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There were times over the past four years when meetings of the Durham Board of County Commissioners seemed more like reality television than an orderly convening of elected officials. (Oh yeah, it is reality television: The circus maximus was broadcast for posterity on the public access channel.)
There was Michael Page, the mercurial board chair. There was Joe Bowser, who called for a Department of Social Services investigation—one he asked to call off once it became clear that the report would allege that he tried to influence hiring decisions at two county departments.
There was Brenda Howerton, whose attention sometimes seemed disconnected from the matters at hand.
There was longtime commissioner Ellen Reckhow, somehow holding herself together, calm like the eye of a hurricane. And there was Reckhow's cohort, even longer-time Becky Heron, raising hell and spitfire with the board majority until she resigned because of illness.
Beyond the spectacle, there are real implications of the commissioners' actions, most notably their approval of the rezoning for the 751 South development, a controversial large, mixed-use community planned for the sensitive Jordan Lake watershed. This will be the board majority's legacy. (Reckhow and Heron were the dissenting votes.) The handling of, and support for, this potentially environmentally damaging project is why we are endorsing no one from the board majority in this contest.
Instead, we're looking for a combination of a fresh start and institutional knowledge.
Thus we enthusiastically endorse incumbent Ellen Reckhow and newcomers Fred Foster Jr., president of the Durham NAACP; Wendy Jacobs,who served on the County Planning Commission from 2005–2011; and Duke University biology professor Will Wilson. We are not endorsing a candidate for the fifth seat.
Reckhow has served on the commission for 24 years, six of those as chair and 12 as vice-chair. She has often been the board's voice of reason. Reckhow has used her governmental and organizational expertise and leadership on the Triangle Transit Authority Board, of which she is chair, as well as other intergovernmental bodies.
Reckhow is a progressive and has a firm grasp of the county's financial obligations and its quandaries. Her top priorities are education—closing the achievement gap—sustainable economic development and public safety.
In her questionnaire, she identified a principled stand she would take even if it were unpopular with voters: city-county consolidation. It is a touchy issue, but considering the duplication of services and the budget problems at both the city and county, consolidation is worth discussing.
Foster has shown leadership in his role with the NAACP. He also is active in the Durham Democratic Party and served on the executive board of Operation Breakthrough, a nonprofit that helps low-income families in Durham.
He describes himself as a liberal Democrat whose priorities incude jobs, economic development and environmental protection and regulatory enforcement.
Foster opposes Amendment 1 because, he wrote in his questionnaire, "it violates everything that I have fought against since becoming the leader in Durham for civil rights."
Foster does oppose sales taxes as a way to generate new revenue for Durham Public Schools and mass transit. We disagree with him on this point, but his other bona fides outweigh our diversion of views on this issue.
Jacobs' resume of public service is distinctive. In addition to her years on the Durham Planning Commission, she has been active in neighborhood groups, environmental projects, parks and land preservation. She has a deep knowledge of the county's complicated planning issues and documents, including the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Unified Development Ordinance. It was this knowledge that led her and many fellow planning commissioners to recommend that the county commissioners deny the rezoning of 751 South. They didn't.
Her priorities are reducing the poverty and unemployment rates in Durham; addressing the problem of disconnected, low-achieving youth; and land use and transportation. She supported the sale tax increases for education and transit. She also opposes Amendment 1.
Another environmental advocate, Will Wilson has served on many county boards and committees, including the Urban Open Space Plan Advisory Committee and the Durham County Farmland Protection Advisory Board. The latter group is especially important for residents of Northern Durham County, which is rural. Without a diligent advocate on the commission, their concerns unique to rural residents can be overlooked.
Wilson's detailed questionnaire listed as his priorities smart growth, poverty and the financial ramifications of charter schools on Durham Public Schools. Wilson sees some potential positive missions for charter schools, but he rightfully is concerned about how charters that pull the best students from DPS could "harm the broad mission of a public education to help all children equally because it leaves fewer resources for DPS to deal with the most challenging students."
The other candidates have impressive professional résumés but lack the experience needed at this crucial time: Dilcy Burton, a lawyer; Anita Daniels, interim director of Durham Center Access; Larry Dixon, a retired county solid waste division supervisor; sheriff's deputy Rickey Padgett; John Owens, who works in the technology sector; and Elaine Hyman, who is retired from the county's human relations department.
We enthusiastically endorse incumbent Leigh Bordley, a key member of the school board since 2008. The former executive director of Partners for Youth, a teen mentoring program, she has served as a bridge between the white and African-American members of the school board.
