Controversy erupts over Durham Co-op referendum that would strip workers of own class of shares, governance

Update: Nov. 9:This story has been corrected to reflect that Michael Bacon is a former co-op board member, not a current one; also, voting on the board candidates ends Nov. 13.

Since it opened in March, the Durham Co-op has come to symbolize the ideals of democracy, egalitarianism and fair trade. Owned by its members—people who buy shares— the co-op, for many, is a rebuke to Whole Foods, which pretends to be progressive but is actually a large corporation run by a libertarian, anti-union CEO.

However, the co-op’s patina could be tarnished by a controversy involving a vote on its articles of incorporation. If the members pass a referendum on Sunday, it could eliminate from governing documents the ability of workers to buy a separate class of shares from consumers. It also would prevent worker-owners from electing up to two representatives to the board of directors. Ten people currently sit on the board.

The disempowerment of rank-and-file co-op workers runs afoul of the very values the store espouses, says David Roswell, an owner and investor. He also sells his pottery at the co-op. “The workers don’t want to lose this right,” Roswell says. “The co-op is taking away the tool for democracy, wealth building and control. That’s what distinguishes the co-op from Whole Foods.”

Consumer-owners have been voting for nearly two weeks on both the bylaw changes and on candidates to the board. Voting ends Sunday at the co-ops’s annual meeting. [Update: voting ends Nov. 13 on board candidates.] Critics of the change want the store to delay the referendum to allow for more discussion among the membership.

As the co-op ends its first year in business, traditionally a financially tenuous time for any start-up, employees who are not in management still do not earn a living wage. Last spring, workers were earning a little more than $9 an hour. (Bull City Rising tried to contact workers through intermediaries, but so far has been unsuccessful.)

Currently, the bylaws allow an employee who works at the co-op for six months can buy a worker share in the store. If workers were able to buy a separate class of shares, they could be enrolled in profit-sharing, which could supplement their wages.

“The line is that it’s not best practice to allow this,” Roswell says. “Just because it’s uncommon doesn’t mean that it isn’t a best practice.”

The best practice “line,” as Roswell puts it, comes from CDS Consulting Co-op. Based in Vermont, the consulting group advises co-ops nationwide on governance, marketing, finances and other operational basics.

Bull City Rising contacted CDS Friday at 1, but has yet to receive a response.

There is at least one other co-op that has a hybrid model, one that allows workers to buy a separate class of shares and have board seats: Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. In fact, during its inception, the Durham Co-op essentially copied the market’s bylaws. Chatham Marketplace did the same, and created a similar model.

“We looked at the incredible success of Weaver Street, then and now I believe the largest co-op grocery in North Carolina, and certainly one of the largest in the Southeast, particularly in its phenomenal employee retention, and felt that our mission as a co-op dedicated to serving central Durham included being good employer,” says former Durham co-op board member Michael Bacon. “Based on that work, we decided that we wanted to adopt the employee ownership plan, because despite the misgivings that some co-operative consultants had, we believed that this newer model that Weaver Street had developed had proven itself successful and wanted to emulate that.”

Continue reading "Controversy erupts over Durham Co-op referendum that would strip workers of own class of shares, governance" »

Development and cops: Live blogging City Council, Nov. 5, 2015

 It's 2:30, and Kevin Dick, director of the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, is making a presentation about the proposed development at the Jackson Street site near the Durham bus station.

KD: The takeaway from the Sept. 10 meeting was that the city could draft RFP for various types of development. We hope to elicit feedback today to see if we're on the right track. We also have a draft timeline. It would allow time for drafting, response, negotiation, the setting of conditions and considerations for station improvements.

Today's update would be in lieu of the Dec. 10 update we had planned. But we can come back then with something more detailed. The preliminary plat has been completed, and an appraisal will be complete in early December.

Jan. 15 is a goal for an RFP release date.

[December 4 is the proposed deadline for the city to present draft RFP for the project. However, it could take a year for the entire process—from RFP to bid award—to be completed.] 

