Written by Windy McKinney
As Americans, we are proud to have a constitutional republic. This means that government’s power is derived from its citizens who are entitled to vote, and our elected officials and representatives are held accountable to those citizens, subject to the Constitution. This makes our government unique and special, shows the brilliance of our founding fathers, and allows for the flexibility necessary to adapt to the changing contexts of time. However, there is currently a system of government in place that is set to undermine the power of our constitutional republic, with leaders who are put in place by appointment, rather than elected. These appointments occur at all levels of government; local, regional, state, national and international, and few people – even among the well informed – even know about it.
We can see this process happening close to home, where North Carolina is broken into sixteen separate regions – featured below – represented by sixteen “Councils of Government” (COGs). The North Carolina Councils of Government (NCCOG or the North Carolina Regional Councils of Government) are a confederation of county and municipal governments, which work together at a regional level to promote certain initiatives, as established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1972.
North Carolina Councils of Government Regional Map
The regions of North Carolina are named as follows:
A Southwestern Planning Commission
B Land of Sky Regional Council
C Isothermal Planning & Development Commission
D High Country Council of Governments
E Western Piedmont Council
F Centralina Council of Governments
G Piedmont Triad Regional Council
J Triangle J Council of Governments
K Kerr-Tar Council of Governments
L Upper Coastal Plain Council
M Mid-Carolina Council of Governments
N Lumber River Council of Governments
O Cape Fear Council of Governments
P Eastern Carolina Council
Q Mid-East Commission
R Albemarle Commission
The far west counties of North Carolina make up region A, which is under the Southwestern Planning Commission, and includes Haywood, Clay, Macon, Graham, Jackson, Cherokee and Swain Counties, along with the sovereign nation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.2 Although this is not widely known, each of the seven counties are an official part of this region, in an agreement called the Economic Opportunity Initiative, or “Opt-In” for short.
The Southwestern Commission, which has been around for 42 years, is chaired by Gavin Brown, also mayor of Waynesville in Haywood County.
According to the Southwestern Commission website:
“COGs blanket the entire United States and are alternatively known by many terms; regional commissions, councils of local government, area-wide planning districts, lead regional organizations, and economic development regions. Whatever the name, each is structured similarly and serves a similar purpose- to assist and provide technical support for local governments within the region, ensuring that they partner with one another toward regional goals.”
This agency helps to manage community and economic development, land and water conservation, transportation planning, communications and the development of a workforce. Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, The Federal Highways Administration and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, their goal is to get the seven counties of region A to collaborate on a vision of economic growth, while maintaining the natural beauty of the area and the cultural values of the people. Creating a regional identity which uses networking to include job training, shared contingency funding, travel infrastructure, grant writing, sharing of resources, tourism marketing, websites, and clustering of similar industries they are, according to Gavin Brown, working to “create a legacy” for the future development of the region.
One well known project is Corridor K, which is a four-lane highway set to connect Asheville to Chattanooga. These plans would bring “connectivity” to the region, by building Corridor K through the remote mountains of western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. The move has been controversial, because it goes through some of the most pristine wilderness areas in western NC. Other projects include Mountainwise, the NC Vitality Index, Advantage West, Smoky Mountain Host, and expanding broadband connectivity across the region, through such companies as Drake Enterprises.
Important people in moving the goals of the Southwestern Commission forward are the aforementioned Gavin Brown, mayor of Waynesville, the chancellor of Western Carolina University David Belcher, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, under the auspices of chief and vice-chief Michell Hicks and Larry Blythe, as well as by entrepreneurs such as Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises in Macon County, contractors Phillips & Jordan, Inc. and Duke Energy‘s Fred Alexander, and conservationists such as those of the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee. Importantly, much of the planning that has been done for this agency has been completed by people who were not elected to their posts, and are therefore not accountable to the people of the region they are said to represent. Also, while proponents will say that the meetings that were held to discuss this initiative were open to the public, no one I surveyed in Haywood County had heard anything about the commission, knew that they were in region A, or had any real knowledge of what the Council of Governments are.
So, what are the advantages to living under the auspices of the Southwestern Commission?
