Russ Stephenson | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Russ Stephenson 

Candidate for Raleigh City Council At-Large

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Russ Stephenson
Full legal name, if different: Russell G. Stephenson
Date of birth: 10/29/55
Home address: 213 Oberlin Rd, Raleigh NC 27605
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site:
Occupation & employer: Architect / Urban Designer. Employer: self
Home phone:
Work phone: 919-828-3699

1) What do you believe are the most important issues facing Raleigh? If elected, what are your top priorities in addressing those issues?

Quality Growth

Quality Growth begins with quality planning. In these tough economic times, many important but expensive city projects will have to be delayed. Meanwhile, the recession provides some breathing room to make inexpensive, strategic investments in quality planning that will pay long-term dividends when the economy improves. The most important effort underway is Raleigh's Comprehensive Plan update.

Strong Neighborhoods

Safe, clean and stable neighborhoods protect our most important investments, providing the foundation for Raleigh's social and economic well-being. My record of accomplishments includes putting more police on the streets, engaging citizens in more decisions affecting them, making our streets safer for all users and ages, and cracking down on substandard, absentee landlord properties.

Environmental Stewardship

Environmental protection is no longer the sole province of environmentalists, but has taken center stage as a key element of every world-class city's competitive edge in creating a high quality of life for its citizens and in attracting the best companies and their jobs.

I am one of the few elected officials in North Carolina accredited (LEED-AP) by the leading international organization for sustainable development. My advocacy for policies that combine quality growth with environmental protection have made me one of only a few Councilors who have consistently earned the Sierra Club's endorsement.

Fiscal Responsibility

I have taken a leading position on Council in working to make sure Raleigh is competitive with other cities by challenging conventional ways of doing business, both in & out of government, reaching out to build consensus for innovation and shared prosperity, while working every day to excel in every aspect of city life.

For details see:,,

Shared Prosperity

One of the measures of a great city is how well the benefits of a healthy economy and a high quality of life are shared within the community. In addition to basic needs like food, shelter and basic health care, a great city creates opportunities for all who wish to work hard toward achieving the American Dream.

In addition to the quality K-12 educational opportunities provided by the Wake County School System, Raleigh can help open the door to the American Dream in ways that benefits all citizens with public transit, affordable housing choices, and job opportunities.

2) What is there in your record as a public official or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be effective on the council? This might include career or community service; but please be specific about its relevance to this office.

Since joining Council in 2005, I have used my professional expertise in sustainable growth planning ( ) to build consensus on Council and in public opinion for significant, successful policy initiatives to replace out of date and inefficient approaches to growth and development with more sustainable approaches that protect our natural resources, attract higher quality development and protect our quality of life, while costing property taxpayers and utility ratepayers less.

Record on Quality Growth Management

Concrete examples are noted in Q6: reigning in inefficient sprawl growth and replacing our consumption-based water resources planning model with a much more sustainable conservation-based model.

Also see,,

Record on Transit Planning

Raleigh's ability to become a healthy and competitive 21st century city depends on developing effective transit options that take advantage of renewable energy sources and cost-effective development patterns. As far back as 2003 I worked as Chair of the Raleigh Planning Commission's Transit Committee to develop Raleigh's first transit zoning district. Since laying that foundation, I have continued to build consensus on Council and in the business community for transit.

In the fall of 2007, I worked with several councilors, the Chamber of Commerce and other transit advocates in planning an influential trip to study Charlotte's transit success. Since then, I have continued to advocate in constituent newsletters and in public forums for transit in Raleigh and the region. See .

Record On Dix Park

I have always been one of the most committed advocates for preserving the open space and historic buildings associated with the Dorothea Dix property. In 2004, I worked with Professor Will Hooker and others to protect Dix open space near NC State's Spring Hill development. Throughout 2005 and 2006 I communicated with Legislators, parks advocates and preservationists about a Council Resolution in support of preserving all the Dix property. When Dix Park advocates hired a talented team of planners and economists to design a world class park for all the Dix property, I was one of the first to support it and lobby the mayor and fellow councilors to sign on. Since then, public opinion has been solidly behind the world class park plan, so long as the state's pressing mental health needs can be met as well.

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

My approach to the job of City Councilor has been both simple and challenging: to make daily decisions that will keep Raleigh healthy and competitive in the long run.

