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Saturday, May 18, 2024

2020 Election: Dr. Kyle Horton (D), candidate for New Hanover Board of Commissioners [Free read]

Democratic candidate Dr. Kyle Horton is running for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Dr. Kyle Horton)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democrat Dr. Kyle Horton is running for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

In 2018, Horton ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress against Rep. David Rouzer. An internal medicine doctor, Horton is running for her first term on the county board.

Three seats are open, and Horton will appear as one of six total candidates for voters to choose from.

Early voting is underway. Same-day registration is available during the early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 3. Check your voter registration and county elections office to confirm polling locations, dates, and hours.

Port City Daily emailed all candidates the below questionnaire and will run their responses ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Port City Daily edited responses for spelling and grammatical errors only.

Port City Daily (PCD): The county added a new Office of Diversity and Equity in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in May. How would you rate the county’s (i.e. NHC Sheriff’s Office’s) response to the protests? What ideas would you bring to ensure the new Office of Diversity and Equity serves marginalized communities and under-represented voices effectively, equitably and equally?

Kyle Horton (KH): Very Weak. While I was one of many who saw online threats of violence and am aware of the outside agitators trying to create unrest and incite violence with one of the protests where teargas was used, force should be a last resort, and there should be transparency associated with explanations to the public for its use. It is my understanding that law enforcement would not respond to this publication’s repeated questions, which is not acceptable. We should expect public accountability from law enforcement in as much as it does not interfere with ongoing investigations or operations.

There’s been ongoing issues with subsequent protests where allegations of excessive force seem founded—with the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others. It’s a heartbreaking reality we must face that families of color fear for their lives, even during the most routine traffic stops. This has to change as a matter of life and death. We can and should expect both our commissioners and county staff engaged with the Office of Diversity and Equity to take this issue head-on, to protect the lives of people of color and restore faith in law enforcement.

As to the new office, once the Diversity and Equity Assessment that is underway is completed, we will have a better idea how to move forward. I would support creating a County Advisory Board with law enforcement as they have in Guilford County. And looking at other innovations with diversity, equity and inclusion, Washington County in Oregon created a think tank to develop and operationalize their efforts. Their unique efforts identified more concrete areas of improvement needed to address economic inequalities within the two areas of human resources and procurement. By leading with and acknowledging structural racism in hiring practices and in procurement, they created concrete short-term and long-term metrics that improved workforce diversity and that increased the proportion of contracts with minority, women and emerging small businesses.

I think a similar strategy would help to build more momentum toward addressing structural racism and fostering improved economic equality. I would support creating additional county positions and task forces to directly operationalize and respond to deficiencies identified in the Diversity and Equity Assessment underway. 

PCD: New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon said, “Every year, my commissioners, our commissioners hold me accountable through the manager’s office.” As a commissioner, would your priorities differ from what’s currently expected of the NHC Sheriff’s Office? Explain.

KH: Yes. The commissioners should take a more active and hands-on role in promoting transparency and accountability in law enforcement. There’s a nationwide crisis of structural racism and police brutality that hit home with recent scandal of racist and white-supremacist conversations by the WPD. Fortunately, the actions of our new WPD chief were swift, but citizen complaints and concerns of abuses by both the city and county law enforcement remain.

As in other areas like Guilford County, I would support creating a County Advisory board to better open dialogues between citizens and law enforcement and to improve relations. I would also support the additional idea of creating a Citizens’ Review Board with subpoena power—recognizing that power would need to be granted by the state. I am hopeful that the active training being undertaken in concert with the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will start a move toward improving the culture and communication between law enforcement and community members. 

As budgets are moral documents reflecting our values, there should be more active discussions of the budgeting process as well, to better highlight law enforcement spending trends and to increase accountability to the public. We cannot police our way out of public health and societal challenges, like substance abuse and homelessness, but this has been the national trend. Policing these societal problems is neither fair to those incarcerated nor to the law enforcement officers themselves—and there is evidence this harms retention of officers who entered the profession with the intention of focusing on public safety and security. 

