A North Carolina bill first drafted to protect military bases from encroachment awaits the governor’s signature with an added provision to hush public information about a BRAC until the deed is done.
It has been nearly a decade since the last Base Realignment and Closure process. But leaders in Craven County and much of Eastern N.C. still remember the fear of lost jobs and abandoned communities that came with the 2005 BRAC — and the last minute hustle to protect them.
Allies for Cherry Point Tomorrow (ACT) has more dues paying government members now than it did in that round with a hope of staying prepared with an active lobby and good public information network.
N.C. Senate bill 614, ratified Wednesday with almost unanimous bipartisan support, was initially called “An Act to Further Protect Military Lands.”
Precipitated by confusion in various county efforts to protect military bases from tall structures that could compromise base mission, and initially voted down by the same number it ultimately passed, the bill’s name grew to include a provision “to protect sensitive military documents” related to BRAC.
Its wording grew to prevent public view or discussion of “documents related to the federal government’s process to determine closure or realignment of military installations until a final decision has been made by the federal government in that process.”
“The provision seems small, but it has big consequences for making it harder for you and your neighbors to influence or even to know where, when or what military facilities expand in your county,” said Bob Hall, executive director for Democracy North Carolina in an email. “Somebody basically tucked the provision inside an otherwise non-controversial bill — it’d be good to find out who and why.”
It was a surprise to some on the ACT board and the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission, which had supported the tall structures portion of the bill which prevents them from being built within five miles of a military base.
Those groups met together Friday at Havelock Tourist and Events Center in a gathering organized by Craven member and Havelock City Manager Frank Bottorff, retired Marine colonel and former Cherry Point air station commander.
Sonny Roberts, longtime NCMAC member from Craven County, said he was unaware that of segment of the bill and, at the hour-long meeting, “It didn’t come up.”
Craven County Manager Jack Veit attended and was also unaware of that provision in the bill until called to his attention Friday afternoon.
After reading it quickly, he said, “I don’t think this will include us (county government or ACT). Everything we do will be very public.”
“The way I understand what this is saying is that the state put together a MAC to protect the interests of the military from a North Carolina perspective,” Veit said. “If it determines there are things that need to be done — here are the threats, here are the opportunities — these things could be harmful if another state had the list.”
In the 2005 BRAC, the public was regularly briefed and encouraged to be part of the process. ACT packed two bus loads with interested residents and others traveled in cars, to Charlotte for the formal BRAC public hearing.
A concerted and well reported lobbying effort was also supported with voices and money in an effort to protect the Cherry Point military base and 2nd Marine Air Wing as well as the county’s largest civilian employer, the Navy rework facility now called Fleet Readiness Center East.
In fact, the mission statement of the 2005 BRAC Commission still posted on the web was that “The Commission will follow a fair, open, and equitable process” in evaluating the military viability of the country’s bases but “will also take into account the human impact of the base closures and will consider the possible economic, environmental, and other effects on the surrounding communities.”
That realignment resulted in the loss of Cherry Point Naval Hospital, closure of which taxed local hospital’s maternity capacity and veteran’s health care access. That closure and other cutbacks resulted in the loss of more than 628 jobs. But the base here was not impacted nearly to the extent feared and a subsequent military buildup for action in Afghanistan brought back some jobs for the base here and dramatically expanded Camp Lejeune.
Veit said that he thinks and hopes that this bill, which awaits only the governor’s signature to be law, “seems to be a preemptive move, sort of like protecting trade secrets. I don’t think it is a way to exclude public comment. That will still be there.”
But the bill begs the question of whether there will be punishment for violating a gag order on military related information passed from the Department of Commerce to counties or if county governments will get that information at all.
That portion of the ratified bill reads that “the Commission and the Department of Commerce may share documents and discussions protected from disclosure under (public records law) G.S.132-1.2 and (open meetings law) G.S.143-318.11 with other public bodies. Any information shared under this subsection shall be confidential and exempt from Chapter 132 of the General Statutes to the same extent that it is confidential in the possession of the Commission or the Department.”