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Park Plan Gets Parked
Wither Moore Square? Will it remain an open space? Or be bisected by a giant stage? Since we last talked about the future of this downtown Raleigh landmark ("Square One," Nov. 7), the big-stage plan was sidetracked by the results of the city elections. But its backers haven't given up. On the other side, open-space advocates were handed a setback last week when the City Council voted to put off any park improvements--and any public process for planning them--until mid-year at least. The effect was to block a series of public meetings that the open-space forces clearly would have dominated.

The council's delay was couched as an economy move, a way to save money in the face of the state funding freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Easley and a looming city deficit of several million dollars. But it also served to duck a decision on the central issue on Moore Square, which is whether to move ahead on a plan presented by the city's parks and recreation department--the big-stage plan--or junk it and start over. Starting over would give stage opponents the chance to argue for sprucing up the square but otherwise leaving it be.

By ducking, the council also disappointed stage proponents, namely Gordon Smith, founder of Exploris Museum and its affiliated charter school. Smith pushed hard for the stage plan, a four-sided affair that would have cut the square in half, with the main stage facing north toward Exploris and the south stage facing City Market. Smith wants playground-quality grass planted on the north side, which is used daily by the 168 kids who attend his school; they'll be joined by 800 more when the new Moore Square Middle School opens next fall without much of a playground of its own, he predicts. As many as 1,000 school kids a day are booked to visit the museum this spring, and Moore Square is where they'll gather as well, Smith warns. They could use the picnic tables the plan envisions on the south side, under a grove of newly planted trees.

Smith's scheme has lots of opponents, many of them preservationists like Sarah Williamson, who see Moore Square as a place of historic importance to the whole state, not just another city park to be tinkered with. The square was created in 1792 as part of the original state capital plan, and Williamson thinks it should remain a square. "I'm very much opposed to the stage," she says. "And I'm opposed to turning it into a playground for the schools." When the state turned Moore Square over to the city a century ago, Williamson says, it was for the purpose of seeing it maintained. "From my standpoint," she says, "Raleigh has no right to fundamentally change it."

Her assessment of the latest twists and turns? "Well, it's sort of befuddled from the word go," Williamson laughs.

What Price Pristine Vistas?
Efforts to convince the Raleigh City Council to preserve land around Lake Johnson continue. Friends of Lake Johnson is trying to stop construction of an apartment complex on 12 wooded lakefront acres by convincing the council to buy out the developer. The group is raising money and says Wake County will put up $325,000 toward the purchase price (see "The Mud Puddle Formerly Known as Lake Johnson?" Jan. 30). In a recent e-mail, Thomas Crowder, an architect and member of the Raleigh Planning Commission who supports the preservation campaign, made this pitch:

"Lake Johnson is the flagship 'passive' park of Raleigh's City Park system. Once its pristine vistas are lost to the proposed development, the natural beauty we enjoy today will be gone forever. Just think, for potentially less than $3 per citizen in Raleigh, this natural gem could be preserved for generations to come! Are they worth it? I believe they are! The question is: Is each citizen willing to spend $3, $5, $15 or even $20 each to preserve Lake Johnson? I hope you are, and even willing to give more if need be.

"As a proponent for the responsible urbanization of Raleigh, we must seek opportunities to pursue higher density developments strategically throughout our city. However, this must be in concert with protecting and investing in valuable open space. Maintaining this harmony will continue our present high quality of life, as well as lead to further economic prosperity for all."

Bad Rap?
The most popular music genre in the country is striking some sour notes in the Triangle."Hip hop has become one big killing field which leaves those who enter mentally and spiritually dead," says Paul Scott, an ordained Baptist minister and founder of the Durham-based New Righteous Movement. The movement promotes what Scott calls "Afrikan liberation theology." Too often, he says, white music executives get rich off rap music that glorifies black-on-black violence. And now he wants to do something about it.

"We are boycotting Black History Month this year," Scott writes in a column posted to his Web site (http://members.boardhost .com/MINPS), "and participating in Black Resurrection Month instead--during which we will destroy the Hip Hop Conspiracy, once and for all."

The annual celebration of African-American heritage has been corporatized and commodified, Scott says, rinsing it of any real meaning and leaving black communities open to more exploitation. "With all of our think tanks and conferences, we still have not been able to stop Holly'hood from pimpin' our culture and using it against us," he writes. "While we were stalled at the crossroads of indecision, corporate America set up Kill 'em All Records at the corner of Sell Out Street and Liberation Lane. The genocide of Afrikan people became big business and the number one form of entertainment in America."

In his online column, Scott advances a three-point plan to rectify what he considers bad rap. "First, we are asking the Black community to join us in a hip hop fast," he writes, "where we will abstain from listening to or watching anything that disrespects the black community and portrays us in a negative light during the month of February." Second, his organization will begin issuing report cards to "rate rappers in relation to their musical contributions to the liberation of Afrikan people (or lack thereof)." Finally, Scott asks "our brothers and sisters in hip hop to join us in our quest to resurrect the minds of our people."

Scott may seem like just another quixotic crusader, but one of his prior cultural campaigns succeeded. In the late 1990s, he led a boycott of "Phat Boy" malt liquor that ultimately moved the product off area store shelves.

And Scott's not the only one calling for hip- hop artists to change their ways. In a Jan. 24 speech at North Carolina Central University, the Rev. Al Sharpton also came down hard on the genre. "We've gone from James Brown singing, 'I'm black and I'm proud,' to us calling ourselves niggaz with an attitude," he says. "Don't act like you have a new form of art. We all know how to cuss, but some of us have something to say."

