Editor's note: This story has been modified since its original post.
A judge in Durham dismissed a lawsuit Friday (PDF) that opponents of the controversial 751 South development near Jordan Lake filed in 2010. The ruling means the judge agreed with the defendants, that the actions Durham County Commissioners took to rezone the case in 2010 were legal. No word yet on whether the plaintiffs will appeal.
Residents near the land to be developed brought the civil lawsuit against Durham County after Durham County Commissioners voted to rezone the land to allow a large, dense development along N.C. 751, which is near the environmentally sensitive lake in southern Durham County.
Numerous property owners had signed a protest petition against the project. By local law, if enough adjacent property owners petition, at least four of five commissioners have to approve the rezoning. And while the petition met all the requirements, a last-minute technicality involving a land-transfer to the N.C. Department of Transportation botched their efforts. The commissioners approved the rezoning by a 3-2 vote, a simple majority. (See a timeline of events)
The Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association was one property owner that signed a petition. The HOA sued the county saying its petition shouldn't have been invalidated on the technicality, and thus that commissioners didn't lawfully approve the rezoning. Many residents in the Chancellor's Ridge neighborhood, which is across from the 167 acres to be developed, have said they don't want to live through the estimated 10-year construction of 751 South, which could include 1,300 homes and apartments, plus shopping and office space.
But in his order Friday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Henry Hight sided with Durham County and the project's proponents Southern Durham Development, which intervened in the case and helped defend the county in the lawsuit. Hight granted the parties' request for a dismissal, essentially agreeing that the protest petition was no longer valid when commissioners rezoned the land for 751 South. Hight is a judge from Henderson who has just begun a regularly scheduled rotation presiding in Durham.
"I’m very disappointed," said Steve Bocckino, one of the most vocal opponents to the project. Bocckino was not a plaintiff in the case, but supported their cause. "I do think that Southern Durham Development was guilty at least of trickery in giving land to N.C. DOT and I’m sorry that the judge didn’t recognize that." Plaintiffs in the case couldn't be immediately reached for comment. It is unknown whether the plaintiffs will appeal the judge's findings. However, representatives of the plaintiffs had indicated in recent months that they would appeal if the case was not decided in their favor.
Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell issued a statement through his attorney: “We are pleased with Judge Hight’s decision. His order shows Southern Durham Development has consistently acted above board and within the law. We hope this puts to rest any concerns that may have been generated during the course of this lawsuit. We look forward to being part of Durham’s future success.”
To update our previous report, Durham County Internal Auditor Richard Edwards confirmed today that the unnamed commissioner he mentions in his report as asking department heads to consider hiring specific people is Commissioner Joe Bowser.
According to Edwards, Bowser approached the director of The Durham Center, which provides mental health services for county residents, as well as the head of the Durham County Health Department. Both incidents happened some time within the past two years, he said.
It was the head of The Durham Center who felt uncomfortable receiving the recommendation from Bowser, Edwards said. Ellen Holliman, director for the center, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Gayle Harris, director of the health department, confirmed what was in Edwards' report—that she didn't feel awkward or pressured when Bowser approached her about a potential hire.
Bowser hasn't returned messages from the Indy seeking comment, but took the microphone at Monday's regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners to say that he did call Holliman in 2009 to recommend a well qualified, unemployed Durham County resident for a new position that the county had opened.
"At no time did I do any coercing or thought that I was putting any pressure on the director, as she has stated, to hire this woman," Bowser said. He added,"Our citizens should have the right to contact us for help. I will continue to try to help them, even in situations like this."
Edwards said he doesn't believe Bowser's actions violate the Board of Commissioners' ethics policy (PDF). At the commissioners' meeting Monday, County Attorney Lowell Siler gave the same opinion.
But late last week, Commissioner Michael Page, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he thought the move was inappropriate.
"If somebody asks me what can I do to help them get this job ... I will serve as a reference," Page said. "But I do not call a department head to say 'so-and-so is submitting an application'."
It's unclear what, if anything, the commissioners will do or say to address the apparent impropriety.
"I would say, as a rule, that that’s not a good thing, but I wasn’t around for the events surrounding this controversy," Commissioner Pam Karriker, who took her seat on the board in October, said about Bowser's requests. "But I know that there are two sides to every story."
