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Friday, November 18, 2011

Prosecutors push lawmakers to revisit Racial Justice Act repeal

Posted by on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 at 4:06 PM

The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, which has opposed the 2009 Racial Justice Act since it was enacted, pushed conservative lawmakers this week to renew their attempt to repeal the milestone legislation.

On Monday, the prosecutors' group sent a letter to Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, pushing for the General Assembly to repeal the law when it meets in a special session beginning Sunday, Nov. 27.

Led by House Majority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, a Republican from Apex, conservative legislators have been working since the beginning of the year to repeal the law, which allows convicts on death row to appeal their sentences on the grounds their verdict or death sentence was influenced by racial bias. A bill to repeal the two-year-old law was assigned to a Senate committee in July.

Many expected efforts to repeal the law when the legislature starts its next regular session in May. But prosecutors had a clear motive in pushing the repeal efforts to the upcoming special session, which was scheduled without much warning, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham and one of the original backers of the Racial Justice Act.

At a press conference Thursday, McKissick said prosecutors are threatened by the potential outcome in a Cumberland County Racial Justice Act hearing on Jan. 30, the first RJA appeal to move this far through the courts since the law was passed.

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    Prosecutors want General Assembly to repeal law during Nov. 27 special session

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

City unveils plans tonight for Old North Durham Park

Posted by on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Old North Durham Park is the site of the only full-sized soccer field in downtown Durham.

After months of scrappy debate, Durham’s Parks and Recreation department tonight is expected to unveil the fate of Old North Durham Park, a 3.6-acre space at Geer and Foster streets. The city has scheduled a community meeting for 7 p.m. at the downtown Durham Armory, 212 Foster St.

The park currently hosts the only full-sized soccer field in downtown, and one of only a dozen full-sized fields in the city. The space is owned by the city and shared the Central Park School for Children charter school. The soccer field is used by soccer leagues and residents for frequent pickup games, particularly Latinos.

Area residents, activists and supporters of the school have bumped heads on proposed redesigns of the park. Last fall, the Friends of Old North Durham Park, a coalition of neighborhood groups spearheaded by Central Park School for Children, presented a plan to overhaul the park and add community gardens, a picnic shelter and trail. But the plans called for the soccer field to be down-sized. Other users of the park, backed by activists from El Kilombo Intergalático, criticized the plans as gentrification.

Community groups calling for a full-sized soccer field will gather for a rally today at 6 p.m. at CCB Plaza, 201 N. Corcoran St., and will march to the 7 p.m. city meeting.

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    Adjacent charter school and residents have clashed over the redesign.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

UPDATE: Clerk's 31-percent raise was for professional certification

Posted by on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin

UPDATE, 11/15: County Manager Mike Ruffin responded this morning to let us know the 31-percent raise for commissioners' clerk Michelle Parker-Evans was awarded after she obtained a two-year professional certification for clerks, which she didn't have when she was originally hired. "This certification was factored in to her recent raise and is one of the reasons the increase is so significant," Ruffin said in an email Tuesday.

UPDATE, 11/14: Durham County provided detailed salary information late Monday afternoon, which shows the salary increases commissioners approved for five top-level county administrators (as mentioned by County Manager Mike Ruffin in the earlier story).

According to the interview with Ruffin, the following raises were awarded by county commissioners, based on analyses of what people in similar jobs in other municipalities were making. The salary increases, which all took place on the first day of the fiscal year, July 1, 2011, included a 31-percent raise for the commissioners' clerk:

Durham County Sheriff Worth Hill, increase of $5,189 for a total salary of $127,279, a 4.25-percent raise (Hill is now retired. Salary information for his replacement, Mike Andrews, was not immediately available.)

Register of Deeds Willie Covington, increase of $7,693 to salary of $119,693, about a 7-percent raise

Clerk to the Board of County Commissioners Michelle Parker-Evans, increase of $19,313 for total salary of $80,313, a 31-percent raise

County Attorney Lowell Siler, increase of $9,154 for total salary of $164,154, a 6-percent raise

Tax Administrator Kim Simpson, increase of $7,074 to total salary of $104,574, a 7.25-percent raise

Market-rate adjustments are necessary to keep experienced employees from leaving Durham County for similar positions in other counties with better salaries, Ruffin said last week. All of the county's 1,800 employees will be eligible for merit-based raises when they have their annual reviews between now and June 30, 2012, Ruffin said. They will also be eligible for market-rate increases in the spring when a comparative study is complete, he said. The market-rate increases are the same, in theory, as the raises given to the top managers, as listed above.

