Don Moffitt | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week
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Don Moffitt 

Durham City Council (Ward 3)

Don Moffitt
Occupation: Support services for cooperatively owned businesses/CDS Consulting Co-op
Phone Number: 919-286-1717
Email Address:
Years Lived in Durham: 25

1) Durham residents, from the new group Durham for All to the demonstrators who tore down the Confederate monument on Main Street, are calling for more power to be placed in the hands of the people. In what ways do you think Durham can improve public participation in local government? How would you make room for that in city government?

Participation begins with access to elected officials, with being available and personally engaged. I never turn down a request to attend a neighborhood meeting to discuss the issues important to residents. My answer is always yes when I’m asked if someone lives in my ward, regardless of their address. Every year the council holds extra meetings across the city, on Saturdays and in the evening, to listen to and talk with Durham’s residents about the issues that matter to them. I make it a priority to attend each of those meetings, and may have missed two in the five years I’ve been on Council.

One way we encourage public participation is through 25 boards and commissions made up of hundreds of Durham residents that act and advise on a wide range of issues: Latinx matters, human relations, trails and open space, HUD grant spending, capital expenditures, zoning issues, public art, bike and pedestrian issues, parks & recreation, environmental affairs, workforce development, women’s issues and more.

One new initiative that we’re discussing which I think has a lot of promise for increasing public participation is participatory budgeting, which started in Brazil. Although it’s not widely used in the United States, it’s slowly taking hold. Residents form councils and generate ideas for funding, then a popular vote is held to determine what is funded. Voters can include youth, convicted felons and other atypical voters. I believe we will implement it within the next two to three years.

2) Because of state law, municipalities have a number of restrictions placed on them by the legislature: they can’t, for instance, be a sanctuary city, impose a city-wide minimum wage, enforce inclusionary zoning, or remove Confederate monuments. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?

The reality is that each city is a subdivision of the state, with no legal standing to pass ordinances that do not conform to state law. That means, unfortunately, that we must change the legislature to change state laws.

In 2003 the Board of County Commissioners felt very strongly (and, I thought, reasonably) that a school impact fee should be imposed on new developments, instead of the current taxpayers having to fund new schools that are required for a growing population., The legislature refused to give them specific authority to impose the fee. The BOCC imposed it anyway and collected $7.5 million in fees. When they lost in court, they had to refund all of the fees collected, pay their own legal fees and, I believe, those of the developers who took them to court. It was time consuming, expensive and in the end had zero effect.

Rather than directly opposing the legislature I prefer to find solutions that fit within the law and still accomplish what we need to do. We’re able to effect positive changes by doing so.

When the legislature ended involuntary annexation, they did away with an important tool for cities to manage their growth in an orderly fashion. However, new developments need city utilities. We used that to require them to submit petitions for voluntary annexation which allows us to manage our growth. That left us with numerous “doughnut” holes, in-holdings where county fire and law enforcement were dispatched, which were surrounded by the city where city fire and law enforcement were dispatched. In part because we don’t directly confront the legislature on matters where we have no legal standing, this past June the legislature itself annexed all the doughnut holes into the city.

There are places where we do not directly contravene state law but where we do not act entirely in accordance with the wishes of the legislature. The term “sanctuary city” has no legal meaning and we do not define Durham as such. However, we have made it clear to DPD that routine investigations of traffic offenses and misdemeanors do not require a check of immigration status, that we do not consider it a crime to be an unauthorized immigrant.

Our misdemeanor diversion program is another initiative to work within existing laws to change outcomes indirectly but substantively. We know that being charged with minor crimes can ruin a young life. Rather than continue to charge youth with minor offenses we encourage the police department to refer them to the diversion program. in the three years since its implementation hundreds of Durham youth have been referred and have been enrolled. Over 98% completed the program. Of the participants who have been out of the program at least 12 months, 89% of them avoided a second involvement with the justice system.

3) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Durham take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Durham’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?

People are frustrated with the slow pace of social change. They no longer believe the federal or state governments will do anything to promote justice of any sort.

We must continue to take a lead role on issues of social justice. We’ve been working on reforming the way we police our community, and I believe we are seeing positive results. The department itself contracted with RTI for the veil of darkness study, and when the results showed continuing bias it was the department which immediately released the results, along with a commitment to continue to focus on elimination of bias. We’ve implemented the misdemeanor diversion program, which starts with referrals by police officers, and we’ve seen hundreds of youth diverted from being charged with low level crimes. Trust remains low between the department and parts of Durham. The challenge was highlighted by statements by the head of the Residents’ Council to the Human Relations Commission regarding police in the community. On the one hand, she related that heavy-handed police tactics resulted in the men in the community refusing to go to the store without taking with them one of their kids; on the other hand she also related that when police were not visibly present crime rose quickly.

