Wednesday, April 24, 2024

2020 Election: Leslie Cohen (D), candidate for New Hanover Board of Commissioners [Free read]

Leslie Cohen is running for a spot on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Leslie Cohen)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democrat Leslie Cohen is running for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

In 2018, Cohen advanced through the Democratic primary but lost in the general election to Rep. Holly Grange in a run for House District 20 (which has since been redrawn).

Three seats are open, and Cohen 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 underrepresented voices effectively, equitably and equally?

Leslie Cohen (LC): There is a report pending from the Office of Diversity and Equity that will include recommendations for how we can improve across county government, but especially with the sheriff’s department. While I think the diversity office is a great step, and hope the report is taken seriously, we can and must do more to address the systemic injustices in our community’s policing.

We need to listen to the people disproportionately harmed by police violence — people of color, low-income people and the LGBTQ community, and understand the changes they are seeking. We need those people at the table making recommendations, and we need to get those recommendations implemented.

We need to investigate how our money is being spent and to invest in institutions, resources, and services that help our community grow and thrive. We shouldn’t ask law enforcement to solve other social and community issues, and we shouldn’t give them money to do that when it is better spent on mental health, housing, and economic opportunities.

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. 

LC: First of all, the sheriff is accountable to the people. He is elected directly and his department runs independently. Much like with the school system, the commissioners act as a funding partner with the sheriff’s department, but we do not set policy and we are not their only funding source.

Beyond that, a key factor is training. Proper training and good policy makes the jobs of law enforcement officers safer and builds trust with the community. An emphasis on purchasing or accepting newer, more militarized equipment creates a sense of despair in our community. It erodes trust and promotes an “us versus them” dynamic which is difficult to repair. I would work to encourage a change in the policies of the sheriff’s department that always emphasizes more training over more equipment.

Two years ago I attended de-escalation training along with the Wilmington Police Department; this training was not for the public, I was learning along with the officers being trained. Watching the interaction with the public during the recent protests downtown unfold, I saw a marked difference in the behavior of WPD officers who have had this training and the sheriff’s deputies who have not. We have lots of work to do to ensure that New Hanover County is safe for everyone.

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?

LC: It’s hard to imagine how the current strategies will apply in a post-COVID economy. Many of our local businesses have suffered deep losses during this crisis. Resources must be secured through state, federal, and private grants to bolster these businesses as they recover. While our travel and tourism sectors have suffered greatly over the past few months, I think more people will be vacationing closer to home over the next several years. We are well positioned to be a destination of choice for these nearby tourists, but we need an environment and infrastructure that can attract those opportunities.

We must be nimble and take advantage of new growth opportunities as we work to recover from the effects of the pandemic. We need to attract new film projects to our area and support the film industry. Film directly creates good-paying, skilled jobs and directly and indirectly supports ourlocal businesses. In addition, more companies will be allowing or even encouraging employees to telework. This means there will be new opportunities for folks to live where they want, regardless of where their employer is located. We must have the infrastructure in place for our residents to take advantage of these opportunities. We need to work with UNCW and local business leaders to host job fairs to connect companies to workers in our region who can fill those distance positions.

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?

LC: Our citizens are not being heard when it comes to the future of our county. We have a very specific problem with the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) that is currently being finalized. If passed as it is currently written, citizen information meetings will not be required on certain applications for special use permits for light industrial (L1) applications.

It’s all very technical, but this is the bottom line: If Chemours, for example, wanted to open a plant in New Hanover, identical to the one in Fayetteville, it could be done without early public input. That early input is critical because in these SUP and quasi judicial hearings, neither the planning board nor the board of commissioners have the power to fully investigate the past performance of the applicants or the opportunity to seek information outside the hearings. We have seen the impact that public input has had in the past in these matters in cases, such as Titan Cement. If I am to be able to protect our community from companies that are not going to be good corporate citizens, I need citizen experts to be able to voice their concerns early in the permitting process so that the relevant questions can be asked and the answers to those questions can be verified.

In a more general sense, holding meetings at 4 in the afternoon, when most people are at work, does not encourage public involvement. Cancelling agenda review meetings and holding work sessions behind closed doors does not encourage public involvement. My first action as a commissioner will be to move those meetings to 6 p.m., and to reschedule and televise agenda meetings and work sessions.

