Updated:
Oct 2, 2002
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Ewing Calls Legislative Act ‘Underhanded’

BY FLORENCE GILKESON: Senior Writer

County Commissioner Bob Ewing calls the enactment of law requiring a 4-1 vote by the board to take any action between now and December an “underhanded stunt.”

“In my 40-plus years in public service to the people of Moore County, I have never experienced such an underhanded stunt than that which has been performed by fellow Republicans,” Ewing wrote in a letter that appears in the “The Public Speaking” section of today’s Pilot.

“Having served with Democrats when they were in the majority, we had differences of opinion, but they were not settled in rancor or threats of intimidation,” he wrote. ““For two commissioners to sneak up to Raleigh and request legislation to limit the authority of the rest of the elected commissioners is underhanded to say the least.

“With the legislature long overdue for adjournment, and with statewide problems still hanging fire, it was little wonder that they (state legislators) would give short shrift to a local bill, pass it and move on to try and get out of town.”

Ewing said what worries him more than this legislation is “what kind of government we are in for here in Moore County as a result of this strong-arm tactics. Already rumored is the probable dismissal of our very capable county manager, who for more than 16 years has seen to it that Moore County has been the envy of all other counties, with one of the lowest tax rates and with yearly recognition for excellence in financial reporting.”

Meanwhile, County Commissioner-elect Virginia Saunders says she was not a party to the arrangements made by Commissioners Michael Holden and Colin McKenzie to ask Republican state Rep. Richard Morgan to introduce the bill requiring a super-majority vote by the commissioners until Saunders takes office Dec. 2.

“I’m not on the board yet,” she said.

Saunders, who defeated Commissioner Paul Helms in the Sept. 10 primary, is aligned with Holden and McKenzie. She declined further comment on the matter.

Legislators Didn’t Know

A number of state legislators say they would not have voted for the bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Richard Morgan had they known so many Moore County residents opposed its passage. The bill was rushed through the General Assembly and into law last week.

“If I had known then what I know now, I would have respectfully voted against it,” said Rep. Leslie Cox, a Sanford Democrat and a candidate for the new House District 51 seat. District 51 includes 3½ precincts in Moore County.

Cox told The Pilot Tuesday that he had heard nothing about the bill in advance and did not realize there was opposition in Moore County.

“The way it was explained, it was no big deal,” Cox said. “As it turned out, it was a big deal. If I had the chance to vote over again, I would not have voted for it. It’s one of those things, you live and learn. I wish I had known more about it last week.”

Cox said Moore County and its people are new to him and he has been trying to become more familiar with the area and has also tried to get to know Morgan better. He hopes to work with Morgan on those issues common to their districts.

Cox said that he did discuss the bill with Morgan but did not realize it was controversial in Moore County. The Sanford legislator said that he attended a funeral Friday and was approached by about six persons who asked, “what in the world is going on?” That’s when he caught on that many Moore County people were unaware of the legislation until after its passage.

“When a local bill is introduced, historically and typically, other members don’t mess in other people’s bills,” Cox said.

Nevertheless, Cox says he tries to understand each bill before a vote is taken. In this case, he simply trusted the House’s traditional process. “I don’t vote blindly for any bill,” he said.

Cox said the people have spoken in the election, but this law will encumber the Moore County Board of Commissioners if it takes a 4-1 vote to pass an important measure, such as the half-cent sales tax increase, should the tax be needed.

If he had fully understood the intent of the bill, Cox said he would have approached Morgan and told him that “I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but I understand what you’re trying to do and I hope you’ll understand my position.”

The Pilot was unable to reach Rep. Doug Yongue, a Laurinburg Democrat whose present district includes the Little River Precinct in Moore County. He was in committee meetings Tuesday.

Too Late

Both Cox and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird say that it’s too late to correct what they regard as a mistake.

Kinnaird said Friday that she has checked into the possibility of introducing a bill to rescind the law, but she has since learned that “it is not legally possible.”

The Orange County Democrat, who will not be representing Moore County after this year, said she wondered why she had received no word on the bill from her constituents in Moore County.

“I feel betrayed,” Kinnaird said. “The legislature doesn’t take up bills that are controversial in the short session. When a local bill is introduced, you usually defer to the wishes of the locals. (Sen.) Howard (Lee) and I were stuck. The tradition may have circumvented the normal democratic process.”

Lee, the other senator who represents the 16th District, which includes Moore County, also said he did not realize the bill was controversial. Moore County will be in a new senate district next year.

In recent months the Board of Commissioners has approved a number of controversial issues on 3-2 votes, with Helms, Ewing and David Cummings siding against Holden and McKenzie.

One of the things the super-majority law could thwart is an attempt to levy an additional half-cent sales tax to close a budget shortfall this year. Holden has said he opposes any tax increase.

Saunders was not saying Tuesday how she would vote on the sales tax increase.

“I need to look at the budget and the need for a tax increase,” she said. “I need to study it carefully and see what needs might be met. Right now, I see no reason to raise the tax.”

Holden, McKenzie and Morgan have said that they met last week and discussed introduction of a special bill requiring a 4-1 vote by the commissioners until the board is reorganized Dec. 2. That is the day on which Saunders, Holden and Cummings will be sworn into office for four-year terms. Holden defeated Wiley Barrett in the Sept. 10 primary. Holden, Saunders and Cummings, who had no Republican opposition, are unopposed in the November general election.

All three men told The Pilot last week that they were motivated by concerns that Helms, Ewing and Cummings would try to push through undesirable measures before Dec. 2. Morgan compared it to the “shenanigans” perpetrated by President Clinton in the final days of his administration.

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