The county on Monday also provided salary information for other department heads, some of whom also received raises this fiscal year as part of an annual review:

Director of General Services Motiryo Keambiroiro received a $4,505 increase in August for a total salary of $110,505; this represents a 4.25-percent increase

Director of Budget and Management Services Pam Meyer received a $4,869 raise in July for a total salary of $119,435; this represents a 4.25-percent increase

Director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center Gudrun Parmer received a $4,082 increase in July for a total salary of $100,132; this represents a 4.25-percent increase

Veteran Services Officer Louis Washington received a $2,205 increase in August for a total salary of $54,076; this represents a 4.25-percent increase

Original post: Durham Republicans criticize county manager's 10-percent raise

The Durham Republican Party issued an open letter Friday to county commissioners, asking the board of all Democrats to rescind the 10-percent raise they awarded County Manager Mike Ruffin on Monday, saying the raise is a "slap in the face of every Durham County citizen" because of the state of the economy and unemployment.

Ruffin had no comment on the criticism. Durham commissioners stood behind their 4-to-0 decision to boost Ruffin's salary from $179,000 a year to $197,000. The fifth board member, Commissioner Joe Bowser, was not present for the vote but expressed his support for Ruffin, his colleagues said.

"I’ll see what they have to say," Vice Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow said of the Republican Party's request. But, she added, "The past three years have been extremely stressful and difficult years for the manager. And he has actually managed the county extremely well in terms of moving us forward at a time when resources were tight, trying to find efficiency in the government. We felt that, as point person for this difficult time, he has led us very well and that he deserved an adjustment."

Raises for other department heads

Ruffin's raise is the most recent in a series of salary adjustments for several top-level county employees appointed by the board since the beginning of the 2011-12 fiscal year. Commissioners made the pay raises after requesting a market analysis of the going rates for similar positions in July, Ruffin said Friday.

Since July, the register of deeds, sheriff, county attorney, tax administrator and clerk to the board of commissioners all have received pay increases based on the analysis of about a dozen other jurisdictions, Ruffin said. (Exact percentages and figures were not immediately available, but will be posted here as soon as they are made available to the Indy.) The pay increases were the result of two factors—both the market analysis, as well as the employees' annual performance evaluations, which all occurred in June, Ruffin said.

In Ruffin's case, his performance evaluation and market-rate adjustment happened this week because it was the annual anniversary of his employment with Durham County, where he became manager in 2000.

Ruffin and all other county employees and commissioners have had their pay frozen since 2008. Employees became eligible for salary hikes when the new fiscal year began on July 1. This year, employees will again be eligible to receive a 3.25- to 4.25-percent raise based on whether they met or exceeded expectations, Ruffin said. Employees will be eligible for those raises after annual performance evaluations which occur near their anniversary dates.

The percentage increase was a point of attack for Theodore Hicks, Republican Party chairman, who pointed out in the Friday letter the margin between Ruffin's 10-percent hike and the lower percentages other employees could receive.

e countys human resources department.

"Neither the peer evaluation data nor the performance evaluation justify a 10% raise," Hicks wrote of Ruffin's raise, "even in a thriving economy." (Click on the chart at left for peer evaluation data from the county's human resources department.)

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    Durham commissioners have given raises to six top-level managers.

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State considers five new Triangle charter schools

Posted by on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 11:24 AM

  • Matty Symons/

State education officials are reviewing 27 applications for new charter schools across the state, including two in Durham County, two in Wake County and one in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district.

A new state law passed this year raised the limit on charter schools in North Carolina, which previously had been capped at 100. The applications were due last Thursday, and will be reviewed by the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council (CSAC) before being submitted to the State Board of Education.

The applicants are aiming to have their schools up and running in August 2012. This first group of applicants is a special, "fast-tracked," pool because they have a previous relationship or record with the state, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website. For instance, several of the applicants had been interviewed by the state before, but were not granted a charter because of the previous statewide cap.

