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October 07
A Good Reason To Re-Examine Ethics Laws

Author: Staff WriterThe Pilot

Back in 2006, state legislators thought about whether to include local government officials under the same ethics umbrella that they were establishing for themselves.

The scandal involving then-House Speaker Jim Black was still brewing. Legislators responded by creating a gift ban and new economic disclosure requirements for themselves and other top state officials.

They ultimately decided against -including local -government officials under the new requirements. 

Three years later, legislators did nudge local government types in the right direction. They passed legislation requiring locally elected boards - city councils, county boards of commissioners, boards of education - to adopt their own ethics policies. 

The 2009 law may not have gone far enough. Just consider the annual -conferences of county registers of deeds. 

At its most recent meeting in Boone, the registers of deeds played golf, enjoyed live entertainment and received prizes ranging from small flat-screen TVs to $100 gift cards. The perks and the rest of the conference were paid for by vendors seeking business with the elected registers and with a portion of fees paid by the public to file deeds and other public records. 

Some of those fees also go to two $2,500 scholarships awarded each year to registers of deeds' family members. 

The conference took place after the association gave its OK to, and legislators approved, higher fees for filing documents. The increases are expected to raise $1.4 million, with the local registers of deeds offices receiving all but about $90,000. 

Rounds of golf and flat screen TVs apparently aren't getting any cheaper. 

Keep in mind that roughly a quarter of the registers of deeds in the state make more than $80,000. 

The response from the group's president, Kathy Young, is that this is the way it has always been done. Yep, and lobbyists wining and dining legislators at fancy Raleigh steakhouses was the way it had been done before 2006. 

At least three local registers of deeds - Laura Riddick in Wake County, Craig Olive in Johnston County and Matt McCall in Iredell County - have been publicly critical of their colleagues for the conference perks and fee hikes. 

So it's not as if some of those in the position don't see the obvious conflict of interest created by "the way it has always been done." 

What's less obvious is whether creating a scheme of state-adopted ethics rules for local government officials is the best way to try to prevent these types of abuses. 

The reason that legislators didn't do so in 2006 was because of a recognition that trying to enforce these rules from Raleigh might prove ineffective. The State Ethics Commission, which is in charge of enforcing the rules at the state level, would probably be snowed under attempting to do the same for thousands of local government officials. 

Still, the registers of deeds and their perks show that state legislators have to continually examine ethics rules and how they should be applied. 

Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com. 







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