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Candidate for Durham Board of County Commissioners

Ellen Reckhow 

Candidate for Durham Board of County Commissioners

Name as it appears on the ballot: Ellen Reckhow

Full legal name, if different: Ellen W. Reckhow

Date of birth: 2/19/51

Campaign Web site: www.ellenreckhow.org

Occupation & employer: County Commissioner, Durham County

E-mail: ereckhow@gmail.com


1. Describe your past leadership roles, both in career and community. How will these experiences help you serve on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific about how these roles correspond to a commissioner's responsibilities.

I have served on the Board of County Commissioners for 24 years, six as Chair and 12 as Vice-Chair. In addition, I have chaired a variety of groups (as a representative of the Board of County Commissioners including: the Durham Crime Cabinet which I have co-chaired since 1997; the Triangle Transit Authority Board which I currently chair (and served as chair in the 90's); the Transportation Advisory Board, currently vice-chair; the North Carolina Association of Counties Intergovernmental Relations Steering Committee, Chair since 2010; NC Association of Counties Board of Directors since 2010. I also helped start the East Durham Children's Initiative (EDCI) three years ago and currently serve as the Co-Chair. These and other leadership roles over the years have given me major policy setting and leadership responsibilities. (For more information on my governmental and civic activities, please see my website.)

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

I am a pragmatic progressive who works to develop coalitions to get things done. I have taken the approach in my past actions that government can improve people's lives and I work to develop viable cost effective solutions often working in partnership with the private sector. Examples are the employer-based Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program which I initiated in 2000 and recently met its ten year goal of reducing vehicle miles travelled by 15%; and the East Durham Children's Initiative, which I helped start and serve as Co-chair, that has raised private foundation funds to create a pipeline of services from cradle to career in the poorest neighborhood in Durham. My campaign platform reflects the fact that I take an active approach to addressing the issues facing Durham County. I recognize that government alone cannot solve many of the difficult issues that we face so I work to create community and intergovernmental partnerships to address our needs.

3. List the three most important issues facing Durham, in order of priority. If elected, how will you address these issues? Please be specific.

Provide a sound education for all children

Promote sustainable economic development

Enhance safety for all neighborhoods

Education:Work with the school board and community agencies to provide a sound education forallchildren to prepare them for college or career by closing the achievement gap and continuing to improve the high school graduation rate. This will require a more coordinated approach to assure that children are better prepared for kindergarten and that students finish elementary school reading and doing math on grade level. We need to provide expanded pre-kindergarten services with the goal of serving all disadvantaged 4 year olds to assure that more children arrive at school ready to learn. (This will require more than a doubling of the number of children served.) We should also use theBecominggrant to reconnect 16 to 21 year old disconnected youth with educational and other support services. If the East Durham Children's Initiative shows positive results from its continuum of cradle to career services, we should consider expansion to other neighborhoods with high poverty.

Sustainable Economic Development: Promote economic development and prepare our citizens to take the jobs coming to our area. Provide expanded literacy training and lifelong learning opportunities so our citizens are ready for the jobs of the future. Use information technology to better link the unemployed with new jobs. Be more proactive in recruiting companies that match the skill sets that we have. Focus on sustainable development strategies including expansion of transit service, open space preservation, energy conservation, and historic preservation.

Safe Neighborhoods: Continue to work with criminal justice agencies to implement the recommendations of the Crime Cabinet (that I co-chair), to make all of Durham's neighborhoods safe. Promote greater cooperation and collaboration between the police and sheriff. Expand the use of information technology and information sharing among criminal justice agencies. Increase the number of Community Watch groups and consider extending the PACs into the county. Consider the Crime Cabinet's recommendation to increase penalties for crimes committed with a firearm. Evaluate programs regularly for their efficacy.

4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected, that you know would cost you popularity points with voters.

I think we should revisit city and county consolidation in the next four years since there are many overlapping services and duplication of effort that could save us money and make government services more effective.

5. Please describe how you handled a difficult decision in your community leadership experience or career. What were the possible consequences of the decision you made? Looking back, please explain whether you are still comfortable with how you handled the situation, or how you would change your actions.

About ten years ago I voted against moving the proposed charter for city county consolidation forward to a vote. I agonized about that decision since I had been a proponent of consolidation. However, the charter commission did not follow the recommendation of the Merger Issue Task Force on a key recommendation. The Task Force had recommended that there be an urban services district and a rural services district. The Charter Commission recommended that the City limits be extended to the county line. That was a deal breaker but it was tough since I knew it would kill any prospect for merger for a long time.

6. Last fall, voters approved new sales taxes to generate new revenue for the Durham Public Schools and for mass transit in the county. Did you vote for or against these measures? Please explain why.

I voted in favor of both measures and I worked actively for their passage. The cent tax for education will fund the following: expansion of Pre-K classes for disadvantaged four year olds; replacement of $6.2 million of federal stimulus funds to retain school based personnel; and scholarships for Durham Technical Community College for high school graduates and adults who need retraining. I pushed actively for us to fund a full continuum of educational services since there is evidence that children who come to school ready for kindergarten do better. Also, by providing funding for college, we give Durham students hope that they can go on to higher education.

The 1/2 cent transit tax is essential to fund the Durham County transit plan. The plan has three components: expansion of bus service; provision of commuter rail by 2019 to connect to Research Triangle Park and Raleigh and points east; and light rail service between Durham and Chapel Hill. With the expected 60% increase in Durham County's population by 2040, we will definitely need mobility options to avoid congestion.

