What's next for 751 South -- and the County Commissioners?
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for August 11, 2010

BCR to Page: Don't snap at the watchdog -- it's what they're there for

I can't let last night's BOCC meeting go, by the way, without a comment near and dear to my heart -- the concerns raised by Commissioners over the scrutiny they've faced in recent weeks from the media, particularly the professional journalists covering Durham for the Indy and other outlets.

Commissioners Joe Bowser and Michael Page, and to a slightly lesser extent Brenda Howerton, minced few words in criticizing project opponents and the media last night for their campaign against the project and the reporting that's surrounded it, respectively.

The commishes seemed to play off comments from lobbyist and former Durham Chamber chair Steve Toler and the Chamber's public policy director John White, who both criticized what they called "innuendo" surrounding the 751 case. Page thanked them for their comments and seemed to pivot off them as he made his statements.

Page certainly had every right to denounce accusations he and his colleagues have decried as false.

But if I may, Mr. Chairman, there was a tone-deafness to your rebuke of the pro-jo's in the audience.

And as a concerned citizen, I'd ask you to think again about the role of the media, why they matter -- and how you and other officials can and should respond to the kind of investigations you complained about last night.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By way of background: as the commissioners revealed publicly during the meeting, reporters from at least two outlets (the Indy and, we imagine, the Herald-Sun) have been sniffing around allegations that one or more of the commissioners in the majority on 751 received unspecified benefits from the developer team for their support.

It was a quid pro quo allegation that's been in the rumor mill, and one that BOCC'er Becky Heron attacked head-on when she asked commissioners to disclose any compensation or incentives they may have received from the applicants.

For the record: BCR's heard the rumors, too. As I've told at least one reader who asked, we've not printed anything here at BCR on them because they've been simply that, rumors, and without any corroboration; they're mentioned here for the first time because the commissioners placed them in the public eye and discussed them in a public meeting, and because they were at the center of last night's debate.

As of this writing, no news outlet has run any stories corroborating or supporting the rumors, and it's there the matter sits for now at least, perhaps forever.

(And to those who wonder about my constant refrain on why we need professional journalists like Jim Wise, Ray Gronberg and Samiha Khanna working full-time as news gatherers, it's because it takes that level of time investment and resources to try to dig into such a story. It's for the good of the public that we have professional journalists reporting the stories, replete with ethical standards, editing practices, and a career to lose if they screw up.)

Taking the word of Bowser, Howerton and Page that the rumors are false, it is no surprise where frustration for the three commissioners is coming from. 

After all, as Howerton said, she came on the board to serve the community, not for financial gain. It's not hard to see where anyone in elected office would be upbraided by "innuendo" that turned out to have no basis in fact.

So, I'm sympathetic to how Page and his colleagues must have felt to have these stories swirling about, and to have Becky Heron call them out on the question after the public hearing.

With that said, I took exception to the anger Page showed towards the media, even addressing them directly with line of sight as he called out reporters for digging into his church and personal affairs.

Chairman Page, respectfully: a core mission of the local media is to be the public watchdog. 

Calling members of the media irresponsible for digging into claims made by skeptics misses an important point: in a democracy, anyone who steps onto the dais is agreeing to hold themselves to a higher standard, and to recognize that their lives will be open to far more scrutiny than if they were remaining a private citizen.

That's why public figures like elected officials are known as, you know, public figures. 

I am happy to take the three Commissioners at their word. 

But they'll certainly understand: in a world where Mike Easley is in front of a grand jury and we're still tainted by scandal after scandal in the General Assembly, the public expects their media to dig in anytime there's even a hint of wrong-doing.

Frankly, anytime you have accusations or rumors of impropriety, the light that good reporters can shine on those accusations is not a harsh incandescent of interrogation -- it's as cleansing and purifying as a UV light.

If after all the media digging that Page, Bowser and Howerton complained about last night there have been no substantiations in the press, and if no substantiations follow, then terrific. That's the public's greatest surety against wrongdoing in the public sphere.

Mr. Page, I don't worry about your leadership or that of other politicians when I hear rumors that turn out to false. In the line of blogging work I'm in, I hear rumors and smoke-blowing about pols and citizens all the time.

I do worry, categorically, when public officials carp on the media for doing what we damn well pay them to do.

Yes, I can understand your frustration at the rumor mill. But there would have been a more politic -- pun intended -- way to handle the frustration.

