Friday, April 30, 2010

Affidavit: Unruly passenger kicked, grabbed woman's breast

Here is an affidavit by Peter Carriacto, an FBI agent in Charlotte, about events on April 29 aboard US Airways Flight 705 from Frankfurt, Germany, to Charlotte. The agent says that passenger Raun Michael Brissenden interfered with the duties of the flight crew.

The FBI agent says about an hour and a half into the flight, Brissenden started kicking a flight attendant in the leg. He also kicked her cart and pushed the flight attendant.

When flight attendants tried to restrain Brissenden, the affidavit says, he began poking other passengers and grabbed one passenger by the breast. He was restrained by two off-duty police officers and other passengers and detained in the back of the plane. He was arrested on arrival in Charlotte.

Read the FBI agent's affidavit.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

New uptown signs baffle council members

Confused by the new color-coded signs going up along highways around uptown?

Some city council members are, too.

The signs are part of a $4.1 million "urban wayfinding system" designed to help direct visitors to the north, south, east and west quadrants of the city.

But two elected officials this week expressed doubts that the color-coded sytem would help tourists, when they themselves are unable to decode the system.

"I live here, and I wouldn't know what to do looking at the signs," said councilman Michael Barnes, a Democrat, during a Monday council meeting.

Said Republican Andy Dulin: "They might as well be written in Greek. They're clutter, in my opinion."

Their concerns were in the minority, and council approved change orders to move ahead with the project, which has been under way since 2006. Crews are removing old freeway signs and installing new ones on the approach to uptown from Independence Boulevard and interstates 77 and 277.

Jim Kimbler of the city's department of transportation said the sign system was designed first for how visitors might respond, in response to Barnes' view of them as a resident.

Kimbler said only about one-third of the signs are installed, and the system will work well once they are completely in place. The system is intended to help visitors find parking quickly, which will save idling time and fuel - and makes the program eligible for federal energy efficiency grant money.

Barnes suggested that compass-oriented labeling won't help drivers who don't know where they are on the compass as they pass by at high speeds.

"North of what? East of what? West of what?" he asked.

- Doug Miller

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More on CMS academic performance

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman said Tuesday the district has made many gains in academic performance in recent years, though notes the progress isn't happening nearly quickly enough for all students.

Gorman made the comments during a joint meeting between the school board and county commissioners where he presented a 76-page document detailing district performance on a host of standardized tests and other benchmarks like graduation rates.

Click here to read the entire presentation. Warning: the file is 15 mb in size, so give yourself a few minutes to let the page load.

Among the highlights:
-- Elementary and middle school students performed better on end-of-grade tests taken last year. The achievement gap between races and income levels has narrowed in math scores, but widened in reading and science.
-- Nearly 80 percent of students were proficient last year on career and technical education (or VoCATS) assessment results, an increase from 55.7 percent in 2005-06.

As this story in today's Observer notes, leaders from both sides say they hope the academic gains aren't severely undermined as the district faces a second year of steep budget cuts.

Have more time? The county taped yesterday's two-hour meeting. To watch, click here and choose the link "Joint Meeting with BOCC and Board of Education" -- April Bethea

Report: child abuse, neglect cases up 22%

The number of children reported abused or neglected in Mecklenburg County has spiked 22 percent, according to a new study released Wednesday.

Researchers found there were 12,232 reports of abuse or neglect between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009, some 2,200 more than during the same time span from 2004 to 2005.

Click here to read the full report.

The findings were presented this morning by leaders with UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute and the Council for Children's Rights.

Mirroring national trends, the study says children under the age of 5 are most likely to suffer abuse and neglect in Mecklenburg. Some 40 percent of the children who were reported as victims in 2008 to 2009 were younger than 5. -- Fred Clasen-Kelly

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More findings from Turner report

Among them: Councilman Warren Turner's avoidance of city e-mail and how officials pay bills on the road.

Attorney Valecia McDowell's 20-page report alleged:

- Councilman Warren Turner does not maintain or regularly use an e-mail account hosted on city servers. The investigator's law firm was unable to access or review e-mails sent and received by Turner.

