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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chatham Commissioners to put resolution about undocumented immigrants on ice

Posted by on Wed, Jun 1, 2011 at 4:16 PM

Chatham County Commissioners on Monday plan to rescind a two-year-old resolution that critics say will hurt relations between undocumented immigrants and police.

In 2009, the previous board of commissioners, then dominated by Democrats, adopted a resolution acknowledging that undocumented immigrants live in and contribute to their communities:

"Chatham County is home to a diverse population — including people of color, documented and undocumented immigrants, citizens and noncitizens — whose contributions to the community are vital to its character and function; and whereas the Board of Commissioners is committed to upholding the civil rights of all persons in Chatham County and to protecting the enjoyment of any and all rights and privileges secured by the constitutions and laws of the United States.”

Commission Chairman Brian Bock, a Republican, said that the current board feels the language in the resolution discouraged local police and sheriff’s departments from entering into any future agreements with state or federal law enforcement.

"The original resolution was too broad," he said, "and we have this opinion sitting out there, that does not reflect the current board's opinions, and that is why we have decided to rescind it."

Activists fear that by abandoning this resolution, the commissioners will send not only a symbolic message that undocumented immigrants are unwelcome in Chatham, but they also will create a hostile climate for them.

Chatham Immigration Action Alert, a citizens’ group, is urging citizens and immigrants to speak out in disapproval of the commissioners’ plan to rescind the resolution.

“As a community, we worked hard to create and defend the original ICE Resolution,” writes Chatham Immigration Action Alert organizer Ilana Dubester, who is originally from Brazil and has lived in Chatham County for 20 years. “Is this in the best interest of our county’s inhabitants and businesses?”

At a May 16 commissioners meeting, Dubester, who also serves on the county’s Human Relations Commission, told the board that “all immigrants, including the undocumented, pay their share in taxes and contribute to the wealth of our state. Immigrants cannot be neatly divided into the so-called good immigrants with papers and bad immigrants without.

“Most families have mixed status—some members are documented while others are not,” she continued. “Resolutions that target the undocumented inevitably impact legal immigrants. Words matter. When Chatham leaders in the past voiced their hostility toward the undocumented, David Duke came marching into town. Collaboration with ICE is bad for public safety and bad for the economy.”

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eugenics Compensation Task Force hears from victim's family

Posted by on Thu, May 26, 2011 at 4:09 PM

Margaret Helen Cheek was a loving, yet troubled mother who spent the prime of her life in mental institution.

Two of Cheek’s daughters, Australia Clay and Dolores Marks, told a task force Wednesday that Cheek had been sterilized against her will at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, where she was a patient for 11 years.

“It was traumatic reading my mother’s records from the hospital,” Clay told the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force.

From 1929 until 1974 when the eugenics program ended, about 7,600 people in North Carolina were involuntarily sterilized under orders from the state eugenics board. Victims included the poor and those who allegedly had cognitive or mental disorders. After World War II, the program also began targeting minorities, like Cheek, who was African-American. She died many years ago in her early 70s.

Cheek was in her mid- to late-20s when her husband committed her to the mental institution. She was sterilized shortly before her release in the early 1960s, said Clay and Marks, who were children during most of her confinement.

The sisters believe signatures on the sterilization permission form were forged. “My father couldn’t write, but his name was signed on the sterilization record,” Marks said.

Cheek’s signature was on there, too, although the hospital had deemed her mentally incompetent. “My mother’s signature was on there giving permission, yet she supposedly just stared and didn’t know up from down,” Clay said.

“I don’t think she knew what had happened,” Marks added.

The task force is, in part, charged with determining how much money each victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program, and possibly his or her immediate family members, should receive. Approximately 2,900 victims could be still alive, although since some of them had children before being forcibly sterilized, the number of qualifying family members could be much higher.

In 2003, state Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, recommended a figure of $50,000 per victim; a House select committee later lowered it to $20,000. The task force agreed Wednesday that $20,000 is a “starting point,” based on compensation for other victims of civil rights violations, such as those whom the U.S. government confined in Japanese internment camps during World War II. The amount also would have a chance of clearing political and fiscal hurdles in the Legislature.

Clay and Marks said the $50,000 would be fair, adding that if they chose to sue the State of North Carolina over their mother’s treatment, they would bear the financial burden.

Task force members noted there could be other considerations that could increase the figure, such as the victim’s age at sterilization and the type of procedure, castration, for example.

“Even a million dollars wouldn’t be enough, said task force member Lenwood Davis, a historian and teacher from Winston-Salem. “But we need to be realistic. We need to get this resolved. It’s been dragging on for years.”

