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Editorial: Patronage guides road decisions

Star-News of Wilmington
You’re shocked, of course, to learn that another N.C. Board of Transportation member has been promoting road projects that just happen to benefit ó restrain that gasp ó property he owns.
This time it’s Louis Sewell, who oddly is registered as a Republican but raises money for Democratic candidates. He was a big fundraiser for Gov. Mike Easley. The governor rewarded Sewell with a seat on the Transportation Board, one of the state’s fattest political plums. And once again, we see why it’s considered such a prize.
Sewell pushed for improvements along one of Jacksonville’s busiest intersections and a road near a public school. Likely, both projects, which totaled about $375,000, were necessary.
The trouble is, state law prohibits Transportation Board members from benefiting financially from projects they promote. He should’ve stayed out of it.
The conflict-of-interest law came into being in the late 1990s, not long after another prominent landowner, Brunswick County’s Odell Williamson, left the board because ó yep ó he steered about $3 million to a road extension that just happened to run past two golf courses owned by family members.
Sewell should step down. The law is clear, if loosely enforced. Board members must list their financial interests and refrain from promoting projects that would financially benefit them.
A better road that makes it easier for traffic to get to one’s business is almost certainly financially beneficial.
But Sewell isn’t the problem, only a symptom. The disease is the patronage system that determines which high rollers are appointed to decide which transportation projects go forward.
Even the attempted reform a few years back is flawed.To satisfy a provision requiring at least three DOT Board members to be of a different party than the governor, Sewell is registered as a Republican ó who has raised campaign funds for Democrat Easley and, more recently, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue. Bipartisanship never had it so good.
Both gubernatorial candidates have pledged to fix the broken Department of Trans- portation. Start at the top: Quit appointing campaign benefactors to the board.

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