Still, Scott's message isn't as black and white as a quick read of his online commentary might suggest. (He admits there that he's been a "hip hop addict for more than 20 years.") "I am not against hip hop," he says in an interview, "but I am opposed to the corporate hostile takeover of a black art form."

Scott disagrees with censorship and acknowledges that his boycott "has shocked a lot of people." But, he adds, "I am getting the most positive reaction from young people who are tired of the whole 'gangsta thing' and are ready for their music to once again grow."

Public Funds, Private Paper Trails
When state Auditor Ralph Campbell Jr. released a detailed report on the North Carolina Technological Development Authority's finances in December, the private nonprofit looked as guilty as a teenager busted for charging up Daddy's credit card. Alarmed by the authority's spending, Gov. Mike Easley revoked their state-backed allowance and sent the TDA to its room for a time-out. The agency emerged recently with five fewer employees and a promise not to disappoint Papa Mike again.

A nonprofit organization devoted to nurturing high-tech businesses in the state, the TDA has received almost $19 million in public funds since 1991. What's happened to that money is still largely an untold story. That's because the paper trail tracing the TDA's lavish spending ($1,328 for a staff lunch?!?) is tucked within the authority's private records.

The authority has agreed to open its filing cabinets and prepare a disclosure package for the press. But the TDA's cooperation isn't something it was legally compelled to do.

North Carolina has a good public records law, but it doesn't cover private groups that subsist on state support. Maybe it should, argues Amanda Martin, associate counsel for the N.C. Press Association in Raleigh. If there was ever a reason to broaden the scope of the law, she says, it's the TDA scandal.

"The TDA has become the poster child for the case that the government needs to maintain accountability when there is enormous use of public funds," Martin says. "The questionable appropriations, and the questionable stewardship of public funds, raise the issue as blatantly as any case we've seen."

In 1991, the N.C. Commerce Department, which created the TDA in 1983, cut the agency loose into the private sector. From there, the TDA was supposed to stay focused on its professed mission: to support new businesses with incubator programs and venture capital.

Campbell's audit showed that, if nothing else, the TDA was adept at dispensing money. Maybe too adept.

Take note that the TDA had, at any given time, about 13 employees. Going through the receipts, it's hard to decide which was the most flagrant squandering of taxpayer money: The $2,000 visit to a steakhouse? The three-person, $12,000 jaunt to a convention in Hawaii? How about salaries running above $100,000? Or a "performance bonus" of $36,000 given to TDA President David Emmett--three months after he took the job?

It appears that work for the TDA has been one big performance bonus after another. How did they keep the funds flowing in? There are clues in the audit report. Fees and expenses paid to TDA-hired lobbyist Joe McClees in a two-year period totaled more than $500,000. It was apparently a good investment. During the last fiscal year the TDA successfully solicited $4 million from the General Assembly.

It's clear that the TDA's collective judgment was impaired by its access to the public's checkbook. Gov. Easley acknowledged that when he suspended state payments to the institution in December. And now both Easley and State Auditor Campbell have said that the TDA should make its records public before it receives any additional appropriations.

Martin suggests that the General Assembly should follow up by amending the state's open records law to create public access to records of recipients of large sums of state money. "It's time to say that the if the public is to be giving funds above a certain threshold, there needs to be some clear standards of disclosure," she says.

Total Recall, or How a Loopy Group Becomes The Scoop
If a tree falls in the forest--but it's just an oddball tree, and on closer inspection turns out to be more like a weed--is it news? Well, in the case of the effort to recall Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, The News & Observer's answer was an enthusiastic "Yes!" And not just news of the page 12B variety either, but worthy of a section cover page and a front-page plug.

Extra! Extra! Libertarians' Recall Petitions Now Number at Least a Few! Maybe More!

Actually, Jim Mills, the North Raleigh Libertarian whose bile seemed to constitute the bulk of the recall "effort" (aided and abetted by radio talk-show host Jerry Agar), wouldn't tell The N&O how many signed petitions he had.

Then, The N&O's columnist Ruth Sheehan decided to give the recall idea a sound thrashing, despite her "gut" instinct that the better course was to ignore it.

Always listen to your gut. Her column had a big blooper in it (she said the General Assembly would have to OK any recall election, which isn't so), and she was forced to write a second column on the subject to correct the first.

A front-page plug. Two columns. The dyspeptic citizen's dream.

Well, now the thing can't really be ignored anymore, can it? So we logged onto Mills' recall Web site and read what little is there. The site accuses Meeker of saying, as a candidate, that he favored finishing the Outer Loop, only to reveal once he was in office that he meant only the northern arc, the road known officially as the Raleigh Outer Loop. As to whether we should start building the other, southern arc, which exists on the drawing boards as the South Wake Expressway, Meeker said we should stop and think about it, especially since it's at least a decade off anyway.

Think?! The man must be stopped!

Visitors to the recall Web site are invited to answer what surely is the right question: When Meeker said he was in favor of the Outer Loop, did you think he meant just the loop through North Raleigh? Yes__ No __ See results __.

We clicked on Yes. We assumed that everyone, seeing what the sprawl in North Raleigh has brought us, would agree it's wise to think how to avoid the same mistakes in southern Wake County. (Everyone, that is, except the developers who own land down there.)

"Sorry," the recall Web site said, instantly rejecting our vote and logging us off. "You have experienced an error."

(Mills tells us now that he's collected 200 signatures for the recall drive in the month he's been at it. He needs 10,000.) EndBlock

Coming soon to the Indy
--Durham citizens refuse to be steamrolled by an asphalt plant Inside the "Rice House" diet culture at Duke
--A new lineup from the Triangle's leading feminist pop-punk trio

  • A leading nonprofit takes public funds but keeps its records private.

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