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Transparency, accountability, and community: A conversation about the New Hanover Community Endowment with Harper Peterson

Former state senator Harper Peterson recently founded Heal Our People's Endowment, a nonprofit that's calling on North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to exercise more oversight and authority over the New Hanover Community Endowment. On this episode, we sit down to talk through his concerns — and what he'd like to see done about them.

Heal Our People’s Endowment

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Introduction transcript:

From WHQR Public Media, this is The Newsroom, I’m Ben Schachtman, thanks for joining us.

On today’s episode, it’s a conversation with Harper Peterson – chairman of a new nonprofit, Heal Our People’s Endowment. As the name suggests, the organization’s goal is bringing about some serious changes to the New Hanover Community Endowment.

Now, if you’re listening to this, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been following the story of the Endowment – and I don’t want to take the several hours, or possibly days, I would need to fully unpack everything that happened between the summer of 2019 – when the county announced it was exploring the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center – and now.

So, if you bear with me for just a few minutes, I’ll give you the highlights.

In late 2020 and early 2021, New Hanover County approved the $2 billion sale of NHRMC to Novant, took $1.3 billion dollars of public money from that sale, and put it in a private foundation, deliberately, explicitly engineered to keep it away from direct political accountability, strip it of the transparency required of government bodies, and to lock the money in New Hanover County alone – despite the fact the hospital had served, and was fueled by patient revenue from, at least a half-dozen more rural, less affluent counties surrounding New Hanover.

In 2022, the Endowment hired its first CEO, William Buster, and by the end of the year, it dispersed its first round of grants – $9 million worth of funding that was both less than the public had expected and also more chaotic, less strategic than people had hoped. The Endowment, for its part, promised to do better in its next round. 

When that next round came, late last year, the lion’s share of $53 million in multi-year strategic grants went to a healthcare worker pipeline program – over $20 million that went to CFCC, UNCW, the public school system, and the Chamber of Commerce. While the Endowment defended the program as being transformative, and addressing the deadly serious issue of nursing shortages, critics noted that the grant’s prime beneficiary was Novant. Other grants made that year were also criticized – as were the grants that hadn’t been made – specifically, a total lack of funding for affordable housing. Endowment leaders pushed back, saying that was a strategic choice – and that a big announcement in the field of housing was coming. 

Six months later, there’s been nothing on the housing front.

But there have been big announcements, although not ones everyone has been pleased about. First came the effective removal of Hannah Gage and Dr. Virginia Adams, two founding members of the Endowment, who had the endorsement of Endowment Chair Bill Cameron to back up their applications for reappointment. In a party-line vote, Republican New Hanover County Commissioners replaced Gage and Adams with Woody White and Patricia Kusek, both former Republican commissioners who had voted for the hospital sale. Officials denied the move was political, but many were unconvinced – and the lack of public conversation around that decision didn’t help. 

Attorney General Josh Stein, who made diversity on the Endowment board a requirement of approving the hospital sale, for expressed concern – Dr. Adams was, after all, the county’s only appointee of color – but Stein didn’t take any action.

Then, several months later, the Endowment announced that William Buster had resigned, effectively immediately. Endowment officials declined to comment further, but it was clear that Buster had been pushed out over differences in where the future of the Endowment was going.

Buster’s exit appeared to freeze the Endowment - which still hasn’t hired network officers for some of its focus areas, like education or public safety – and it ended the community engagement work Buster had been doing, from Chatham house meetings with key stakeholders to a promised series of workshops for smaller and younger non-profits that, well, never materialized.

A month after Buster’s departure, newly appointed board member Pat Kusek abruptly resigned without giving a reason. Now I’ve heard some interesting speculation on why, but I’ll save that for another time. I will say her replacement was appointed with barely a word of public conversation. More chaos, more opacity, more frustration in the community.

And just last month, the Community Advisory Council, a group of over a dozen members representing many facets of the local community, wrote a letter to the Endowment leadership, saying they had barely been tapped for their chartered purpose of providing expertise and reports on key community issues to the Endowment board. They’d been ignored. When we asked the Endowment about it, the board’s chair and vice chair declined an interview. They sent a statement, instead.

Attorney General Josh Stein’s office noted they were, again, aware of the concerns and were still looking into it – but, nearly a month after the letter was sent, they doesn’t appear to have done anything. Stein himself had required the creation of the Community Advisory Council as a condition of approving the hospital sale and the creation of the Endowment. But it’s not clear what, if anything, would prompt Stein – a Democrat who is entrenched in a tough campaign against Republican Mark Robinson for the governor’s office – to take action. It’s not even clear what authority the AG’s office has – neither Stein or his staff have responded to questions about that.

Okay. That brings us up to just about now, and my sit down with Peterson. Peterson was a vocal critic of the hospital sale, and a supporter of Save Our Hospital, a non-profit founded to oppose the process. It’s worth noting that the old Save Our Hospital Facebook page has been converted into the current Heal Our People’s Endowment page. As you’ll hear, it’s a throughline for Peterson.

It’s worth remembering, Peterson was a sitting state senator during the hospital sale, and his stance might have made him some friends, but cost him, too. Now, he’s more of a community organizer. I’ll let him explain what he hopes Heal Our People’s Endowment can do in more detail – but he’s mostly hoping he can get Josh Stein off the bench and more engaged with our community. He’d also like to see the Endowment be more transparent – even if they aren’t legally required to do that. And he’d like to see the Community Advisory Council actually do the thing it was created to do.

As you’ll hear, we get into all that. 

Now, ut’s no exaggeration to say the stakes are here are really high. Within a few years, the IRS will require the Endowment to deliver $60 million or more to the community, every year. That has the potential to do a lot of good, an almost unimaginable amount of good.

And the Endowment will be around for a long time. Technically, in perpetuity. So, unless the stock market completely collapses, or a comet hits the earth, it’ll be around for generations. And that means, relatively speaking, we’re talking about a very young institution – and there’s plenty of time to discuss, as a community, where we want it to go and what we want it to look like. But there’s also a risk that bad policy could sediment into the status quo, sticking us with problems that become more intractable with time.

Ok, here’s our interview with Harper Peterson.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.