The three North Carolinas

The three North Carolinas

- in Fitzsimon File

When Governor Mike Easley first took the oath of office almost eight years ago, his goal was to create one North Carolina. It was the theme of his inaugural address and the focus of many speeches and policy announcements since.

The idea was a good one. The state was divided then between struggling rural areas and thriving urban centers. The people were divided too, those at the top of the economic ladder prospering like never before while more than a million people had no health insurance and one in five children lived in poverty.

Eight years later, one North Carolina seems no closer, though much of it isn't Easley fault, most notably the collapse of the national economy and the shrinking employment base in North Carolina's traditional industries. 

But lately it seems there are three North Carolinas, not two. There is still the one in which people are doing well and another in which even more families are struggling to make ends meet.

Then there is the North Carolina that Easley and to a lesser extent Governor-elect Beverly Perdue are living in, picking and choosing what to pay attention to and all but ignoring everything else, like people dying in mental hospitals and people victimized by crime because the probation and parole system is broken.

Easley remains a talented politician and effective communicator who trumpets North Carolina's model foreclosure prevention program around the country and offers a reassuring presence behind the podium at televised briefings when the state faces a hurricane or other weather crisis.

He explained his mandated budget cuts in a live appearance on the 6 o'clock news this week and presided over the lighting of the Christmas tree at the State Capitol, but has yet to say much at all about the ongoing disaster at the state's mental hospitals. Patients have died and staff members have been cited for neglect.

There have been allegations that a patient was raped. The federal government has suspended funding for the hospitals and inspectors say the new facility in Butner is not safe for patients.

That seems at least as big of a crisis as a possible hurricane. It is as important to families as the devastating foreclosure problem. Easley deserves credit for his leadership on those issues. And nobody expects him to solve all the problems immediately, but people expect him to respond to them forcefully and demand a solution.

He is in charge. It is ultimately his responsibility. The News & Observer series on the state probation system reveals startling mismanagement and lack of leadership that has put people's lives in danger. Easley should have been banging on the podium by now, demanding resignations, not to mention explaining how his administration let things get so bad.  None of that happens in the third North Carolina.

Governor-elect Perdue has been meeting with business leaders across North Carolina as she puts a plan together to respond to the state and national economic crisis. That's a good idea and so were the transition meetings her staff held on education, mental health, and other issues.

But Perdue herself needs to speak up about the disaster at the hospitals and the broken probation system. It is now her job to fix them and we need to know she is committed to doing it.

A public meeting with mental health and disability advocates would help. So would the announcement of a Health and Human Services Secretary who could get started now working with mental health officials.

It is time for her to tell us who will lead her Department of Corrections and what her administration will do to fix the problems the N&O has identified in the probation system.

People at least want to know she won't tolerate people dying in hospitals and dangerous criminals walking free because they were lost in an out of date computer system.  People need to hear her say it, loudly and soon. 

Perdue still has a chance to reassure us that she's not living in that ether world of the third North Carolina where some problems don't seem to exist and the buck doesn't seem to stop anywhere. But she doesn't have a lot of time and the problems can't wait.