At one time, the school board was a fractured institution, its meetings notorious for their combativeness. That is no longer true, even though there have been differences within the board and with the Superintendent Eric Becoats over, for example, the wisdom of redirecting $40 million in bond money, originally slated for a new high school, toward infrastructure and technology upgrades. Last February, the board voted 4-3 against Becoats' recommendation in order to buy more time for community input.
We think Bordley can also deftly navigate the board through the district's financial issues as additional charter schools open in the county, diverting students and funding from traditional public schools.
Like the swallows that return to San Juan Capistrano each spring, John Tarantino's name reappears on election ballots every election season. The former secretary of the Durham County Republican Party has run (unsuccessfully) for elected office at least three times: City Council 2009, State Senate in 2010, City Council in 2011. What makes John run? We don't know. He never turns in a questionnaire.
It's time for a sea change at the Orange Board of County Commissioners and we can't think of two better candidates to do the paddling for District 1 than Mark Dorosin and Penny Rich.
Both candidates are keying on transit, economic development and trash as the most important issues facing the county.
Each has experience serving on town government, something that is lacking on the current board. Dorosin served on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen from 1999–2003. Rich is a Chapel Hill Town Council member.
With Orange County's trash plans still in limbo even as the Rogers Road landfill is set to close in June 2013, now is the time to elect leaders who have the vision for how to responsibly dispose of the waste.
If we invented our ideal candidate for this office, his or her résumé would look similar to Dorosin's. He's the managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, where he works alongside Julius Chambers. Dorosin was instrumental in the successful campaign to rescind the anti-lingering ordinance in Carrboro that prevented day laborers from congregating on a public street corner during midday hours. He knows the issues facing small local businesses. He owned Hell, a favorite Rosemary Street watering hole, for a decade. He also worked as a loan officer at Self-Help Credit Union.
Like the other candidates, he opposes Amendment 1, but he takes it a step further by stating that if the referendum passes, he would instruct the county to continue offering benefits to same-sex couples and those in civil unions until the federal government says otherwise.
We also hope to see Penny Rich, who owns a catering business, take on greater leadership roles, which started when she stepped up from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority Board to the Town Council in 2009.
She identifies as a progressive liberal, and she isn't afraid to take controversial but necessary stands. Case in point: she wants to keep Orange County trash in Orange by siting small landfills across the county. Rich also wants the county to build a homeless shelter and quit depending on the generosity of the Inter-Faith Council and the religious community. She also understands the need to attract business without being married to the idea of big-box retail.
We like incumbent Pam Hemminger, too, but she has been a part of a BOCC that too often has deferred decisions and failed to adequately challenge the county manager.
Still, she should be commended for stepping up to the BOCC after serving on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education. She's done a decent job, but we think Dorosin and Rich offer an exciting new direction.
We enthusiastically endorsed Renee Price for this seat in 2010, and we're pleased to see her undeterred after narrowly losing, just 87 votes short, to Earl McKee. We're backing her once more.
District 2 represents all of Orange County not named Chapel Hill or Carrboro.
While we were underwhelmed with Price's boilerplate top three priorities—honest and open government, collaboration and fiscal responsibility—we see enough in her track record to believe in her ability to lead. Beyond the buzzwords, Price is pushing for better public services in Northern Orange (which is losing a daycare and a library), investment in farming and regional transit.
She has professional experience as a city and regional planner and has worked on housing and community development and sustainable living. Just as we were two years ago, we're excited about Price's nearly two decades of experience serving on Orange boards and commissions including the Planning Board, Commission for the Environment and the Historic Preservation Commission. That has prepared her well for this office.
Plus, with Valerie Foushee exiting the board of commissioners to run for N.C. House District 50, Price, if elected, would be the only African-American commissioner.
Incumbent Steve Yuhasz, a land surveyor, has represented his district well in his four-year term, but we don't align with his "fiscally responsible moderate" point of view.
First and foremost, we don't view transit the same way he does. He believes most transportation likely will continue in an individual vehicle model for the foreseeable future. That way of thinking spells trouble for mass transit efforts.
While it's nice to see the BOCC finally select a date to close the county landfill, they did so without a real, lasting plan for how to handle garbage, leaving the municipalities in the lurk. We wish Yuhasz and the other incumbents would have shown more leadership on this issue.
Nor are we inspired by this line of thinking: "I believe what we would like to do must be measured against what we can afford to do, and that we must manage expectations so as to provide optimism and incentive, but not suggest more than we can deliver."
We want leaders who live up to their words, but not by keeping a low bar. We want politicians brave and bold enough to aim high.