- It is common for city staff members to pay for food or other reimbursable expenses of city council members while on trips. For instance, at a 2006 National League of Cities event in Reno, an employee said "she was in the casino with Council Member Turner in order to pay for his food or other expenses with her credit card."

- After the Reno trip, the employee who complained of inappropriate comments by Turner said then-City Manager Pam Syfert assured her she would support the employee if she felt the need to "stand up" to Turner.

- Turner told McDowell he does not drink hard liquor, but city receipts show he purchased Crown Royal and other drinks.

Click here to read the full report.

McDowell, an attorney with the law firm Moore & Van Allen, interviewed 18 people. She said the probe, released Monday, will likely cost the city $35,000.

- Doug Miller

Monday, April 26, 2010

Report: 'Turner was less than fully truthful'

Attorney Valecia McDowell on Monday delivered a 20-page report detailing her investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct by a city council member.

McDowell, an attorney with the law firm Moore & Van Allen, interviewed 18 people. She said the probe, which focused on Councilman Warren Turner, will likely cost the city $35,000.

Click here to read the full report.

McDowell wrote that it appeared at times during the investigation that Turner "was less than fully truthful when responding to questions from the investigative team."

She also found it "especially troubling" that Turner asked a female city employee about her involvement in the investigation as it was under way.

- Doug Miller

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Details of new Mecklenburg building fees

Effective today, Mecklenburg County's Code Enforcement department has hiked its building permit fees by 4.75 percent as a way to help make up for lower revenues caused by the construction shortfall.

The county said that Mecklenburg historically has had some of the lowest permit fees in the country, and the new increase is the first across-the-board hike since 2003. County commissioners gave final approval to the new fees on Tuesday night.

You can read a list of the new fees by clicking here, or reading this news release from the county. In addition to the building permit fees, the code enforcement department also is raising the cost of commercial plan reviews and hazardous material permit fees. Also, there is a new charge for ABC building inspections.

The new fees could raise an additional $200,000 for the remaining months of the current budget, and about $1.5 million for the new fiscal year that begins in July.

The code enforcement department also has laid off employees, and made other budget cuts in response to declining revenues, which are down roughly 50 percent in two years. Without the new fees, officials said they'd have to cut another 15 to 20 staff members, which would hurt the department's ability to handle the work they do have now.

Have questions about the new fees? The county recommends contacting the Residential Technical Assistance Center at 704-432-7822 or the Commercial Technical Assistance Center at 704-336-3829 , ext. 4. -- APRIL BETHEA

Has Gorman got the turnaround answer?

Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teach the nation's education leaders something about turning around schools?
The Aspen Institute thinks so. The nonpartisan policy and leadership group is using a case study of Superintendent Peter Gorman's strategic staffing plan as the focus of a forum in Washington, D.C., today.
Strategic staffing, launched in 2008-09, puts successful principals into struggling schools, with money to recruit teams of proven educators and freedom to make changes. Gorman expects results in three years, which means the verdict isn't in yet. But the report cites promising signs, and looks at some of the challenges going forward.
"Ultimately, at the core of the Strategic Staffing Initiative is the belief held by CMS leadership that all students deserve a great principal and excellent teachers," the report concludes. "As Principal Steve Hall of Bruns Avenue Elementary School said, 'It's the moral thing to do. This is the single most ethical educational initiative I've ever been involved with as an educator.' ”
The report is compiled by Education Resource Strategies, a consulting group that's working with CMS on how to align spending with education goals.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jones suspends county's 401k match

Mecklenburg County will immediately suspend employee 401k match contributions to offset weakening sales tax revenue, County Manager Harry Jones said today.

The move will save $1.4 million by July, Jones said. That will make up for shortfalls the county calculated after receiving declining March sales tax receipts.

Jones called it "highly likely" he will recommend extending the suspension of the match through the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

The move affects all Mecklenburg County employee deferred compensation accounts except for sworn law enforcement officers. Local governments are required by state law to provide a 5 percent contribution to their accounts, Jones said in a news release.

Click here for the full statement.