I will also be present in the community. I understand people are busy with careers and family responsibilities and keeping up with local issues is not always their first priority. I want to be available to talk to citizens where they are, at church, at community events, at school functions—anywhere that folks gather, so I can hear from everyone in our county and know what their concerns are.

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

LC: I’ve spent a lot of time watching planning board meetings and quasi-judicial hearings of the board of commissioners. I’ve also met with community leaders and environmental groups about their concerns. I plan to spend a great deal of time with Wayne Clark in order to better understand the transportation and infrastructure challenges facing our county, and to review the new Unified Development Ordinance to make sure there is ample opportunity for public input before a potential polluter, such as Titan Cement, is allowed to open a plant in New Hanover County. I’m always interested to learn more and improve my understanding of what our citizens need. What I know for sure is that the current system of large-scale developments being railroaded through our planning process is not working. 

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

LC: I don’t think it’s possible to fully anticipate the environmental issues we have ahead of us so I don’t want to appear overly critical. Honestly, we are talking about two very separate issues here; the environmental question is one issue and then there is the sea-level rise issue, which is more about emergency management. Let’s separate those.

First, climate change is real. We’ve seen what happens when unprecedented hurricanes tear through our community and we must do more to protect our citizens from natural disasters and we have to listen to the scientists. I want to commit to reduce CO2 emissions by our county government to zero by 2030 and develop a plan to meet that goal to do our part to combat this crisis. This is an opportunity to not only protect our environment, but also to build our economy. By making a commitment to green energy, we can attract businesses in that sector as well as innovative companies across the board who share those values.

But the things we can do to directly impact global climate change and sea-level rise are limited, so we have to protect ourselves from the storms that we know are increasing in frequency and intensity. We have the Arboretum demonstrating the latest in stormwater management techniques. We have a new stormwater management program launching next year. We have to protect our marshes and our trees because they are nature’s stormwater management. We have to continue to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on beach renourishment and find new ways to mitigate flooding and beach erosion. 

We have other serious environmental challenges and we have some great things happening at the county level. We have a new tree ordinance. We are launching a new stormwater management plan. We have an amazing environmental management department. Our landfill is state-of-the-art, using two-stage reverse osmosis to treat the leachate, food-waste composting, and construction waste recycling. But we can and must do more. We have to work with state and federal representatives to make sure that polluters are cleaning up their messes and that we, as taxpayers, aren’t picking up the bill.

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?

LC: This can be a challenge because state law do not always give us the power to manage our growth in the way we might like. But there are things we should be doing locally to protect and preserve our environment and the livability of our communities. We need to stop letting large developers seek and receive exemptions from our land code and zoning codes. We may need to work with developers to incentivize private investment in infrastructure to ensure that we have the kind of growth that protects our way of life. I think many of our builders want to build livable communities. I think they understand they can be more profitable if we take care of the things that make New Hanover County so special. The traffic here is an increasing issue, our greenspaces are shrinking, and our population density is growing. We need to listen to our citizens and understand that there is no going back once every tree is cut and every acre of grass is paved over.

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

LC: Water and air quality are an ongoing concern. GenX and other “forever chemicals” have permeated our water supply. Increasingly frequent and intense storms threaten us every year.

Many of these threats come from outside of New Hanover, due to our downstream location at the end of the Cape Fear River. Chemical pollutants and agricultural runoff from our neighbors upstream affect our drinking water. Emissions from plants miles away affect our air quality. We have to work in concert with counties across southeastern North Carolina and our state legislature to protect our air, soil, and water. This is not only key for our health, but also for our economy.

Let’s face it: If you can’t drink the water, and you can’t open your windows or go outside and enjoy our beautiful beaches and river, no one is going to want to live and work here. Economic growth will stagnate. Property values will drop, as will the tax base. Then we will not be able to provide necessary services to our citizens and we will be in a dangerous downward cycle that will be hard to reverse. I will not let this happen; I will fight for our environment and our way of life.

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

LC: I was extremely disappointed when the current board voted to pull funding from WAVE Transit and replaced the board. With the incredible growth expected in our region over the next decade, a robust public transportation system is vital to the economic health of our community. We need a system that serves all our citizens and makes it possible for anyone to live, work, and go to school here without having to own a car. That’s a big step from where we are right now, but it’s something that I am confident that we can achieve.