A memo outlines possibilities for the Jackson Street project: All would contain a neighborhood commercial component and structured parking, plus:
100 percent affordable housing
Mixed-income, including affordable housing
Market rate and/or workforce housing

 The review process we're planning has us categorizing the various options, and having a scoring system to have proposals within each category to be scored. We bring that to council, which will then decide which option is most palatable to them.

Steve Schewel: Each one would be scored in its own category, and you would bring the highest score of each development option.

Bill Bell: I've heard from the majority of council members that they want to see mixed-income. If that's what majority of council wants why even go down the market rate path? I thought we had decided informally mixed-income, even to the extent we've discussed the percentage. 

KD: Basically how we interpreted the direction is to allow with flexibility and creativity.

SS: You're saying get rid of Option 3?

BB: Yeah, and we need to determine terminology, [percentage of AMI]. I'm going to be looking at how will it work, how will it be financed?

Tom Bonfield: We don't know how the financing will be structured. In February we'll receive final report from housing consultant and know what we'll be looking for there. I'm concerned that we will be arbitrary if we say a project has to be x percent affordable, x percent market rate. 

BB: When you say you want to have mixed-income, and you get into specifics about the incomes and the percentage of income ... you can have commercial stuff on it is great. The example CAN brought forth from Raleigh was excellent. That's what I thought people looking at. I think if we tell the developers what we're looking for we can see what they come up with.

Eddie Davis: I don't see a problem getting more information even if we don't use it.

BB: If I'm in the development and I know what is expected, then I can decide if I want to take my time to apply for the RFP. I'm not in a rush. The property isn't going anywhere. I'm not bound by any timetable. We should try this, and if it doesn't work, then go back out.

SS: I agree Mr. Mayor.

Diane Catotti: What is mixed-income? Is Southside?

BB: Yes, but Southside, there's a different ratio [of market-rate and affordable]. It lets developers know how to put together a financing plan.

DC: What's workforce housing? I'm trying to understand the difference between two and three.

BB: I suggest we take out the term workforce housing, go for percentages of income.

KD: Workforce goes up to 80 percent of area median income.

DC: I feel like you're about to get a lot of really good information from the consultant. You say, Mr. Mayor, you know what you want. But my question is Do you know what you want? We'll get information about how much affordable housing is within a half-mile of downtown.

BB: The consultant is looking at all of Durham. We're looking at Jackson Street. 

Continue reading "Development and cops: Live blogging City Council, Nov. 5, 2015" »

Schewel, Johnson, Reece earn solid victory in Council races; Bell trounces in final election

If you thought the general election would follow the primary's trends, then last night's election results weren't too surprising at all.

The People's Alliance slate of incumbent Steve Schewel and ballot newcomers Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece moved on to victory in the general, with all six candidates maintaining their order-of-finish from the primary round.

Schewel earned 28.1% of the vote to lead all candidates; Johnson, who put together a model ground-game campaign in her bid, followed with 23.4%.

Indeed, from the time the earliest precincts started to report, the only real question was whether we'd see a surprise for third place, where Reece (18.1%) bested Mike Shiflett (13.8%).

Reece beat Shiflett by 2,301 votes, according to provisional results released by Durham's Board of Elections. And nearly one-third of that lead (725 votes, or 31%) came from Reece's lead in early voting and absentee tallies, which accounted for only one-fifth of all votes placed.

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Durham's City Council election: which candidates are prepared to lead our city?

I'm doing something new this election cycle -- since tomorrow's vote is itself an unusual one in the recent history of Durham politics.

Outside of incumbent Steve Schewel, none of the other six finalists for City Council have experience in local elected office, and few have experience in the usual junior-varsity types of civic engagement. And, the depth of coverage of the usual outlets on this election has been perhaps thinner than we've seen in the past, save for the sheer number of candidate forums.

So, for the first time, I'm -- not endorsing, per se, but seeking to bring a lens of qualification. Based on candidates' answers to questionnaires, and the conversations I've gotten to have with them -- who is best prepared to serve on City Council?

