Bye, Bye Facebook

I spent an hour the other day reading Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of the Russian troll farm that spread disinformation during the 2016 election. It is stunning. You must hand it to the Russians: They know Americans better than we know ourselves. They exploited our tribal politics, our utter lack of discernment when judging the validity of information, our freedoms and our rank stupidity. A sizeable number of people actually believed, for instance, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a suburban D.C. pizza joint. One fool from Salisbury even showed up with a weapon to free the kids. Think about that.

Mostly, the Russians exploited our rights to free speech and our social-media networks, primarily Twitter and Facebook. They are mentioned dozens of times in the indictment. Russian trolls created fake identities and groups to spread disinformation. Dozens were employed 24 hours a day to comment on tweets and Facebook posts. They posted more than 80 million false comments on Facebook. They then relied on our willingness to believe almost anything that reinforces our biases. Millions of Americans became unwitting Russian stooges by spreading these lies on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. In that way, a preposterous story about a child sex ring in a pizza parlor goes viral and, in so doing, achieves a level of truthfulness.

And, yet, Facebook and Twitter have done nothing meaningful in response. Facebook officials have said it’s not their job to judge the truthfulness of what appears in your news feed, but they’ve given you the opportunity to do so. What could possibly go wrong by allowing users to rank the value of the “news” they receive in their feeds?

Facebook has also altered the algorithm behind its news feed so content created by a user’s Facebook friends is more prominent than posts from businesses, mainstream media outlets and other major pages. So instead of news from legitimate sources you’ll see the link from your buddy to a fake source created by the Russians. The echo chamber remains.

I assume this all about money. It usually is. To create traffic and support advertising rates, Facebook’s business model relies on virality over truth. To make serious changes, such as deleting obviously fake accounts or tracking the origins of news posts, would probably cost users and result in lower ad revenue.

Without serious reform, Facebook and Twitter remain threats to our democracy because every national election will now be subject to foreign manipulation. Once candidates get the hang of it, even school board races won’t be safe.

Facebook and Twitter, I know, will have to be forced to make the needed reforms. I also know that the president and the politicians who control Congress won’t do it. They benefit from Russia’s ongoing attack on our democracy and Facebook’s smugness and lack of transparency.

It will be up to us.

Twitter was easy. I rarely use it. I cancelled my account today.

Facebook will be more difficult. I use it frequently to keep up with friends and family, communicate with constituents here in Swansboro and post random thoughts about this, that or the other. I plan to start a web or blog site and gradually direct my Facebook friends there. In a couple of months, I’ll take down the Facebook site. I’ll lose followers, but so be it. I’ll only post town business on Facebook until then.

If enough of us take this action, Facebook will be forced to change its business model or go bankrupt. I hold no hope that will happen, however. As someone who spent a lifetime as a journalist trying to discern the truth as best I could, this all irks the hell out me. If all this action does is make me feel better about myself and remain true to my profession, I guess that’s good enough

Leftovers: Moore’s BBQ

At the applicant’s request, the Board of Commissioners last night tabled a special-use permit for a barbecue restaurant at the intersection of Corbett Avenue and Hammocks Beach Road.

We’ll take it up again at our next meeting on Feb. 27.

In the other major agenda item, the board unanimously approved a permit for a new commercial building downtown. Edward Venters plans to build a single story, 1,536-square-foot brick addition to the old Harry Moore Store at 108 Front Street. This is the empty lot next to the Salt Marsh Cottage. The building is in the town’s historic district. The Swansboro Historic Properties Commission had approved the design for the new building.

After completing much of the hearing for the Moore’s Chicken and Barbecue Restaurant, the applicant, Baldwin Design Consultants of Greenville, asked the commissioners to delay the vote to allow Commissioner Pat Turner an opportunity to consider the permit. Turner was absent last night for medical reasons. A tie vote among the remaining four commissioners would have been a denial of the permit. According to our ordinance, the mayor couldn’t have voted to break a tie in this instance. We unanimously agreed to the request.

All of the commissioners last night expressed fears about the volume of traffic that the restaurant and other development spawned by Walmart will generate at Corbett and Hammocks Beach. Baldwin’s traffic engineer testified that the improvements recommended in his study will meet the traffic requirements of our ordinances. The traffic study recommends allowing only eastbound traffic to enter the restaurant parking lot from Corbett Avenue. Those traveling west on Corbett would have to turn left on Hammocks Beach and enter the parking lot on a driveway there. Everyone leaving the restaurant would do so on Hammocks Beach. To minimize long lines of cars waiting to make left-hand turns at Hammocks Beach, the study recommends making the current right-hand lane into a dual turn lane.

