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Cary and Raleigh citizens raise voices and votes 

Election 2007

Leaving office after eight years on the Cary Town Council, businesswoman Marla Dorrel tells the story of Cary's "old guard" and its discomfort with newcomers who want a say in local decisions. The "guard," Dorrel says, are the movers and shakers who've handpicked Cary's leaders and set its growth strategies for decades. They have established high standards, fostered close ties with developers and gotten exactly what they wanted: an affluent, well-educated and intelligent community. Their closed system worked great when Cary was small and sprawling, she says. But with Cary filling up, it doesn't work anymore.

"They didn't think about how things might change when this affluent, well-educated and highly intelligent populace became engaged in their own government," Dorrel says. "Perhaps they didn't think they'd become engaged at all. One thing is for sure. It is much easier to maintain control when the population is 20,000 than when it exceeds 120,000."

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In Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests and Private Politics (New York University Press, 2007), a team of anthropologists looking at five North Carolina communities, including the City of Durham and Chatham County, reports that "market rule" by local elites and business interests is ascendant while citizens typically struggle to be heard. "The large taxpayers and developers are virtually super-citizens," co-author and UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Don Nonini said after a reading last week. "Others, especially low-income residents, are almost sub-citizens."

"Market rule thrives on citizen disengagement from the public sphere," Nonini added.

In this week's Cary elections, the issue of citizens' influence—or the lack of it—is on a par with the growth issue. It's fueling the insurgent campaign of former council member Harold Weinbrecht, who's challenging Mayor Ernie McAlister. Weinbrecht's supporters include many folks who tried unsuccessfully to stop a pair of dense developments from being approved recently at the High House Road and Davis Drive intersection.

Dorrel, who's supporting Weinbrecht, thinks the citizens' futility is all too common.

"Our 'brain trust,' our intellectual capital," as she terms Cary's residents, "is a tremendous resource that has largely been ignored" by Cary's leaders, she argues. McAlister disagrees, contending that he's struck the proper balance between developers and citizens, correcting the anti-growth policies of former Mayor Glen Lang.

In Raleigh, the Oct. 9 municipal elections—and potential run-offs next month—are also engendering headlines about growth and its side effects of traffic congestion, lagging infrastructure and the need for more parks and open space. But behind that debate is the shadow question of whether average citizens can still be heard at City Hall as Raleigh's population hits 360,000.

Groups such as Community SCALE, which is trying to put the brakes on house teardowns and out-of-scale replacements ("McMansions") in older Raleigh neighborhoods, have been raising that question. The neighborhoods have tried for several years to convince the council of the need for infill standards to limit builders' appetites. Frustrated, they petitioned recently for a blanket downzoning of more than 100 properties—a move born out of desperation when the council and the city's planning staff each put them off again this year.

"What has made our neighborhoods so coveted is being destroyed by those seeking to profit from it," says Philip Letsinger, a SCALE member.

The issue was raised in a different context by the Friends of Horseshoe Farm Park, who organized broad public support for keeping the park natural, without the recreational facilities and parking lots favored by the city's Parks & Recreation Department. (Horseshoe Farm is located in Northeast Raleigh along an ox-bow bend in the Neuse River.) The Friends' yearlong campaign persuaded the official citizens committee writing the park's master plan; it left the facilities out. But the City Council was split, and in May it set aside the master plan without a vote.

Friends and Community SCALE members are prominent in the campaigns of two council challengers, Nancy McFarlane in District A (North Raleigh) and Rodger Koopman in District B (Northeast Raleigh plus some of the SCALE neighborhoods). They're trying to unseat incumbents Tommy Craven and Jessie Taliaferro, respectively.

Neighborhoods battling developers is an old story in Raleigh, of course. But as in Cary, the nature of those fights is changing as sprawl plays itself out at the city's edges and developers look to the downtown neighborhoods for infill and high-density projects.

That shift is a major factor behind the heated battle going on over the Citizen Advisory Councils. The 18 CACs are supposed to be the main avenue for citizens' input on development and other community issues. But CAC leaders complain that the city gives them minimal staff support and spotty information even about policies that affect their neighborhoods.

It's an especially sore point with leaders of the two Southeast Raleigh CACs closest to the downtown redevelopment action. In both, residents see a paradoxical pair of threats: One is slumlords and crime; the other is that the gentrifying downtown will push east and eventually drive them out. But instead of empowering citizens, says Central CAC Chair Lonnette Williams, the city treats her CAC "as a way to tell us what they want us to know. And if we differ with them, then it goes nowhere."

Octavia Rainey, co-chair of the North Central CAC, agrees, saying there's little follow-through when residents do present their ideas. Rainey pointed to a December 2006 report by her "Neighborhood Quality Team" making specific recommendations about housing, economic development and crime.

"I didn't get one ounce of response," Rainey says. "It was a complete waste of time."

Strengthening the CACs is a major plank in McFarlane's and Koopman's platforms as well as that of Helen Tart, an at-large council candidate. The issue is so contentious, however, that when CAC leaders raised it again recently and asked for a mediated session with the council, the council voted to hold a mediated session by itself—without CAC participation. Originally scheduled in September, it was postponed until Oct. 16—one week after the elections.

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