Page says the commissioners sought the answers, and it's the public that should decide what comes next.
"It's not my place to figure out what do you do about it, and who did it," Page said last week, before Edwards confirmed that Bowser was the unnamed commissioner. "You've got citizens in Durham to demand an answer about it."
ORIGINAL POST, 1/3
Investigative reports by Durham County’s internal auditor (report 1, PDF) and an out-of-town attorney (report 2, PDF)—two long-awaited reviews finally released Tuesday—answer some of the myriad questions surrounding the departure last summer of former Social Services Director Gerri Robinson and the subsequent appointment of Interim Director Gail Perry.
The reports fill in some details of Robinson’s messy departure in July, and expand on accusations that her cool manner with employees caused several to leave their jobs. The findings also look into an accusation by Michael Page, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, that fellow Commissioner Joe Bowser might have pressured county department heads to hire friends or associates.
Although commissioners pushed for this investigation last fall as an attempt to clear the air on Robinson’s firing and restore public faith in county government, the findings paint an unflattering picture of the management of the social services department, of Robinson and of relationships among commissioners. All five of their seats will be up for election this year.
Among the findings released in Tuesday's reports:
— A county commissioner (unnamed in the reports) has asked at least two heads of county departments to employ a specific person, and at least one of the department heads who was approached felt uncomfortable or pressured about it.
— 87 employees left during Robinson’s tenure as the director, 54 of them resigning. (This might not be excessive compared to other directors.)
— Based on available information, Robinson overpaid an employee who worked for her directly, and who other DSS employees described as Robinson’s personal assistant.
— Since August, the county has been paying for benefits and/or for holiday leave for Perry, but as a temporary county employee, she is not eligible for such benefits, and the county now has to recoup that money.
Perhaps the weightiest finding by one of the investigators, New Bern attorney Jimmie Hicks Jr., was that a state conflict-of-interest law might have been violated when Perry was appointed in July to become the interim director of the Department of Social Services. Perry didn't return calls for comment Tuesday.
A cadre of Occupy Wall Street marching from Washington, D.C., to Martin Luther King’s gravesite in Atlanta will reach Durham on Wednesday.
After a lengthy meeting this morning, the Durham Social Services board voted to unseal minutes from a July 27 closed session during which they agreed to appoint Gail Perry as the interim director of Durham County Social Services.
The minutes—a brief few paragraphs—reflect that members of the board nominated three different people to replace Gerri Robinson, the former director of social services for Durham County. Robinson had been fired earlier in the meeting.
According to the minutes, former board member Carolyn Carver-Tann nominated former board member Gloria Green. Current board Chairman Stan Holt nominated Toni Pedroza, who at the time was a former employee of the social services department. And County Commissioner Joe Bowser, who is also on the DSS board, nominated Perry.
In a 2-to-1 vote, the board appointed Perry, the minutes show. Perry recused herself from voting on the matter.
The details of the vote had been questioned by the public, elected leaders and the media. Perry's appointment was controversial because she had just been appointed as a representative on the board, and the July 27 meeting was her first meeting.
In a closed session during that meeting, board members voted to fire Robinson. Minutes from that closed session remain sealed. Although it's known that Perry was part of a 3-1 vote to fire Robinson, it's unclear what discussion and any questions board members may have settled before they voted.
The Indy, as well as other media, had requested that the minutes from the closed session be unsealed under state law, which allows government entities to release personnel information if it is "essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of county services or to maintaining the level and quality of county services."
To date, the DSS board has considered releasing two sets of closed session minutes from July 27, and one set of closed session minutes from Sept. 1. So far, only the closed session minutes of Perry's appointment have been released.
The Board of County Commissioners have hired a New Bern attorney, Jimmie Hicks Jr., to investigate several questions surrounding Robinson's firing and Perry's hiring, including whether Perry should have abstained from voting to terminate Robinson.
It was unclear Wednesday when Hicks' report would be complete.
The Rev. Philip Cousin, a former Durham county commissioner and member of the Durham school board, was elected Thursday as the new chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Cousin, the pastor of St. Joseph's AME Church, replaces Lavonia Allison, who has served as chairwoman of the influential committee for the past 14 years. Allison announced late last month she wouldn't be seeking another term.
