Wendell mayor’s campaign notes raise questions

mhankerson@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2014 

— Town officials stand by Mayor Tim Hinnant’s decision to use the town’s seal for personal use, including personal stationary used to ask residents to vote for Lorrin Freeman in the recent District Attorney election.

During last month’s elections, residents who live near Hinnant in town may have noticed a small note from the mayor. It was a card with the town’s seal on it and identifying Hinnant as the mayor.

Inside, the card had a simple request: “Please vote for my friend Lorrin Freeman for District Attorney. Thanks.”

Mayor Pro Tem James Parham said he did his own unofficial investigation into the cards after he heard from some citizens who were concerned.

As far as Parham could tell, all was clear with Hinnant’s casual campaigning. He didn’t use public money to print the cards and as far as Parham could tell, he didn’t violate any ethical codes or laws.

“(I was told) while it may look unethical, there’s a fine line,” Parham said. Parham said he spoke with attorneys and the State Board of Elections.

Hinnant did not return phone calls made to his town phone and refused phone calls on his personal cell phone.

“It is certainly a common practice for elected officials to endorse or oppose each other. ... (But) what’s ethical or appropriate is very subjective,” said Norma Houston, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government.

According to North Carolina Board of Elections campaign contribution forms, Hinnant didn’t give Freeman any money during her campaign. Hinnant’s son works for Freeman, who is currently serving as the Wake County Clerk of Court.

And at the state level, Hinnant didn’t overstep any sort of law, said Josh Lawson, the Board of Elections’ public information officer.

“There is no regulation that would prohibit the use of a municipal or state logo or seal,” he said. “Those are in the public domain, so folks can use them.”

Policy advises caution

Town Manager Teresa Piner said the town’s seal is available to all board members and the mayor. The Code of Ethics and rules of procedure guide town officials in how they use the seal.

“They’re elected by our citizens to represent our community and that is what the material is used for, to represent our community,” Piner said.

Wendell’s Code of Ethics doesn’t address campagining, but it does address the topic of advocacy. “When presenting their individual opinions and positions, members shall explicitly state they do not represent their body or the Town of Wendell, nor will they allow the inference that they do,” the policy says.

According to the code, sanctions can come in the form of a reprimand, formal censure, loss of seniority or committee assignment, budget restriction or removal from an advisory baord.

Piner said she would have to see Hinnant’s card before commenting on whether it violated the town’s code of ethics.

Houston, who regularly provides guidance to elected officials and state employees in several topics, including ethics, said as a general rule, UNC’s School of Government advises government officials to err on the side of caution.

“It’s possible to be perceived to be seen as acting as part of the body they serve ... especially in smaller jurisdictions,” Houston said.

“Whether or not (Hinnant) put the seal on the card, most folks would know he is the mayor.”

Houston said there is a state ethics act that provides guidance on how government officials should conduct themselves, but local elected officials are not covered by the act.

Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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