A crowd of about 40 Durhamites attended last night's InterNeighborhood Council candidate debate featuring the six finalists for at-large City Council seats, along with the mayoral finalists.
The entire debate is available for viewing on YouTube -- and it's a must-watch, we'd suggest, for folks who are planning to vote in the general election. After all, newspapers, PACs and blogs can endorse, summarize and critique, but ultimately this election is about finding the candidates each voter feels is qualified to serve and represents the values that they think should be reflected in Durham.
Incidentally, next week Lisa Sorg and I will be recording video interviews with each Council candidate. Look for those on the site late next week.
Here's a rundown on some of last night's highlights and key areas of discussion.
Public Safety and Crime
Most candidates agreed that Durham faced a perception of increasing crime and that, in the last year or so at least, crime had seen an increase.
Several of the candidates emphasized the importance of repairing citizen-police relationships. Ricky Hart noted that residents and police "do not have that trust, they do not have that fellowship" as car-based officers drive through communities, while Charlie Reece called to "recommit to a policing strategy that gets police officers out of their cars and walking beats in their neighborhoods."
The point was echoed by Steve Schewel, who noted that he frequently rides along with "young officers who are out there doing their best" and feel residents don't support them, and that "we need people out of their cars" to help cement positive relationships.
Both Schewel and Reece stressed the need for Durham's next police chief to focus on improving community relations.
Jillian Johnson and Robert Stephens focused on socioeconomic root causes of crime. Noting that people "who have meaningful economic, social and educational opportunities rarely commit crimes," Johnson called for reducing crime through a "broad-based economic development strategy" focusing on safe affordable housing, living wages, and education and vocational training, among other strategies. "The root issue of crime is poverty and lack of resources," Robert Stephens said, noting increasing crime rates while calling for economic investment in neglected neighborhoods, and support to help ex-prisoners get jobs after their sentences end.
Mayor Bill Bell concurred that crime rates have risen this year in particular, but also harkened back to the start of his term as mayor; compared to 2001, the per-capita property and violent crime rates have dropped sharply, Bell said, while noting this is of little comfort to those who have been victims of crime. Mayoral challenger James Lyons argued that public safety and crime had not been made a priority and would be a top focus in his administration.
Development, Growth and Affordable Housing
Strategies on development and affordable housing showed a number of areas of agreement but also some key differences between the candidates.
Johnson, Reece, Schewel and Stephens all expressed concern over a development process and Unified Development Ordinance they felt was biased towards those with the expertise and money to understand it, versus everyday citizens. Johnson noted her opposition to the General Assembly's elimination of the protest petition, and argued that Council members must "go out and listen to the community" on specific issues; specifically noting that there are "always people whose full-time job it is to promote" development, she noted her interest in listening to other voices.
Reece, an attorney, joked that he should be able to understand the UDO once he studied it, but that its complexity called for Council members staying focused on the needs of those who are directly impacted by development and are not UDO experts. Schewel concurred, noting Council members need to be "incredibly accessible" to those citizens impacted by development.
Shiflett -- who in several answers drew upon what he touted as a long record of civic activity and history in his responses (at one point holding up his resume to the camera) -- noted the INC's efforts to lobby the City to create a neighborhood advocate to support neighborhoods facing zoning issues, something he noted his neighborhood voted not to support because the role would have been based under the Planning Department, versus what Shiflett argued would have been a more appropriate home under NIS or the City Manager's office.
Bell argued that the UDO hadn't been built for developers, but was instead a product of the combination of City and County planning functions; he stressed what he said was his own record of always listening to citizens and deciding zoning cases on their merits, at the public hearing and not in advance, saying he wants "full information" from both residents and developers before making a decision. Hart made the most pro-development arguments in his response, noting that while he agreed with what others were saying, he didn't want to demonize development given what he described as the benefit of investment in the city. "We need long term investment that will keep us going when things go bad or down in the economy," Hart said.
Mixed-use development drew raised eyebrows from some on the dais, with Schewel and Reece both raising concern about projects that "shoehorned" residential in to allow for commercial developments like gas stations, and with Reece naming-without-naming-names a certain north Durham grocery store project that's made the news lately as being a perhaps questionable application of mixed-use principles.