I support changing how we triage through 9-1-1 and funding, and empowering resources to divert those in crisis away from police intervention and directly into services and treatments they need. I am hopeful that, by having more open dialogue in the budget, including on improving officer pay and identifying excess strain, we can hopefully build a much better work climate and foster more open accountability to the public. Issues with the work climate and pay are also reasons I believe structural racism has been festering in law enforcement. I am hopeful we can build more positive police relations by paying a living wage commensurate with the value of our officers to our communities and focusing less on equipment funding. 

PCD: How would you rate the county’s economic development strategy? What changes would you make to it? What types of jobs would you want to attract and how?

KH: Weak. There has been too much focus on heavy industries and manufacturing that do not fit our unique geology and geography in our small and densely populated county. With COVID, especially, we should be advancing incentives and credits to create jobs in those industries that are expanding to meet public health needs. COVID has made even job retention difficult—let alone job creation. In general, I believe we should be focused on building incentives and credits for job creation in clean industries that are safe in close proximity to densely populated areas like ours. This would include clean, healthy industries, like film, education, healthcare and tech. We should also commit to a clean energy plan to attract jobs in the exploration of wind and solar opportunities. 

Especially if federal and state efforts do not renew and expand stimulus like the EIDL, PPP and Golden Leaf loans, we will have to step up in bigger ways as a county. And being real, the previous stimulus funds were disproportionately going to the biggest corporations and not to our small businesses or sole proprietorships. We need to support these small businesses as well as build more incentives to support minority-owned businesses given worsening racial disparities.

During the pandemic is an opportune time to invest in infrastructure and education—improving workforce training for less-skilled workers who are laid off in this recession to get them job-ready for the future. This is a necessity, especially as workers in many of the trades essential to our thriving construction industry are aging. We should also work to advance the outstanding work underway with the Stormwater Utility efforts, which are long overdue. I believe strongly we should also take this opportunity to invest in affordable and workforce housing to create jobs and better meet needs, given this ongoing and worsening housing crisis. 

PCD: How satisfied are you with the level of citizen engagement in the county’s planning process? What changes would you make to improve public involvement?

KH: Very unsatisfied. I remain deeply concerned that the sections of the Unified Development Ordinance on Industrial Use and Manufacturing still need to be strengthened and that those areas in particular need more stringent impact review standards and more public transparency/review during the approval process. I support requirements for a community information meeting before the light industry (I-1), heavy industry (I-2), or airport industry (A-1) application is submitted. As we have learned from previous examples, like Titan, public engagement to protect public health, water and air quality is essential. Both a review of external effects for any approved intensive manufacturing on our environment, and an independent analysis of a heavy-manufacturing industry expert on the appropriateness of those I-1, I-2, and A-1 zoning districts would be beneficial to public safety and understanding going forward.

PCD: How familiar are you with the county’s planning process? Are there any areas you think you need to learn more about?

KH: Very familiar. I have followed efforts closely for years in concert with groups engaged in environmental advocacy, and have personally engaged numerous times with concerns about the Unified Development Ordinance. 

As to areas I need to learn more about, I live by a belief that you should “never stop learning because life never stops teaching.” And let’s be real, often you don’t know what you don’t know. This is why I met personally with Wayne Clark several months ago to build an open and direct dialogue, to be ready to serve on day one as commissioner. You can expect me to do my homework on any and all decisions, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am diligent and deliberate when it comes to policy and decision-making.

PCD: Do you think the county’s current plans adequately anticipate future environmental issues? How would you address sea-level rise and the increase in hurricane activity?

