David Harris | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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David Harris 

Candidate for Durham City Council

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Name as it appears on the ballot: David Harris
Full legal name, if different: David Lee Harris
Date of birth: November 27, 1948
Home address: 609 Saddle Ridge Ave., Durham, NC 27704
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site: www.davidharriscampaign.com
Occupation & employer: I have worked in telecommunications for the past 36 years, working for both General Telephone & Electric (now Verizon) and Nortel. Most recently, I was a software testing engineer for Nortel. I was laid off in June of this year when the position was eliminated and outsourced overseas. I am currently looking at new career opportunities.
Home phone: (919) 477-2408
Work phone: (919) 477-2408
Cell phone: (919) 906-2023
E-mail: harrisdl2003@yahoo.com


1) What do you believe are the most important issues facing Durham? If elected, what are your top priorities in addressing those issues?

  1. I believe we must work together to make Durham safer for everyone – this means reducing the rate of crime so citizens are safer, making the work environment safer for city employees, and taking steps to protect our police force on the job. Everything we hope for as a town depends on making Durham safer: our ability to move people out of poverty; our ability to keep our public schools safe and crime-free so our children can break the cycle of poverty; our ability to support small business and downtown revitalization; our ability to attract new businesses to Durham and strengthen our economic base; our reputation as a community where families, professionals and retirees want to live; our attractiveness as a center of the arts; and our ability to be a true community that trusts and respects each another. If we can reduce crime (and we can, if we work together) our future as a town will immediately become much brighter and the options open to us for the future will expand significantly. If elected, I will make reducing crime and improving the overall safety of Durham my #1 priority, as outlined in my answer to a later question.

  2. I believe that local government has a responsibility to be open and accessible to all citizens. I also believe that a town succeeds or struggles depending on its ability to respect different viewpoints and to focus on common goals. Because of this, I believe that the key to solving Durham's current problems includes making sure that everyone receives equal access to government officials, that everyone who wishes to be heard is heard, and that we consciously work to be better at reconciling our different viewpoints here in Durham.

    For example, we know we are a diverse town with many viewpoints. We know that if you want to build a new facility, or if a new subdivision is proposed, that many people are going to weigh in with their opinions. Let’s not wait until time and money has been spent to recognize this fact. Let’s open up the planning process sooner and get different viewpoints on the table from the start.

    If we can create and maintain a level playing field and respect one another more, we will be well on our way to becoming a united community. If elected, I will encourage polices that allow local government to be more transparent in its dealings, I will seek to eliminate any special deals with developers or other city partners, and I will work to improve communications between city agencies and departments and all citizens so that everyone in Durham feels equally important.

  3. I believe we can be smarter about the way we run our city’s finances and conduct our business so that we make the most of the financial resources we have. It has been my experience that most people understand taxes are necessary and ultimately benefit them — they just want to know that their money is not being wasted. We don't have to waste public funds in Durham. We have a strong financial arm of our local government in place, run by experienced and competent financial professionals. But we need to make sure that our public policies and the processes we use when operating as a town support fundamentally smart business practices.

    For example, let’s be smarter about public financing – let’s do a better job of projecting costs and, most of all, let’s stay on schedule so that overtime and rising expenses don’t drive the eventual cost of projects up beyond the initial bond amount. It is bad policy to go back to the well. If elected, I will support financial policies that recognize that Durham has limited resources but a lot of challenges to address with those funds – so we must make the most of every penny we have.

2) What is there in your record as a public official or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be effective on the council? This might include career or community service; but please be specific about its relevance to this office.

This is my first run for public office, but I have been a community volunteer in Durham for 35 years. I will list my community experience below, but let me begin by explaining how I think my background is relevant and how it will help me be a better council member:

  • I have proved that I can get along with all kinds of people, regardless of their race, their political views or their economic and educational backgrounds. This is certainly a necessity if you are going to represent all the people in a diversified town like Durham and if you want all the people in Durham to feel as if they do have a voice in local government.

