Swett’s nomination should spur changes in UNC Board of Governors selection

CHAPEL HILL – Purnell Swett has a decision to make, and members of the State House of Representatives have some explaining to do.

The newly elected member of the UNC Board of Governors can take his seat on the governing board when his term begins on July 1. He can also decide not to accept his post due to his 1998 conviction for taking money from the school system he headed.

It shouldn’t be that difficult a decision. Swett should resign.

Swett, 72, was elected by the House of Representatives earlier this year to serve on the Board of Governors (BOG). As superintendent of Robeson County Schools, Swett plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of taking up to $13,000 in money from the school system. He received a 45-day suspended sentence.

House members claim they had no knowledge of Swett’s conviction. That includes Rep. Douglas Yongue, a Democrat who represents Robeson County, who nominated Swett to serve on the BOG. The idea that Yongue had no knowledge of Swett’s conviction stretches one’s credulity. Yongue is a former employee of Robeson County schools and previously served as its superintendent.

The conviction and case was public knowledge for those living in southeastern North Carolina. The Fayetteville Observer covered the case, as well as that of co-conspirator Althelia Locklear. It made mention of Swett’s conviction when following the BOG elections earlier this year.

Legislators, including Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, are hoping that Swett does not serve on the BOG so they can have an opportunity to elect someone else.

If Swett resigns his position, House members would not be completely off the hook. It is reasonable to question how legislators failed to fully vet Swett’s candidacy and probe into his background. At a time when the ethics of House members are being questioned, legislators should have taken more time to get as much information about the nominees as possible.

This appears to be another example of an appointment system riddled with politics and indifferent to the goals of the BOG or something. It leads to more controversy over the BOG nomination process. In previous years, legislators have been criticized for the handling of the BOG election; in particular, they have been charged with illegally limiting the number of nominees for General Assembly approval.

The Swett nomination only adds to the controversies of the past.

It also strengthens the argument, presented in recent years, that changes are needed in how members of the BOG are elected.

Almost two years ago, the Pope Center and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report that recommended major changes in the election of BOG members. In the report, “Governance in the Public Interest,” Phyllis Palmiero wrote that the governor should appoint all the BOG members.

Palmiero wrote, “The governor is elected by all the people of the state and it’s his responsibility to put forth a coherent vision of the needs of the state. As a single elected official, he can be held accountable.” Today, however, the selection is still made on local, not statewide, factors.

Palmerio also recommended a reduction in membership from 32 to 15. Currently, legislators are considering a bill that would increase the voting members to 33 by giving the UNC Association of Student Government (UNCASG) president the ability to vote on BOG matters. Currently, the UNCASG representative serves in an ex officio role.

A report last year by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research had similar recommendations. It said that the governor should appoint 24 of the 32 members, with legislative confirmation.

Clearly, it’s time for a change in the BOG selection process. Without change, the system will continue to be overly political and controversies will continue to develop in the appointment process.

But implementing that change may be easier said than done. As we’ve written before, it’s hard to see the legislature instituting a change when members currently hold all the cards – appointment, appropriations, and oversight of the UNC system.

For change to occur, it would need to be initiated by the governor. With Gov. Mike Easley term-limited, any change who come from the current crop of gubernatorial candidates. It will be worth watching to see if any of the candidates seeks to remove the appointment power from the legislature.