The state will hold a separate, regular application process later this fall for other charter schools. Those applications will be due in April 2012. (More information on the application process)

The applicants in Triangle school districts are:

Chapel Hill-Carrboro
The Howard & Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, Angela Lee

Durham County
Research Triangle High School, Pamela Blizzard
Quality Education Academy of Durham, Alethea Bell

Wake County
Widsom Academy, Craig James
Triangle Math and Science Academy, Kenan Gundogdu

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    Twenty-seven applicants across the state want to open by August 2012.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Final tally: Rougemont incorporation denied by 10 votes

Posted by on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 5:19 PM

Durham County elections officials tallied up more than 400 provisional ballots Friday, and in the end, not much changed from the results published Tuesday night.

The northern Durham community of Rougemont still will not become a town, after a close vote by residents in that area. With 326 of 644 registered voters in the area casting ballots, the vote was split 52 percent against incorporation, with 48 percent against.

With preliminary results in Tuesday night, the decision was made by just 11 votes. Once provisional ballots were counted, that margin shrank to just 10 votes.

See all the final tallies in this Durham Board of Elections document.

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    With provisional ballots counted, Rougemont's incorporation is defeated by 10 votes.

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After Somerhill bankruptcy, Joe Rowand opens new art gallery

Posted by on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 11:36 AM

He’s back.

Joe Rowand, who owes artists thousands of dollars after declaring bankruptcy last year, is opening his new gallery, tomorrow in Chapel Hill.

Over the past several years, Roward pulled down a $15,000 monthly salary while his previous enterprise, Somerhill Gallery, owed artists at least $270,000 in commissions on works that had been sold but for which they were never paid.

And in some cases, the artists said, they were told by the gallery that their pieces had not sold when in fact, they had.

Last year Somerhill declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and closed; its debts included $200,000 in back rent and another $200,000 to the estate of the late philanthropist Rolf Rosenthal.

Most of the Somerhill artists are still waiting to be paid. An auction held in September 2010 generated $91,560 according to court documents, but the proceeds went first to major creditors, including banks and Scientific Properties, the gallery’s landlord.

But what Rowand is doing—starting a new business—is legal, according to Sara Conti, an attorney who had sought damages on behalf of the artists. As long as Rowand doesn’t use the Somerhill name or sell works that were protected in the bankruptcy filing, he can launch a new gallery.

The Indy called Rowand today and asked if any proceeds from the new business could go toward paying debts to Somerhill artists. He said it he was on a ladder installing light bulbs. Asked if he could speak later by phone, he said he did not want to comment.

The Joe Rowand Art Gallery hosts its grand opening tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located at 1713 Legion Road, down the street from Crooks Atrium Café.

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    Still in debt to artists, Joe Rowand opens new gallery

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rougemont hopes dashed; Durham voters OK taxes

Posted by on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 10:28 PM

That little town that could? After Tuesday’s vote, it might not be able to.

According to unofficial results, voters in the northern Durham County community of Rougemont rejected the opportunity to incorporate into a town by just 11 votes. Provisional ballots have yet to be counted, so it’s unclear where the final tally will leave the rural community, where 168 voters indicated in a referendum that they don’t want to become a town and pay an extra property tax for new public services. Instead, landowners in this rural area will continue to pay property taxes only to the county.

Supporters of the incorporation have been lobbying state lawmakers for most of the past two decades for a referendum on incorporation. Proponents said that if the small town were incorporated, it would have a greater voice in county decisions and could levy property taxes for local services, including public safety.

Most important, supporters said, having municipal status would give the town more opportunities, such as grants to secure clean drinking water. Many private wells at the intersection of U.S. 501 and Red Mountain Road are contaminated, according to state officials.

But at recent community meetings, some property owners said they didn’t want more public services, street lighting or a farmers market—they just wanted to be left alone.

“We got the opportunity to have a vote, and in this case, the majority spoke,” said Artemas “Lee” Holden, a semi-retired consultant who pushed for the incorporation. Holden, who ran for a spot on the inaugural council, was with other candidates Tuesday night, where they gathered “to celebrate if we had a town, or celebrate that we gave it all.”

Holden said he and other candidates knocked on virtually every door in the 2.5-mile area that would have been incorporated. He was disappointed in the results.

“We’re throwing away a couple hundred thousand dollars a year that could have benefited this community,” he said.


Voters approved new sales taxes in Durham for education and to fund the beginnings of regional rail and light-rail systems.

The language on the ballot was helplessly vague, but 57 percent of Durham County voters favored a quarter-cent sales tax that promises to benefit Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College and Durham’s Partnership for Children, according to preliminary results.

