Every once in a while, the public gets a rare, accidental glimpse of how the power players in our community manipulate things to their advantage behind the scenes. That happened last week when a series of e-mails between the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and UNCC higher-ups were leaked to the media.
For more than a month, the Chamber and UNC-Charlotte professors have been clubbing transit tax repeal supporters over the head with a supposedly "independent" study UNCC did on the vast benefits of mass transit.
The Center for Transportation Policy Studies' study, which was published in April, provides a stellar assessment of Charlotte Area Transit System's performance and the performance of mass transit everywhere. It was released just as a campaign to repeal the half-cent sales tax that funds light rail and buses in Mecklenburg County was heating up. A group called SCAT collected over 40,000 signatures to put the repeal on the November ballot.
Since then, city leaders and some members of the media have used the study to "prove" transit foes are out in left field. Now it appears that the study wasn't "independent" at all, but a useful prop ultimately paid for with public tax dollars for use in the Charlotte Chamber's campaign to save the half-cent sales tax for mass transit. Incredibly, the guidelines for the study were set in series of e-mails between UNCC's chancellor and the head of the Charlotte Chamber. Needless to say, the e-mails cast serious doubt not just on the study, but on the academic independence of the university and the integrity of the professors who drafted it.
When he wasn't busy swapping draft copies of the study with the Chamber, Edd Hauser, director of the Center for Transportation Policy Studies at UNC-Charlotte, was making the media rounds emphasizing the "independence" of the study he authored. In a WFAE interview, Hauser referred to the Center for Transportation Policy Studies as a place the public could rely on for "unbiased assessments of public policy."
"But no one came to you, you picked this as a topic to study," radio host Mike Collins asked Hauser in an interview on May 21 on "Charlotte Talks" on WFAE, in which the two intermittently trashed the statistics used by transit tax repeal supporters.
"Oh right," Hauser answered, stumbling over his words. Hauser then explained that the acrimony between transit supporters and transit foes he had seen at a city meeting was what had inspired him to seek the truth.
The Charlotte Observer also fell for the ruse and published a breathless editorial on UNCC's "independent" study in May.
"Unlike studies put out by transit foes and transit advocates, his (Hauser's) interest wasn't in proving one side or the other right," the Observer's editorial read.
"I had no idea what it would look like when I started," the Observer quoted (Hauser) as saying.
But a series of e-mails in March proves otherwise. In them, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan and UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois traded ideas for the study's topics, including questions the study would answer. In one e-mail to Morgan titled "Draft of Transit Sales Tax Repeal Questions," Dubois promises to check with UNCC's lawyers for "guidance about what we can do as a public institution." The incestuousness of the whole thing is a bit unseemly when you consider that the Charlotte Chamber is essentially leading the "grassroots" campaign against the repeal of the half-cent tax and recently put out a press release launching the pro-tax campaign. Some of the Chamber's members stand to directly profit from light rail.
Dubois is visiting South Africa and could not be reached for comment, despite multiple attempts. Public relations people for the university say they can't comment on the matter on the university's behalf.
That anyone, including the Observer's editorial board, took the UNCC study seriously is amusing. UNCC needs the tax to get the rail line it wants built out to its campus. The university has been lobbying for a rail line for years, and losing the tax would likely scuttle it.
Worse yet, Dennis Rash, the executive in residence with the Center for Transportation Policy Studies, joined in the e-mail conversation between Morgan and Dubois at one point. Rash is the husband of Betty Chafin Rash, one of the seven leaders of the Chamber campaign group fighting to save the sales tax for mass transit.
In an e-mail to Dubois, Rash wrote that "there are clearly more transportation issues about which Edd and I can identify the key contacts quicker."
But Rash was careful about how this would look to the public.
"Edd and I have talked about this matter and he is willing to take the lead in this research himself," Rash wrote to Dubois. "Edd and I also agree that I should not be a spokesman for the Center in answering these questions. I have too much history as an advocate to be able now to function as an independent analyst."
Rash wrapped the e-mail to Dubois up with this line that suggested he would still be involved in the study.
"We will keep you informed of the progress, and provide a copy of the final results before we send a final draft to the Chamber."
Yup, sure sounds like a grassroots, completely independent effort to me.