One could have said, quite simply, "There have been accusations floating around that public officials have not been acting above-board in the matter at hand.  I and some of my fellow commissioners have faced scrutiny from the media over these matters.  I forcefully denounce the rumors and innuendo that have surrounded this process, and while I feel it is unwarranted, I welcome scrutiny by the media into my dealings in this and any matter, as I have always conducted myself to the letter and spirit of the expectations of ethical conduct.

Mr. Page and fellow commissioners, the content on BCR is copyrighted. But I grant you a perpetual license to use these words or their derivatives. 

You can thank me later.

Just as the public at large will thank elected officials to remember that when it comes to what our mutual great-grandma Becky Heron likes to call "shenanigans," the role of professional, full-time journalists is to do the digging to make sure fair play is taking place.



I was surprised at the logic employed at the first meeting when one of the speakers asked the commissioners to detail any gifts they or their churches or non-profits had received.

Mr. Page asked if the speaker had any proof. When the speaker said "No" then Mr. Page said "Then No, I have not"

What would Mr. Page have said if the speaker had said "yes"

It was very odd. Understand that people are not always at their most eloquent under pressure, I still thought it was an odd way to profess one's ethical behavior.

Steve Bocckino

Those impassioned "I am not a crook" speeches last night were Blago-esque in their outrage. I observed Commissioner Page never denied any of the charges, just challenged questioners to prove it---reminds me of Gary Hart.

Kelly Jarrett

Thank you, BCR, for calling them out on this. The rebuke of the media was one of the lowest points in a BOCC meeting full of low points. Page's remarks place him in the company of Sharron Angle, the AZ tea party candidate who thinks the role of the media is to ask politicians questions they want to answer. What I say to Page, Bowser, and Howerton--if you can't stand the heat . . . . For as you rightly note, BCR, media scrutiny comes with the territory.


You need Teflon skin to serve in public office - it always surprises me when politicians take offense to public scrutiny, questioning and (God forbid) criticism. I am grateful to professional journalists who take the time to cover in-depth an important public issue.

Kelly Jarrett

From today's Herald-Sun: "Page also turned aside an attempt by Reckhow to force a postponement of the vote on the grounds that the developers on Monday had submitted last-minute changes [and] . . . offered to rewrite several concessions they offered in writing to build support for the project.

The concessions -- which Page twice said he hadn't read -- " Excuse me? He didn't even bother to read the "concessions" before voting? Isn't that part of his job?

Eugene Brown

good piece, Kevin. two quotes: "Go ahead,put a tail on me" Gary Hart,1987. (before the Monkey Business affair became public)
"We have met the enemy, and it is the press" Pogo (altered for the occasion")


New motto for the county - Durham: It may not pass the smell test, but it's legal.


actually, the entire 751 South rezoning case has highlighting one of the major negative consequences of the decline of mainstream, daily newspapers. The Indy and the Herald-Sun did a fine job covering this given such limited resources. But one has to wonder what would've been found in an age where newspapers had the resources to do some time-intensive and extensive investigative journalism.

Liz Pullman

Durham needs some new signs along the highways at the county lines.
"Welcome to Durham, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of K&L Gates and their Clients"

Kelly Jarrett

@Liz: Maybe we'll get them on flashing electronic billboards.


I happen tobe changing channels last night and came across the board meeting. While I agree it was contentious. Another point should be made that some board members were simply asking that the media fairly scrutinize everyone on the board, not just certain board members who happen to be in favor of this 751 project. So I think there is enough blame to go around. Including the fact that the two opposing board members of that project were just stalling and had no intention of voting in favor of this project in the first place...

Kevin Davis

@Gee -- if Reckhow or Heron were similarly scrutinized I hope they would accept it with the grace I wished Page had shown. We should expect nothing less.


Were was all the concern for the media doing their job when a large segment of them agreed to unethically implement tactics to support Obama? I believe that it is only now because of who you want them to go after. Hypocrisy is unattractive.


@ Trinityrez,
you mean like asking sarah palin what kinds of books and newspapers she reads? that wasn't particularly hypocritical. like everyone is saying: if you are in the public eye, expect to be held to a higher standard, whichever side your on. that's what the media are here for. thank goodness the media are still looking for obama's birth certificate, i hope they find it some day.