Early in the day, some proponents of the tax fretted that the question on the ballot, which county officials were not permitted to change, wasn’t specific enough. Labeled as a “county sales and use tax,” the ballot merely asked voters to approve a quarter-cent tax in addition to all other local sales and use taxes.

“I think it was a real challenge for us to overcome the North Carolina Legislature’s short-sighted verbiage on the ballot that doesn’t even mention education,” said Steve Toler, the co-chair of a committee promoting the tax, before the polls closed. “That was a real disappointment. But I think in spite of everything, I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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    That little town that could? After Tuesday’s vote, it might not be able to.

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Lopez brothers of Durham sentenced for harboring undocumented immigrants

Posted by on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 4:40 PM

A J&A Framing Company employees' trailer - FILE PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

For the past five years, the Lopez Brothers' framing business was very profitable—but apparently not profitable enough. The owners of J&A Framing Company in Durham tried to keep their costs down by hiring cheap labor: undocumented immigrants who earned less than minimum wage and who paid the brothers rent to live in squalid trailers on company property.

Now Jose Alfredo Lopez-Ponce, known as Jose Antonio, and Juan Antonio Lopez-Ponce, known as Antonio Lopez, have been sentenced to prison on charges of "conspiring to harbor illegal aliens" whom they hired to work at the business, the U.S. Department of Justice announced today. Read the press release: Lopez_sentencing.pdf

Both men pled guilty to the federal charges earlier this year.

Antonio Lopez was sentenced to three years in prison, two years of supervised release and was ordered to pay a $45,000 fine.

Jose Antonio received a 26-month prison sentence, two years' supervised release and was fined $25,000.

In addition, the brothers agreed to pay the U.S. government $250,000 as criminal forfeiture.

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Orr to step down from constitutional law post

Posted by on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 2:59 PM

Justice Bob Orr
  • courtesy NCICL
  • Justice Bob Orr

Former N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Orr is stepping down as executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, according to an announcement on the nonprofit organization's website. Orr, who had been the group's founding director and ran the organization for seven years, will return to private practice.

Orr will stay at the center through the end of the year to bring in the group's new director, Jeanette Doran. Doran was formerly the group's senior staff attorney. The group also announced it will be moving from its office on Six Forks Road to downtown Raleigh at 414 Fayetteville St.

The organization, which promotes education in constitutional law and litigates constitutional cases, is nonpartisan, but is widely viewed as a conservative group. The center's mission statement says it will advocate for the principles of limited government. Raleigh Republican Art Pope, who has gained notoriety in recent months for his deep financial support of conservative causes, is one of the group's founders and its treasurer.

Orr and the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law also garnered recent attention for a proposal to create a center to study the state constitution at the law school at N.C. Central University. The Pope Foundation would have provided $600,000 in start-up funding.

Some faculty were hesitant about the proposal and several student groups protested any affiliation between NCCU and the Pope-backed group, specifically because of Pope's political views and the fortune he has made through a group of dollar stores and inexpensive retailers, Variety Wholesalers, which specifically target low-income areas, according to company literature.

Orr withdrew his proposal last month, partly crediting the public resistance.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Citizens to Duke Energy: Shove your rate hike

Posted by on Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 3:35 PM


Durham City Council Chambers were standing-room only last night as concerned citizens told the N.C. Utilities Commission that they opposed Duke Energy's proposed 18.6 percent rate hikes for residential customers.

The proposed rate hikes, spread over Duke Energy's 1.8 million North Carolinian customers, would generate $640 million for Duke Energy. Almost three-quarters of that would go toward recouping the $4.8 billion the company says it has spent since 2009 building new plants, updating existing ones and complying with new federal and state environmental rules.

Duke Energy operates under the regulated utility system—the state essentially grants it a monopoly in parts of the state and, in return, the utilities commission regulates certain aspects of its business such as new plant construction and proposed rate hikes.

The Durham hearing was the fourth the utilities commission has held across the state, following ones in Marion, Franklin and High Point. Citizens at those meetings turned out in force, with posters and demonstrations.

The people of Bull City were not to be outdone. About 40 people from Occupy Durham marched down Main Street with a hip-slung snare drum keeping time for the crowd's chanted slogans: "No hike, no way! Duke Energy, we won't pay!" Passing cars honked at signs like "Hey Duke Energy! YOU take a hike!"

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    "Hey Duke Energy! YOU take a hike!" Find out how the utilities commission hearing went this week in Durham. The final hearing is Nov. 28 in Raleigh.

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