by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
A three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel ruled this morning in favor of Lincoln County property owners who want a county permit that would enable them to build a solar energy facility. Judges ruled that county commissioners should have granted the permit.
While all three judges agreed on the outcome, Judge Phil Berger Jr. disagreed with his colleagues on one key point. The other two judges had agreed with the property owners that a county commissioner should have been disqualified from participating in the case because he had opposed the solar facility actively before taking office.
Berger’s concurring opinion challenged that finding.
I do not agree that the actions of a candidate or private citizen, prior to taking office, could alone establish bias and disqualify him from performing his duties as an elected official. Civic engagement has long been a hallmark of our country. Exchange of information in the marketplace of ideas is critical to fostering discussion and shaping the future. A candidate’s expression of a particular viewpoint made prior to taking office should not prohibit him as an elected official from discharging his duty to thoughtfully consider matters that come before him after taking an oath of office.
An opinion voiced in an unofficial capacity, however forceful or persuasive, does not in itself hamstring one’s ability to be impartial. In response to the Majority Opinion, the prudent candidate for commissioner will hide behind the phrase, “I am sorry, but I am not permitted to discuss my position on the issues or matters, which may come before me in a quasi-judicial setting.” Commissioner races will become as boring as judicial races.
Every elected official was at one point a candidate, and every candidate was once a private citizen with beliefs about what is best for his community. Candidates should be encouraged to state their positions on issues of public importance, and this Court should not preclude candidates from sharing their ideas in the public square. …
… Citizens should be knowledgeable about issues that have or will affect their community, and they should be encouraged to share that knowledge.Labeling an elected official as biased based upon communications made before taking office curtails public involvement and threatens free speech.