I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and she turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

                                                       And in the streets the children screamed,
                                                       The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
                                                                   But not a word was spoken;
                                                               The church bells all were broken.
                                                              And the three men I admire most,
                                                                 The father, son, and the holy ghost,
                                                            They caught the last train for the coast
                                                                           The day the music died.

               Don McLean, American Pie

             The past few weeks I’ve focused on government ethics, a topic that is much in the press and hard to avoid. Each time I travel to the state’s capitol I pick up front page state government stories that in local papers are relegated to page A6.  This past week’s News & Observer front page headlines reported that former Governor Easley was keeping secret email accounts, presumably to transact the public’s business away from public view.

             I’m also told by capitol city attorneys whose ears are closer to the ground than my own that more indictments are coming in the wake of Ruffin Poole’s recent arrest, and the next may be the “Wilmington Financier” who, according to the evidence in the Poole indictment, was engaging in bribery and money laundering.

             Will the shoes ever quit dropping??

             In 1943, American painter Norman Rockwell produced four paintings for the Saturday Evening Post collectively titled “The Four Freedoms.”  One of the paintings, Freedom of Speech, depicts a man speaking from the audience of a town hall meeting.  He wears the clothes of a man who works with his hands.

             The painting’s poignancy emanates not from what is seen but from what is suggested.  He appears to be an average man.  A man from Main Street. A man whose education is, by today’s standards, limited.  But he is a man who has access to government. Access to power.  He comes to a town meeting to speak and citizens turn to listen.  His voice is clear, sincere and heard.  

             The painting suggests democracy in all of the innocence and purity envisioned by fifth grade civics books and Boy Scout manuals.

             There’s a distance between government as we practice it and government as envisioned by Norman Rockwell, whose painting evokes nostalgia for a time that, perhaps, never really existed.  But I’ll take Norman Rockwell’s vision any day over the cascading revelations of the ethical gaffes of the past gubernatorial administration.

             I’m not naïve, and my vision of government is not formed entirely by the events du jour.  Power has been abused since power was first bestowed – or seized.  But the closer you get to the inner sanctums the more you realize that the dividing line between power’s use and power’s abuse is usually painted in shades of gray.

              The celebrated cases of governmental malfeasance are played in the media like the heavy chords of a Wagnerian opera, while innumerable small, day-to-day transgressions go unnoticed. Yet it’s these uncelebrated cases that corrode government at its seams, that slowly rust the bolts holding the girders of our democracy in place.

            There are times I fear that the standards of public discourse and the standards of public government have become irretrievably degraded.  Our elected servants and their appointees too often find themselves operating within cultures of what the outside world considers corrupt activity, but when you enter the playing field the lines between right and wrong begin to blur.

            Institutionalized political cultures create strong tides that only few can swim against.  In 1994 the United States Congress experienced one of the largest shifts in its history when a huge new class of freshmen Republicans was sworn in on promises of reform, Contract with America, etc., etc.  In 2006, when the political winds shifted to the Democrats, the conservative Wall Street Journal posted an article describing how the Congressional Class of 1994 had become everything they had campaigned against.  The article featured as Exhibit A Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, who I grew up with in High Point.  John David has just announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, campaigning against the same congress he failed to reform.

             Judging your own behaviour through the lens of those outside the insular  culture you live in  is difficult.  Judges solicit political contributions from lawyers who will appear in their courts and it’s considered “ethical.”  Candidates for Insurance Commissioner solicit contributions from the insurance industry.  Congressmen solicit campaign funds from the industries they’ll be regulating in the next session, and it’s legal.  Yet when Meg Scott Phipps (who, as a candidate for Secretary of Agriculture, would be in a position to decide who would get the multi-million dollar contract to run the State Fair) solicited contributions from the carnival industry, she found herself on a path to a prison cell with Martha Stewart.

             The cure for our ills is not to clean house, for then we’ll only get new faces operating within the same culture.  The cure is to change the culture through a codification of ethical norms and expectations followed by an aggressive and mandatory education of those norms among elected and appointed officials.  Every self-regulating profession does it this way, and it works. 

             In land use, some of the ethical standards have already been codified.  Please stay tuned for a discussion of these standards in my next post.

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Tom Terrell

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes…

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes parts of Virginia and South Carolina. His many clients are involved in commercial and residential real estate, solid waste hauling and disposal, telecommunications, quarries/asphalt and miscellaneous litigation related to permit denials, vested rights and rezonings.

He has published numerous articles and speaks regularly to legal, governmental and business groups on a variety of issues related to land use and zoning.

Mr. Terrell has served as a leader in numerous civic and legal endeavors, including Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the N.C. State Health Plan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Winston-Salem State University, and service on the Board of Directors of the UNC-CH General Alumni Association, Board of Directors of the High Point Chamber of Commerce, Board of Visitors of Guilford College and Board of Center Associates of the Center for Creative Leadership, and as a founding member of the N.C. Bar Association Zoning, Planning and Land Use Section.

More information can be found at https://www.foxrothschild.com/thomas-e-terrell-jr/.

Mr. Terrell can be contacted at mailto:tterrell@foxrothschild.com.