7. The newly adopted Durham County Strategic Plan identifies the need in Durham County to expand residents' access to technology. As a commissioner, how would you work toward this goal and how would you finance the efforts?

We have provided extensive computer access at our new branch libraries. The main library will be renovated in the next 5 years and I expect that computer access will be expanded there also. Through our award winning Computers4Kids program, we refurbish computers that the county has discontinued using and make them available to students in the Durham Public Schools who were recommended by the school social worker. We have provided 400 computers in the past two years and will provide another 200 this summer. Unfortunately, some of the families cannot afford internet access. That appears to be changing. Due to pressure to close the digital divide, companies (including Time Warner) are rolling out $10/month internet service for families with children who quality for free and reduced lunch. I have also advocated for keeping our schools open evenings and during the summer for programming so our schools serve as community hubs. The community could then use the school computer labs after hours. By using existing community resources more wisely, we can expand access without large expenditures.

8. What are the pros and cons of the county's economic incentives program? How would you amend it? What oversight mechanisms are in place to ensure companies adhere to the policy? Are those oversight mechanisms sufficient?

While I wish that we did not have to provide incentives, we cannot compete successfully on the national stage to bring companies like Merck or AW North Carolina to Durham without incentives. We also run the risk of losing existing firms as they look to expand if we don't have incentives. The County's economic incentives program has generally been successful.

I have worked to tailor our economic development incentive program to encourage new companies to hire Durham residents. We have required companies to work with our Work First program at the Department of Social Services and the Job Link Center to hire Durham residents who need jobs. We also now break the incentive into parts where a company gets a base incentive but can only get the full amount if they hire a certain number of Durham residents.

The policy is generally sound. We have a contract with companies that receive incentives and when they don't comply with the terms of the contract they do not receive all or part of the incentive. That has happened a few times. While I did ask for a full accounting of our incentives program and results last year, I think the policy needs to be amended to have an annual report provided to the commissioners regularly regarding the status of projects.

9. What incentives would be appropriate in persuading the commercial and industrial sectors to cut their greenhouse gas emissions? The residential sector? Durham County in 2007 adopted a Greenhouse Gas Emissions plan, but at what point will Durham need to take more aggressive steps in emissions reductions?

According to our plan, approximately 60% of the community greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the residential, commercial and industrial sectors with commercial representing half of the total. Clearly, promoting energy conservation for existing and new buildings is important. I am proud that Durham County has led the way by adopting a High Performance Design Policy over a decade ago. Since then, every new and renovated county building has been LEAD certified. We are currently striving for Gold designation for both the new courthouse and the human service complex. The County was also instrumental in getting the Durham Public Schools to adopt a high performance goal for their new buildings.

Efforts we are making to promote energy conservation for commercial and industrial buildings include: partnership with the Million Solar Roofs Initiative to promote energy conservation in commercial, industrial, institutional and residential buildings; extra economic development incentive funds (in our Economic Development Policy) are available for companies that use energy conserving features; and partnership with the Triangle Green Business Challenge starting in April to engage all businesses in sustainable practices. We are also investigating partnering with the Living City Block effort that has been successful in downtown Denver and initiating a similar project in downtown Durham. For residential uses, we are wrapping up the Neighborhood Energy Retrofit Program and Home Energy Savings Program. We will have retrofitted 700 homes in Durham. We will continue an energy outreach program to homeowners in partnership with Clean Energy Durham.

10. Crime and safety is a large component of county government. What are your priorities for improvements in pre- and post-conviction services, such as prisoner re-entry programs and diversion programs for juveniles? How will you fund those priorities? How will you measure the success of those programs?

I support diversion programs for juveniles to keep them out of the youth home and other institutional placements. A few months ago, I attended a workshop organized by Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey to discuss improving outcomes for delinquent youth. All the data indicate that it is cost effective to provide community based interventions whenever possible and reduce incarcerations. A pilot in Union County using risk assessments and graduated sanctions reduced incarcerations a great deal and saved the County $120,000 in six months. Similar savings could be used to fund a program in Durham. At the end of the meeting we brainstormed about no cost and low cost steps we could take in Durham to get such a program going. I hope that our new Chief of Juvenile Services will bring forward a new approach in the near future. Success would be measured by reducing juvenile offenses and recidivism.

I also support reentry programs. Our Criminal Justice Resource Center, considered the best in the state, has run a number of successful reentry programs. We have applied and will continue to apply for grants to fund these programs. In addition, the county has stepped up and provided jobs for folks coming out of the prison system. We have also directed the County Manager to remove the box asking for criminal background on county employment forms to give people an opportunity to get an interview and explain their history before a criminal background check is done. Success with these programs would be reduction of recidivism and ability to retain a job.

11. Among the most controversial issues to test the commissioners in recent years is development. Please explain the philosophy that will guide your decisions on development while serving as a county commissioner, and also share your definition of smart growth.

Smart growth generally values long range considerations of sustainability to protect the quality of life for future generations. The approach is to avoid sprawl and focus development in walkable, bicycle –friendly neighborhoods and mixed use developments served by transit.

My philosophy regarding development is to follow the comprehensive plan and the related transportation, transit, open space, and bike/pedestrian plans. Intense development should be focused in the downtown core, special activity nodes like Research Triangle Park, and along our transit corridors. We should promote historic preservation, rejuvenation of inner city neighborhoods, energy conservation, multi-modal transportation, preservation of open space and greenways, and protection of environmentally sensitive areas and farmland.

  • Candidate for Durham Board of County Commissioners

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