Just because the county commissioners had their minds made up in support of the 751 project, and just because they don't handle wild accusations from desperate opponents looking for the "angle" so well entrenched in the tactics of local media (including resident H-S cartoonist), doesn't mean they performed any quid pro quo for the developer.

Just because opponents, local media, including our thorough hard-working blogger, don't call out the hypocrisy of Heron and Reckhow who have been eloquently, though not quite effectively, using populist rants and parliamentary tactics to delay and obstruct the chairman in front of the TV camera--nearly as good as any perennial blow-hard in the US House in front of an empty chamber on C-SPAN--when said commissioners could not have discussed the last-minute changes BEFORE the public meeting, doesn't mean the opponents could have applied fair treatment and criticism to their allied commissioners. (Sorry for the long run-ons)

I too am concerned that any commissioner would vote on anything important unless he or she read the proposal. That doesn't mean you have to read the entire book front to back, you just need to get the Cliff Notes version of any changes to make an informed decision. I would again criticize Heron and Reckhow for asking stalling questions of legal and parliamentary nature in a public meeting, when those questions could have been answered before going on TV. It was clear to me that Heron, Reckhow, Bowser, the organized opponents, and the usual supporters from the black community were just trying to rally their supporters using tired, worn out populism and rhetoric. I'm sorry for the one in the middle who was just trying to weigh pharaoh's heart and make a good decision based on facts which are part of a bigger, more complex picture.

What I witnessed was a chairman trying to be fair to both sides, impatient with stalling tactics and repeating points from opposition that had no further effect in moving the decision to either side. You had two commissioners who covered their eyes, ears, but not mouths, who would not support 751 no matter what changes were committed or promised, and no matter what expert testified in support. Page knew this was going to happen before the meeting started. He wanted nothing else to get this thing over with, vote it up or down, and move one. His only problem is that his impatience and desire to be equitable tend to collide in politics. Bowser is plain pro-growth. That doesn't mean he is anti-environment, he just prefers to put people first, especially those who have been hurting from the down economy. Howerton tried to work from the middle, and gets called a "heretic" for not making up her mind in the beginning. In the end, she saw the light, and knew it wasn't the freight train opponents made it out to be, and voted to approve.

Steve Bocckino


I think you are redefining the word "hypocrite."

Hypocrisy is delaying the bollboard vote for no reason, while rushing the 751 vote before the commissioners had a chance to read new information.

I don't see how you can call Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron hypocrites. They have been consistent in their views and votes for many years. When they tried to uphold long-established policies regarding protest petitions and new proffers last night, they were overruled by Commissioner Page, who then admitted to not even having read the new commitments.

Doug Roach

Thank you, Kevin, for your most thoughtful post.
"...an important point: in a democracy, anyone who steps onto the dais is agreeing to hold themselves to a higher standard, and to recognize that their lives will be open to far more scrutiny than if they were remaining a private citizen..."
Well rendered and a lesson to all in public office as well as those who place them there. We constantly need to be diligent in questioning our "public servants" about their interests in certain matters and whether the public interest indeed rises above their personal one.
As for GL and his rant, I agree with Steve that the matter that should have been postponed last night was the one where the County Attorney had yet to make his decision and the plaintifs had yet to put their alleged altered proposals in writing. I find it somewhat disingenuous for Commissioner Page to preside over the vote on a proposal that he had not read and then to berate the local print media for calling him out on doing his job with some sort of integrity.


@GL: What meeting did you attend? Page had no intention of being fair and holding an open meeting. He had his mind made up before he walked into the room (so much so that he didn't even have to read the proposed changes before voting to pass) and rudely and self-defensively ran the meeting. Bowser puts nothing first but his own self-interest, his ego, and his cronies. And they both knew Howerton would vote with them before they even walked into room. I have found Page's behavior at the last two meetings especially bumbling and galling. And the attorneys & developers weren't "angling." Puh-lease.


Don't think I'm holding Page up to be a decent parliamentarian, quite the opposite. What might appear to me to be an honest attempt at keeping control and order in a raucous meeting, is poorly excecuted. My point is that none of the other members, other than Howerton, made any attempt to help him keep it civilized and on point. Reckhow and Heron already made up their minds as well before the meeting, and no amount of mumbling "that's not how we did it before" just shows disrepect and hypocrisy. I can't understand how any reasonable person didn't see it. I guess when activists are set in mind, hearing and vision tend to suffer.