I'd suggest that four candidates -- Steve Schewel, Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Mike Shiflett -- are the four who deserve your consideration tomorrow. (You are voting tomorrow, right?) More after the jump, but to summarize:

  • Schewel's depth of civic experience, outstanding service in his first term, and depth of vision for Durham, make him a natural and appropriate choice.
  • Reece, while lacking traditional civic board experience, has reasonable relevant experience, and articulates positions on the issues not dissimilar from the "pragmatic progressive" super-majorities on City Council in the past decade.
  • Johnson also lacks traditional civic experience, and some voters will be concerned that she comes from a full-tilt activism background and the Occupy Durham wing of local politics. But, those voters who want a greater focus on social justice, equity, and the needs of Durham's disadvantaged will find her an exceptionally bright, energetic advocate, and worthy of their vote.
  • Shiflett's long history of civic experience and his knowledge not just of Durham issues, but Durham neighborhoods and residents across class, racial and geographic boundaries, make him worthy for Council consideration. Those happy with Durham's current direction, and perhaps those seeking a Eugene Brown-molded replacement for the singular retiring Councilman, may prefer Shiflett to Johnson for their third slot.

Continue reading "Durham's City Council election: which candidates are prepared to lead our city?" »

Durham County Commissioners: parking, housing, office, retail on East Main


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So many times I have walked past the parking lot next to the Human Services Building and thought, "Is this the best we can do?"

The answer is no, say the Durham County Commissioners and, well, any other sentient beings.

The four-acre parcel at 500 E. Main, where it connects with Dillard Street, is Exhibit A on how to make a street as unfriendly as possible to everything but a car. But CitiSculpt, a Charlotte-based development company, has other ideas for that county-owned plot, which yes, include a parking deck, but also could incorporate a wrap-around of commercial, office, retail and housing.

"We need to move toward a more urban environment like the one inside the Loop," Chuck Watts, an attorney with the Banks Law Firm told the Durham County Commissioners this morning. The firm is representing CitiSculpt, which is also developing the old Hendrick's site into apartments and mixed-use. "There needs to be a significant change."

In the many discussions about the future of East Main Street, city and county officials and housing advocates have pointed out the availability of land on the this side of downtown. These parcels are owned primarily by the city, the county, the housing authority and a few churches. However, much of the land, including some parcels on South Dillard, is consumed by parking lots, which as Commissioner Ellen Reckhow remarked, "is not the highest use."

East Main, Ramseur and Pettigrew streets are the Next Big Thing, as an arts center is planned for that neighborhood, and Ponysaurus opened its brewery last weekend. The proposed light rail station would be situated at Dillard and Pettigrew streets. Oldham Towers, an 46-year-old Durham Housing Authority complex for the elderly and disabled, will eventually be converted to Section 8 housing. The DPD headquarters will be constructed (unfortunately) on East Main as well.

Office and retail rents are increasing in the Central Business District, to as much as $35 per square foot for new Class A space, rates that were unheard of until recently. East Main could be where the creative class seeks exile. "This is a very key piece of property," Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said. "It's right next to the future transit stop, right between where police and social services employees are going to work. There's an opportunity for workforce housing, a whole range of housing. We’re hearing that a lot of people aren't able to pay rent for retail and office downtown."

The back of the development along Ramseur Street would also need "activated," to use the new buzzword for "let's give people somewhere to go and a pleasant trip to get there."

There are significant timing issues to be addressed, Watts said, in that the neighborhood can't afford to lose the 404 parking spaces during construction. And no development plan for the lot—whether it's a private-public partnership or the county would sell the land outright is unclear— has yet been approved. However, Watts and the commission agreed any plan would likely involve community design charettes. (Let's hope they are more organized than those for the police headquarters.)

Downtown Durham, Inc. supports redeveloping the site, saying it is crucial "to connect the rest of our downtown to the center city. For a walkable and unified downtown community, we need to find the right mix of land uses. We need to draw in a broader community to make sure it is there for everyone, and not an island."


Meet the City Council candidates: Robert T. Stephens

Last week, Bull City Rising had a chance to sit down with five of the six finalists for Durham's three open City Council seats. We're bringing you our in-depth interviews with the candidates this week, ahead of early voting. We invite you to watch each and full -- and, to check out our commentary on each candidate's interview and perspectives, after the jump.