Touted as a way of increasing and protecting our regional identity, linking communities that were once geographically isolated makes them stronger and more interdependent. This “regional compact” creates a regional self-reliance, according WCU chancellor David O. Belcher, who has called the 21st century the “Era of the Region”. Regional management also makes growth planned and organized, rather than haphazard and spontaneous. As Mike Edwards, of the Graham County Board of County Commissioners stated at the last Opt-In Summit, held May 7, 2014 in Cherokee, “rural prosperity depends on regional strength.” Advocates are supporting Farmers’ Markets and the Farm to Table movement, and counties that have less of a tax base are able to get the support of more populous counties, while attracting tourism to the region with the large amount of federal lands in those counties – mainly national forests. Land and water are protected, people are connected to resources, travel through remote parts of Western NC and Eastern Tennessee becomes easier, we protect our Native American and Appalachian heritage, and everyone has access to the internet.
Ideally, having a strong regional identity makes the region more economically viable and with potentially less dependence on big government, right? And ideally, our region’s best interests would be at the forefront of all initiatives. Of course, we all want clean water and to preserve our cultural and environmental heritage. We all want good jobs and to travel quickly across the area. Surely, if our region is to be well served by this regional council, these goals would feature prominently.
The potential problem with this scheme is the implementation of these policies.
First of all, there is no option to “opt out”. This is a progressive plan that builds on itself, but has no policy in place for backing out, and no contingency for ending this progression or sunset on the initiative. This seems irresponsible.
Most importantly, who is the overseer of this plan?
A state commission determines who is appointed to positions of power within the region. As mentioned earlier, local entrepreneurs and conservationists have powerful roles in the implementation of Opt-In, and they are chosen by elected officials, but not the electorate. This takes power away from the counties and the region, and puts it into the hands of the state. Also, there is potential danger in that much of the funding comes from the state and federal governments. Government money is not free, it comes from the pockets of tax payers. Equally as important: it always comes with strings attached, and therefore it actually guarantees less local control over where the money goes and how it is spent. Tied to this, certain companies and charities will get tax breaks for their part in this scheme, which leads to murky corporate welfare schemes (for example, see the advisory committee listed here).
Also, this puts both elected and unelected members of government in control of conservation and therefore in control of land use, which is a clear violation of personal property rights, can potentially restrict freedom of movement, and is dangerous to the concept of individual sovereignty. And while conservation is an important value, surely the private sector and individuals can do what is needed, without government’s intervention into the practices of farmers, hikers, swimmers, etc. At the very least, environmental measures and land use should be voted on by the people who live, work and thrive on the lands in question.
This brings us to perhaps the most glaring of potential problems with this initiative: its ties to a shadow government with no accountability among the people who are said to be represented. This can be seen by taking a step back from the Southwestern Commission and again looking at the bigger picture of regional leadership throughout the state, the southeast, and the nation.
We have seen how Regional Councils of Government exist across the state, and how here in North Carolina there are sixteen such regions. As might be expected, these regional councils are all subordinate to the North Carolina State Council of Government. You might be surprised to learn however, that every state in the United States is composed of similar regions, all of which answer to their own State Council of Government, and that those State Councils of Government are themselves subordinate to a regional Council of Government that has been established at the behest of a national commission – The Council of State Governments. So, at the national level Council of State Governments is divided up into five regions or spheres of operation, which are Washington D.C., Eastern Regional, Midwest, Southern Legislative, and West.
We are in the Southern Legislative Council, based in Atlanta and founded in 1947, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
The Southern Legislative Council:
Southeastern Legislative Conference
While the leaders of this Southern Legislative Council are senators and representatives from some of the states within the region, not one of them was elected to be a part of this council by the people who live within this region. They were appointed by the national committee, and the people who live in the region they represent know little or nothing about this organization. None of the leaders hail from North or South Carolina, nor from Mississippi, Florida, Missouri, or Texas. The “representation” here appears to do little to really represent the culture and people of the people within the region at all.
While having appointed committee members is not unusual for state and national government, these regional leaders however do have a direct effect on government policy. According to the SLC website:
“policy makers have vast amounts of information available to them at the click of a button, but only a limited amount of time to sift through it. Rely on the… Southern Legislative Conference to serve as your filter… Our funding source, primarily that of the U.S. states and territories, ensures that our research and analysis is driven by policymakers’ needs. As an independent, policy-focused organization, you can depend on a product of the highest caliber.”
