Former GOP County Chair accuses Senator Michael Lee of "influence peddling"

Sometimes swinging your weight around makes you fall over:

The complaint was filed by William R. Shell and Terry Reilly, both of whom spoke during public hearings for The Avenue development on Military Cutoff Road. Sent to the North Carolina State Ethics Commission, the complaint alleges, in short, that Lee uses his position as a state senator to implicitly pressure New Hanover County and Wilmington boards when he appears before them in his private role an attorney for developers.

“There is nothing illegal about lawyers who are members of the General Assembly representing private clients,” the complaint reads. “However, the problem here is that Lee is representing those clients before local governmental boards and commissions which are dependent upon the North Carolina General Assembly for things they wish to have done and funding and frankly, for even their existence … the members of the governing boards of counties and cities cannot afford to cross a local senator.”

If you don't think local government officials worry about getting on the "wrong side" of General Assembly members, especially those in the NC Senate, think again. Not only because of grants and earmarks that municipalities are desperate for, but there's always the aura of the stick, as well. And with our weird "local bill" rules that preclude a Gubernatorial Veto, if you piss off the wrong person, all of a sudden your zoning and taxing authority evaporates. This is most definitely a conflict of interest, and I am not (one tiny bit) surprised that Tom Fetzer is right up in the middle of it:

“I’ve had concerns about Michael Lee for a long time and, I do wish we had done this earlier, but one that got me to say, ‘enough is enough,’ was the Head Road article,” Shell said.

Shell referred to a Port City Daily article, included in the complaint, which was published just before Hurricane Florence struck the region. The article details the fight between the neighbors of a Wilmington property owner and the city’s planning commission over a decision that would allow a parcel of land to be subdivided.

The land was initially purchased by Thomas Fetzer, former mayor of Raleigh and chair of the North Carolina Republican party from 2009 to 2011, for $1.35 million. Fetzer wanted to subdivide and resell the land, but neighbors objected — in part because the subdivision deal would create a road through their property.

Fetzer hired Lee, who ultimately convinced the city to create an entirely new zoning designation. Once the road appeared clear for subdivision, Fetzer sold the property for an approximate $650,000 profit.

However, neighbors continued to protest and appealed to the city. Lee appeared before the planning commission to defend the rezoning, using the hearing’s quasi-judicial status to dismiss testimony against the move. A lawsuit against the city resulted, and recently settled.

Wow. While it is true that quasi-judicial hearings are designed to be evidence-based, that swings both ways. In other words, Lee should not have been able to insert prejudicial information or "argue" against the petitioners, he should only have been allowed to answer specific questions. And he damned sure should not have been allowed to dismiss their concerns because they weren't experts:

When asked what her standing was – that is, how she would be injured by the subdivision – Shakar said she had a dock on the waterway which should give her the “right to speak on what happens.”

Lee responded by stating that it would be “engaging in unauthorized practice of law” for someone to interpret legal documents if they were not a licensed attorney.

When Shakar brought up the issue of land ownership – i.e. that the lot may not be large enough to subdivide because the state owns waterways – the issue of her standing again blocked her objection.

Watkins, an architect who owned a neighboring property, was granted standing based on his proximity to the property. Watkins reiterated Shakar’s point, that the Head Road parcel could likely contain two 2-acre lots, but because part of it was under marsh and water, not three lots.

Lee objected to Watkins’ testimony, not on the ground of standing, but because Waktins was not “competent” to determine acreage since he was not a surveyor or providing a survey; he then extended that to a standing objection against any other appeals. Lee told the Planning Commission that he did not believe they would hear from an attorney, an engineer, or a title expert – essentially stating that nothing said by those who came to appeal could be considered.

No, no, no. That's not how it's supposed to work. If your property is contiguous, or is close enough that you can demonstrate a negative outcome, then you have standing. Your evidence, however, can be called into question on its merit. But not you as an individual.

But regardless of the outcome of this particular case, Michael Lee should not be representing clients in their petitions to local governments. There are way too many conflicts of interest involved, and frankly, the NC Bar needs to take a very close look at this.

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