If you believe Page or some other commissioner has something to hide that's unethical or shows a direct link to K&L Gates, I can't change your mind. You believe guilt before innocence, "if it stinks, then...if the shoe fits, then,..." and so on because the problem is epidemic across politics. Keep looking for the truth, but don't be a hypocrite and let the details of a development proposal or zoning or planning matter that has citizens up in arms take a back seat just because it's easier to accuse and disrepute someone.

To me, that's what happened. It happens all the time when complex ideas get drowned out because some speaker makes an allegation, a politician shows a little anger, the media pounce, and all the hard work of either side is thrown in the toilet when some waffling board member is tipped to vote on something just to get it over with. I didn't care about how Reckhow ran things, Page runs things now. If he wants to hear from the public first, the lawyer last, vote tonight, next month, it doesn't matter unless it's clearly illegal.

I can't say what is really behind a vote, other than it could be for reasons that were just philosophical. Some local leaders might be tiring of the constant opposition from the same group of liberals that show up at public hearings, the same neighborhood groups, the NIMBY's who can't tolerate the free market in place of socialist central planning, year after year, in some strange attempt to make Durham look like Portland, OR. Not that some of that wouldn't be a good idea, but when you give any side too much of what it wants, they keep coming back for more concessions.


No bb I am referring to the now discovered list server, Journo-list, in which journalist have been shown to agree to use tactics against anyone not supporting Obama. One of the tactics agreed to be used was "just call them a racist." Integrity and journalism...is there such a thing.

I can understand if you have not heard of this investigative piece because the MSM is not known for reporting certain things that do not support certain individuals.

MoHeadHills Rez

As they said in the heyday of the corrupt Nixon, "Follow the money." It was reported in the January 13, 2009 edition of Indy Week that Brenda Howerton received $3000.00 (almost a quarter of her total) from individuals associated with Southern Durham Development. While I don't understand the rules concerning the reporting of political donations, both Joe Bowser and Michael Page received monies in the last quarter of their campaigns, which for whatever reason, were not required to be reported. What is obviously needed here is more transparency, but I suppose that would lead us back to the same 3-2 voting.

Coming soon to the digital billboards near you:

" Durham County- Pay to play and have your way!"


@ Trinityrez,
You're coming off a lot more conspiratorial than I thought you were. I question the veracity of a lot of stories routed thru the likes of andrew briebart. he's got a pretty clear agenda. sorry to bother everyone else with this aside.


@GL: Your constant swipes at "NIMBYs" in Durham are way off base. People in Durham have supported lots of innovative development projects--and there is actually a history of success, even regarding large-scale, dense projects (I'm thinking Station Nine, Ninth Street North) where developers actually meet and negotiate with the community in the planning phase of their projects. Neither of these projects qualify as NIMBY. What we're tired of is going through the charade of developing long-range growth plans and then watching developers come in, wave a little money under BOCC noses, and get approval for projects that clear-cut acres, saddle city residents in the developed core with the expenses of subsidizing all the new services (schools, fire, police, libraries, parks, water/sewer) to these developments on the fringes--while seeing great swathes of acreage sit un-redeveloped near the city core. And all these new, "mixed-use," "upscale" developments: vanilla strip malls full of the same mix of discount, big-box stores you can find in any suburb. Promises--like all talk--are cheap.

As a Durham resident living in the developed urban tier--I would like to see more redevelopment where infrastructure already exists. Then, maybe some of the services that have been deferred or denied in my neighborhood (street repaving, park replacements, a library branch, waterline repairs, more funding for the existing schools) could happen instead of directing all the monies out toward the fringes to support big projects like 751 which will only--and if you're honest you'll admit this--serve to draw even more development into the undeveloped empty spaces that now exist between it and the rest of Durham.


Nicely put kikki.

Progress? Hardly.

yeah what Kikki said above.

Sprawl creates LARGE problems. period.

let's solve current problems, not amplify them.

Sadly, there seem to be a significant number of pawns around here with positions of influence (and limited long-term thinking skills) intent on spreading more of the same bullshit that makes this area worse and uglier with each year.

Needed: More people to get involved in understanding the importance of local elections and paying attention to the issues coming up.

Kevin Davis

@Kikki: The debate here is spreading over a couple of different articles, so I'll refer to the "751 South - what's next" post for a fuller treatment -- but I do think it's inaccurate to consider growth in South Durham as falling automatically into the category of "sprawl."