Shiflett and Stephens both refocused the issue around creating mixed-income developments; Shiflett argued for incentives to help non-downtown neighborhoods including blighted shopping centers to be redeveloped, while Stephens focused on the need for affordable development in his response. Johnson's reply bridged both the incumbents' perspective on evaluating MUD on a case by case basis while also stressing the need to maintain access to affordable housing and relevant retail. Hart noted his personal concern hearing about million-dollar condos under development downtown as being inaccessible to an everyday working citizen.
While all the candidates supported the creation of affordable housing, the candidates' responses echoed some of the fault lines that appeared in a recent Council debate over the Jackson Street site.
Peoples' Alliance endorsees Johnson, Reece, and Schewel all noted their strong support for the Self-Help proposal advocated for by Durham CAN, which Johnson noted would include 100 units of housing affordable to 60% or below of AMI (roughly $40,000 for a family of four) next to the Durham Station transit center.
Bell in his answer rejoined his support for affordable housing, emphasizing the Rolling Hills project he strongly supported, but argued that the Rolling Hills model was a better one to avoid income segregation. Bell noted that Rolling Hills provides 100 apartments for below-AMI residents but also mixes in 40 market-rate units in the same site. Johnson, in her comments, argued that while the Self-Help proposal would not create a mixed-income property, it could help create a mixed-income neighborhood.
Shiflett and Johnson both pointed out the goal of having 15% affordable housing near a transit station as a federal development requirement for new systems; they noted that downtown today would not meet that requirement.
Reece and Schewel both spoke of the need for the City to use municipally-owned properties through direct development or negotiation with private developers to ensure that the City can add affordable housing units even as the market brings upscale housing to downtown. Reece said the Self-Help proposal was not perfect but was a step in the right direction.
Schewel -- noting, in the genteel phraseology he can often find, that his arguments did not carry the day with a majority of colleagues including Bell -- gave his ongoing support for the proposal. "If we do not use our publicly-owned land to support affordable housing, it will be an epic failure," Schewel warned.
Shiflett gave his support for the use of the Jackson St. site -- "what a perfect place to put something we call affordable housing" -- and added his support for both keeping the project transit-oriented and mixed-income if possible. He also shared his appreciation for Self-Help's offer to bring other developers in, which would presumably address questions about propriety. Stephens noted his support for the site's use for affordable housing, adding his skepticism about surveys showing satisfaction with bus service, and the importance of making sure buses run on-time to support workforce transportation. Lyons added his support, noting the personal and humanizing value of poorer Durhamites sharing in a successful redeveloping area like downtown.
The top-five vote-getters in the primary -- Mayor Bell, plus Schewel, Johnson, Reece and Shiflett -- all came out strongly in support of the proposed light-rail system, even while acknowledging their desires to see some adjustments to address local concerns raised during the draft environmental impact statement process.
Schewel called light-rail a "generations decision" that the community will look back on the importance of in thirty or fifty years' time, warning of an alternative of overly-clogged roads, while Reece called light-rail "the future of Durham." Both incumbent and challenger expressed their frustration over the back-room political machinations leading to a half-million dollar cap on state spending for light-rail, but both felt that bipartisan efforts could restore what Reece referred to as "sanity" on the subject come the spring.
Johnson, Shiflett and Bell all expressed their strong support for the project as well, though each noted their belief that some of the local objections on the project could and should be addressed. Shiflett listed the western/eastern issue on the Alston Ave. station and the ROMF maintenance facility location (currently, and controversially, on Farrington Road) as issues that could be addressed as part of the state funding solutions. "Think back to what we'd be like if we didn't have RDU [airport], if we didn't have RTP, or we didn't have Duke," Shiflett said in noting his support for light rail as a visionary choice.
For her part, Johnson agreed light-rail is a critical and positive project; she added her hope to see adjustment to station locations and synchronization of bus services, along with more information on Raleigh extension options, in order to prioritize services for individuals who rely on transit for work and public life.
