Wrapping up our two-day series on the top stories in local government and politics, let's take a look at the top five stories from this year from the public sector:
#5: Ali joins re-elected Brown, Catotti on Council. After the primary election results -- in which Diane Catotti and Eugene Brown walked away all but shoo-ins for the November general election -- the only real question was, which newcomer would take the third open seat on City Council (one vacated by Thomas Stith in his run for mayor.) Laney Funderburk and Steve Monks, running as a GOP-themed team, failed to improve upon their primary showings, leaving the race between political newcomer Farad Ali and longtime community and Democratic Party activist/volunteer David Harris. While Harris carried support from progressive PACs and organizations in Durham, Ali secured the endorsement of the Durham Committee to win big in East Durham and carry the election. (Harris and Ali ran fairly even in North and South Durham, with Harris taking a moderate lead in west-central Durham near Duke's campus.) In the first few Council meetings since the election, Catotti and Brown have continued to join incumbent Mike Woodard as part of a 'progressive bloc' on Council, while Ali has shown an independence on a number of issues that could make him a key swing voter over the next two years.
#4: Baker resigns as City Manager. Although he earned credit from local wags and city-watchers for dramatically improving morale in City Hall during his short tenure as Durham's city manager, Patrick Baker's lack of management experience was a common theme in criticisms of perceived errors the city government made in the past year, including the lead-in-water scare and the Great Yard Waste Fire -- not to mention the announcement of structural issues with the East Chapel Hill Street parking garage, revealed shortly after the November election. Not long thereafter, the Council approached Baker, formerly an assistant city attorney, about his interest in taking the top attorney post upon Henry Blinder's resignation in 2008. Baker agreed, and will slot back into the Council-appointed attorney role after this budget year. In 2008, expect the search for a new city manager to gain enough attention as to make this year's police chief search pale by comparison -- and all eyes will be on the Council to see whether finding a manager with significant municipal management experience rises to the top of the wishlist this time around.
#3: Bell defeats Stith for mayor's seat in a record-setting campaign. Bill Bell faced his biggest political challenge in over a decade -- a telegenic opponent who raised over $150,000 towards his election campaign, the largest such spending for the part-time position in Durham's history -- and won by a whopping 16% over his challenger. Stith, a long-time politico in state and local politics and an affiliate of Art Pope's sprawling Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation conservative think tank empire, had frequently been on the losing end of 6-1 votes on Council and ran a very media-savvy campaign that tried to pin issues from purportedly rising crime rates to illegal immigration in Durham to city mismanagement on the head of the incumbent mayor. In the end, Stith's aggressive robo-calling and controversial mailings may just have backfired on the challenger, who may also have underestimated the depth of Bell's support in both the progressive and black middle-class communities... not to mention the difficulty of being elected with his conservative credentials in a solidly 'blue' community.
#2: Duke LAX case wraps; lawsuits ensue. The April 2007 declaration of the actual innocence of the three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexual assault at a team party in 2006 effectively shifted the national spotlight away from Durham -- but not the spotlight of the players and their families, whose attorneys have filed suit in Federal court against the city, the police department, and Mike Nifong, after the city refused the player's supposed $30 million settlement request (which also included external oversight of the police department.) Instead, look for the case to move forward in the courts in 2008 -- with the players asserting the existence of a conspiracy between the various arms of government to frame the three men for the falsely-claimed sexual assauty. Without a doubt, this will remain one of the top stories to watch in the new year, especially for Durham taxpayers.
#1: Unprecedented drought grips the Bull City. By the end of the year, Durham discourse over off-campus parties and the machinations of Nifong were replaced by a new vocabulary in Durham: if it's yellow let it mellow; premium water; water consumption rates in terms of million of gallons per day; low-flow showerheads. Yes, the drought continues to grip the entire Triangle, but especially Durham, whose days remaining of easily-accessible 'premium water' have dwindled under forty at this writing, and which will be relying on the old Teer Quarry and on water pumped from the low points of the Lake Michie and Little River reservoirs to stretch out a few months' more service. Rains will come eventually, as they always do; and the drought has pushed the City to add a better connection to Cary's water system in order to access the 10 million gallons a day Durham is entitled to out of Lake Jordan. But the lasting impact of this year's drought will be, if City leaders are wise, incorporate as well a deeper look at the sustainability of development and on the need to improve existing water supply capacity and to repair Durham's aging cast-iron water supply lines.