ROANOKE RAPIDS — A housing survey presented during a Roanoke Rapids City Council meeting on Tuesday highlighted the burden of dilapidated and vacant properties.
Shortly after a special called meeting, the council went into its work session, where Planning and Development Director David Wise provided information from the Historic District Housing Condition Survey. Wise said at the beginning of the presentation that the survey was conducted on residential and commercial property at the request of Mayor Pro Tem Carl Ferebee.
“By all accounts, vacant properties are a curse,” he said. “Vacant properties are an expense that local governments simply cannot afford, and that expense grows every year a property remains vacant or abandoned. Such properties provide little or no property tax, but they do require plenty of time, attention and money.”
The packet provided at the meeting listed several properties, including commercial properties on Roanoke Avenue.
Wise explained that properties can often be a breeding ground for crime that ties up law enforcement resources. He said the City of Richmond in Virginia conducted an analysis on crime data in the city and found vacant and abandoned properties had the highest correlation with crime. Wise said the city focused on the issue through the Neighborhoods in Bloom program, which resulted in a drop in crime rates.
“Seven of Richmond’s neighborhoods were identified to restore physical livability and improve neighborhood stability,” he said. “In the first three years of the initiative, the targeted neighborhoods experienced a 19% drop in crime compared to 6% citywide.”
Wise asked Chief Bobby Martin with the Roanoke Rapids Police Department to provide an example locally.
Martin explained to council that his department has received phone calls regarding vacant homes where individuals are conducting drug activities.
“They tend to squat in these homes,” he said. “They’ll go in — break in. We have drugs stored in these vacant homes, we have weapons stored in these vacant homes. We receive calls periodically. It could be from the 1000 block all the way down to the 100 block in regards to vacant homes, where we get tips about drug activity in the yards on the property out of the house that has been broken into. We do what we can to contact the homeowners of said property to try to get it secured and try to keep this from happening.”
Martin then pointed to the vacant buildings on the Avenue, more particularly the People’s Theater, where his department receives phone calls about juveniles throwing bricks onto the sidewalk from on top of the buildings.
“We do put a lot of man hours into these calls,” he said. “Because if you go to an open home, you just don’t clear it by yourself. It takes time and multiple officers for safety issues, especially when we’re locating drugs or narcotics and people in these homes.”
Wise continued the presentation and said vacant properties also require public maintenance to prevent the buildup of trash, illegal dumping and rodent infestation. He said demolishing vacant buildings does not eliminate the cost associated with abandonment and that the lots still require maintenance from municipal employees and resources. Wise added the value of surrounding properties is affected by the condition of said properties that are vacant and dilapidated.
A property of interest is the People’s Theater located at 204 Roanoke Ave., where Roger Bell, minimum housing code enforcement officer for the city, provided information on the building. Bell said the owner of the building, Eric Bowman, passed away in December and his heirs are trying to sell the property.
“There is a large unpaid tax burden they’re trying to work their way through first,” he told the council. “It’s very difficult for them to find buyers.”
Bell talked about the property at 258 Roanoke Ave., where the owner said a structural engineer determined the entire structure needed to be demolished. He continued with the status of other buildings listed in the packet and said efforts continue to reach out to owners.
Councilman Wayne Smith asked how much it would cost to demolish the buildings.
Bell said regular dwellings would probably cost about $10,000, whereas a building such as the People’s Theater would probably cost in the six-figure range.
City Manager Kelly Traynham said even with the People’s Theater, the asbestos removal will be a significant cost. Traynham also said rates could fluctuate based on how much landfills are charging for disposal.
“I think one of the key takeaways with this is that it’s not just the city’s responsibility to do it — that it will require partnerships and investors and really, to think long-term of what the vision is for it and then find ways incrementally to work towards that,” she said after discussions.
A public comment period brought questions and concerns surrounding two State Board of Elections rule proposals aimed at precinct official duties and election observers.
According to a press release from the SBOE on Aug. 2, the proposed changes would be temporary instead of permanent, allowing them to take effect in the November 2022 general election if approved.
The two proposals in the press release:
• Amendment to 08 NCAC 10B .0101 Tasks and Duties of Precinct Officials at Voting Places bit.ly/3Swahnd
According to the press release, the amendment would “prohibited conduct by precinct officials, such as tampering with voting equipment, making statements about personal political views while on duty, failing to abide by elections laws, rules, and policies applicable to precinct officials, and illegally discriminating against voters. This would also apply to one-stop early voting workers.”
• Amendment to 08 NCAC 20.0101 Election Observers bit.ly/3A20L44
According to the press release, the amendment “proposes clarifications to the appointment process for precinct-specific observers, one-stop observers, and at-large observers. It would also prohibit observers from using staff-only doors, distributing or posting written materials inside the voting site, or causing a disruption by repeatedly coming and going from the area designated for observers by the county board of elections.”
