Citizens Must Know Their Place

In North Carolina, some state functionaries and politicians believe citizens must be credentialed by the state in order to be allowed to analyze and criticize certain state government plans.  Absent those credentials, citizen transgressors should be investigated and potentially face criminal penalties.  Would anyone be surprised that those politicians were Democrats?

The issues have to deal with road-widening and traffic signals in the city of Raleigh, the kind of local matter that is mundane unless it involves the streets your children travel.  The Department of Transportation denied a request by the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners' Associations (NRCHA) to add two traffic lights to a proposal that involved widening certain streets.  The city council had initially agreed with NRCHA on the need for the lights in the interest of safety but pulled that support when an engineering consultant hired by the city said the lights were not needed.

At that point, the NRCHA prepared its own eight-page, technically sophisticated analysis critical of the methodology used to determine that the lights were not needed.  An association member and computer scientist named David N. Cox submitted the report in December by mail to several parties, including his congressman, Democrat Brad Miller.  By December 28, after a complaint was filed by State traffic Engineer J. Kevin Lacy, the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors had opened an investigation of Cox that could lead to criminal misdemeanor charges because the citizen's analysis of proposed government action "should have been prepared and certified by a Professional Engineer" and was not, and because Cox was allegedly practicing engineering without a license.

There is no claim that Cox or anyone else involved with the report tried to represent him- or herself as a licensed PE or that the report was intentionally misleading.  It was clearly labeled as work "[s]ubmitted by the Residents of North Raleigh", and the organization had submitted other analyses of DOT proposals before this without incident.  However, statements made by complainants Lacy and Andrew L. Ritter, executive director of the engineers licensing board, about the allegations indicate a somewhat novel approach to the law clearly intended to stifle speech.

Lacy claims he filed the complaint because the NRCHA report submitted by Cox "appears to be engineering-level work" prepared by other than a licensed professional engineer.  From the Raleigh News & Observer:

"When you start applying the principles for trip generation and route assignment, applying judgments from engineering documents and national standards, and making recommendations," that's technical work a licensed engineer would do, Lacy said[.] ... Andrew L. Ritter, executive director of the engineers licensing board, said ... there is a potential for violation if DOT and the public were misled by "engineering-quality work" - even if the authors did not claim to be engineers.

The relevant statute, NCGS 89C, at (6)a is clear on impersonation of a licensed PE, but that is not being charged here.  To whatever degree (6)a could be interpreted by Lacy and others in such a way to criminalize the analysis of an engineering proposal by non-engineers, the wording of the statute itself undermines the allegation.  Section (6) defines the practice of engineering as:

Any service or creative work, the adequate performance of which requires engineering education, training, and experience, in the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences to such services or creative work as consultation, investigation, evaluation...

Since both Lacy and Ritter have referred to the report submitted by Cox as being of "engineering quality" and as "engineering-level work," and since Cox is not a licensed or trained engineer, it is obvious that the "adequate" performance of this particular work did not require an engineering education, training, or experience, much less a PE license!  The same holds true for machinists, welders, industrial mechanics, non-engineer inventors, and patent-seekers, and others who utilize and refer to engineering knowledge and standards routinely.  Licensed PEs are not the legally sanctioned holders of secret engineering knowledge not to be revealed to or used by others not ordained to the order.

The core of NRCHA's criticism of the DOT proposal was that to be in accord with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a federal document freely available online, the DOT should have used the expected increased flow of traffic after the road widening to determine whether additional traffic lights were needed, whereas DOT was relying on the existing pre-widening traffic flow.  It is an indication of the merit of the NRCHA analysis that the DOT has since agreed to "revisit the issue of full traffic signals after the road is widened."

Lacy, the DOT, and officials of the state of North Carolina are simply seeking to intimidate and threaten with prosecution citizens who oppose state plans and speak out.  Note Lacy's attitude:

"I'm not by any means saying don't send us more questions or more comments," Lacy said. "I'm not opposed to people questioning us." But he added, "Would we allow citizens to do an alternate analysis of the structure of a bridge?"

Lacy may be a fine engineer, but he does not understand basic civics or what liberty means.  It is not for the state to grant permission or to allow citizens to analyze and/or report as they see fit on any proposal or action of the state!  It is their right to do so!  It is not for state functionaries like Mr. Lacy to tell the citizens who employ him what he will accept from them in the form of comments or questions.  In the phrase "public servant," it is not the public that is the servant.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is no exception to that amendment that disallows the citizen from analyzing the structure of a bridge or a road widening proposal unless granted permission or credentialed by the state so as to have the right to do so!  Further, it is the safety of the residents of the area that will be impacted by a bad decision, not the safety of the functionaries of the DOT.

As to the unsurprising political angle, Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County GOP, said, "I think Gov. Perdue needs to investigate the chief engineer for his actions, not the citizens for theirs."  Spokesperson for Democrat Governor Perdue Mark Johnson called this putting politics in transportation planning, saying that engineers and not politicians should evaluate and decide traffic safety issues.  To the governor's office, residents of an area impacted by road changes and concerned about neighborhood safety are politicians.  Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, a Perdue appointee, endorses the investigation of the citizen.  Conti is also a big contributor to various Democrats, including Barack Obama and Congressman Brad Miller, to whom David Cox mailed the NRCHA report last December.

Remember in 2009, when elected politicians openly resented having to answer their constituents at town hall meetings?  The idea that those in government rule over their subjects by something akin to divine right increasingly permeates the bureaucracy.