In the mayoral race, Bill Bell, a 26-year veteran of the Board of County Commissioners, has shown that he is willing to evaluate new development from many sides, not just rubber-stamp it in the hopes of gaining new jobs or a wider tax base. The 60-year-old retired IBM engineer who now leads a non-profit economic development organization brings a calm voice and a record of coalition-building to the crucial task of managing future growth in the Bull City--as well as other pressing issues. He has shown he can build bridges between city, county and school governments in a way that will help all Durhamites. And while he has often backed new development in the past, Bell has made it clear that he will bring the type of hands-on leadership to future decisions on growth that the city now lacks.
Incumbent Nick Tennyson has a laid-back leadership style that has made him popular with many voters. But it has also prevented him from being able to push Durham in the right direction on critical issues. While he voted against a couple of key commercial projects, including Southpoint Mall, he didn't use his leadership position to marshal the opposition or negotiate a better deal for neighborhood residents. When it comes to managing growth, Tennyson's day job as executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Durham & Orange Counties presents an inherent conflict of interest that voters should reject.
Bull City voters will elect an all-new council on Nov. 6, as the number of seats drops from 12 to 6 at the behest of voters. Unfortunately, this concentration of power is occurring at a time when few candidates with forward-looking agendas have stepped up to run for public office.
That's the situation in Ward 2, which covers the southeastern part of the city, where longtime incumbent Howard Clement faces Michael Peterson, a former newspaper columnist. Neither candidate earns our endorsement.
Clement, a retired attorney, has been a trusted voice for African-American citizens and minority-owned businesses. But he has also been an uncritical backer of new development. And especially in recent years, Clement has voiced few innovative or effective ideas for city government.
Sadly, sole challenger Peterson is not the right person for the job either. Peterson, a self-employed writer and Forest Hills Neighborhood Association president, has provoked witty debate on city issues via his Web site over the last few years and more recently on the campaign trail. But the self-appointed political gadfly lacks a track record when it comes to putting ideas into action. Also, numerous false statements he made about receiving a war injury in Vietnam (a fabrication uncovered during his unsuccessful 1999 mayoral bid) raise questions about Peterson's integrity.
We are also unable to back either candidate for the open seat in Ward 3, covering western Durham. Incumbent Erick Larson, a computer analyst at Duke University, has been another easy vote for new development during his eight years on council. As for future regulation, Larson claims that a suggested ordinance tying new development to "adequate public facilities"--a strategy supported by many concerned citizens--would "not be legally sustainable."
Challenger John Best Jr., a local Republican Party activist, led the drive to reduce the size of the council in 1998. The owner of an equipment rental company, Best has campaigned primarily on promises to lower taxes and has demonstrated few other useful ideas or initiatives.
Thankfully, the council race in Ward 1, covering northeastern Durham, provides voters a clear positive choice. Longtime Democratic Party activist Cora Cole-McFadden offers a better vision for the city than her challenger, Duke Park neighborhood leader Jeffery White. A retired director of the city's equal opportunity program, Cole-McFadden has proven she can get things done for city residents. If elected, she promises to strengthen existing neighborhoods, boost community policing, preserve open space and support campaign finance reform.
The race for three at-large council seats was narrowed in the primary from seven to six candidates. Of those remaining, only incumbent Tamra Edwards offers a truly progressive agenda. Edwards has demonstrated a willingness to question development projects, advocate for change on behalf of her constituents, and to carefully consider the pros and cons of future development so that all parts of the city will benefit.
Of the four other incumbents running, we support Lewis Cheek as the most thoughtful and hard-working. Grassroots leaders say he is also the most approachable and educable on growth issues. Dan Hill's views are too conservative. He doesn't support affirmative action, for example, and in past debates about crime, was quick to pin the blame on "teenage thugs." Longtime council member Angela Langley has shown she is neither independent nor innovative enough. Thomas Stith is intelligent and thoughtful, but too willing to give the go-ahead to new development. The remaining candidate, Joe Williams, hasn't shown a strong grasp of how to get programs enacted in city government.
Durham voters face five bond questions on the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, they will fund $74.6 million in county projects, with 70 cents on each dollar earmarked for the Durham Public Schools. County officials have estimated that if passed, the bonds will mean property tax rates will rise by 2.5 to 2.6 cents in the first three years, and then decline annually after that. We recommend a Yes vote on all five.
The $51.8 earmarked for the embattled Durham school system is needed to repair, renovate and expand existing schools and build one new school. The local chapter of the NAACP and the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People have formally opposed the bond, and some other black leaders have spoken out against it. They've raised valid issues about the achievement gap between white and minority students and higher suspension and dropout rates for black students. There have also been concerns that the bonds don't give enough priority to certain inner-city schools. The rhetoric has shifted the debate away from the actual bond projects and toward a general call for using the bond referendum as a vehicle for a vote of no-confidence in the school system and its leaders.
At a time when public schools are struggling and other sources of funds for education are shrinking, this strategy will do much more harm than good. The Nov. 6 referendum is the first school bond floated since 1991, and the first since the merger of the city and county school systems--and it has broad-based support across the political spectrum. Black and white school-board members supported the list of projects unanimously throughout their process of winnowing down a needs list three times as costly. The 2001 school bond proposal includes renovation and expansion projects at 11 schools--in the city and in the suburbs--and construction of a new, 650-student elementary school in Southwest Durham.
There are better ways to address the pressing issues of equity and student achievement than withholding public dollars for new classrooms and needed repairs of crumbling school buildings. Among them: electing new school board members or joining a site-based decision-making committee. Durham's African-American communities are rightly concerned about how responsive school leaders are to existing inequities in the system. The fact that segments of the community are organizing against the bond should be a clear warning signal that those issues need to be addressed now.
In the face of criticisms from black leaders, school officials have trotted out test scores (which are rising) and lists of recent capital improvements to counter claims of neglect at certain schools. But those arguments are parenthetical to the real reason citizens should support the bond: Public schools are a building block of our democracy. Our schools need the money and they should get it.
The remaining four bond questions on the ballot would provide funding for other important public education and safety initiatives: $10.3 million for the Durham Public Library to build a new library in eastern Durham and improve access to an African-American research collection at the Stanford L. Warren Branch; $5.8 million for the popular Museum of Life and Science; $1.2 million for construction of a new Emergency Medical Services response center in the southern end of the county; and $5.5 million for a new senior center on city-donated land downtown. On the senior center, planners would do well to craft a sensible transportation plan so that seniors now using services offered throughout the community can take full advantage of those to be housed at the downtown facility.