Importantly, our traffic engineer concurred with those recommendations.

While this is a Band-Aid approach to the larger problem, denying the permit now invites a lawsuit. These special-use permits require quasi-judicial hearings. We can only consider evidence presented during the hearings. When our own engineer testifies that the applicant’s approach will satisfy our ordinance, we have little left to base a denial on traffic issues.

The best we might be able to do at this point is push for the needed improvements at that intersection. The town is meeting today with the Walmart developers and DOT to approve the plat, pictured here, for the long-discussed Norris Road realignment with the Walmart entrance. Everyone agrees this addition is needed to safely move traffic in and out of Walmart. Our engineer said last night it will relieve 50 percent of the traffic pressure on Hammocks Beach, and our manager said he’s almost certain it will be built in the next 12 months.

Charles Rawls, who owns all property on west side of Hammocks Beach near the Moore’s lot, committed last night to internally connect all his properties on that side of Hammocks Beach by building an access road from Walmart’s existing driveway. If Walmart agrees, that road will eliminate the need for future driveways on the road when those lots are developed.

Finally, we need to make adding another turn lane on Hammocks Beach a drop-dead condition when the old ABC store across the street property is redeveloped.

North Carolina’s First Fish

cedar point beachIn retirement, I plan to rekindle an old love. I’ve always enjoyed researching and writing about local history. I was lucky that my editors at the Winston-Salem Journal allowed me to pursue that passion during my 24 years there.

Since moving to the coast 16 years ago, I haven’t had the time. Until now. From time to time, I’ll pass along the stories that I bump into.

This first is about mullet. It was North Carolina’s first fish. It supported the first commercial fishery along the coast that boomed to prominence after the Civil War and continues today, though much diminished.

There was a time when scenes like the one pictured here were common all along the coast. This is a mullet camp in Cedar Point in western Carteret County. Taken in the 1950s, the picture shows men hauling mullet to the beach.

Read more here: https://www.coastalreview.org/…/coasts-history-north-carol…/

BBQ on the Menu Next

The Board of Commissioners will consider permits for a barbecue restaurant on Corbett Avenue and a new commercial building on Front Street when it meets tonight at Town Hall.

Baldwin Design Consultants of Greenville is asking for a special-use permit to build a Moore’s Chicken and Barbecue Restaurant on about 1.3 acres on the corner of Corbett and Hammocks Beach Road. The lot, owned by Charles and Mary Rawls and Brenda Stanley, is the former site of Tom and Joe’s Sports Center.

This is the first of several commercial developments we can expect to see near that intersection now that Walmart is open. The Walmart store adjoins this lot.

Traffic is the major issue here. Under the state’s grading system, the intersection gets a middling “C” during peak traffic on weekday afternoons when this and other nearby developments are completed later this year, according to the applicant’s traffic analysis. It falls to a D on Sundays. To maintain those levels, the traffic study recommends allowing only eastbound traffic to enter the parking lot from Corbett Avenue. Those traveling west on Corbett would have to turn left on Hammocks Beach and enter the parking lot on a driveway there. Everyone leaving the restaurant would do so on Hammocks Beach.

Walmart customers who want to go west on Corbett will also be waiting at that intersection. As will those who live in subdivisions, including two new ones yet to be built, farther up the road. The intersection will also bear the traffic from the redeveloped ABC store site across from Moore’s and from new commercial developments that will likely be built on lots adjoining Moore’s that the Rawls’ also own.

To handle all that and avoid long lines of cars waiting to make left-hand turns at Hammocks Beach, the applicant’s traffic engineers recommend making the current right-hand lane into a dual turn lane. That would mean the two lanes become left-hand turn lanes as soon as the first car in the right-hand lane wants to go left.

Repainting the arrows at the intersection seems to be a band-aid approach to what’s shaping up to be major traffic snarl.

We visit our daughter often in Durham. Growth during the last decade has transformed the old tobacco town. Where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago, businesses of all kinds have sprouted. As I crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I often wonder who the moron was who allowed this to happen. I’m now in danger of being that moron.