The money would have to be appropriated by the General Assembly, which it has failed to do for eight years. There have been discussions of dipping into the Tobacco Trust Fund, which task force member Fetzer Mills, a former judge, strenuously opposes.

“If the state has committed a wrong against its citizens, the state itself should be required to pay out of the general fund from the taxes citizens pay,” Mills said. “To look elsewhere is shirking responsibility.”

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Fracking study bill passes House Finance Committee

Posted by on Thu, May 26, 2011 at 10:08 AM

House Bill 242, which calls for a study of the environmental and financial impacts of fracking, passed the House Finance Committee today. However, there was substantial discussion about the lack of legal protections for landowners who sign leasing agreements with drilling companies.

As the Indy reported this week, although fracking is still illegal in North Carolina, many landowners, particularly in Lee County, have already signed leasing contracts with drilling companies, the major one being the Denver-based WhitMar Exploration.

Becky Ceartas, program director of Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, told the committee that the contracts she’s seen contain predatory clauses including those that allow the landowner to be liable for environmental damage and permit the drilling company to explore for natural gas anywhere on the land without notice. “These abuses should be corrected through legislation,” she said.

State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, asked that protective language be included in the bill before sending it to the full House for a vote. “I’m very troubled by moving this bill along when it’s not ready,” he said. “I’m concerned we might be moving too fast on this. I want assurance that we can work on this before it leaves the House.”

Bill co-sponsor state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican representing Burke and McDowell counties, assured the committee that language, essentially crafted by RAFI, would be included in the final version of the bill that would go to the full House. However, he urged the committee to pass the bill today without that language so as to avoid getting “stuck with something we don’t like.”

Gillespie was referring to Senate Bill 709, known as the Energy Jobs Act, which would quickly overhaul the state’s energy policy to encourage offshore drilling and onshore fracking, as well as to load the Energy Policy Council with members from the oil and gas industries.

That bill passed the Senate 38-12 earlier this month. The House Public Utilities Committee is scheduled to hear it next.

Read the Indy's coverage of SB 709 and the first installment of the fracking series.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Undocumented immigrants released from prison after workplace raid

Posted by on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Six undocumented immigrants who had served six months in federal prison on immigration charges were released yesterday. They were released into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcements officers after posting immigration bonds in Charlotte. The bond amounts ranged from $5,000—$6,000.

The men—Rafael Garcia-Tiscareno, Jose Guadalupe Rodriguez, Lucio Huerta-Ponce, Luis Humberto Huerta-Ponce, Luis Raul Huerta-Ponce, Juan Manuel Martinez, Rodriguez, Jorge Alberto Ruiz-Ponce—were employees of Durham-based J&A Framers and had been arrested during several workplace raids in the Triangle last November.

A seventh man, Victorino Gutierrez-Licona, is scheduled to appear at a bond hearing next month; he received a seven-month sentence. Two of the former employees were not eligible for an immigration bond.

All of the men pled guilty in March to entering the United States illegally.

In January, eight other employees pled guilty to misdemeanor immigration charges. They served 30 days in jail and were later released on immigration bonds.

“What happened to these men and their families is really sad, and yet another example of how the Obama administration is saying one thing about what their immigration policy is and doing the opposite,” said Marty Rosenbluth, executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project. “We hear over and over ICE officials saying that they are doing work place raids anymore. These guys were caught up in an investigation targeted at their employer. But instead of offering them the option of just returning voluntarily, or even just putting them into deportation proceedings, Obama’s Justice Department charged them with felony re-entry and they ended up in jail for six months. The only crime they committed was trying to feed their families”

Rosenbluth argued for the former workers' immigration bonds. He said that the next step is to get the men hearings in immigration court where they will try to show that they have the right to stay in the United States.

The men's employers, J&A Framing owners Jose Alfredo Lopez Ponce and Juan Antonio Lopez Ponce, were indicted Dec. 15 on charges including smuggling and harboring and recruiting immigrants to work.

On April 6, the men, who are brothers, pled guilty to illegal alien harboring and conspiracy; they are awaiting sentencing by Chief United States District Court Judge Louise Flanagan in New Bern. Each man could receive a maximum of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and at $500,000 in fines.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Durham County head pitches no hike in property taxes, two new sales taxes for Nov. ballot

Posted by on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 11:54 AM

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Despite early indications that county property owners could have seen as much as a 2-cent increase in their property tax rate next year, Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin isn't proposing a such a hike. At a meeting of Durham County Commissioners yesterday, Ruffin said his staff was able to trim and arrange the county's $499 million budget in a way that would also provide all of the requested local funding for Durham Public Schools and restore employee merit pay raises that have been frozen for the past two years. (See the budget)

The money allocated to next year's budget is about a 4 percent increase over the previous year, but it still a "status-quo" budget that continues to demand the county operate efficiently and do much more with less, as the slow economy leads to increased demand for services, Ruffin said.