We’ve had three Durham residents killed by police (two by DPD officers, one by a state trooper) in the last few months. No videos of any of those shootings appears to exist. In 2015, when Levante Biggs was killed by police, the department had no video and asked the public to provide any footage they had. That is not the way we should collect evidence and information. Despite limitations on transparency by the legislature, I believe that the implementation of body cameras is a good step towards providing the community with more information about interactions between residents and police. This is particularly important in communities of color which have been historically over-policed.

In promoting social justice, the council has taken progressive stands on immigration issues and publicly supported refugees in Durham. We must continue our advocacy and support for all parts of Durham.

4) Durham’s public housing stock is aging, and there is limited money to redevelop units. What are your ideas for keeping residents of public housing in quality, affordable homes?

The housing study we commissioned with Enterprise in 2015 showed the scale of the need for more affordable housing. We lack thousands of homes for very low income families, which are cost-burdened by paying over 30%--and in many cases over 50%--of their income for housing.

An additional problem is that to find housing that’s affordable residents are forced to “drive until they qualify”, moving further and further from necessary services and jobs.

Solutions to both problems are achievable. We have to create a supply of housing affordable for very low income households, and we have to foster the creation of affordable housing in and around our compact neighborhood tiers (which include the future rail station locations).

We must work closely with the Durham Housing Authority to create new housing that will win NC Low Income Housing Tax Credits, an important and competitive source for funding We must include the community in the planning for the redevelopment of Fayette Place. We have to ensure that residents of DHA communities are not displaced while renovations are underway. We must work with nonprofit organizations in the community like the Durham Community Land Trustees, CASA, DHIC and Habitat for Humanity to create and maintain more affordable homes. And we must find ways to encourage and even invest in low income housing in new market-rate developments. Finally, we must overhaul zoning and land use patterns for the compact neighborhood tiers around the future rail stations.

5) While much of Durham has seen a renaissance during Mayor Bell’s tenure, the city’s poverty rate has also increased. What are your ideas for lowering Durham’s poverty rate, other than providing affordable housing? How can Durham’s renaissance be spread more equitably throughout the city?

Jobs are critical, jobs where people are valued and paid accordingly. The unemployment rate in communities of color is far too high, and the disparity with the rest of Durham is too great. We have to be proactive in searching for manufacturing jobs. At the same time we must support the growth of local businesses, which keep money circulating locally and create stable jobs. The Durham Co-op Market is a good example—they hire from their community and employ people who were recently involved with the justice system. Cooperatively owned businesses are especially important; it’s an under-developed part of the economy that we can help promote and support.

We need to create a neighborhood stabilization fund to help low-income home owners with recent significant increases in their property tax, and to help them with critical health-related repairs to their homes.

The other side of the renaissance is gentrification--we have to be thoughtful and careful when considering how to encourage economic growth throughout the city so that we do not create the unintended consequence of disrupting long-time neighborhoods.

6) The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has moved into the engineering phase, although the Trump administration seems reticent to fund it. What are your thoughts on light rail? If completed, do you believe the project will be worth the community’s investment? Why or why not?

I support the development of light rail, with reservation and some concern. There’s no question that because of the state legislature’s limitations on state investment the cost for local government has risen significantly. However, reasonable projections show that it will not require additional taxes. It’s a project that will positively shape this end of the Triangle for decades to come, in terms of congestion, density, jobs and transportation.

The light rail line will connect residents of all income levels to substantially more jobs than they currently have access to. Rail stations will be served by a spoke and hub system of buses that will connect residents who live outside the walk zone to the light rail system. Land use patterns will shift to create dense zones of development, helping to relieve the development pressures on other parts of Durham.

Bus Rapid Transit has been touted as a cheaper alternative. However, BRT on dedicated infrastructure, separate from the road system, will not result in substantial cost savings. The state cap on funding light rail also applies to BRT. Neither NC 54 nor 15-501 will have enough lanes to build infrastructure for BRT in the right of way. If buses use the same surface roads as private vehicles they will be mired in the same congestion.

The federal budget will be determined by Congress. Trump could veto the budget, but it’s likely that the federal transit program will continue. Clearly, though, if federal funding is lost it will be critical to reevaluate our light rail investment.

7) Given the current direction of Durham city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes you will advocate if elected?