  • My work as Chairman of the InterNeighborhood Council, as the president of two different neighborhood associations, and with several crime prevention groups has taught me what’s really important to Durham’s neighborhoods. I think being on the frontline like that has taught me to look beyond the squeaky wheel and to understand and respect the needs of all areas of Durham.

  • My work with the Citizens Observer Patrol and Partners Against Crime and attending the Durham Citizen Police Academy have all given me a good understanding of the problems Durham faces when it comes to reducing to crime and the solutions we could call on to make that happen. It has also allowed me to build good relationships with both law enforcement professionals and community leaders. That will help me as a City Council member, where my job will certainly be to link these two groups of people and help them find a way to work together.

  • I have also done a lot of work with organizations (i.e. Keep Durham Beautiful, Eno River Association, The Big Sweep, etc.) promoting Durham’s environmental health, and committees dealing with zoning issues and public transportation. I know the people involved, I know who needs to work together if we’re going to keep our quality of life up, and I understand the complexities of the issues involved. I think my experience will allow me to immediately do a good job of reconciling our desire for well-planned growth in Durham with our desire to protect our environment, quality of life and green spaces.

  • My work on various city committees and my graduation from the Durham Neighborhood College has taught me all about municipal government: how it works, the challenges each agency and department faces and the financial issues that affect them. I’m not going to have a long learning curve because the issues City Council members must deal with are already familiar to me — including municipal services such as sanitation, water, etc. Also, I have been on the City’s official email list for years because of my positions with Partners Against Crime and the InterNeighborhood Council and that has kept me up-to-date on city issues and events.

  • Finally, I want to say one of our biggest problems in Durham is that we mean well and we want to work together, but we waste a lot of energy duplicating effort. Because of the length of time I have spent as a community volunteer and the many different kinds of efforts I have volunteered for – I not only know the social problems Durham faces, I know almost all the players involved who are trying to solve them within public agencies and the non-profit world. I think I could be a valuable voice on the City Council when it comes to bringing people together, eliminating duplication of effort, encouraging more public/private partnerships and thereby making the most of the resources we have.

Here is a summary of my community leadership positions and experience:

  • Current President of the InterNeighborhood Council.
  • Captain of The Citizens Observer Patrol, Police District Two.
  • Member of Durham City Wide Partners Against Crime.
  • Block Captain, Durham Neighborhood Watch.
  • Past Co-Facilitator of Partners Against Crime, Police District Two.
  • Member, Community Emergency Response Team.
  • Past President, Old Farm Neighborhood Association.
  • Precinct Chair of the Democratic Party's 23rd precinct.
  • Member of Keep Durham Beautiful and co-chair the Litter Index Committee.
  • Captain of one of Durham's Keep America Beautiful Great American Clean-up crews.
  • Member of the Durham Campaign for Decent and Affordable Housing.
  • Member of Durham Parks and Recreation Department signage and naming committees, the roller skating park committee, and the citizen advisory group to restore the Durham Athletic Park.
  • Past President, River Forest Neighborhood Association.
  • Past member of various citizen committee groups working with city and county departments and agencies.
  • Graduate and class spokesperson, Durham Neighborhood College.
  • Graduate, Durham Citizen Police Academy.
  • Life Member, National SERTOMA Club, which raises money for speech- and hearing-impaired citizens.
  • Member, National Association of Parliamentarians.
  • Member and officer of the New Red Mountain Missionary Baptist Church.
  • Member of the NC Democratic State Executive Committee.
  • Member of the Durham County Democratic Executive Committee.