Instead of attempting to deal piecemeal with the traffic that each succeeding development will spawn, we need to take a more holistic approach. So, some questions we should ask tonight:

How likely is Walmart to realign its’s Corbett Avenue entrance with Norris Road? This has been discussed for months and is considered the safest way to handle traffic entering and exiting the store and school traffic using Norris. Now, anyone wanting to go left on Corbett from Walmart is forced to make a U-turn at the Hammocks Beach intersection or exit onto Hammocks Beach and risk long lines at the light. A lighted intersection at Norris that would allow traffic to safely enter Corbett in either direction would relieve much of the pressure on Hammocks Beach.

Can the state Department of Transportation, which owns Hammocks and Corbett, widen the Hammocks intersection to include two dedicated left-hand turn lanes? It owns the right-of-way on either side of the road.

Finally, are the property owners willing to build an access road from the existing Walmart driveway on Hammocks Beach to Moore’s? They also own the land in between the two that will very likely be developed. That road would provide access to those developments as well and eliminate the need for multiple driveways on Hammocks.

Edward Venters is asking for a special-use permit to build a single story, 1,536-square-foot brick addition to the old Harry Moore Store at 108 Front Street. This is the empty lot next to the Salt Marsh Cottage. The proposal is in the town’s historic district. The Swansboro Historic Properties Commission has approved the design for the new commercial building.

You can find the full agenda here: http://swansboro-nc.org/…/BOC_2.13.18_Agenda_Packet_Revised….

The Moore’s traffic study is here: http://swansboro-nc.org/…/…/uploads/Moores_BBQ_Final_TIA.pdf

So Long, So Long

paul simonThis has been rumored for some time. I grew up with Paul Simon’s music. It has helped shape who I am. Simon is one of America’s great modern poets and I’m heartened to learn that his voice won’t fall silent. I’m also proud of him for deciding to support an issue that is dear to me as well.

Thank you, Paul, for touching my heart for all these years.

One of Simon’s songs just came to mind. He wrote it as a tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright, but its sentiment seems appropriate:

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon
I barely learned the tune
So soon
So soon

I’ll remember Frank Lloyd Wright
All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn
I never laughed so long
So long
So long

Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view
When I run dry
I stop awhile and think of you

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
All of the nights we’d harmonize ‘til dawn
I never laughed so long
So long
So long

A $120k Mistake

The Board of Commissioners swallowed hard tonight and authorized a $120,000 payment to a Carteret County woman to satisfy a five-year-old court order that the town had mistakenly ignored.

This wasn’t easy for any of us, but we really had no choice but to reach in to our reserve fund and make the payment. This won’t affect the current year’s budget or your taxes.

The payment to Miranda Glover stems from the town’s purchase in 2009 of property at 106 Church Street, popularly known as “the cigar shop,” from the estate of Hepsey Bishop. Many might remember that this was a turbulent time in town history that saw wholesale changes in town staff, including the manager. That figures into what happened.

The interest-free promissory note required a down payment on the cigar shop property with a final payment of $190,000 due to the Bishop estate in 2015.

The staff at the time, though, was unaware that a Carteret County court had ordered the town two years earlier to make the payment to that county’s Clerk of Court office to satisfy a $100,000 judgment against Scott Padrick, Bishop’s grandson and her executor.

“The new town manager and the new town finance director had no knowledge of the court order. Neither did the new town attorney,” explained Michael Parrish, the current Swansboro town attorney. “So, the town paid the $190,000 to the estate. That money was then distributed to Scott Padrick.”

Town staff in 2013 put the court order in a “legal folder” in the town’s vault, Parrish explained. Unfortunately, a copy was not placed in the town’s active file relating to the cigar shop property, he said. The current finance director, unaware of the court order directing payment to the clerk’s office, made the payment in 2015 as stipulated by the purchase agreement.

I should note here that Padrick knew that the payment should have been made to the court, but he apparently pocketed our check.

The town learned of the error in November when Glover’s attorney contacted Parrish’s law firm, Ward and Smith of New Bern, asking about the payment to the clerk’s office. The $100,000 judgment had by then ballooned to more than $150,000 after interest had accrued at about $1,000 a month.

