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10 takeaways from the Patrick Cannon allegations

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor

Patrick Cannon was always engaging -- as long as you could be of help to him.

During his mayoral campaign, Cannon would go out of his way to heartily greet me at community events. On Aug. 21, he came to the Observer for an endorsement interview with the editorial board, and was full of charm. Then we endorsed his opponent. Suddenly, he’d avoid me at public functions and we haven’t spoken since.

As part of the editorial board’s endorsement process, I interviewed eight Democrats, Republicans and independents who had worked closely with the Democratic Cannon over the years. Every one of them offered the same essential message: They were not supporting him because they didn’t find him trustworthy. While the corruption charges against Cannon last week shocked the city, I know many public officials who were not surprised.

Here are the top 10 things I’m thinking about in the wake of Cannon’s arrest:

• Voters need to wake up. There were warning signs. He misled the public in 2005 about IRS liens against him. He made several claims right before last November’s election that were demonstrably false. Many of his fellow Democrats were not comfortable with him. Yet voters elected him nine times. How many pushed the button without knowing much about him?

• The city’s best people need to step up. The Observer’s Michael Gordon reported Friday that the Justice Department has prosecuted almost 23 thousand corruption cases against elected officials over the past two decades. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Charlotte has convicted 43 local officials in its region on corruption charges since 2003. A number of very fine people run for office, and I don’t think most elected officials are corrupt. But many of the best and brightest are committing themselves not to the low pay and ridicule of public office but to the private and nonprofit sector. How do we recruit more people of high ability and character to run for these demanding public service jobs?

• The public needs to know how deep this scandal runs. The criminal complaint contains many references to business people and city staffers who interacted with Cannon on related matters. No doubt some of Cannon’s alleged boasts of influence to undercover agents were mere bluster, but would anyone be surprised if Cannon is not the only individual in all of local government who could be accused of rotten ethics? Until the public feels like all the truth has come out, a cloud will linger and the city’s reputation will be compromised.

• Will other allegations against Cannon surface? The FBI’s affidavit covers only money that agents say Cannon accepted over the past year-plus from undercover agents. It doesn’t say anything about what else Cannon might have been involved with during that time, or anything that may have happened in the prior 20 years since he was first elected.

• Temptations are ever-present for elected officials. Everybody wants something from you. Without a rock-solid ethical foundation, how easy it must be to cross that line, first with something small that you can rationalize. And how quickly things can spiral once you’ve crossed that line.

• The streetcar may be dead, at least for a while. What else will be dragged down by this episode? Many of the allegations revolve around development along the streetcar line. Already unpopular with many, it faces a much higher hurdle for public acceptance now. Meanwhile, the city was considering $200-$300 million in street bonds for November’s ballot. Will voter concern about the propriety of awarding contracts threaten their passage?

• What will happen with code enforcement? At a breakfast hours before the Cannon news broke, I was talking with Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham about her and others’ efforts to cut red tape at the county code enforcement office. Given the allegations against Cannon, do you think public momentum now will be about helping developers get permits more quickly?

• Hooray for the council-manager form of government. In Charlotte, the City Council sets policy, the city manager and his staff run the day-to-day operations and the mayor primarily has a bully pulpit. That dispersal of power, compared with a strong-mayor approach, helps reduce the chances of an episode like this, and the amount of damage they do.

• Republicans might still have a pulse in Charlotte. The GOP had been left for dead locally in recent years. Democrats have dominated citywide races and some wondered whether a Republican would ever win citywide again. Perhaps this resurrects Republicans, though the voter registration numbers leave them in a deep hole.

• This city will still thrive. While this is the most serious allegation of public corruption in Charlotte government, this city has too many good people to stay down for long. Cannon’s arrest should prompt heightened awareness, better oversight and more transparency in government, all good things. With the right response, in fact, Charlotte might come out of this stronger than ever.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com. Twitter: @tbatten1.
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