The Durham County Board of Commissioners doesn't have the high profile of the City Council, but when it quietly goes about its business most Mondays, its decisions affect everyone from Bahama to Research Triangle Park.
Voters will have an opportunity to strike the right balance of experience and new energy this election, with 10 candidates vying for five seats. Three incumbents are running; Lewis Cheek and Phil Cousin chose not to run for re-election.
Our comment about experience and new energy is based on an observation that Durham County Commissioners—and frankly, all elected bodies, dare we say it—should have term limits. We acknowledge the complexities of county government require time to tackle the learning curve; moreover, the commission needs institutional memory, so we would suggest five four-year terms.
That said, 20-year incumbent Ellen Reckhow is the commission's spark plug. A dominant force on the commission, she has deep and broad knowledge of county government, including finance, environment, land use and social services. She has been chairperson since 2002 and, during that time, helped broker a consensus on providing domestic partnership benefits to county employees, preserving open space through New Hope Preserve and finding more money for child care subsidy funding. She sits on dozens of regional and local boards and commissions.
Incumbent Becky Heron is an outstanding environmental steward. A 26-year veteran of the commission, she has taken strong and, at times, unpopular stands on developments, particularly those proposed for areas near watersheds and reservoirs. She supports the land-transfer tax as a way to fund schools and infrastructure. With Durham's anticipated growth, her backbone and institutional knowledge will be essential to the commission over the next four years.
Michael Page is also an incumbent, and he places his priorities on championing the rights of the homeless community, disadvantaged people and low-income families. A pastor and head of N.C. Central's United Christian Campus Ministry, he consistently opposed the county's panhandling ban, which eventually passed.
He is also intent on improving the criminal justice system, including rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders. But if you do the crime, be prepared to do the time. In his Indy questionnaire, Page wrote that "those who commit crimes must not be given the flexibility of lowering their time to come out and do it again."
One criticism of Page is that he doesn't respond in a timely way to constituents' e-mails and calls. It is essential he should be more responsive to Durham citizens in his second term.
The commission would benefit from the grassroots experience of Brenda Howerton. A management consultant, she was an organizer with Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), which has successfully advocated for afterschool programs, health care, an increase in the living wage and fair housing initiatives. She served on the city's Human Relations Commission and the county's Soil and Water Conservation Board, the latter of which gave her experience in working with government budgets and in educating citizens about the environment.
Her priorities include working to decrease Durham's 15 percent poverty rate. This includes brokering commitments with companies to hire locally—and to pay a living wage pegged to inflation—and providing job training and opportunities for ex-offenders.
Don Moffitt brings to the table impressive credentials as a member of the county's planning board. He has been unafraid to take a stand against ill-conceived developments, including a proposed large retail complex on North Roxboro Road. But he knows good development when he sees it: He supported the proposed University Marketplace, which hopefully will rejuvenate the sagging South Square area.
While his environmental credentials are solid, Moffitt also has progressive economic views. If elected, he would scrutinize the county's economic incentives policy, which he has criticized because it excludes small companies from the pool that can apply for public dollars. He also says the commission can address Durham's poverty issues by increasing the availability of affordable housing and increasing the living wage.
If Durham had a sixth commission seat, we would have endorsed upstart Josh Parker. Not quite 25 years old, he has energy and ambition that would serve the commission well. A former associate at Blue Devil Ventures, which spearheaded the West Village preservation and development project, he has a deep knowledge of community and economic development. Yet we are unsure as to how, once in the trenches, he would vote on controversial developments. However, Parker is critical of the current economic incentives policy because it is geared toward large-scale commercial and industrial companies.
Parker sits on several committees including the Civic Center Authority. He successfully fought attempts by media giant Clear Channel to manage the Durham Performing Arts Center. He's particularly enthusiastic about improving town-gown relations, not only between Duke and the city, but also N.C. Central University, which is planning to consume part of southeast Durham with its ambitious campus expansion plans.
He has received the backing of outgoing commissioner Cousin and Ward 3 Councilman Mike Woodard.
Fred Foster Jr. also has worked on the front lines for social justice. He is the political director of the Durham NAACP and chairman of the Durham Voter Coalition.
Doug Wright received the endorsement of the N.C. Sheriff Police Alliance. He manages a local ABC store, and serves as board chairman of the Durham Center, which helps people with substance abuse problems, developmental disabilities and mental illness.
Former Commissioner Joe Bowser is running to regain the seat he left in 2004. He is still damaged by allegations that cronyism and personal relationships prompted him to lead the charge to oust County Manager Mike Ruffin that year.
Perennial candidate Victoria Peterson ran for Durham City Council last year. She did not return our questionnaire.
Editor's note: Moffitt is married to Sidney Cruze, a freelance writer who writes about food for the Indy.
While Durham public schools aren't experiencing the massive influx of students their Wake County counterparts are, the district is growing, particularly to the south. Those pressures, coupled with perennial concerns about funding, redistricting and the achievement gap, combine to make the next four years pivotal ones for public education in Durham.