KH: No. I am deeply concerned that much of the undeveloped area in the northern part of the county, including sensitive wetlands that are extremely necessary for our hurricane resilience, is now planned for development. Areas that were classified as a Wetlands Resource Conservation Area in the 2006 Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) Land Use Plan were modified to make it easier to develop, and this will affect our future hurricane resiliency. In addition to addressing protection of these extremely sensitive ecosystems, I am committed to continued advancement of the Stormwater Utility to help mitigate flooding, which is essential even with heavy rains in much of our county—let alone to save lives during hurricanes.

As far as sea-level rise, I have been a leader in efforts toward coastal protection and support the continued work with the partnerships and funding structure in place for beach renourishment. I am very much in favor of advancing a county clean-energy plan as well to ensure we are doing our part to address climate change and to mitigate sea-level rise. This is a tremendous opportunity to bring jobs, mitigate strain on our infrastructure, and improve our storm resiliency all at the same time.

PCD: How well do you think the county balances development with “livability” (i.e. moderated traffic, preserved greenspace, etc.)? What changes would you make to the county’s approach?

KH: Very poorly. The density of development relative to our existing infrastructure has placed us at a tipping point where the strain is becoming unsafe in many ways from traffic accidents, to flooding issues, and certainly with regard to weakening our hurricane resilience. We need to expand efforts to prevent deforestation and preserve the natural beauty of our mature trees, understanding that our forests protect our air quality, prevent erosion, and are essential to weathering hurricanes. With the traffic congestion, we need to view investment in public transit as an opportunity to get cars off the road and reduce congestion.

In regard to livability and traffic, we also need to invest in improved safety, accessibility, and infrastructure for bike riders. Again, this is an opportunity to build a healthier future for our community if we improve signage, increase paths, make racks more available, and educate the public to better share the road. Along with measures to make the community more walkable and bikeable, exploration of more mixed-use development is another way to creatively reduce traffic and get cars off the road. Expect me to look for innovative ways to incentivize developments that improve the livability and preserve more green space, as an urgent matter of our quality of life and recognizing continued growth is anticipated, which will worsen sprawl. 

PCD: How concerned are you about New Hanover County’s environmental quality? What other environmental issues concern you, and how would you address them?

KH: Very concerned. Certainly the Gen X contamination crisis has exposed the deficiencies in our environmental policy. As we are continuing to learn more and see persistent PFAS spikes, it is essential we stay vigilant, empower CFPUA, and explore more legal recourse to force Chemours to pay, including for a community fund in support of protecting our health.

As mentioned above, I am deeply concerned as to how development in the industrial corridor and in the northern part of the county could directly impact water and air quality, and more broadly our hurricane resiliency. This is where I’d like to see permanent support for the county in the form of environmental health expertise, as well as enlist industry expertise on the appropriateness of heavy manufacturing industry in the relevant areas. Working in concert with the state, I’d like to advance efforts for PFAS-free procurement and through public health to engage in consumer awareness campaigns of PFAS-containing products.

Air quality remains an ongoing concern. I have been active in opposition to biomass, as the expanding wood pellet industry is bringing deforestation and threatens air pollution in a process worse for the climate than burning coal. Issues like the recent threat of methyl bromide pollution are exposing why vigilance is necessary for the sake of our health, including strengthening the UDO sections on industrial use and manufacturing, as well as enhancing reviews of external effects. For more, go to:

PCD: How well do you think local officials have handled public transportation? What ideas will you bring toward its evolvement?

KH: Very poorly. Wave Transit has suffered a slow death by funding strangulation that was directly and deliberately caused by our policy makers. We must safeguard public transit and sustainably fund Wave as essential to our economy. Our county commission should view investment in public transit as an opportunity to move our economy forward, as well as to reduce traffic congestion and decrease reliance on fossil fuels. But decisions being made in cutting routes are reckless, and will further diminish transit’s utility in ways that are detrimental to the county as the north and south will be much less accessible.