"I think the message here is one of cautious optimism," he said. "Durham County's economy is in better shape than many areas of the country, but the road to recovery is slow. We're heading in the right direction, but still need to be very careful." (Read his whole speech, PDF)

County commissioners will spend the next month hearing public comments on the budget and working with individual departments to ensure they'll be able to operate sufficiently next year. The commissioners will also fine-tune the budget before its scheduled approval at their regular meeting June 27. Most departments, except for the Department of Social Services and the Sheriff's Office, will see about a 2 percent cut in their budgets next year, Ruffin said.

If the board follows Ruffin's recommendations, Durham County property owners won't see a jump in their property tax bills next year, but there's a good chance registered voters be deciding in November whether the county can impose one or two new sales taxes to raise money for education and public transit. (Read the county's fact sheet)

If voters approve, a one-quarter-cent sales tax would be added to non-food and non-drug purchases beginning in April 2012, generating an estimated $9 million in its first full year in 2013. About $8.1 million of that money would go to the operating and debt-payment budgets of the Durham Public Schools.

If voters approve a 1/2-cent sales tax for public transit, the tax would be added to Durham County sales around the same time, April 2012. The first full year of collection in 2013 would garner an estimated $18 million to add public bus hours and add commuter rail between Durham and Research Triangle Park by 2018, Ruffin said. Pending cooperation from neighboring counties, the rail system could connect with other systems. The money could also be used for light rail service to UNC and UNC hospitals in Chapel Hill by 2025.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Telecommunications giants 1. People 0. Perdue lets HB129 become law

Posted by on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Governor Bev Perdue will let House Bill 129, the anti-municipal broadband bill become law today, opting to neither sign nor veto the legislation before the midnight deadline.

She issued a statement (full text below) saying she both wants every North Carolinian to have Internet access and seeks rules to prevent cities from having “an unfair advantage over providers in the private sector.”

Crews in Wilson installed fiber lines in 2008 for the town-run broadband Internet service. Municipalities such as Wilson, where broadband is already in place, received exemptions in the bill.
  • File photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Crews in Wilson installed fiber lines in 2008 for the town-run broadband Internet service. Municipalities such as Wilson, where broadband is already in place, received exemptions in the bill.
Her decision is a crushing blow for Internet access advocates, who have fought bills for four years arguing that broadband must be viewed as a valuable public utility that the government should provide as it does for water, sewer and mail.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

RJA repeal efforts: bill to erase Racial Justice Act now has a half-sister in the Senate

Posted by on Wed, May 18, 2011 at 8:34 PM

Sen. Floyd McKissick (leaning) consults with Rep. Larry Womble. Rep. Earline Parmon (at table) watches a district attorney speak against the Racial Justice Act, which could be repealed this year.
  • photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Sen. Floyd McKissick (leaning) consults with Rep. Larry Womble. Rep. Earline Parmon (at table) watches a district attorney speak against the Racial Justice Act, which could be repealed this year.

In just the past week, Raleigh’s conservative lawmakers have pushed forward on three of perhaps their most tendentious priorities, working to add restrictions to abortion, and rallying just yesterday to gain support to amend the state’s constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam and Republican colleagues honed in on another intense and emotive issue, one with life or death consequences: allegations of racism in the courtroom.

A bloc of conservative lawmakers are vying to erase the 2009 Racial Justice Act, a law that allows death row inmates to potentially avoid execution if a judge finds their cases were influenced by racial bias. The law has been heralded as one of the country’s most progressive criminal justice reforms in decades. But since its passage, many of the state’s conservative politicians have vowed to dismantle it.

Stam filed a bill in February to obliterate the law, and on Wednesday he himself presided over the discussion on it. He stood at the front of a crowded room, before rows of television cameras, recorders and microphones. The nearly 90 minutes of public comments were tense and sometimes awkward, one district attorney even being interrupted by an awkward outburst of sarcastic laughter. The divisions haven’t moved since the law was passed two years ago. Death penalty opponents, clergy and members of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus urged the state to redress potential racial bias could have determined whether a convict is put to death.