3) How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I believe most people would describe me as a moderate Democrat. I support programs to end homelessness, to promote affordable housing and to deal with other problems caused by poverty. I also support a comprehensive plan to protect Durham’s environment, a public transit system and am cautious about guarding against overdevelopment. However, my number one priority is reducing crime in Durham — a priority often associated with more conservative Democrats or other affiliations. I also believe very firmly that everyone in Durham deserves equal access to municipal government and elected officials, regardless of their affiliation. We will not move forward as a community unless we start to respect each other’s different political viewpoints more and communicate better — and that process starts with a level playing field. I also recognize the importance of attracting and supporting business as part of being a strong community and I am a bit of a fiscal conservative. I think taxpayers have the right to expect the City not to waste a penny of public money and to be very, very smart about how we handle our finances, including public finance. One of our biggest obligations in this regard is to properly estimate the time and money needed for a project and to keep our projects on schedule so rising costs and labor overruns don’t blow budgets out of the water. Put it all together and you have a moderate Democrat whose record, I hope, shows a willingness to work with people from all across the political spectrum.

I think my current platform not just recognizes but is defined by the priorities I have mentioned above. My past achievements with the Citizens Observer Patrol and Partners Against Crime, as the head of various neighborhood associations, within the Democratic Party itself and on various city committees have all produced results that prove these are my priorities. I have helped bring about reductions in crime, brought people together, proved that it is possible for us to work together effectively even when we disagree and shown that I am respectful of other people’s viewpoints and other people’s money.

I don’t want anyone to take my word for it, though. It’s not hard to find someone who has worked with me on one initiative or another over the past 35 years. I urge voters to ask them whether or not I truly believe in and live my philosophy.

4) Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

I have actually already taken that stand and it had to do with the transfer tax. I know it is a very popular option, especially in progressive circles where I am active. Given the choice of only two options to choose between, land transfer tax or sales tax, I would choose land transfer tax for reasons stated below. But I have been against the transfer tax as a sole solution for our funding needs in Durham from the start for several reasons. Number one, on principle, I do not think any one group should have to bear the brunt of funding our infrastructure improvements or keeping pace with the demands growth places on our infrastructure. A transfer tax places the burden primarily on middle- and upper class homeowners and I think we need to share the cost among more groups. I was against the sales tax as a sole option for the same reason: it shifts the burden too much to the shoulders of lower income people. Secondly, I felt it was unwise to rely on the housing sector for such a critical source of revenue. It’s having trouble everywhere and I don’t feel it’s smart to put all of our eggs in one basket. Finally, this is not Wake County. We do not have a steady stream of multi-million dollar home sales here and I don’t think a transfer tax could do the job alone. I’ve taken this stand publicly on the transfer tax already, and I think it might cost me some votes, but I am a big believer of people within a community sharing the responsibilities of that community as equally as possible. We all need to take ownership of our town, just as we all need to take ownership of our neighborhoods.

(By the way, my answer to how we need to fund infrastructure improvements going forward is that we need to go back to the state legislature and demand that Durham County be given all of the options granted to most other North Carolina counties so that we could come up with a smarter, more diversified solution to raising needed revenues.)

5) Last year, the city withheld testing data that showed that the city’s drinking water failed to meet federal health standards. What can the city council do to increase transparency in city administration and prevent future breaches of the public’s trust?

Because of this instance reason and several other instances, I believe the City needs to do a better job of communicating across its agencies and to citizens and that it needs to be more upfront about the problems we face and what needs to be done about them. The lead in the drinking water problem is just example; – I think reducing crime in Durham right now is another good example. Let’s just acknowledge we have a problem, stop worrying about the headlines and get on with solving it.

It is easy to let a concern for public relations or a desire to look good get away from you, but experience has taught me that if you tell people the truth and explain what you’re up against, they will cooperate and they will give you credit for recognizing the problem and trying to do something about it. And even better than that: they will volunteer to help you with that problem and sometimes they will come up with some great ways to solve those problems. How can we expect our citizens to step forward and help our community if we don’t tell them the truth about what needs to be done?

In the future, to prevent this from happening, we need to:

  • Improve communications between departments and agencies of the City government itself.

  • Improve communications between government agencies and the public and private sectors.

  • Create a more open, forthright climate about Durham’s problems, with the City Council setting the right tone and the right example. Let’s listen to people, let’s look at the facts, let’s face reality and then let’s roll up our sleeves and concentrate on working together toward solutions rather than wasting time trying to blame someone else.