Three seats on the seven-member board are up for election this year. Incumbents Minnie Forte-Brown and Heidi H. Carter are running unopposed in Districts A and B, respectively.
For the at-large seat, the only contested race, we endorse Leigh Bordley. Her experience as executive director of Partners for Youth, a nonprofit that tutors and supports low-income minority students, has primed her to tackle the important questions facing the board.
Her focus on curbing the dropout rate, helping at-risk children—including those whose native language is not English—and ensuring the equity of resources among schools is impressive.
Bordley's three children attend Durham public schools, and she is sensitive to the issues of overcrowding and redistricting. While she supports the current magnet school plan, and two of her children have attended Durham School of the Arts, Bordley says the board must proceed carefully when considering adding more magnet schools. There is the potential that additional magnet schools could create a closed system, which would be difficult for many students to enter.
In addition, Bordley's campaign platform includes ensuring schools stay racially and economically diverse and supporting neighborhood schools. She also says she would lobby the legislature to raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18 from 16.
Nancy Cox, a former teacher, is also highly qualified. She is vice president of the Durham Council of PTAs and is campaigning on similar issues, such as reducing the number of high school dropouts and incorporating the Positive Behavior Support program to help address students' disciplinary problems.
Several years ago, Cox was outspoken when the board redrew district attendance lines that split her Hope Valley Farms neighborhood. Some of the children were assigned Southwest Elementary; others attended Hope Valley Elementary. There were concerns in the community that redistricting would not only divide the neighborhoods, but also dilute the resources for each school.
Jonathan Alston is also running for the at-large seat. He did not return our questionnaire.
Editor's note: This seat is currently held by Steve Schewel, president of Carolina Independent Publications, which owns the Independent.
A year after N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed the false charges against Dave Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, the Duke lacrosse case still shadows the Durham district attorney's office—and this year's Democratic primary.
In 2006, when the Independent endorsed Mike Nifong for district attorney over Freda Black and Keith Bishop, we misjudged Nifong's complicity in a wrongful and ultimately fraudulent prosecution. Nifong did not deserve your vote—but neither did his challengers, Black and Bishop, who are running for the office again this year.
Freda Black is an attorney with the good ol' boy Durham firm Clayton, Myrick, McClanahan & Coulter, handling civil litigation and criminal defense cases. She was an assistant district attorney for 14 years and gained national recognition in 2003 for her successful murder prosecution of novelist and former newspaper columnist Michael Peterson. She also made a name for herself in the high-profile 2006 election, with her constant attacks on Nifong's integrity. But Black's ethical integrity is questionable, too. She is a capable attorney, but one who has shown that she'll win at all costs, even if it means treading the line between zealous representation of her client and overlooking justice. Last year, the Indy reported about her 2001 prosecution of Erick Daniels, who, evidence suggests, is innocent of armed robbery. Even when Black heard that someone else wanted to confess to the robbery and exonerate Daniels, Black clung to her conviction. Unlike the lacrosse players, Daniels is in prison. Bottom line: We're not sure Black will properly handle the power Nifong abused. And neither are many assistant prosecutors. If Black wins, expect many defections, which would throw the district attorney's office into a tailspin.
Keith Bishop is simply unqualified. He is a private practice attorney with little criminal trial experience. There's no indication that he can manage the office of more than 30 people.
We think voters should support assistant district attorney Tracey Cline. Cline began her legal career as a public defender, representing the poor—valuable experience for a prosecutor. She has served in Durham as an assistant district attorney for 14 years, working her way up to first assistant district attorney and then chief assistant district attorney, when David Saacks was appointed top prosecutor after Nifong resigned. (Saacks is not running to keep his seat.)
Cline is a great attorney who has already shown that she can manage a large caseload. She understands the need to address escalating juvenile crime, and as a black woman, could be an excellent role model for the young African Americans caught in the system. She is putting to rest questions that she was involved in Nifong's lacrosse prosecution, a concern among some critics. She told the Independent that police officers came to her asking advice about what paperwork to complete, a search warrant or a non-testimonial order, and when they had completed the paperwork, filed it with then Assistant District Attorney David Saacks, who signed it. "I didn't sign anything," Cline said. "All I did was advise them, which I should do on every single case. Under the same situation, any district attorney would do the same thing. The statute requires you to do that."
Saacks corroborated Cline's account under oath during Nifong's criminal contempt hearing.
Mitchell Garrell has been an assistant district attorney for 13 years. He lacks Cline's leadership experience and has never worked as a defender, but Garrell is a fine trial attorney who has the support of some prosecutors in the office. His stance against the death penalty is admirable, as is his willingness to work with the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, but Cline gets the edge in every other category.
Since no Republicans filed, the winner of the Democratic primary will become the county's next district attorney if he or she wins more than 40 percent of the vote. If no one reaches that threshhold, the second-place candidate can request a second primary.
Correction (April 23, 2008): Nancy Cox is vice president, not president, of the Durham Council of PTAs.