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County delays lobbyist contract

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Pasquotank commissioners on Monday delayed rehiring the county's lobbyists in Raleigh and Washington D.C., citing a need to research whether their efforts are worth the five-figure expense.

By a split vote, commissioners agreed to table a three-year, $90,000 contract to McClees Consulting, a firm founded by husband and wife Joe and Henri McClees.

Commissioner Frankie Meads, who voted against hiring the McCleeses two years ago, urged commissioners to delay approving the contract. He said he wanted more information about how the couple have benefited Pasquotank.

“I'd like to carry this thing over so we can get more information on what has happened and how we've earned money by hiring these people,” Meads said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Cecil Perry, Vice Chairman Bill Sterritt and Commissioner Bettie Parker voted for Meads’ motion.

Voting against it were Commissioners Jeff Dixon and Joe Winslow. Notably, commissioners allowed Winslow to vote by telephone, despite County Attorney Mike Cox expressing concerns about the practice.

Commissioner Lloyd Griffin was absent from Monday’s meeting.

Pasquotank commissioners voted to hire the McCleeses in 2015 after being surprised by state legislation that would have reduced the county’s funding for providing 911 services. Commissioners said they needed someone who could monitor often fast-moving legislation since the county doesn’t have that capability.  

The McCleeses’ initial contract with Pasquotank was for $70,000 over three years. The McCleeses asked for less money in the first contract because they said they needed time to fully learn Pasquotank's interests.

The McCleeses made their pitch for continuing their role as Pasquotank’s legislation monitor at Monday’s commissioners meeting.

“Henri and I are about (being) your eyes and ears in Raleigh or any other place that will positively or negatively affect what goes on” in Pasquotank, Joe McClees told commissioners.

He said the couple have built strong relationships with lawmakers across the state, not just local lawmakers, and scrutinize every bill proposed in the General Assembly for its impact on Pasquotank. He also said their firm regularly responds to questions from both County Manager Rodney Bunch and commissioners.

Pointing to an example of their influence, Joe McClees said he met personally with House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, to urge against efforts to shut down the Amazon Wind Farm US East and encourage the powerful lawmaker to visit the area.

Early this year, Moore and other lawmakers signed a letter calling for President Donald Trump's administration to shut down the wind farm in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, alleging it would impede nearby radar operations for the U.S. Navy. The Navy itself did not support the letter, and under pressure from numerous interests, Moore reversed his position on the project.

Joe McClees noted that Moore and the House stopped criticizing the project after Moore's visit — though several state senators, including Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, have continued to seek restrictions against wind energy.

The McCleeses said they work to educate lawmakers from other parts of the state about all kinds of issues affecting Pasquotank. They also encourage those lawmakers to visit eastern North Carolina, they said. If their contract is renewed, the McCleeses said they would work to organize lobbying trips for commissioners to visit Washington, D.C.

The McCleeses also lobby for other area counties, including Camden. County Finance Officer Stephanie Humphries said Tuesday that Camden commissioners earlier this year renewed a two-year, $40,000 contract with the couple.

“They keep their clients fresh in the minds of legislators,” she said.

Asked for comment about the McCleeses on Tuesday, state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, praised the couple as well-informed and effective advocates for their clients. He often sees them during legislative sessions, he said.

“They don't let anything get by,” Steinburg said, also commenting he thinks Pasquotank is “getting plenty of bang for their buck.”

Asked about the McCleeses’ influence on the wind farm issue, Steinburg — who publicly pressed Moore and other lawmakers to support the project — said they added to the voices that persuaded Moore. But it's “hard to say” whether Moore would have changed his mind without the McCleeses' involvement, he said.

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