimp and cheap chardonnay. The price tag on the event, which took the Floyd Lupton out of service for five days while it was spruced up, is at $30K and counting according to The News & Observer, which broke the story.

The Tall Ships incident underlines how rare people like Lupton have become in government and points to a recent growth spurt of institutionalized privilege. You don’t need a lottery scandal to tell you that cronyism and campaign contributions pack a few seats on this state’s various boards and commissions. And as North Carolina has relied more and more on entities like the ports authority and regional partnerships and nonprofits to guide economic growth, there is mounting concern that there aren’t sufficient rules or oversight.

To his credit, Gov. Easley seems to understand that those of us who suffered long lines and, eventually, failure trying to see the tall ships take serious umbrage at the transformation of an important state asset into a party boat for cabinet officials, legislators and various other state and local officials. He has ordered both the Department of Transportation and the State Ports Authority to provide full reports and cost accounting. More importantly, he appears to be genuinely angry, indicating at a press conference last Thursday that heads could roll.

Last Friday, I asked Sherri Johnson, Easley’s press secretary, just how mad he really was. He’s very mad, she said. “Steamed?” I pressed. “That would be accurate,” she said.

That would make sense, since Easley has been such a pro-ports governor. Early in his tenure, I heard him fondly recall riding with the captain on the ferry home to Southport, catching up on local news in the State Port Pilot. A major new port near Southport stands to be one of his legacies.

The ferry incident isn’t the ports authority’s first embarrassment of the new millennium. Digging into an anonymous tip that the ports authority CEO took his kids to the Gator Bowl on the authority’s credit card, state auditors uncovered a practice of personal use of credit cards and state vehicles, lack of rules, and some pretty sloppy reporting.

North Carolina’s Eastern Region–a state-sponsored and -supported economic development entity that picked up a $3,000 bar tab for the ferry ride–also had a recent problem with a sports outing, this one for a weeklong stay at Pinehurst for the entourage of its now-departed executive director during last year’s U.S. Open. An auditor’s report also showed that the partnership was able to get a larger cut of state funds by underreporting interest it earns.

If these were isolated incidents it would be one thing, but there are enough reports of sweetheart deals, sloppy and misleading reporting and blurred lines between state partnerships and nonprofits set up to manage them to warrant a solid review and a tightening of oversight.

Small headway on that front is in the new state budget, with $150,000 for operating funds and a new position in the Department of Commerce to monitor the nonprofits it funds. And new ethics legislation may–may–make it more difficult to finance the kinds of adventures that lead to unflattering headlines. Ultimately, though, it is going to take a lot more than regulations and auditors to keep those in the public trust from going astray. Plain old honor to serve has to once again become fashionable. Can’t be all bad. It worked pretty well for Floyd Lupton.

Sherrill’s Farewell

With the close of the session comes the farewell speeches of departing legislators, and as business drew to a close last week, Rep. Wilma Sherrill, who is battling breast cancer, rose to say a tearful good-bye. Sherrill, who undergoes major surgery this week, announced last month that she would not seek re-election after 12 years in the House. The 66-year-old Buncombe County Republican, a party maverick and a key budget negotiator, has been candid about the seriousness of her diagnosis. She was commended by her colleagues for her work in passing child care and domestic violence legislation and her dedication in seeing through this session.