State Treasurer Dale Folwell. (Jade Wilson for The Assembly)

Much has been discussed about Republican N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s fixation on our area (heck, we already covered it in a previous edition of The Dive).

Some commissioners think it’s an unwarranted obsession–a “vendetta,” or maybe “retaliation” for selling the hospital. 

To Folwell, his outsized attention on the Cape Fear region is “completely avoidable.” He says he wishes he and his staff at the Local Government Commission, which safeguards municipalities from making bad financial decisions, didn’t have to spend so much time on our overly complicated dealmaking. 

In fact, he’s “agitated” that his office had to tell local officials how to save money in our relatively prosperous local economy, when there are other communities under his watch that struggle to remain financially solvent. (The irritation is mutual: New Hanover County officials recently reworked plans for a project—they believed to his liking—only to have them seemingly disregarded.)

Deals should pass the “fat crayon” test, Folwell said–a lesson he says he learned from Warren Buffet, whom he has met several times. “A fat crayon means the deal is on one piece of paper, and it makes so much sense that you can literally write it with a fat crayon because that’s how little needs to be said about it,” he said.

Folwell says public deals coming out of the region aren’t passing. 

For the uninitiated: The state treasurer vehemently opposed the hospital sale. He fought the public Bald Head Island ferry system transaction and interjected (and saved taxpayers $21 million) in plans to redevelop the New Hanover County government complex. He critiqued the county’s downtown building purchase for the community college. He turned down Wilmington’s purchase of its new HQ and he seared the first iteration of Project Grace, the county’s museum-library overhaul. 

Now, county leaders say Folwell won’t put their new version of the Project Grace proposal on the commission’s meeting agenda next week. (Keeping items from the agenda is an approach that also stymied the Bald Head deal.)

As state treasurer, Folwell exclusively holds the power to bring certain public financial transactions to a vote. His board could, in theory, elevate a deal to be considered by overruling him, but Folwell said that hasn’t happened in the 70-year history of the office. Project Grace advocates have been lobbying commission members to try.

County officials plan to travel to Raleigh for the meeting Tuesday–even if Project Grace doesn’t make the agenda.

“I’m not trying to turn up the temperature,” Folwell said. “I’m trying to do what I’m supposed to be doing, which is protecting and defending taxpayers.”

Unlike many politicians who bristle at the mildest challenging inquiries, Folwell takes question after question in stride–which is part of what won him recognition as the most transparent politician in the state. 

Assertions that he’s holding a grudge or making a splash to drum up interest in his gubernatorial run are, he said, “lazy thinking.” Pissing off financial, insurance, and health care titans isn’t usually good politics for a gubernatorial hopeful, he said. 

Local public officials say he acts outside of his authority. He says he doesn’t think about it that way; he’s the goalkeeper, the one in the net. If not him, then who?

He concedes he moved the goalpost on Project Grace. 

In the first version, county officials planned to use private financing provided by the developer, but Folwell insisted they save money by seeking cheaper interest rates themselves on the bond market. So, they did that. Now, he’s asked them to dip into their savings instead of issuing any debt. The county has a higher yield on its savings, which means it’s cheaper to take out debt, so officials aren’t keen to dip into their reserves. 

Folwell’s main gripe with both versions of Project Grace is he believes they are excessively generous to developers. He’s suggested the current developer is malfeasant, but acknowledges there’s nothing illegal about frequently entering deals with public entities: “I don’t think you need a law to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Could he see the county’s effort as clumsy, rather than nefarious, as he’s implied? “I don’t think there’s any coincidences,” he said. (For its part, the county maintains everything has been above-board.)

We met at a coffee shop downtown last month, just a block from where Project Grace would sit, if it ever happens. As our meeting was winding up, Christina Haley, the head of Wilmington Downtown Inc., stopped to say hello. At first, she didn’t realize who I was sitting with. 