The commissioners met several times in closed session to discuss our options

“We believed that the order was enforceable against the town, and that failure to honor the town’s obligations would not only be legally futile, but also embarrassing,” Parrish said tonight.

We directed him to work with Glover’s attorney for several months trying to locate Padrick to get our money back. When that failed, we negotiated with the Glover family to purchase the judgment at a discounted $120,000.

Doing so allows us to enforce the judgment against Padrick to try and recover the town’s money. We intend to do all that the law will allow.

The judgment against Padrick resulted after his dog bit Glover, then a minor, in 2007 in Carteret County. Four years later, a Carteret court issued a $100,000 judgment against Padrick to pay Glover’s medical bills and pain and suffering. After Padrick failed to pay the judgment, the court ordered the town to direct the real-estate payment to the clerk’s office, which would have forwarded the money owed to Glover and given Padrick what remained.

Not making the payment would have exposed the town to a lawsuit and more legal fees and accrued interest.

I’m with Mayor John Davis on this. “On behalf of the Town of Swansboro, I apologize that we allowed such an error to occur,” he said tonight. “We believe this was an error of omission and was due to not having adequate transition processes for leadership changes.”

Though the circumstances are extremely rare, current staff assured the commissioners that this can’t happen again because of their improved bookkeeping and filing systems.

It better not. While I like hanging out at the cigar shop, I didn’t want to pay for it twice.

Thanks to the Glover family. They were willing to work with us and settle the claim at a discount.

Special Session Has Full Agenda

One-way streets downtown, devising a meaningful land-use plan that serves as our blueprint for growth and modifying our decision-making process for development projects to allow more public participation are just a few of the items we’ll discuss tomorrow night at a special session of the Board of Commissioners.

The purpose of the meeting is to lay out our major goals for the coming year. The land-use plan is at the top of my list. The state’s 20 coastal counties are required to devise such plans by the state’s Coastal Area Management Act, which the legislature passed in 1972. The idea was well meaning: Give communities an opportunity to plan their futures by deciding where growth should occur and what form it should take. To prevent plans from becoming outdated and stagnant, the law required that they be updated every five years.

As with so many well-intended government ideas, this one went south pretty quickly. It turned out that most communities didn’t like charting their future. Doing it right was hard work and meant taking uncomfortable stands by telling politically connected, powerful people that maybe building that condo project or shopping center along that waterway wasn’t a good idea.

Soon, then, communities started taking the easy way out. They hired consultants who carved out a niche business producing boilerplate plans that meet the law’s requirements but manage to offend no one. They contain no policy directives and can be changed on 3-2 votes. Few are worth all the trees that were sacrificed to create them.

The state, tired of the charade, changed the rules a few years ago. Now, communities are no longer required to update their plans. Those that do can get a state grant to help defray the cost.

Our plan is almost nine years old. Like most, it’s not worth much. But we got some state money and will try and do it right this time. That means producing a plan that really is a blueprint for future growth, that identifies the types of development we desire and where it will go. An effective plan contains broad policy directives that guide our development ordinances. The plan could, for instance, direct the town to preserve green spaces and wetlands and reduce stormwater runoff. Maybe we desire bike paths and sidewalks. Our ordinances would then be rewritten to meet those goals.

The land-use plan is the bedrock on which our development policies rest. The commissioners can’t rezone land or approve projects that are inconsistent with the plan.

Doing it right will require the commitment of the commissioners and your involvement. This is, after all, your plan, your vision of what you want our town to look like in five years. I hope we will appoint a steering committee to guide the development of the plan. Let me know if you would like to be on it. We’ll also have a series of public meetings to get your ideas. Attend them. The plan will only be as good as the effort we put into it. If we screw it up again, we’ll not likely to get another opportunity to fix it.

I’ve not been shy about stating my displeasure with the special-use permit process we’ve devised to handle many development decisions. You can find my recent post here for more details. We must modify the process to allow more public participation. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is, but I hope the discussion starts Tuesday.

Traffic flow through downtown will likely be an emotional subject. Whether to switch to one-way traffic through our narrow, downtown streets is a debate we first had in the 1990s. I’ve heard from people on both sides of the issue. Some can get right passionate about it. Though I’m open minded about the outcome, I think this is a discussion we must have because traffic through downtown can be jammed on summer days and it’s only a matter of time before a serious mishap occurs.
Our meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at Town Hall. I hope to see you there.