Elected on a wave of protest over backroom politicking and development run amok, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht and his allies on the Town Council have embarked on a series of changes designed to make town government more transparent and responsive to the public while lessening the financial burdens of Cary's explosive growth.
Weinbrecht, a software programmer with SAS, defeated Ernie McAlister despite having only a fraction of the incumbent's campaign funds. Weinbrecht promised "balanced growth" and more open government, appealing to citizens who felt developers, not citizens, held sway at town hall.
As one way to deliver on that promise, Weinbrecht began an online journal (www.weinbrecht.org/JournalPage.html) where he reports on that week's activities, including plans for the first 100 days of his administration.
"My breakneck pace has finally caught up with me," he wrote Jan. 12. "The 80+ hours a week I have been putting in with my real job plus the mayor's job has landed me with a case of the cold & flu."
But one headache the mayor hasn't had to suffer is a divisive council. In his first two meetings, he has enjoyed support from the other members, including fellow initiates Erv Portman, Don Frantz and Gale Adcock, all elected in October after promising better growth policies and government transparency during their campaigns.
"We were able to agree, disagree, and agree to disagree and then we all went home with smiles on our faces," Weinbrecht says in an interview. "That's what we were elected to do, to come up with the best solutions for the town."
At the first meeting in December, Weinbrecht introduced three communication initiatives: a public hearing on council appointments for boards and committees; a task force to establish a process for temporary issue-based advisory groups; and a monthly cable television program called Cary Matters, which debuts Feb. 1.
The new council also plans to raise fees it charges developers. The council voted Dec. 13 to increase its transportation development fees, which fund roads, on property outside the town's center. The council is considering whether to raise water development fees by 43 percent and sewer fees by 75 percent.
Fees on growth have been a hot topic in Cary since the slow-growth days of former Mayor Glen Lang, who served from 1999 to 2003. McAlister's more development-friendly administration reduced most of those fees at the beginning of his tenure. Raising them now, as the nation's economy weakens, is a tricky undertaking, but Weinbrecht expects that as long as Cary's fees remain competitive with neighboring municipalities, they will not inhibit development (see chart). Cary faces a huge bill for its share in a wastewater treatment facility in western Wake County. "Somebody's got to pay the cost," Weinbrecht says. "When you raise the impact fees, you're basically taking the burden off the taxpayers."
The council could have raised the fees, but in the spirit of greater citizen input decided to hold a public hearing on the topic at its Jan. 24 meeting.
"We'll get a lot of complaints from the development community, I'm sure," Weinbrecht says. "It'll be interesting to see if the council has the political will to do 100 percent of cost, because that's pretty extreme."
Change isn't easy, even when most everyone agrees on the intent behind it. Weinbrecht proposed changing the way the council appoints citizen volunteers to boards and commissions to make the interviews, candidates' information and votes public. The idea was to eliminate the perception of backroom dealing, which council members say was a problem in the past, when appointments were made without explanation.
Portman, who co-sponsored the proposal, recalled during the Jan. 10 meeting an "unpleasant experience" he had when applying to the planning and zoning board years ago. Despite having a master's degree in urban planning, he never got a call. Later, he says he was told by a council member, "It's who you know, and what have you done for who you know."
But during the public hearing, commission members complained that the more public process would discourage potential volunteers and politicize appointments.
The proposal also took aim at conflicts of interest by rendering anyone who works "in an industry whose primary purpose is building or selling or buying of buildings" ineligible for the planning and zoning board. But those rules would disqualify three engineers currently serving.
One former board member convinced the council that this would deprive the board of technical expertise and experience. He pointed out that other boards call for members with specific professional qualifications. Council member Jennifer Robinson pointed out that planning and zoning members with development experience are often able to see through flawed architectural and construction plans. Weinbrecht and Portman agreed to modify the proposal to make its language less sweeping.
The proposal is going back to the drawing board; this year's appointments will proceed according to the old process.