Charlotte Observer
11:03 am
Thu June 19, 2014

Bill Would End ‘Protest’ Petitions, Limit Use Of Mug Shots

Cornelius Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte

A bill originally designed to regulate car headlights has morphed into a 32-page measure that would affect cities, property owners and the media.

The measure, passed by two House committees Wednesday, would, among other things, do away with zoning protest petitions, expand ethics requirements for municipal officials and bar news outlets from using some police mug shots.

Until changed in one committee, the bill also would have given outdoor advertising companies more leeway to cut trees and other vegetation in front of billboards.

The measure, which could move to the full House this week, faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

It’s one of several bills, known as committee substitutes, that pop up toward the end of session. They can balloon into grab bags of legislation, often intended as bargaining chips with the other chamber.

“There’s just so many things flying around,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. “We’re approaching what I call baseball card trading season. It depends on who values what in the trade.”

The House committee substitute for Senate Bill 493 is an example.

Filed as a bill regulating after-market headlights, it was retitled as the 2014 Regulatory Reform Act. It includes everything from autism health insurance coverage to the use of tanning beds by teenagers. Among its provisions:

The bill would repeal the law that allows residents to submit protest petitions against nearby rezonings. In Charlotte, that triggers the need for approval by a super-majority of the City Council and mayor – nine votes total. Without a petition, a rezoning needs a council majority of six votes to be approved.

Protest petitions are often used to fight particular developments or to gain leverage in negotiating with developers. Republican critics call them antiquated.

“The protest petition makes it harder to do a rezoning than it is to override a gubernatorial veto … or amend the United States Constitution,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican.

Petition supporters such as Paul Meyer, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, say they protect property owners. He said he would be open to revisions in the petition process but not outright repeal.

A similar repeal passed the House in 2013 but didn’t survive negotiations with the Senate.

A ban on the use of police mug shots by the media. The House measure is more far-reaching than similar restrictions proposed this year.

It would bar publication of mug shots unless the person is charged with a felony or unless law enforcement officials determine the photo is necessary for public safety. Otherwise mug shots could only be used if and when a person is convicted.

“It would limit the public’s right to see mug shots at the time of arrest entirely,” said John Bussian, a lobbyist for the N.C. Press Association. “That would be a bad blow to public access rights that have existed for a hundred years in this state.”

Bussian said the provision was inserted by Rep. Tim Moffitt, an Asheville Republican. Moffitt was out of state and unavailable for comment.

Another provision would expand ethics requirements for municipal officials in cities over 75,000. That would affect officials in 13 North Carolina cities.

The bill would essentially make those officials subject to the same ethics disclosures as state lawmakers.

In Charlotte, officials would have to file lengthy statements of economic interest, including a list of assets of the officials and his or her immediate family.