This is especially troublesome as we’ve just made investments in the Cape Fear Community College North Campus—what good is this if no one can get there? We should be expanding routes and reliability to attract more choice riders like myself who have a reliable means of transportation but would ride if given the opportunity. More on plans to safeguard public transit:

PCD: Do you think the county’s supplemental funding to the school district is appropriate? In what areas would you increase or decrease funding?

KH: No. The county’s supplemental funding to the school district is not appropriate, and particularly not appropriate in the arena of salaries. We are roughly the sixth wealthiest county in the state, but 20th in funding our public schools. Other counties and districts, with roughly similar costs of living, have much higher county supplements to both teacher and staff salaries. Meeting directly with our bus drivers, they are another example of very essential workers whose pay in no way reflects their importance to the safety of our children. At this point, it is a fundamental matter not just of dignity and respect for those who educate our children, but of employee retention to ensure safety and the quality of our schools.

I would support investing community foundation proceeds from the hospital sale to improving building infrastructure, especially as COVID has created further needs. I also support investing in technology infrastructure to enhance internet accessibility, as COVID has exposed and worsened disparities in this support. More information on plans to strengthen public education:

PCD: Would you have voted in favor of the hospital sale? Explain.

KH: No, I would not have, and not because of a belief that there are no possible benefits to partnership or the current deal. But this has been a fundamentally undemocratic process from the start and has never honored that NHRMC is a thriving county hospital that was created by a public referendum. I have repeatedly called for a delayed, deliberate and democratic process, which is a fundamental matter of accountability to the taxpayers. When the current commissioners were elected, no one knew to ask them about healthcare-related positions, which is why this being undemocratic is even more troubling. With COVID, it’s honestly heartbreaking that those with the most to lose who are medically fragile couldn’t really participate in the latter part of the process to make their views known without risking their lives.

I unfortunately have personal experience during medical school and in my own clinical practice experience, with mergers and acquisitions gone awry. I have also extensively studied health economics and policy issues while earning both my MD and MBA in a physician-leadership development program. This is my lane so to speak. The truth is that, over decades of mergers, consolidations and acquisitions, beneficial economies of scale are not generally created. In the majority of deals where larger monopolies are created, healthcare costs increase, quality declines or stays the same, layoffs happen, and often workers’ wages are driven down. In the middle of a pandemic and recession is not the time to make a deal that could increase our insurance premiums, cost healthcare jobs, or threaten pay and benefits for our healthcare heroes. 

It is also important for folks to realize that COVID has accelerated a move away from in-person care, which is important because many of the unmet capital needs that initially drove the impulse to sell may no longer be necessary. We should revisit the strategic plan, as well as have a chance to negotiate the best deal once we have a better idea of the future of healthcare policy, which could be drastically changed after the 2020 election. 

For all of these concerns, I believe we owed it to the taxpayers and to the employees to create the strongest legal language possible to protect jobs, pensions, wages and the autonomy of providers. Unfortunately, the deal as written gives maximum leeway to Novant, making it all-the-more difficult to outlawyer them to protect our employees and care going forward.

This is why I encourage everyone who took the time to read this to continue to contact the attorney general to pay special attention to this deal and ask that he ensure accountability to us as taxpayers, to protect the employees, and to protect public oversight with the foundation. It is critical the use of the proceeds from the foundation is driven by the public, and accountable to us and not Novant. If elected, I will work to improve this deal to protect jobs and get the best deal for the taxpayers.

PCD: Are you comfortable with the $1.25 billion community foundation being private? ​Explain.

KH: No. This is what troubles me the most at this time. Whatever equity amassed in that hospital is ours. It should be our hospital, the proceeds our money, and the foundation should be our public body subject to public meetings law. This is far too much money and too important to become about political appointees cutting deals behind closed doors, to fund pet projects of those who approved the deal to begin with. 