Robert T. Stephens is a Durham newcomer, having lived in Durham for a little less than a year. Stephens argues that his lack of Durham experience is countered by an understanding of what he describes as systemic oppression, particularly with his involvement in Black Lives Matter activism, his travels to Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere, and what he describes as an organizing role leading a march on the Streets at Southpoint Mall last year. We have a candid and frank conversation with Stephens about his experience and positions, his candidacy's heavy backing from Teach For America alums, and his advocacy for those he argues are left behind in today's Durham.

Note: the bottleneck in getting these interviews posted is the transcription and writing efforts; the previous posts have averaged 2,000 to 3,000 words. We're behind and in the interest of time, we're posting this interview without the transcript and narrative-- those will be added this evening.


On Why He's Running

Those who have heard Stephens speak at candidate forums have likely heard his very personal, difficult story of learning his father, a Raeford pastor, died from a heart attack after working to save neighbors' children from a fire. We asked Stephens to go beyond the personal call to service and talk about the issues that most concern him.

And Stephens' core issues of concern are clearly around economic and racial justice.

"When I got to this city, I found a city that was hurting. I found people telling me, hey, this is what I’m experiencing," Stephens said.

Continue reading "Meet the City Council candidates: Robert T. Stephens" »

Meet the City Council candidates: Jillian Johnson

Last week, Bull City Rising had a chance to sit down with five of the six finalists for Durham's three open City Council seats. We're bringing you our in-depth interviews with the candidates this week, ahead of early voting. We invite you to watch each and full -- and, to check out our commentary on each candidate's interview and perspectives, after the jump.

Jillian Johnson has made a big impact on the Durham political scene in the course of a fraction of a campaign. She placed a strong second to Steve Schewel in the primary -- trailing an incumbent, past school board member, and all-around four-decade political vet by only a thousand votes or so. And if we ribbed Charlie Reece for his ubiquitous mailers, I challenge you to find a street corner in Durham that doesn't have one of her campaign signs. (Johnson told Lisa and me during an off-camera moment in our interview that her young children, unsurprisingly, delight in seeing 'mommy' everywhere they go.)

But Johnson's embryonic political history -- she's been engaged in activist movements throughout her sixteen years as a Durham resident, but has not appeared to serve on any City or County boards, and hasn't participated in broad-based civic activities outside deeply progressive movements -- also have raised questions, both about her background and about the apparently extremely well-organized engine to bring a capital-P Progressive to Council.

So in this interview, we talk with Johnson about her positions on the key issues she's raised in the campaign, including affordable housing, gentrification and policing -- but also about the politicking that may have helped earn the PA endorsement and about Johnson's previous civic work.

Note: Our camera equipment failed on the first half of the interview; Lisa, who did a great job putting these videos together, has placed the last half of the interview first with the first segment an audio-only section at the end. We did check with Johnson to make sure she was okay with this out-of-order editing. Apologies for the technical difficulties.


Johnson's Decision to Run for Council, and Past Civic Experience

Johnson centered her interest in running for office squarely around concerns she has about the impacts of Durham's rapid change since she arrived at Duke in 1999.

"I’ve been hearing, in my community and just around Durham for a long time, serious concerns about gentrification in my neighborhood and in neighborhoods all around Durham. And I think it’s something that we’ve been talking about for a long time," Johnson said.

Continue reading "Meet the City Council candidates: Jillian Johnson" »

A Section 8 crisis in Durham: Too few landlords, too many tenants and a misdirection by the housing authority

This story was updated at 12:25 to add a comment from the Durham Housing Authority.

This story was updated at 2:45 to add a comment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This is a story of Durham's affordability crisis: Marian Spicer, a teacher's aide in Durham Public Schools, earns $20,000–$24,000 a year, not even half of the county's annual median income. That salary level qualifies her for subsidized housing, which would be useful, except that her former apartment complex, Foxfire, on the north side, stopped taking Section 8 vouchers, Spicer told the Durham Housing Authority board last night.