Generally, yes, I believe that things are on the right track. Our departments are focused on engaging residents in many aspects of the city’s work, holding public information sessions all over the city to talk about initiatives and gather input. We hold council meetings across the city in the spring to hear from residents about budget issues. We promote diversity on our resident advisory boards and within companies that contract with the city, and we must continue that work. We created an Innovation Team to work on creative solutions to key problems, starting with financial inclusion—extending the financial successes of the past ten years to all our residents. We have a new police chief and the department is in the middle of a shift in how they carry out their responsibilities. They’ve established liaisons to both the LGBTQ and Hispanic communities. We’ve implemented the misdemeanor diversion program to reduce the number of our youth who are charged with relatively minor crimes which can alter their lives irreparably. Financially the city is on very solid ground. Our AAA bond rating lowers the cost of borrowing, which is ultimately paid by taxpayers.

The city is responsive to the community, and proactive in building a more stronger and more just society here. We must continue these initiatives and build on them.

8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

The division of wealth across the country is staggering. It’s impact is felt and lived here in many different ways, and we have to do what we can to lift up the many whose share of wealth is in decline. Three initiatives that I’ve supported and will continue to support are affordable housing, a neighborhood stabilization fund and work on economic inclusion by our Innovation Team. For affordable housing, I’ll continue to push for adequate funding, a plan for all city-owned properties in the compact neighborhood tiers, stronger partnerships with the Durham Housing Authority and our nonprofit partners. I’ll also push for completing the work to incentivize private developers to include affordable homes in new projects. I’ll continue to push for the development of the neighborhood stabilization fund so that it can be used for critical repairs as well as significant tax increases, and so that it’ll be available more widely than the pilot program allows.

We must understand and come to terms with the fact that there are great disparities in the way social systems benefit and treat residents based on race, and we must work for a more just society. The first step is understanding where we are now and how we arrived here. I have successfully advocated for racial equity training in city government--the entire city manager’s office, as well as every department director and assistant director, and many others have participated over the past year. I will continue to press for funding to enable more city employees to participate each year. I will advocate for the city to be a visible example to businesses and residents, and I will press for a fund to help offset the cost of attending a training for individuals.

The relationship between the community and Durham Police Department continues to be strained. Trust in DPD is at a low point, and it will take a long time and hard work to change it. I will continue to advocate for transparency, for clear and timely communications with the community and for policing that demonstrates respect for residents of Durham. I will continue to push for Crisis Intervention Training for all patrol officers and racial equity training for the entire department. I will also continue to advocate for officers to live in Durham.

9) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?

I serve on City Council now, and have for five years. I prepare thoroughly, listen to residents carefully and consider the impacts on everyone. I’m a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (our multi-jurisdictional regional transportation planning group), the Joint City/County Planning Committee (working on land use issues) and the Durham Crime Cabinet. I’m the city council liaison to the Human Relations Commission. I co-chair the Mayor’s Task Force on Health for the Transformation in Ten Initiative, and I’m on the board of the Museum of Durham History. I served on the Durham Planning Commission and the boards of the Eno River Association and the NC Conservation Network and chaired all of them. I have a professional degree in architecture and an MBA. For four years I was the project manager for the Durham Co-op Market—finding a location, getting it financed and overseeing its buildout. I have years of business experience and advise cooperatively-owned grocery stores across the country as a member of CDS Consulting Co-op.

10) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?

One action that should have been handled differently is the creation of a neighborhood stabilization program. There were lots of ideas by council members and residents, but staff appeared to be lukewarm and was not as responsive as we needed. Staff would bring a proposal to council, members of the community would weigh in on how it should be changed, we’d refer it back to staff, and the cycle would begin again. I was frustrated when it was pushed from spring to late summer. It felt like we weren’t making any progress and the low income home owners who needed help were getting nothing. We finally bypassed the staff’s recommendations and passed a program to assist Southside homeowners in the first round. Southside is an area where the city has made a lot of investment in revitalization programs, and residents there approached us for help in the first place. It’s a good first step but it left out many low income homeowners in Northeast Central Durham and Southwest Central Durham.

Although it’s been a little more than a year, one of the city’s best accomplishments is the hiring of our new police chief. She brought with her new perspectives on accountability, the way we police throughout our community and the importance of the relationship between the women and men of the department and the community. The department’s response to recent events—to stay back and allow peaceful protests in order to refrain from provoking any reaction—is a good indication of her leadership. She took a lot of heat for it but the results—no injuries and almost no property damage—speak for themselves.

11) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I’m a socially progressive Democrat and a moderate regarding fiscal responsibility.

12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Durham is on a positive trajectory, with work yet to do to build a truly just society. We’ve gotten as far as we have by working together, listening carefully, considering all of the implications of any decision and usually reaching consensus on how to proceed. It can be a slow and frustrating process, but it builds a strong city. I will continue that work as long as I’m on the city council.


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