The press release from the SBOE reads the reason for the proposed amendments came based on situations during the May primary and feedback from county election officials. The press release further reads there is insufficient time to follow proper permanent rulemaking procedures and that temporary rules typically expire 270 days after publication.
The first virtual public hearing was on July 28, where public comment was limited to three minutes per individual.
Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity with The John Locke Foundation, a nonprofit research institute, said during his public comment that there had been no related changes to state or federal law, as well as no related court orders. Jackson said the temporary rule process is inappropriate for the changes.
“The State Board of Elections has not established any need for these changes to preserve the integrity of upcoming elections,” he said.
Jackson then focused his time on addressing concerns on how the changes would affect election observers.
“The changes reflect an unnecessary hostility towards election observers who are an integral part of the election process,” he said.
Jackson said the laws for election observers and precinct election officials are found together in Article 5 of Chapter 163 at bit.ly/3QkBjvM.
“The regulations also go beyond anything required by state law and look designed to make the work of election observers more onerous,” he said.
Jackson pointed to page two, lines 27 through 29 where the proposal for election observers changed to give the chief judge the power to remove an observer if the judge believes the observer is being disruptive.
The section referred to reads, “An observer who repeatedly exits and reenters the voting place may be removed from observing at the voting location by the chief judge if the observer’s conduct is causing a disruption in the voting enclosure.”
Jackson also pointed to the proposed restriction preventing near relatives of precinct officials or one-stop voting locations from serving as election observers or runners and that it is unnecessarily restrictive.
“The restriction for election officials is that a near relative may not serve in the same precinct,” he said. “So it is onerous to have a greater restriction for observers than you would have for election precinct officials. You should have similar rules for both.”
Jackson brought attention to another addition that would bar observers from using doors designated for election officials that may prevent the continuous observance of the curbside voting process. Another issue he brought up was on page three, lines eight through 10 that would allow election judges the power to remove observers who leave an area designated for observers, which he said goes against the general statute 163-49 (C).
“Which states that observers may not conduct electioneering, impede the voting process or interfere with communications or with any voter and casting a ballot,” Jackson said. “But otherwise, the chief judge and judges shall permit the observer to make such observations and take such notes as the observer may desire. This restriction on where they can go as long as they’re not being disruptive goes well beyond statute.”
Others in public comment brought up concerns about there being less transparency that jeopardizes public trust in the election process.
One woman provided a comment saying over the last few years, she and others have heard from many voters who felt intimidated or confused given the concerns about the elections.
“Now is the time to make things simpler and more transparent,” the woman said. “And transparent would be having observers marked with large tags that say observers — making it clear where they can go. And I as a voter would be terribly intimidated to have an observer walking around with a notebook watching me vote. That’s not what I consider the process to be.”
Angela Hawkins, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, wanted to know which counties provided feedback for the proposed rules. Hawkins said she felt the proposed rules for election observers are restrictive, particularly those who can be an observer.
“Concerning the precinct officials, I am concerned about page seven, number 12 in particular,” she said. “I read it to be that an election day worker cannot do anything related to the election during the one-stop period. And I think that, too, was too restrictive. So once again, I think they’re too restrictive and unnecessary. I’d love to know where they’re coming from, to maybe get a better perspective on why we’re trying to tamp these two areas of elections down so much.”
Another individual who provided comment was Jay DeLancy, founder of Voter Integrity Project in the state, an organization dedicated to free and fair elections, who said the key element to the situation is transparency and increasing public trust. DeLancy said his organization has trained and deployed poll observers since 2012, and has seen in Wake County and spreading to other areas that observers are being sanctioned to one area and barred from leaving the area under threat of dismissal from the polling location. He referenced general statute 163-45 (C).
“The chief judge and judges of elections shall permit the observer to make such observation and take such notes as the observer may desire,” DeLancy said. “This is black and white statute, and yet, this Board of Elections has chosen to view observers as some sort of hostile element into the electoral process when it’s really unfortunate. Many states view observers — rightly view them, I would say, trained poll observers as value added for an over-stressed chief judge who cannot be eyes and ears all over the precinct. And if the rules are actually applied in the way we train it, the observers would actually add value to that process.
“And in Ohio, we found that by the end of the day, the poll workers were actually asking the observers for their advice on the law because the poll workers were not as adequately trained as they probably could have been. And a few cycles later, the observers are actually employees at the polls. So instead of viewing poll observers as some sort of hostile element, we would encourage the board to take a more proactive position on it and recognize that we are value added to the process, if you so choose to allow us to participate, instead of trying to make excuses to kick us out.”
According to a press release from the SBOE, the public comment period is extended and written comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. Aug. 12. Another virtual public hearing will be held at 10 a.m. on Aug. 11.
To submit written comments for the proposal on election observers, visit bit.ly/3QseR41.
To submit written comments for the proposal on the duties of precinct officials, visit bit.ly/3bykfDL.