The winner will face Republican Chris Weaver in November.
A math question: If four candidates are vying for three seats on the school board and one does not return a questionnaire, how many questionnaires can the Indy consult for its endorsement? Three.
Luckily, all three who did respond—incumbents Stephen Halkiotis, Tony McKnight and newcomer Lawrence Sanders Sr.—provided platforms we are proud to support.
This marks the sixth race in which we've endorsed Halkiotis. He served five terms—20 years—on the Orange Board of County Commissioners before being elected to the school board in 2008. There he's used his three decades of experience as an Orange County Schools teacher and administrator to provide a needed perspective in budget discussions and achievement gap initiatives.
McKnight, who also is completing his initial four-year term, is a Gulf War veteran who works as an apprenticeship and training consultant for the N.C. Department of Labor. He's spent his career helping connect school systems and employers to prepare students for jobs. School boards need people like McKnight.
Sanders should prove a suitable replacement for Eddie Eubanks, who opted against a re-election bid. He has served as a parent representative on the Orange County Schools Raising Achievement and Closing the Gap Commission, a group with a charge that's as important as its name is long. He also serves on the Hillsborough Elementary PTA and with the Boys and Girls Club of the Eastern Piedmont. Seventeen years of experience as a project manager leading diverse groups and overseeing funds buoys his candidacy.
We enthusiastically endorse Erin Graber, 37, for District Judge. An attorney, she is well-respected by her peers and is well-regarded in the courtoom. Her first job out of law school was a crisis counselor and victim's advocate with InterAct of Wake County, which helps people who have been affected by domestic violence. Her specialty is families and children.
She also participates in the Wake County Volunteer Lawyers Program. Graber was profiled in N.C. Lawyers Weekly for her pro bono work. In one case, she put in 250 hours of free legal services to a young man who was fighting for custody of his child in an extremely complex case. The man got his son back.
We were impressed by her concern for indigent defendants. In her questionnaire, she listed as a priority the budget cuts that resulted in decreased funding for indigent defense. The hourly rate was reduced from $75 to $55, and as a result, Graber wrote, "many qualified attorneys who represented the indigent have been forced to stop accepting court-appointed work. This makes it difficult for the State to meet its constitutionally mandated duty to provide representation to defendants who cannot afford an attorney."
In 2010, we endorsed Defense attorney Damion McCullers, 34, for a different district court seat, on the basis of his commitment to juvenile justice, including the issue of gang violence. Had Graber not run for this seat, he may have received our endorsement again, but her experience and reputation is outstanding.
McCullers is active in his community and has volunteered with Helping Hand Mission and True Outreach Addiction & Behavioral Services. He also has worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Dan Nagle, 57, retired from the Wake County Sheriff's office, where he supervised the juvenile investigations unit, then went to law school and became an assistant district attorney, prosecuting juvenile cases. While judgeships are nonpartisan, Nagle's supporter list is a who's who of conservative Republicans: House Majority Leader Skip Stam, Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley, State Rep. Nelson Dollar, former Wake school board candidate Heather Losurdo, former Wake school board chair Ron Margiotta, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble and U.S. District Attorney George Holding.
Attorney Ronnie Ansley, 50, also specializes in juvenile justice and has 20 years of legal experience.
Steve Mansbery, 31, is a family law practitioner at Tharrington Smith. Considering the other candidates' experience levels, Mansberry needs more and varied legal experience.
Incumbent Anna Worley, 41, was elected to the judgeship in 2008. However, over the last four years she has received ample criticism for how she runs her court, including her own tardiness. Worley ranked last in the N.C. Bar Association's 2012 Performance Evaluation Survey for District 10, with a score of 3.16 out of 5. Her lowest scores came in administrative skills (2.84) and legal ability (3.2).
For these reasons, we are endorsing Daniel Barker, 46, a lawyer with 18 years' experience in civil and criminal courts. In his questionnaire, he listed the inefficiency of the legal system and the high volume of cases as the top priorities facing District 10. He understands the budget constraints and yet he details several easy administrative and cost-effective improvements: showing up to court on time and using web-based technology to schedule and run the court room efficiently.
Barker is well-respected among his peers. We were impressive by the sense of humanity with which he approaches plaintiffs and defendants: "I will endeavor to administer justice in a fair and impartial way and to do so with kindness and respect for all who appear before me. As long as a judge acts fairly and impartially, exhibits kindness to all in the courtroom and treats every person with respect, while a party may disagree with a ruling or judgment, at least they can accept it, knowing that they received a fair hearing."
Charles Gilliam, 62, a self-described conservative, is the third candidate.