Yes, the I-40 corridor is far from Durham's core -- but it's the spine of RTP and the UNC complex.

As far as I'm concerned, we need zero new development north of I-85. But I think development done right in South Durham is actually essentially to growing the Triangle and Durham in a "green" direction, and in maintaining the economic viability of RTP.

Steve Bocckino


If you don't think growth at the Chatham County line is sprawl, you've redefined the term.


@BCR--I understand your point. But I think Steve is right on this development. Its not that its in south Durham . . . its that its barely in south Durham. Way out at the edge. Begging for more development all the way out to the edge. The location undercuts so many of the smart growth arguments--most especially the ones about existing infrastructure. That doesn't even address the watershed issues--and the unpalatable way the watershed boundaries came to be redrawn.

Kevin Davis

@Steve: First, I should note that I am not taking a position on the particular project per se, nor the segment of 751 right by the County line.

What I am saying, though is that I do not think you can automatically chalk any growth in the I-40 corridor up to sprawl. I mean, look at the history of Parkwood. It was built in the middle of nowhere precisely because it was adjacent to RTP, to provide workers at the Park with close access to residences.

In the localized picture, Parkwood is a far sight from Southpoint. But in the big picture, it is a couple of miles.

To me, there has to be growth in residential units around the Park somewhere. I do not know the WQ impact of Brier Creek -- though I have long heard it flows into the Neuse south of the Raleigh intake, which is more an issue for drinking WQ than river health, but I digress -- but that location is a smart one for denser growth, near the airport and RTP.

Ditto Morrisville, where residents in recent years have fought for initiatives like no new rental housing or even city preservation of wide swaths of land to be held undevelopable in perpetuity -- with some advocating, I understand, that their property values would rise if supply of housing in Moville were constrained by such policies.

Hey, that sounds a lot like Boston, where I spent time before coming to Derm. And in Boston, large-acreage requirements means lots of people commute from way-far-out around Route 495 to make it into the City. Well, that and town-school policies so de facto racist they make Ron Margiotta look like a freedom marcher, but I digress.

You ask me how I define sprawl. I define sprawl as putting residential units in isolated geographic areas that lack a local job base other than low-paid service sector jobs like grocery stores, such that the vast majority of working residents have to commute long distances to work.

To me, Mebane is sprawl. Burlington is hella sprawl. Clayton and Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs are sprawl. People commute from Henderson and Oxford to Durham, too. Sprawl. Heck, I know of someone who drives down from Lk. Gaston to RTP five days a week. Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl.

All those sprawl-icious trips in single-passenger vehicles continues our fossil fuel dependence and is generally a bad thing.

In that light, I am not prepared to say any new growth south of I-40 is sprawl. That doesnt mean all growth is good growth.

But then, we are planning to put a light-rail line on the NC 54 corridor, just to the west of Jordan Lake. That supposes density on that side of the lake, right?

Again: I am decidedly not saying this as a statement of support on this particular project, which is way denser than projects like Meadowmont and Southern Village.  But I do disagree with calling South Durham growth an automatic case of sprawl.

By the way, as readers will remember from the Duke Forest high school location, I raise the same eyebrow about calling smartly-done development in Duke Forest sprawl, given that the Duke University/Hospital/VA supports nearly 50,000 jobs, and its a heck of a lot greener for folks to live 2 miles from work than 20 miles or 50 miles.


@BCR I just did a quick Google mapping. Chancellor's Ridge (used for approximation) is 6.8 miles from 12 Davis Drive (RTP Headquarters) and 5 Points downtown Durham is 8.8 miles. And 751 South will be at least 104 feet further west :)

That makes RTP proximity a hard sell in my book. (Not that you were selling it.)

I think many people opposed to this development, among many reasons, felt development should be filling in where existing infrastructure lie - not expanding it. It's not like we're super-dense from downtown to RTP.


bb it was Tucker Carlson that broke this hidden gem. But I understand if you do not trust anyone on or from MSNBC. I mean look at the fools they have on their network.

Do not worry no one is going to change their view of Obama. I mean if anyone believed that he went to that church for 20 years and that Wright was a mentor and he says he does not share the pastors view nothing would change their minds. Some people are just blinded from reality when they have a deep seated ideology.

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