The information they provide is to serve elected legislators in how to form the policies within their own states, and to serve as a conduit to pass on information from the council’s own overseers. As mentioned earlier, these regional leaders take their orders from the national Council of State Government, so the policies implemented by such organizations such as the Southwestern Commission, the overseers of our region, are not necessarily related to the needs of the local people at all, but rather a national, or perhaps global, agenda.
The affiliate committees that serve the Southern Legislative Conference, are exactly the same as those of the Council of State Governments. In fact, the SLC website links directly to the CSG website for the list of affiliates. These affiliate committees feature members who are again unelected, and serve on boards that are eerily similar to those which serve the UN’s Agenda 21.
The Southwestern Commission also appears to be right on board with the objectives of these committees. For example, consider the partnership between the Southwestern Commission and the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, and then compare relationship to Chapter 7 of the Agenda 21 initiative, and the UN partnership with the Wildlands Project.3 These projects have determined that human development is contrary to a healthy ecosystem, and suggest the movement of people into cities so that land use can be managed by those who know better. For example, consider the UN commission known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) which claims to be the “world’s leading association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development,” and applauds the fact that through its own efforts, “by 2050, two-thirds of all humans will be living in cities.” Initiatives in North Carolina against the ICLEI and the removal of rural people into cities have been taken to the General Assembly, to little avail. For example, see Bill Draft 2011-LB-428 [v.1] (04/12).
Which leads one to wonder where exactly the hierarchy of unelected officials who run our country and our region ends… And how high this shadow government, that is meant to represent us without our consent goes?
It is not hard to imagine that the vast majority of people in region A want a pristine ecosystem and a natural environment. Most people are chagrined at the pollution and mismanagement of resources we see and hear about from the nightly news. However, it does not follow that a policy maker in the UN better understands land management than the people who actually live and flourish in these ecosystems, alongside nature, and are completely invested in their success, as they have been for centuries. It does not follow that those people should have NO say in how to manage their own resources.
Part of the problem here is the belief that cultural and ecological conservation are mutually exclusive, and that government has a moral compass that allows it to dictate land use. Allowing government to legislate how people use their own land is a clear violation of property rights. Patronizing citizens into complying with government dictates is not the only solution to our environmental problems, and denies the intelligence and understanding of the American people. Most citizens do want to preserve our cultural and environmental integrity, and given the facts about how to do so, they would. Get cronyism out of politics and let the people determine for themselves where they fit in the conservation picture, let them devise their own creative solutions to problems which directly effect them.
The goal of creating a regional identity is a sound one, and the idea of having a network in Western NC that helps people achieve their goals using local produce, ideas and people is an alluring one. By creating a solid regional identity, Western NC could have a wider sway with which to promote itself, have greater buying and selling power, and the freedom to trade as a powerhouse within NC, but also across state lines with other regions especially in East TN, Northern GA and SC.
Conserving cultural and ecological heritage is ideal, and helps the region maintain what makes it unique. This is valuable not only as a celebration of a distinctive culture, but also in that it makes the region attractive as a tourist destination. However, the people of the region have found their own ways of doing this, without being told by a national committee of unelected and self interested bureaucrats what is valuable about the region and why it is special. Bureaucrats would have people believe that they want better for the citizens than they want for themselves. Advocacy is about education, and need not include government at all. People are perfectly capable of working together where there are needs and demands to be met, such as protecting local farmers and waterways, without intervention and overreach from the state.
For further information, see:
On the role of the NC Councils of Government: http://www.nccommerce.com/rd; http://www.ncruralcenter.org/; and/or http://www.ncregions.org/
For information on the county level organizational structures, see for example the Macon County Economic Development Commission at http://maconworks.com/, Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team at http://grahamcounty.net/great/great.htm.
The Community Foundation, Southwestern Commission, and WNC Alliance all came together to create the Mountain Landscape Initiative, with a “tool box” for implementing controlled land use. This “Mountain Landscapes Initiative and the Region A Toolbox” can be seen at http://sustainablecommunitiesleadershipacademy.org/resources/?page=13
Dr. Dan Eichenbaum has compiled a pretty extensive list of sources on the local implementation of Agenda 21, from a wide array of perspectives, available at http://drdansfreedomforum.com/resources-2/.
For The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8a-e, see
“Taking Liberty: How private property in America is being abolished.” by Michael S. Coffman, PhD in
Range Magazine, Fall 2005, pp. 30-38.