It was serendipitous. Just four days before, Haley had made the case for Project Grace before commissioners on behalf of her organization, which supports small downtown businesses. And now, she was facing the man who was holding it up. 

She gave Folwell an abridged version of her pitch: The community is behind it, it would revitalize the block, and there aren’t many places for kids to play freely downtown. 

Folwell was pleasant, if noncommittal. It wasn’t the time to delve into his misgivings. 

– Johanna F. Still

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Stamped from 1898

On Friday, the New Hanover County School Board voted 4-3 to temporarily remove Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You from classrooms. The following is an abbreviated excerpt from Wiley Cash’s latest book column on the topic:

I’m a parent of two young children who attend New Hanover County schools, and I’m deeply invested in ensuring that they learn the true complexity of American history. As a North Carolina native who was educated in the state’s public schools, I did not. 

I didn’t learn of 1898 until I studied under a Black literature professor named Dr. SallyAnn Ferguson in graduate school at UNC-Greensboro. I had enrolled in a course on North Carolina literature, and when I purchased the required books I discovered they were all written by a Black author named Charles W. Chesnutt. I’d never heard of him.

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On the afternoon of Friday, August 25, Attorney General Josh Stein announced the closure of a four-year criminal investigation into the New Hanover County Schools district without a single criminal charge.

District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon asked the state to take the case in July 2019. Former teacher Michael Earl Kelly had just pleaded guilty to sexually abusing students, and prosecutor Connie Jordan revealed the district had internally investigated but failed to report Kelly to law enforcement–a potential criminal violation.

Victims, advocates, and the community had been awaiting the outcome of the criminal case for years. The parallel civil case settled, but with no admissions of wrongdoing; this was their last, best hope to hold someone responsible for the systemic failures that had allowed abuse for at least 15 years.

But Stein claimed the investigation, which included a review of tens of thousands of pages of documents, lacked two things: (1) a misdemeanor committed within the short two-year statute of limitations, or (2) the evidence of knowingly criminal conduct necessary to convict on felony charges.

Stein acknowledged that, even if it was not a chargeable crime, school employees had failed the children in their care. They were, as one state prosecutor told local advocates, “incredibly, breathtakingly, negligent.”

Based on the evidence, one of those employees was almost definitely Rick Holliday, Kelly’s former principal who went on to become deputy superintendent (Holliday announced his retirement days after authorities confirmed the investigation into school administrators). But who else was responsible, and are they still working for the school system?

Stein, who is running for governor, declined follow-up questions and interview requests. But his vague acknowledgment of wrongdoing has sparked anger, frustration, and confusion in the county. David said in a statement that he was blindsided by Stein’s decision: “There is more than one way to hold someone accountable for their actions, and anyone who is implicated by this investigation should no longer be entrusted with the care of our children.”

Advocates are mulling legal action to compel the release of the full investigation file. There’s also still plenty of reporting to be done–including on this tantalizing hint of accountability, hidden behind heavy black redaction marks in a single memo from Stein’s office:

– Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Vessel Wrestle: After years of discord, Bald Head Island’s ferry system officially has a new owner. The state approved the $67 million sale to a Raleigh-based private equity firm late last month, The State Port Pilot details.

Feed Me, Seymour: In July, federal officials declined to protect the Venus flytrap, which is native to our area. In an opinion piece for the Coastal Review Online, environmentalists argue the government has underestimated the threat of climate change in its decision. 

Bring on the Trailers: A recent facility study found that 26 schools in New Hanover County are either at or above capacity. While a handful of schools are underutilized, Port City Daily reports experts say redistricting won’t solve the problem.

Around the State

A Site To Behold

The pandemic rush into wild places accelerated human damage to places like Max Patch. Can outdoor enthusiasts balance conservation and access?

The Price of a Moral Panic

In 1987, Andrew “Junior” Chandler was convicted of sexually abusing several young children. He’s the only person in N.C. still in prison from that era.

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