Suspending the county match does not affect employees' base pay or take home pay. Nor will it change the amount employees are voluntarily contributing to their accounts.

- Doug Miller

Goldman's low road to high finance

The SEC charged Goldman Sachs and one of its executives with fraud today in a risky offshore deal backed by subprime mortgages that cost investors more than a $1 billion. The civil fraud charges were the first to be filed against the Wall Street investment banking titan at the center of multiple inquiries into the causes of the global financial meltdown.

Goldman said in a news release: "The SEC’s charges are completely unfounded in law and fact and we will vigorously contest them and defend the firm and its reputation."
Behind the story
In a five-month investigation published last year in the Observer and elsewhere, McClatchy Newspapers detailed how Goldman peddled more than $40 billion in securities backed by at least 200,000 risky home mortgages, but never told the buyers it also was secretly betting that a sharp drop in U.S. housing prices would send the value of those securities plummeting.

Read the entire, illuminating series, a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize, at McClatchy's site here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Park and rec, building fee changes loom

Want to play at one of Mecklenburg County's golf courses or rent the historic St. Mary's Chapel for an event? Planning to host a run or other organized event at a county greenway?

Well, you could face new or higher fees starting in July.

This afternoon, county commissioners are expected to hear officials from the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department and the Land Use & Environmental Services Agency discuss proposed fee changes for the 2010-11 budget year.

You can read about the proposed fees, which must be approved by commissioners, by clicking here.

Among the proposals:
1) Implement new fees to reserve facilities for organized walks, runs, bike races, fundraisers or other events at county greenways and park trails. The fees would range between $100 and $610 depending on the number of participants. The parks department said the events require advanced signage and clean up, which are performed by county staff.
2) Increase rental fees for facilities like the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center and St. Mary's Chapel, as well as establish a new charge for the multi-purpose room and gym at Revolution Park Sports Academy.
3) Set a new $4.50 hourly fee to reserve time at the outdoor basketball courts at Clanton and Camp Greene parks for tournaments, leagues and organized events. Open play will continue at a first-come, first-served basis.
4) Create a technology surcharge on commercial building projects to support creation of electronic plan submittal system and other technology.

County commissioners recently signed off on other code enforcement fee increases, including a general 4.75 percent increase on existing building permits based on total construction cost per permit. Code enforcement officials said it was the first across-the-board increase in building permit fees since 2003. You can read about those fees changes by clicking here. -- April Bethea

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jones blasts library board at Ballantyne meeting

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library board should never have proposed closing half its branches last month, County Manager Harry Jones said today at a community meeting.

Instead, Jones said, the board should have been able to foresee from the start that a better solution would be the one it eventually passed, which keeps all libraries open for reduced hours with some layoffs to cope with a $2 million county budget cut.

"It was a decision they could have made initially without having to subject the community to the angst that they did," Jones told the Ballantyne Breakfast Club this morning.

Jones went on to criticize the library board over how it responded to public outcry after announcing its first plan to close 12 of the system's 24 branches and lay off 148 employees.

Jones said the board should not have told citizens to direct their complaints to the county board of commissioners when it was the library board that drew up the plan.

"They did not own the decision," Jones said.

Other highlights from the meeting, which was attended by city, county and CMS officials:

- Jones said the county is in danger of losing its top triple-A credit rating over its debt level and he is not recommending selling bonds for new construction projects in the next fiscal year beginning in July.

- Charlotte city councilman Michael Barnes said the city is not facing a budget crisis like the county, and said the city wants to ask voters this fall to approve bonds for transportation, roads and affordable housing.

- CMS Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh defended the decision to adopt an earlier bell schedule for Hawk Ridge Elementary this coming fall, saying it will save the system $70,000 to $100,000.

- Doug Miller

Friday, April 9, 2010

Daytona pothole: Is repaving next?

The pothole on your commute never got this kind of scrutiny.

But when engineers analyzed the 9-inch by 15-inch hole that disrupted this year's Daytona 500, they turned up familiar culprits: Cold weather, water and wear and tear.