  • One advantage of town government that shows everyone respect, maintains a level playing field and supports transparency and strong communications is that people feel more secure and are less aggressive and desperate in the way they express their opinions. I think these results in people listening better and more things getting done. It also helps people step forward and admit accountability, if needed, allowing us to identify problems and get to the solution faster.

6) What specific policy solutions would you advocate to abate Durham’s problems with violent crime?

My experience as a neighborhood watch volunteer and Captain for District 2 of Durham's Citizens Observer Patrol has taught me some important lessons: we must address the issue of reducing crime and violence in Durham now and you can’t just address violent crime, you have to address ALL crime if you want to stop the vicious cycles of career criminals, neighborhoods slowly sliding into decay, and children following their peers or other family members into crime.

To reduce crime, you first have to recognize that there is no magic solution. Instead, it must be attacked on all fronts, in every way possible, with the cooperation of the entire community. We must attack it through education, community involvement, law enforcement measures, prevention programs, and targeted social services. We must also address the problem in all neighborhoods and for all generations.

You also have to be smart enough to look to other communities and what they have done, to do what you can with the budget you have, and to make sure that your resources are going exactly where they will do the most good. For example, if 10% of the criminals commit 90% of the crimes, it’s smarter to concentrate on stopping those individuals rather than casting a wider net over the neighborhoods where they may or may not commit their crimes. You also have to not only deal consistently with offenders, and get repeat offenders off the streets, you have to be face reality and admit that prevention and giving kids alternatives to crime is the only way to stop new criminals from entering the system.

Having said that, community involvement is absolutely crucial to reducing crime, including violent crimes. But the process of involving a community can vary. In some instances, all you need is education: once residents understand what they can do to reduce petty crime and reduce the likelihood they will be victims of it – and that this frees the police up to deal with more serious crimes – I have seen entire neighborhoods get on board and crime rates drop significantly, with a ripple effect in other areas since we’re able to redeploy officers to more violent areas, whether their presence has a deterrent effect.

Other neighborhoods may need a more direct approach. For example, the worst area for crime in Durham is Northeast Central Durham — 65% of all crime and 45% of all gun-related activity in Durham occurs here. Its primary problems are drug sales, drug use, prostitution, gang activity and crime relating to drug activities. These are the same problems seen in all blighted areas of Durham. To improve the situation, the City must move forward with its plan to deploy a coordinated and comprehensive array of resources there for the next year. Right now, it’s going to be an effort involving all city agencies: police, mental health, social services, and special programs targeted to specific groups of citizens such as homeowners with kids. I think this is a great first step, and if the community buys into this and takes ownership of it, it could really work. If this pilot program works here — and I think we should keep a close eye on it and remain open to improving it as we go along — let’s use it elsewhere. Let’s also keep an eye on troublemakers to make sure they don’t move into other areas, rising crime there. In addition, as we deploy resources into this area, we must make sure that this does not restrict or lower resources available to other areas.

It’s not just isolated pockets of Durham that need attention, however. I believe all areas in Durham can be made safer through more community involvement in Neighborhood Watch, neighborhood associations, Citizen’s Observer Patrol, the Durham Neighborhood College and the Citizen’s Police Academy, and just, in general, educating people about their neighborhoods and the support they can get to make their neighborhoods better. I also believe we must work through Durham Affordable Housing to give people an opportunity to obtain low-income loans and make home ownership possible. Another effort to support is ending homelessness in Durham. I am a member of the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition and support their efforts in this regard.

Finally, we have to look at what happens at the other end when a criminal has done his or time and is released back into society. People continue to get in trouble because they cannot find a place for themselves in society. I have seen this time and again both in my community activities and in my church work. I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for a person to find a job, find a place to live and make a fresh start after being released from prison. It is a sad cycle that we must break.

I think improved re-entry programs and city policies more receptive to people coming back in the workplace would help. You could have incentive programs to encourage hiring of ex-offenders. There was an unsuccessful effort in the legislature this year that would have given a person who remains clean for ten years a clean jacket and I supported that proposal. I also support more job training efforts such as TROSA.