As the deal is written though, Novant gets our hospital, and they basically keep control of the majority of the proceeds as the created board is only accountable to them. This is unbelievably unfair to all of us as taxpayers. It is especially upsetting given that these deals typically drive up our healthcare costs, which will be passed on to us in the form of higher insurance premiums or out-of-pocket costs. Basically, we’ll pay more for healthcare, but not have any say in the use of proceeds to direct to projects that we most value as taxpayers and that would benefit our families to offset the strain on our pocketbooks. This is profoundly unfair, and I suspect it also skirts the laws and state statutes governing these deals.

This is why I encourage everyone to stay in contact with Attorney General Josh Stein to let him know your concerns about accountability to the taxpayers. Just so you are aware, there are ways for public foundations to be granted expanded authority to engage in riskier investments and garner higher ROIs. This information is available upon request of the state treasurer. This is not about politics. It’s not partisan. This is about getting the best deal and most accountability to us as taxpayers. 

PCD: Was the public adequately prepared, included, and briefed on the sale of the hospital? Would you have done anything differently through the process of the sale? If so, what specifically?

KH: The Letter of Intent was drafted and lawyers consulted to support the commissioners before much of the medical staff, or even NHRMC’s board knew what was going on. This is wrong. I would have announced the prospect of sale first to the doctors, nurses and staff as a matter of commitment to the fact that hospitals are sacred institutions that are people-powered. The commissioners could’ve similarly refused to vote on this before the employees were surveyed to assess how they envisioned the future of care for their hospital. They similarly should’ve delayed their vote until after the full consideration of the hospital board. 

Next, a general review of the strategic plan and rationale for the sale, including the basics of unmet capital needs, should’ve been presented to the public. At that point, independent financial consulting and a management review should’ve been conducted by the county, with an entirely different group that has no previous fiduciary relationship with the hospital. Only when this independent review was completed should the commissioners have ever even considered passing a letter of intent to sell. At this time, recognizing this is a thriving public hospital that was created by a public referendum and that a deal is not urgently needed, there should’ve been a public survey to ascertain what we all envision as taxpayers and citizens that we want to get out of the deal.

Based on the results of the employee survey and then the community survey, we should’ve then formed the Partnership Advisory Group and created/developed the membership structure based on the priorities identified by the staff and the public. There should then have been ongoing opportunities for public input structured throughout the process with publicly available answers provided to those expressing concerns via email with the PAG. With the onset of the pandemic, the process should have been placed on hold, period. This should’ve been viewed as a matter of safety when in-person meetings weren’t possible, and when all staff attention needed to be focused on the healthcare crisis at hand. Staff don’t deserve to be worried about their jobs and wages in the middle of an unprecedented healthcare crisis.

Presuming that this was done, we should then be at the point where we are re-evaluating the proposals we received based on a new and evolving understanding of how COVID is changing the healthcare landscape. Now realizing that we are already voting and the pandemic is still raging, I would’ve said as commissioner that it was unethical and undemocratic to proceed and so further consideration should be left up to a new slate of commissioners. Further supporting this idea would be that the status quo means we protect jobs, avoid straining our employees, and delay the possibility of driving up healthcare costs or disrupting care quality in the middle of a pandemic when people can least afford the cost and high quality care is most needed. 

None of this happened. To be fair, not one bit of this is the fault of the membership of the Partnership Advisory Group—they have been and are exemplary public servants who undoubtedly got us a better deal than what we would have had. This deal lacking accountability to us and the employees is what’s happening with the corporatization of medicine, where hospitals have become about the will of the bean counters and not the doctors, nurses and staff that are the lifeblood of these sacred institutions. We needed to empower the hearts of the doctors and nurses whose guts and commitment are what make a hospital great as ours has been. We needed to respect this hospital deal and not treat it like a commodity, but with the care and respect as a sacred institution where lives are brought into the world and lost. This process was beneath the healing art I was trained in and the profession I devoted my life to. It’s a shame and it’s heartbreaking. This is why I will fight as your commissioner to protect jobs, the employees, and to get the best deal for all of us taxpayers.

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