Submissions can also be sent to email@example.com, or mailed to Rulemaking Coordinator, 6400 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27603-1362
Directors Kristin Scott with Halifax County Board of Elections and Spinosa Clements with Northampton County Board of Elections said no feedback was submitted to the state regarding the proposals. Both said election observers do not receive training nor are chosen from their offices, but precinct officials receive training prior to each election.
When asked if there were incidents involving removal from a precinct or intimidation, Clements said there had not been any in Northampton County.
In Halifax County, Scott said, “There was at least one observer who was asked to not go back inside to observe due to causing a disturbance but not intimidating voters. The party chair was notified. Since I have been director, we have never had to remove a precinct official for intimidation.”
Regarding what is allowed for election observers, Scott said the statute allows observers to use electronic devices, notebooks, pads and other methods.
“I believe both parties require that they wear a tag,” she said. “Our precincts have a list of names who are allowed inside the precinct other than voters. Observers are also supposed to identify themselves with the chief judge, and that observer is supposed to sign a log. Observers are not supposed to intimidate voters or precinct officials at the polls. Observers are just taking notes on what is occurring at the site. If voters are feeling intimidated by an observer or precinct official, they should call or visit the Board of Elections for assistance. If they do not feel comfortable speaking with the precinct officials or come to Halifax, they can ask the chief judge for a Rover to come and speak with them. A Rover is hired to serve as a liaison between the office and polling locations.”
In Northampton, Clements said observers are allowed to utilize whatever means necessary to conduct their observation.
“However, the use of a mobile device to photograph or make conversation is prohibited in the voting enclosure,” she said. “Observers are to check in with the chief judge upon arrival. If they do not have an observer tag, one would be provided. Observers are appointed to do just that, observe. They are not allowed to interact with voters within the voting enclosure [or voting curbside]. If there is an issue, it should be addressed to the chief judge or the county BOE. Additionally, persons must be appointed by the party or unaffiliated candidate in order to observe the voting process.”
When asked if election observers are sanctioned to a particular area, Clements said no.
“Officials are trained to ensure that observers are able to observe all aspects of the voting process,” she said.
Scott said Halifax County precinct officials are instructed to reserve a spot for election observers.
“They are to keep them in an area where they can see and hear everything that is taking place,” she said. “With the approval of the chief judge, they are allowed to get up and walk with the chief judge, but they are not to interfere.”
Both said political parties are responsible for selecting the election observers.
For the May 17 primary election, Clements in Northampton County said they had approximately 50 precinct officials and four election observers from the start of one-stop voting. She added the number of officials depends on the total number of registered voters in each precinct and the type of election that is taking place.
In Halifax County, Scott said there were 73 precinct officials working with four rovers and 17 names submitted between political parties for election observers in the May 17 primary election.
“Statutes outline the number of At-Large Observers parties are allowed to submit,” she said. “Statute does not state how many precinct observers are allowed, but it does state how many are allowed in a precinct at one time. When staffing the precinct officials, we look at the following: 1) type of election we’re having 2) If the contests are contested and 3) total registration for that precinct.”
The Herald reached out to DeLancy, who said he finished a 32-year career in the U.S. Army and Air Force and taught Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Southeast Halifax High School. He said some citizens of Halifax County have attended his organization’s workshops and are attempting to continue doing so in the area.
When asked about Scott’s response to precinct officials instructed to reserve a spot for election observers, DeLancy said, “That policy flies in the face of state law (173-45©, and election officials across the state have always caved when we point that out. The last clause in that paragraph, ‘the chief judge and judges of elections shall permit the observer to make such observation and take such notes as the observer may desire.’ We’ve never lost a fight over that issue because the law is clearly on our side. The SBE’s subversion of the agency code process is designed to codify their desire to suppress observers and kick out any who push back.”
DeLancy said the 17 election observers submitted by the parties were not nearly enough to cover the primary election.
“If you multiply the number of early voting sites in any county by six and then multiply that figure by 17 days of early voting, you see the maximum number we need,” he said. “Oh, and we also need six people per precinct on Election Day. It seems like a big number, but in November 2021, Virginia volunteers covered more than 80% of their slots over 45 days of early voting. Our approach is nonpartisan, but sadly, the political hacks have a hard time understanding that concept.”
When asked about the importance of election observers, DeLancy said his organization’s trained poll observers add value to the process by seeing acts that busy chief judges may not be in a position to witness.
“The reason they want us out is that lots of their workers are poorly trained,” he said. “Our trained observers will know the law better than the employees, and that’s what worries them. In 2014, when a Durham County election chief judge was convicted in federal court for ordering employees to help him balance the books after closing by running some extra ballots through the tabulators. He has lost control of the process because of poorly trained employees, and it wasn’t entirely his fault. Had we been allowed into the location, one of our trained observers could have helped him avoid prison.”
In closing, DeLancy said most states allow nonpartisan poll observers, and he fought with state legislatures to change laws that require party sponsorship.
“We believe elections belong to the voters and not to the parties, the politicians, or to government employees,” he said. “It’s a concept called ‘consent of the governed,’ and it’s critical to our nation’s survival.”