By Bob Steinberg
I’ve always wondered why many incumbent politicians fight to keep their legislative seats year after year. One would hope for the purest of motives, but that is not always the case. Given recent voter apathy it’s become easier for incumbents to stay in power. This year may be different.
Being a servant of the people is a great honor and privilege. Folks have placed their confidence and trust in elected officials to spend their hard-earned tax dollars wisely and to maintain the highest degree of ethical standards.
Most legislative salaries are nothing to write home about. Compared to the corporate world they are modest and at the state and local level, these positions are often part time.
But power and influence are bigger prizes than a hefty salary. And their use ultimately will determine whether the elected official is looking after his or her own interest or that of the electorate.
Corruption and misdeeds comes in all shapes and sizes and in as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Some seem more spectacular than others, like the fall from grace earlier this year of former New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer over his involvement with a prostitute.
In North Carolina we’ve also witnessed corruption scandals — from the imprisonment of former Democratic state House Speaker Jim Black for accepting funds from chiropractors while their professional group had legislation pending in the General Assembly, to the expulsion from the General Assembly of Democrat Rep. Thomas Wright of Wilmington who was ultimately convicted of fraud. Black served 11 terms in the state house; Wright served eight terms.
In Chowan County last week their newly appointed county manager discovered that the $29.4 million in “supposed” reserves from the sale of their hospital in 1998 had been used to underwrite budgetary shortfalls for the last five years. The county commissioners “amazingly” state they had no knowledge this money was being used in this manner and that it was still safely tucked away and growing.
Only 75 percent of the interest earned was ever to be used to supplement the general fund as earlier mandated by the commissioners in place in 1998, yet some how this “endowment” has disappeared. Chowan county government is now at risk of being taken over by the state government commission. An SBI investigation has been launched at the request of District Attorney Frank Parrish.
Nepotism is another form of corruption. It is the practice of favoring a group or relative when giving jobs, promotions, raises, benefits and the like. It may often have little to do with experience and or qualifications but instead on the idea that the benefactor’s interests will be protected.
Likewise corruption can also be in the form of the patronage system consisting of granting favors, contracts or appointments in exchange for political support. Patronage bypasses the formal rules of local government and uses personal instead of formalized channels to gain an advantage.
As a result, contracts often are awarded to less qualified individuals and companies and political appointments go to cronies.
While laws may not be actually broken they can be bent to benefit the few and the privileged. This is not the way open, honest and transparent government is supposed to work. Whoever said “to the victor go the spoils” certainly never intended that elected and/or their appointed officials would line their own pockets.
In recent years voter apathy is probably the biggest contributing factor to corruption. By neglecting to vote or not being informed of the issues or the candidates, the folks are in effect saying, “Yeah, we know things might not be perfect, but what differences can our vote make?” Actually a great deal of difference.
Good government requires the participation of everyone, not just at election time but throughout the year. Without increased and consistent citizen involvement we augment the risk of having an ineffective, self- serving government that will take what it can and only give what it must.
Bob Steinburg is a free-lance columnist living in Edenton, North Carolina. He is Chairman of the Chowan County Republican Committee. You may email him at: RSteinburg@aol.com