Beyond that, Durham needs to get the churches more involved in the effort to help ex-offenders get back on their feet. This sense of community and a system of morality is important to rebuilding a life. Integrating ex-offenders into church communities would also lead to job contacts, a new circle of friends and other necessary types of support.

7) Durham’s south side is experiencing rapid growth. What impact do you expect that growth to have on the city? What are your plans for handling that development?

I think we’re going to see some positive benefits from that development and that, if handled right, it has the potential to correct one of our biggest problems as a community — the large number of people who work in Durham, especially the Research Triangle Park, but who do not live (or pay taxes) in Durham.

South Durham has the potential to turn that around, especially with its proximity to the Interstate. With carefully planned development — and that means without displacing families already there and while protecting our green spaces and environmental quality of life — we could attract more higher income level residents who would contribute to the tax base here in Durham.

My plans for handling that development are to require that developers follow the Unified Development Ordinances we have set forth for Durham and that the City not, under any circumstances, grant developers special favors or provide City financial assistance, nor should the City be put in a position of holding developers accountable for holding up special provisions involving promised behaviors on the part of a developer. We need above board, consistent policies for everyone in all areas of growth. We need a standard of expectations and behavior that everyone should hold to. Durham is an attractive city for developers from an economic standpoint already. As the rest of the Research Triangle continues to boom, we will only grow more and more attractive. Giving individual developers special deals, no matter how well intentioned, is not a smart policy.

8) Private developers are in the process of revitalizing Durham’s Tobacco District, just as city crews are putting the finishing touches on the downtown streetscape. What kinds of policies should the council implement to ensure that downtown becomes a thriving commercial and residential neighborhood?

If we want to ensure that Durham’s downtown becomes a thriving commercial and residential neighborhood, we need to:

  • Support a better public transit system.

  • Make sure there are options available to keep the area affordable to lower income families who have long held a stake in that area.

  • Support the Coalition to End Homelessness and the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition — their priorities and goals are important to helping us revitalize downtown (I am a member of both organizations).

  • Make sure mental health services are included as an important part of any discussion on social services and the future of social services in Durham.

  • Make sure more multiple use residences are built as we move out from the downtown core, including making room for smaller businesses that would provide lower income people with options for employment without having to travel out of the downtown area.

  • And, finally, I’m just going to say it more time: we have to make Durham safer and reduce crime if we expect downtown revitalization to succeed. It’s just not going to happen without us taking this step.

9) What are Durham’s most pressing capital improvement needs? Please be specific.

In my opinion, the City of Durham’s most pressing capital improvement need is improving its infrastructure, i.e., the City’s roads and sidewalks.

I believe Durham County’s most pressing capital improvement need is our public school system: an alarming percentage of the public schools in Durham are in need of immediate capital improvements or major repairs.

We also need a more integrated and effective rapid transit system, but at this point — the above capital improvements must take precedence.

10) What steps can the council take to promote strong town-gown relations, especially regarding infrastructure improvements in the neighborhoods adjacent to Duke University?

I think that the City has an obligation to ensure that the areas adjacent to Duke University have an infrastructure that is adequate and safe. I’m glad that we are currently in the process of resurfacing or repairing a lot of the roads and sidewalks in that area as many of them were safety hazards for either motorists or pedestrians.

However: I think ALL areas of Durham have the right to an adequate and safe infrastructure, and I would prefer to see that be our overall goal as a city, rather than pitting one area against another.

When it comes to promoting strong town-gown relations, again: I believe the best way to build strong relationships between any two groups is for the City to first create a level playing field for all citizens — regardless of their racial, political, employer, social or economic affiliations — and to make sure that this level playing fields promotes frequent and upfront communications between, among and across all groups in Durham. This is the only way to remove resentments, promote democracy and create a true community.

Thank you for your consideration of my candidacy. If you have any questions, please call me at (919) 906-2023.

Sincerely,

David Harris
Candidate for Durham City Council

  • Candidate for Durham City Council

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