“We know that if you’re African American in this state, and the victim is white, you’re two and a half times as likely to get the death penalty,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, who was a primary sponsor of the Racial Justice Act in 2009. He cited a study by Michigan State University researchers who reviewed the 173 death penalty cases in North Carolina from 1990 to 2010. “We know that if you’re African American or a person of color and you’re being considered to be a part of a jury that it’s three times as likely that you’re going to be eliminated as a juror. Unfortunately, in this society, we’ve not reached the point where we are color-blind. … Until we get there, we don’t need to be considering repealing the Racial Justice Act.”

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Monday, May 16, 2011

City manager pitches half-cent hike of tax rate, reinstates employee raises

Posted by on Mon, May 16, 2011 at 8:12 PM

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Just as for residents in many other cities and towns across the state, property taxes for Durham city dwellers could go up about a half-cent per $100 of property value, according to the budget pitch City Manager Tom Bonfield made Monday night.

For a house valued at $200,000, that would add a little over $11 to the annual tax bill for that property. City residents may also face an increase in county property taxes next year. The county manager presents his budget next Monday at a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.

Bonfield equated the proposed budget to a "bland diet."

"No appetizer, no spices, no fancy sauces, no decadent dessert," he said. "But full of substance and nutrition. It gets the job done."

Faced with a $5 million budget deficit and declining sales- and property-tax revenue, Bonfield suggested trimming 10 jobs to balance the city budget for 2011-12. Seven of the 10 positions are occupied, Bonfield said, and several of those employees will get other employment with the city, including 21 full-time positions the city will gain by rearranging some resources. For instance, the city will cut one supervisory position in its general services department, and replace it with two positions for lower-paid laborers. (Read the city's summary)

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Drill bill: SB 709 passes, focuses on oil and gas

Posted by on Tue, May 10, 2011 at 7:13 PM

Call it by its proper name, the Energy Jobs Act; call it the Drilling Bill, call it birdcage liner, but Senate Bill 709 passed the Senate Tuesday 38-12.

The bill now goes to the House.

Its passage marks a significant shift in state lawmakers’ attitudes toward energy and mirrors a national push by conservatives to ramp up fossil fuel production in lieu of renewable energy, conservation and efficiency.

As Sam Pearsall, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, put it, “It has a pro-industry slant so steep that I can’t climb it.”

It was just four years ago when North Carolina became the first state in the Southeast to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard. While imperfect, the REPS nonetheless requires investor-owned utilities to generate or provide 12.5 percent of their power from renewable energy or energy efficiency by 2020.

Now, with Republicans at the helm, the Legislature’s focus de-emphasizes clean energy in favor of fossil fuels. Although there are some obligatory references to renewable energy in SB 709, those sources are explicitly downplayed in favor of gas, and implicitly, oil.

The pro-oil and gas stance is underscored in SB 709, “the Energy Jobs Act,” which, like two other bills, calls for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to conduct a fracking study. The measure also reconfigures the Energy Policy Council to be more fossil-fuel friendly and reverses the state’s long-time reluctance to allow oil and gas exploration and drilling in federal waters off the coast.

That reluctance is justified: Few eyesores could kill state tourism faster than a belching refinery in Wilmington or Manteo. Few disasters could harm the state’s sensitive coastal wildlife and fish habitats more than an oil spill.

State lawmakers are gambling that accidents like Deepwater Horizon are rare. But as Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Indy shortly after the gulf disaster, “North Carolina shouldn’t assume an accident couldn’t happen here.”

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Duke study: High levels of methane in drinking water wells linked to fracking

Posted by on Mon, May 9, 2011 at 3:20 PM

A study released Monday by five Duke University scientists found that drinking water wells near gas extraction sites had on average, 17 times higher levels of methane gas than wells that weren’t. Some of these wells, the study concluded, had concentrations of methane far above the “immediate action” hazard level.

fracking_study.pdf

The scientists tested 60 drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and New York for the presence of methane. Methane was detected in 51 of the wells, regardless of whether they were near gas extraction operations, but those nearest the drilling sites—within a half-mile—contained higher levels of methane.

“Essentially, the closer you are to a natural gas well, the more likely you are to have methane in your well,” said Rob Jackson, one of the scientists involved in the study. “What surprised me was the consistency of the results.”

The scientists also studied the geochemistry of the methane in the affected drinking water wells and concluded that it matched that found in nearby gas wells.

The immediate danger of methane in drinking water is that it can build up in the well or in a home and explode. Last year, a well in Pennsylvania did just that, as did a home in Ohio in 2007. In both cases, state investigators concluded methane from nearby extraction sites contributed to the explosions.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water North Carolina, called the study findings “powerful information,” adding “It’s a level of analytical information I’m glad to see.”

Clean Water North Carolina opposes fracking because of its environmental harm to water and air quality as well as the lack of regulation over the drilling method.

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