Bell noted the unanimous support from City Council for the project, while adding that he too wanted to see local concerns that had been raised be addressed; he noted that citizen feedback in the DEIS project should help with that, with those concerns going directly to the Federal government as part of their review of the project -- adding that "if they choose to fund it, it will get built, assuming we get the funding from the other sources we've identified," namely the now-MIA state share.
Of the candidates earning PAC endorsements, Ricky Hart raised the greatest number of concerns, in forms that seemed to essentially couch support for the project on addressing the poor connectivity he felt the route would provide to areas including Durham Tech and NC Central. "In it's current form, I see it as a disadvantage to the southeast Durham section" of town, Hart said, calling for a project more inclusive of low-wealth neighborhoods.
Mayoral challenger Lyons stated he supported light-rail "to a degree," but felt Durham had sufficient other priorities and needs that it would not be something he would support at this time. Stephens agreed with others that the project was "visionary," but asked for a community impact and racial impact study to make sure the project's potential ramifications for citizens were understood.
Involvement and Experience in Civic Activities
Each candidate was asked, a couple of different ways, to talk about their level of experience in participating in civic life including governmental boards, and about their historic level of interest and engagement in City Council's activities.
- Bell: Noted his service in public life since first being elected to the Board of County Commissioners in 1972, and that he's served on most public and many private boards in the County. "Having been in Durham that long, you'd expect I would serve on that many boards, and it's been a privilege to do that," Bell said.
- Lyons: Noted he was a managing director of Keys to Life, Inc. (web site), a community organization. He also noted he volunteers annually with the John Avery Boys & Girls Club and each holiday season with Easter Seals, and has held voter registration drives.
- Hart: Mentioned his service as past chair and ongoing member of Durham's Human Relations Commission and on the Lincoln Community Health Center Board; also noted past chair work on the Durham Boxing Commission. He also noted his work as a volunteer football coach for troubled young men.
- Johnson: She noted experience largely as an organizer, beginning at Duke as an undergraduate organizing labor and anti-war movements and for the campus women's center. She cited her post-graduation work with the labor movement, and as a board member of the Durham Solidarity Center (link), and a co-founder of the Triangle Justice Coalition, among others. Johnson also noted her work helping to found the Occupy movement chapter in Durham and organizing local Black Lives Matter events.
- Reece: He noted his participation in a community justice advisory board focused on post-incarceration reorientation activities until the board was eliminated by an act of the General Assembly. Reece also noted his time as a precinct chief and activist in Durham's Democratic Party as as a volunteer and board member with the People's Alliance, including leading efforts to reduce the level of racial bias in traffic searches.
- Schewel: Noted his long involvement in Durham public life since coming to Duke as a student in the 1960s, including volunteer work with Urban Ministries and 21 years' service on the Durham Tech community foundation board; as president of the E.K. Powe PTA; as a former member and vice-chair of the Durham school board; and as a board member for WUNC and WNCU's radio stations. He also noted his work co-founding the Crayons 2 Calculators non-profit and, like Johnson, his willingness to be arrested at a Moral Mondays protest.
- Shiflett: The challenger verbalized his (on display) resume, noting experience as a board member and president of his neighborhood association, and as a delegate and past president of INC; serving on Durham's Emergency Preparedness Committee board and on the board of Durham Liberty Arts; as a longtime member and for six years the chair of Durham Businesses Against Crime; and a past-chair of Durham's Kids Voting organization. Shiflett also noted his work on environmental causes including the ECWA and Wake Up Wake County's water quality team.
- Stephens: cited his work founding Acts of Random Kindness (ARK), a group that helps to feed the homeless for Thanksgiving and Christmas and adopting fixed-income seniors. (We're looking for a link to the group and will update if we can find one.) Stephens also cited his work with Black Lives Matters, including organizing and leading a march on the Southpoint Mall last year. "I'm young, so we know how Durham seems to operate, where if you're not a little bit older and in the in-crowd, you may not get recommendations to these boards, so hopefully that will change after this election," Stephen added -- though given that Stephens notes that he has only lived back in Durham for a year or so, we might wonder if this has an impact, too.