And if she doesn't find a new place that accepts Section 8 recipients by Christmas, she will lose her voucher, go to the back of a very, very long waiting list and become homeless.

"It's almost impossible to find a one-bedroom in Durham," DHA CEO Dallas Parks said. "We're not the solution. It has to be a community solution."

Continue reading "A Section 8 crisis in Durham: Too few landlords, too many tenants and a misdirection by the housing authority" »

Meet the City Council candidates: Mike Shiflett

Last week, Bull City Rising had a chance to sit down with five of the six finalists for Durham's three open City Council seats. We're bringing you our in-depth interviews with the candidates this week, ahead of early voting. We invite you to watch each and full -- and, to check out our commentary on each candidate's interview and perspectives, after the jump.

Mike Shiflett is making his second bid for a City Council seat; in 1999, he came in fourth in the primary and couldn't get enough votes to make the top three in the general election. It's 16 years later, and Shiflett came in - fourth in the primary, again. This time, he's doubtlessly hoping for a different general election outcome. Interestingly, in that 1999 race, People's Alliance president Diane Catotti publicly backed Shiflett, their nominee, while the now-defunct centrist-left Durham Voter's Alliance considered swapping their support to Thomas Stith after the primary when Shiflett said he wanted to see all the City-County merger details before giving the idea his unqualified support.

(Psssst, hey, all you kids with stars in your eyes and Instagram on those shiny phones of yours: Back before we had smartphones; hell, before anyone but realtors and doctors had cell phones; we used to talk about merging the governments. Oh, and how broken local government was, something the nouveau Durhamites have truly not experienced, you lucky dogs, you.)

In 2015, Shiflett didn't get the PA endorsement, but earned conservative and Durham Committee support he never would have garnered that cycle. Will it be enough to lead to a different outcome?


On Affordable Housing and Gentrification

In his comments on housing prices and the impact of gentrification, Shiflett's comments seem to look for a balance between concern for ensuring the presence of safe, affordable housing in Durham, while also celebrating the community improvements and investments that have led to some housing price increases in the first place.

"Affordable housing is a big issue right now," Shiflett said. "And for me, it's the history that I have in Durham," he added, noting his work with former city councilwoman and Durham housing advocate Lorisa Seibel in the 1990s on affordable housing issues, and more recently his volunteer work for groups pressing to include affordable housing in the planning around transit stations.

Continue reading "Meet the City Council candidates: Mike Shiflett" »

Meet the City Council candidates: Charlie Reece

Last week, Bull City Rising had a chance to sit down with five of the six finalists for Durham's three open City Council seats. We're bringing you our in-depth interviews with the candidates this week, ahead of early voting. We invite you to watch each and full -- and, to check out our commentary on each candidate's interview and perspectives, after the jump.

If you don't know the name Charlie Reece by now, your postal carrier does: the first-time office seeker has had a fairly ubiquitous presence via mailers, street signs and an active social media campaign. Like his fellow People's Alliance endorsees, Reece's platform includes a heavy focus on campaign themes of equity for all -- including affordable housing and preserving Durham's neighborhoods' character -- along with a focus on the importance of community policing. Reece, the general counsel for his family's contract research firm Rho, sat down with Lisa Sorg and me to talk about his candidacy and his stand on some key public policy issues.


Durham's Next Police Chief

Relative to the rest of the PA slate, Reece has spent more time talking about policing and community safety issues -- an area where he's focused before the race, too, given his connections to the FADE coalition that successfully lobbied Durham officials on changes to probable cause searches and other perceived inequities in justice.

Reece talked about the characteristics he wanted to see in Durham's next police chief, highlighting three:

  • Good experience with true community policing
  • Experience working in a very diverse city
  • Police-media relations expertise

While Reece didn't rule out his support for an internal candidate, he also mused that such a person might not exist, given what he described the historically out-in-front role of the chief as the seeming chief spokesperson as well, versus further developing the leadership experience of command staff. An external candidate would need help understanding the unique nature and neighborhoods of Durham, Reece said, but noted he hoped the city manager would select a person with strong management and public relations experience.

Continue reading "Meet the City Council candidates: Charlie Reece" »