After a long and contentious campaign, Durham voters finally can choose their next mayor and finalize three council seats.
In this non-partisan race, challenger and four-term city councilman Thomas Stith has attacked incumbent Mayor Bill Bell's record on fighting crime and his leadership skills, using aggressive and questionable tactics that have divided the Durham electorate. In general, Bell has taken these hits without firing back, consistently referring to the same list of accomplishments: the revitalization of the Tobacco District, the summer youth jobs program, the Barnes Avenue project.
Lucky for Bell that conservative Stith's campaign tactics have alienated the largely liberal electorate, because many of Stith's criticisms of city administration are valid. The city's bungles over the past year—misleading residents about lead in the water, allowing a yard waste dump to operate without a permit, falling behind on the downtown streetscape project—are inexcusable and overshadow many of Bell's accomplishments, even if the problems aren't directly attributable to him, but rather, City Manager Patrick Baker.
These missteps are, in part, why Stith has made it this far (also because Bell, who served more than 25 years on the Durham County Commission before becoming mayor, is so entrenched in the Democratic Party that no Democrat would dare challenge him). But as the Independent reported in October, Stith hardly has the record to back up his grandstanding.
Stith has been the least involved in council committees. Since the last election, he has missed more meetings that any council member. And he is often on the losing end of council votes—the lone dissenter. The mayor leads the council meetings but has no more power than other council members; the city cannot afford to have a mayor who doesn't share the burden, or one who leads from the political minority. We endorse Bill Bell. We hope that he'll see through Stith's rhetoric and take some of his criticisms to heart.
The October primary narrowed the field to six candidates, who will vie for three open seats in this nonpartisan election. We reaffirm our support for the candidates we endorsed in October, all of whom advanced from the poorly attended primary: incumbents Diane Catotti and Eugene Brown and longtime neighborhood organizer David Harris. Read our original endorsements from our Sept. 26 issue.
Both the city and the county are floating bonds this election. We encourage a Yes vote for each package. Voters who live in Durham County will be asked to endorse more than $207 million in capital improvements. The bulk of that—$194 million—would go toward school construction: renovating 11 elementary schools, two middle schools and four high schools, building three new schools and purchasing land for a couple more.
The county is also asking voters to approve $8.68 million to renovate and expand Durham Technical Community College and $4.18 million to fund improvements at the Museum of Life of Science. County officials say they may need to raise taxes to repay the bond—4.6 cents per $100 valuation or $69 a year for a home valued at $150,000.
City voters will also vote on a bond for street and sidewalk improvements. Durham has some of the worst streets in the Triangle, and the city has been slow to implement bond projects in the past. With the rising cost of asphalt and other construction materials, the city can hardly afford further delays, so we're pleased that council voted to spend $700,000 on a consultant to help the administration handle large construction contracts. Consultants will train city officials and help departments work together efficiently. The city says a tax increase may not be necessary to pay for the bond, but if so, 1 cent per $100 of assessed value should cover it.