Long-time Committee member Larry Hester also sought the position. Neither Cousin nor Hester could be reached for comment.
According to a statement from the Committee, Randal Rogers will serve as the first vice chairman and former County Commissioner Deborah Giles will serve as the second vice chairwoman. Wanda Waiters will be installed as the third vice chairwoman.
Other positions are as follows:
Executive Secretary: Paulette Morrison-Danner
Recording Secretary: Pauline Fitzpatrick
Economic Committee Chairwoman: Kimberly Moore
Education Committee Chairwoman Debra Bryson
Health Committee Chairperson: Terry Morris
Additionally, Andre Vann, an archivist at N.C. Central University, was elected as the chairman of the political action committee, and state Board of Transportation member Chuck Watts will serve as the vice chairman of the political committee.
Keith Bishop, who files state finance reports for the political committee, will serve as chairman of the Legal Redress Committee.
Cousin may make recommendations for other positions that have yet to be filled. The officers will be installed in January.
With the approval of almost 57 percent of voters, Durham County Commissioners officially adopted a resolution Monday night to begin collecting a new quarter-cent sales tax on April 1, 2012. The tax will apply to the sales of goods, but not food, medicine, housing, gas or utilities.
Voters approved the tax, which will benefit public education in Durham County, through the Nov. 8 ballot.
That ballot also included a new half-cent tax for mass transit, which voters also approved by 60 percent. But the transit sales tax won't be levied until Durham leaders see whether leaders and residents in Wake and Orange counties will also consider a similar tax to move forward on regional commuter and light-rail projects.
The first full year of collections for the education tax in 2013 is expected to generate as much as $9.2 million. Most of the revenue will preserve teaching jobs and pay for school facility improvements in Durham Public Schools. Durham Technical Community College will also receive funds that will be used for scholarships, and Durham's Partnership for Children, which provides educational and other programs for young children.
Opponents and supporters of the controversial 751 South development geared up for a big day in court today, only to have the case continued to Jan. 9.
The long-pending civil lawsuit, brought by property owners in Chancellor's Ridge against Durham County was supposed to go to trial today. Opponents to the project were hoping the judge would find in their favor and reverse a county vote last summer that will allow Southern Durham Development, also a party to the lawsuit, to build a large, mixed-use development outside the city limits—one that's sure to cause traffic headaches and could also threaten environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake.
But an attorney for SDD is still waiting for the N.C. Department of Transportation to produce relevant documents, he told Superior Court Judge G. Wayne Abernathy today. Abernathy granted the continuance to Cal Cunningham so he could continue to gather evidence from N.C. DOT in the case.
The case appears to hinge upon which employees of the N.C. DOT signed documents accepting the rights to a strip of land along N.C. 751, which the state one day could widen. The acceptance of the land rights by N.C. DOT threw a technical twist into the rezoning process last summer, and essentially aided zoning approval for the developer. If a judge finds the signature was valid and legal, SDD could keep its zoning for a large mixed-use project that could include 1,300 residences and 600,000 square feet of offices and shops. If the judge finds the signature was not from a person legally designated by the state to accept the land, the developer might lose the zoning and have to go back through the process, which has been winding and torturous.
In court Monday, attorney Dhamian Blue and his father, Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, represented the plaintiffs. Dhamian Blue said Cunningham's request boiled down to a delay tactic to drive up legal costs for their clients, unhappy property owners across from where 751 South is supposed to be built.
In the past year, lawyers for the developers have made no secret of the fact that time is money—about $2,000 a day in carrying costs for the 167-acre property SDD purchased in 2008 for $18 million. On Monday, Cunningham cited the figure at $3,000 a day in interest, and denied any purposeful sluggishness.
"The costs are clearly being borne by my client," Cunningham told the judge. "They've got me moving fast, and I'm moving fast."
With the continuance, Cunningham expects to take sworn statements from several N.C. DOT employees in December, he said.
Meanwhile, SDD has announced that it plans to file a new application with Durham's planning department to amend three commitments it made when county commissioners approved the project in 2010.
Of the three changes, the most drastic appears to be a request from SDD to increase the amount of impervious surface in the development.
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.
"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.)
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.
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.