County overrun with committees: Some appointments were for people he didn't know, says Cohen

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

A man who served 16 years on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners admits he appointed people he knew little about to committees or commissions he knew even less about.

Newton Cohen said recently it’s time to get rid of some of the commissions and committees.

Cohen voted on hundreds, perhaps thousands of appointments, during his tenure from 1984 to 2000.

During the Board of Commissioner meetings, he would often poll the board to see if they knew the prospective appointee or anything about them.

On one occasion, a commissioner gave a glowing testimonial to the nominee.

A minute or so later, he discovered the nominee was not that person — but someone with a similar name. The man was appointed anyhow.

“There’s some committees you can do without,” said Cohen. He could think of only one committee eliminated during his 16 years. “We got rid of the airport board.”

No one has an exact number for how many committees, commissions and boards the county commissioners make appointments to.

The county staff has a very thick notebook that is supposed to contain all the committees, all the people who are appointed and when their appointments expire.

Keeping up with all that is, at times, tricky.

County officials discovered in 2004 that around 20 people were getting monthly checks of $50 for serving on the Jury Commission, a state mandated commission.

But the commission only has three members.

The error was discovered when a staffer in the finance department noticed they were sending a jury commission check to a man who was in jail for killing his wife.

For years, the Board of Commissioners had apparently appointed new jury commissioners as required. Their names and address were sent to the finance department to ensure they got the nominal fee.

But no one ever sent the finance department a note to stop payment to those whose terms expired.

Most of the people who serve on boards get no compensation. A few are compensated by state law.

And sometimes people just serve without pay or appointment.

A former county commissioner apparently became self-appointed to a board.

The former commissioner didn’t like the director of the agency and spent a few years giving the director grief.

The board “member” was pried loose after the director determined that the county had not made the appointment.

There are far more people who get appointed to a board or commission and never show up.

And in other cases, they may show up once and never return.

Richard Anderson, a Kannapolis city councilman and former mayor, has often shared a story about an invitation to be a member of the Rowan County Sustainable Community Development Commission.

Anderson got a notice in the mail and a phone call confirming the date, time and place of the meeting.

He drove to Salisbury, went to the specified building at Catawba College but couldn’t find any meeting. Finally, he found a couple of people working late in an office.

They didn’t know anything about the meeting, but they called campus security who also knew nothing.

At that point Anderson got in his car and headed back to Kannapolis, telling himself, “I’m not going back any more.”

Finding enough warm and willing bodies to fill the seats on the multitude of boards and commissions has become increasingly difficult.

Two or more years ago, a member of a regional board that advises on aging issues, pleaded with commissioners to find some new people to serve.

The person said those serving couldn’t see to drive at night and most of the meetings were at night in Charlotte.

An hour or so later, commissioners reappointed the same people who couldn’t see to drive at night. They were the only applicants.

A handful of boards that can serve as a launching pad for political careers have no shortage of candidates.

Cohen, the former chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said it never was hard to find people who wanted to serve on some of the more high-profile boards — Alcoholic Beverage Control, Board of Health and Social Services.

Cohen said those boards often turned political — and some went liberal.

“Regardless who you appointed, they’d turn liberal … they wanted to spend county tax dollars,” said Cohen. “It’s hard to create a committee that saves county tax dollars.”

Historically, outgoing commissioners have almost always gotten their wishes granted to serve on boards of their choice.

Hank Palmer, a commissioner in the 1980s, served on the ABC board for more than decade.

Gus Andrews, who went off the board of commissioners in 2004, moved on to the ABC board.

Leda Belk, who also left the Board of Commissioners in 2004, was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Commission. In December, commissioners opted not to reappoint Belk.