We have to start by recognizing that WAVE Transit was set up to fail from the very beginning. Because there has never been a dedicated funding source, a comprehensive, long-term plan to grow the system as we outgrew our rural-county status was impossible. Now that we have lost access to the federal funds that status afforded, WAVE is struggling to maintain service levels, much less growing. This is not mismanagement by the WAVE board. This is an unworkable business model. So we have to fix that.

We have to look at the realistic needs of our growing community, set a budget to meet those needs and establish a funding source to provide those funds. We can build a transit system that is robust, safe, and that all our residents can access, whether by choice or need. Public transit, like many government systems, is not about turning a large profit, it is about providing a service for our citizens.

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

LC: Schools are going to need more help from us as we face the Covid-19 epidemic. I can imagine that PPE, classroom modifications, HVAC upgrades, additional school nurses, additional broadband and other technology, might all be needed. I will work closely with the school board to make sure that our schools have everything necessary to keep our children, our teachers and staff, and our families safe and healthy.

I would also like to supplement the salaries of our school bus drivers and other support staff to be sure that all our school workers are receiving at least $15 an hour, like their peers working in other county departments. There is no excuse for having government employees who don’t earn a livable wage in New Hanover County.

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

LC: I would not have voted to sell our hospital. Healthcare is a local issue and the methods used to accomplish this sale have constituted a major violation of the public trust. There’s very little evidence that these consolidations create more efficient systems or help healthcare consumers. In fact, there is growing evidence that they increase prices for healthcare. Beyond that, I don’t understand why this whole process has been so rushed. Those involved have been so adamant about shortening the timeline at every turn and there has been so little opportunity to examine all the possibilities. If the deal is so great, and the outcome so desirable, why was there a need to push the sale through before the election?

It seems ludicrous that the proceeds from the sale of a county asset will be going into a private foundation over which we have no control or input. Our tax dollars and the hard work of 7,000-plus employees built the hospital system into what it is today. Why are we practically giving all that away? There are so many great things that have been promised as a part of this deal, but many are not mentioned at all in the actual agreement and others lack key details about implementation and scope. It will be a shame if our community suffers because of this, but I fear without intervention by the attorney general or a court, that will be the outcome of this ordeal.

PCD: Are you comfortable with the community foundation being private? Explain.

LC: This may be the most important issue facing our county right now. The sheer size of this fund is hard to fathom. 1.25 million seconds is just over two weeks (14 days, 11 hours, and 13 minutes). 1.25 billion seconds is over 39 years. That money belongs to the people of New Hanover County. By putting control of those funds into a private foundation, the people of New Hanover County have no voice in how those funds are spent or invested. More importantly, the people of New Hanover County have no oversight of how that money is invested. The state of North Carolina has no oversight of how that money is invested. The foundation board can meet in private. They are not obligated to release the minutes of their meeting or the financial statements of the foundation. Even their annual audits are not required to be made public- and this is by design!

I’m afraid if this goes forward as it has currently been set up, a future NHC Board of Commissioners is going to be asking why we didn’t provide proper oversight of this foundation. I’m afraid much of this money may be lost in volatile markets over the next decade, as we saw happen to many retirement accounts during the Great Recession.

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?

LC: If the process had been open and public, and provided the opportunity for debate and public conversation, the decision to sell would have been more palatable. As it is, the entire decision to sell was made in secret. The process of evaluating submitted proposals to sell or partner was completed with no public conversation. A public hearing is not conversation or public input.

Novant’s proposal had one line that I’ll never forget: “Maximum flexibility to accommodate a wide range of partnership alternatives, including a management services agreement, joint operating company, joint venture, or a fully integrated model, in order to best meet NHRMC’s and the County’s governance and financial objectives.” They offered “maximum flexibility” and yet the only option that seems to have gotten any consideration was an all-out sale. Certainly no other options were presented to the public.

I would have requested that multiple options be presented to the public and to the board of commissioners so that we could all understand the advantages and shortcomings of each model. I would have held open, frequent meetings for public input and conversation about what this will mean for our community. I would have included community leaders and healthcare stakeholders in the decision-making process. I would have ensured we were not decreasing our quality of care, increasing our costs, and relinquishing a valuable community asset on a whim.

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