Hitting up contract vendors for conference sponsorships. Using public funds to send each other's children to college. Raising document-recording fees during a recession. Closing policy meetings and online discussions to the public. Meeting out-of-town for four days on the public dime — and then doing twice as much socializing as working.
This is the regrettable record of North Carolina's Association of Registers of Deeds, from which I and other reform-minded registers are withdrawing in protest.
The association's leadership has abandoned fiscal stewardship, defied common sense, ignored the tide of ethics reform, and flouted public accountability for how it spends government funds.
It's wrong, for example, for the association to ask or allow vendors who do business with its members' offices to contribute cash, prizes, food and drinks to the group's annual conference. Even if it's still legal for now, it's also wrong to ask or let vendors pay for banquets, receptions, bands and nightly hospitality suites.
Taking gifts, conference money or campaign contributions from vendors seeking government contracts creates a clear conflict of interests. It undermines the public's confidence in the registers' choice of suppliers and products, and it isn't fair to competing vendors. That's why in 15 years as Wake County's register, I've never asked vendors for conference sponsorships or accepted campaign contributions from them.
And it's wrong for the association to use vendor contributions or county membership dues to finance college scholarships for each other's children. We registers are paid reasonably well, and we can contribute from our own pockets.
There's nothing wrong, in my view, with registers seeing the local sights at a conference or having some fun after their work is done. But at the association's recent four-day conference, social events outnumbered business meetings 14 to 7, by my count, totaling 24 hours of play vs. 11.5 hours of work. The highlights: banquets, a cookout, games, story-telling, a golf tournament, a picnic, nightly hospitality suites and dancing to a live band.
I also believe the association's leaders misled our state's legislators this year when, despite the recession, they pushed House Bill 384, portraying as "revenue-neutral" a law that the legislature's Fiscal Research Division warned would raise recording fees on homebuyers and businesses at least $1.4 million a year, an estimate I'm convinced is low.
The higher fees go into effect Monday. If this is what the people of North Carolina got for the $30,000 the association paid its lobbyist this year, that's another expense worth reconsidering.
Those of us registers who oppose these misguided policies and practices have tried in vain for years to persuade the association to stop them. The group's leaders frankly haven't seen anything wrong with such excesses, as their response to recent reporting and commentary on it shows. It seems they just don't get it.
Let me hasten to note that most registers are decent, good-hearted, hard-working public officials who serve their county's citizens well. But the association's leaders, naturally enjoying their power and their perks, have succumbed to the common human temptation to take whatever they can in the absence of strict laws or significant public scrutiny. Hence their chief defense of the indefensible is that weakest of rationales: We've always done it this way.
But the old ways just aren't acceptable anymore. That is why several colleagues and I are calling on North Carolina's General Assembly, including the Piedmont Triad's legislators, to apply the recent state ethics reforms to us local government officials as well. In particular:
- If accepting gifts from public-contract vendors is wrong in North Carolina's capital city, then it's wrong in each county seat as well. It should be illegal.
- To further reduce conflicts of interests and the appearance of them, the legislature should outlaw campaign contributions from vendors.
- The legislature should also reinforce the legal prohibition against closing the association's meetings about general business, and forbid shielding any part of its website from the public.
- And to avoid another legislative debacle, state lawmakers should require the association to take a full, recorded membership vote on the final form of all bills the group pushes in Raleigh.
This isn't a personal dispute; it's a principled professional disagreement, as I hope my fellow registers will understand. Many of them are my friends, and I hope they will remain so.
But times have changed, and our association needs to change with them. North Carolina's people today demand lean, clean government at all levels — and they deserve it.
I urge my fellow registers: Embrace these much-needed reforms. It's never too late to do the right thing. Your citizens will admire and respect you for it.