Now speedway officials say they'll know in a matter of weeks whether the entire track needs repaving sooner than 2012, as originally planned.

In a conference call this week, International Speedway Corporation president John Saunders said he is confident the pothole patch will hold up, but officials won't know for a couple of weeks if repaving needs to be accelerated.

"The upper portion of that racetrack is roughly 32 years old. The bottom piece, the base, is as old as the racetrack is," Saunders said. "It's over 52 years old."

Saunders said a preliminary analysis found three things caused the pothole. An unusually cold Florida winter, moisture below the surface and cars bottoming out immediately before the pothole.

The damage forced two delays to the February race. Track officials apologized for the incident, which sent many fans home early.

- Doug Miller

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Journalists demand probe of taped Iraq shooting

Sometimes, the documents behind a story are videos.

A U.S. military video showing the 2007 slaying of more than a dozen people in Iraq — including two employees of the Reuters news agency — was released this week by the whistleblower Web site

The video was shot from one of the two Apache helicopters involved in the attack in the New Baghdad district of the capital. It shows the helicopters locating a group of about a dozen men moving down a road, some of whom the aviators say are believed to be carrying weapons. After being told they are "free to engage," the gunships attack the group, apparently killing most of the men, then also destroy a van after more people show up and attempt to evacuate one of the wounded.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi Journalists' Union and other groups called on the Iraqi government to investigate the incident, The Associated Press reports.

The New York Times has a look at WikiLeaks, which calls itself "an intelligence agency of the people." The Times also has a moving photo tribute to the slain Reuters photographer.

See the video below. Warning: explicit content:

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

First towns fight health care reform

The Huntersville and Cornelius town boards on Monday passed resolutions opposing the new health care reform law as the first N.C. municipalities push back against the controversial bill.

In Huntersville, commissioner Charles Jeter submitted two resolutions that passed with his support and votes from commissioners Beth ‘Danae’ Caulfield and Ken Lucas. Opposed were commissioners Sarah McAulay and Ron Julian.

The first resolution asks N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper to file legal action "barring the implementation of the federal government mandating individual citizens purchase health care." It cites as its basis "clear and willful violation" of the Tenth Amendment addressing state's rights.

Click here to read the first Huntersville resolution.

The second resolution asks the N.C. General Assembly to help propose a new constitutional amendment barring mandated health care.

Click here to read the second Huntersville resolution.

In Cornelius, commissioners approved a resolution asking the state to protect the state and local governments from any unfunded mandates from federal health care legislation.

"We're very concerned about what the state might do monetarily, especially given their current situation, passing costs down to the municipalities," Commissioner James R. Bensman told Paper Trail today.

Click here to read the Cornelius resolution.

Cooper is already feeling pressure from state GOP leaders, the Observer's Jack Betts notes.

Betts says Republicans are urging the attorney general to join at least 13 other states, including South Carolina, in a lawsuit challenging the law's constitutionality.

- Doug Miller

Friday, April 2, 2010

FBI warns letters to Perdue, other governors could provoke violence

Update 2:03: For the record, Perdue's office confirms that she's not resigning, the N&O's Ben Niolet reports.

The office of N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue received a letter this week from an anti-government group that's written to governors around the country demanding they leave their posts, The Associated Press reports.

Perdue communications director Chrissy Pearson said today that a letter from the Guardians of the free Republics came to Perdue's constituent services office Tuesday or Wednesday.

The letter was forwarded to Perdue's security detail. Pearson couldn't give details about how Perdue's security officers responded except to say the threats are taken very seriously.

The FBI expects governors in all 50 states to receive the letters and has told police nationwide the group's call to remove governors from office could provoke violence.

Perdue was in Charlotte today for President Barack Obama's visit.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

What's Celgard all about?

President Obama is coming to Charlotte Friday tour the Celgard plant near Carowinds.

Celgard has been among the most prominent examples of the green-energy jobs that Charlotte's economic development leaders hope to expand. The company makes porous membranes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in notebook computers, digital cameras and other devices.

The company has operations in Charlotte, France, China, Japan and South Korea.

Here's a .pdf overview of Celgard, from the company's Website.