Staying Healthy - Keeping Raleigh healthy requires doing several things well at the same time, including (1) environmental stewardship, (2) safeguarding the physical, social and economic well-being of our citizens, and (3) actively championing local businesses - the engines of wealth creation and innovation.

Staying Competitive - Governing a city that aspires to excellence among competing cities requires a clear game plan, a team approach, and a highly competitive spirit. We have all enjoyed celebrating high national rankings, but we still have plenty of room for improvement.

Achieving our goals requires competing at a high level by challenging conventional ways of doing business, both in & out of government, reaching out to build consensus for innovation and shared prosperity, while working every day to excel in every aspect of city life.


1. Challenging conventional ways of doing business in government: See my efforts to reign in inefficient sprawl development and our unsustainable water resources planning, noted in Q6

2. Challenging conventional ways of doing business in the private sector: In the past, Raleigh's economic engine was fueled by cheap gas, cheap land and seemingly inexhaustible natural resources. I have consistently championed a more sustainable 21 Century economy that replaces consumption with conservation:

4) Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Raleigh has designed and begun construction of a $68 million reuse water system that will supply treated wastewater to large water consumers (70% for irrigation) across Raleigh -- from near Clayton to the Fairgrounds -- complete with 200 ft tall storage towers, pumps and pipes. While the principle of substituting reuse water for drinking water is sound, there are major questions for ratepayers:

(1) Though the system will benefit mostly large institutional users, the capital costs of the system are being borne entirely by Raleigh system ratepayers.

(2) What happens system profitability and the ratepayers' investment if, in the future, reuse customers decide to develop their own sources such as nearby lakes or stormwater capture devices?

(3) The city charges all customers a monthly stormwater utility fee to pay for mitigating the runoff impacts of impervious surfaces, including flooding and lake sedimentation. Why is the city not doing more to encourage onsite rainwater capture and reuse - reducing both runoff impacts and the cost of water used for lawn irrigation?

5) What are the two or three most important program or policy initiatives you will champion if elected to the Raleigh Council? Or, to put it another way, how will your election change anything in Raleigh?

Raleigh continues to be one of the most attractive places in the United States to live, work and raise a family. The challenge of our success is how to manage the pressures future growth so that it improves, rather than detracts from our quality of life.

There are three very important policy initiatives on the horizon that, with a clear Council vision of success in the 21st century, have the potential to set clear standards for high quality, highly competitive, sustained growth and prosperity.

Raleigh's New Comprehensive Plan

This plan will guide Raleigh's growth for the next 20 years. While the document contains an impressive array state-of-the-art city planning concepts, the Council will be faced with important decisions about whether aspirational language chosen by the consultants gives clear policy direction to future decision makers. This is the time for the Council to make the policy intent clear.

Raleigh's New Zoning Code

Work is already underway to replace Raleigh's outdated 1950's zoning regulations with a new zoning code based on our new Comprehensive Plan. It will be up to the Council to make sure the policy intent of the Comp Plan is translated into development rules which promote high quality growth to improve, rather than detract from our quality of life and natural resources.

Funding a 21st Century Transit System

The most important infrastructure investment strategy for Raleigh's future will be its 21st century transit system. Success depends on voter approval of a funding source -- probably a countywide ½ cent sales tax. The key to success in a voter referendum will depend on local leaders' ability to plan a system (1) with broad benefits in the early years of implementation and (2) one that takes advantage of innovative financing and partnerships to develop high tax value growth at rail transit locations.

6) What can you point to in your record, on the Council or in community service, to demonstrate that you'll be an effective city leader?

Since being elected to Council in 2005, I have not voted to raise property taxes. Instead, I've worked to make government more efficient and responsive to citizens, and to make growth pay its fair share of the cost of new roads, parks, water treatment plants and other growth-related capital projects.

See for full details, including

(1) how I stopped city plans to make Raleigh taxpayers subsidize infrastructure for six thousand acres of future sprawl and

(2) how I worked for more than a year to convince Council and the city administration to change from an unsustainable consumption-based water resources plan to a sustainable strategy focused on long-term water resources conservation and cost effectiveness

7) Recent droughts have underlined Raleigh's water problems. Growth could cause the city to run out. On the other hand, the city isn't selling enough water to pay down the debt on its existing systems, resulting in rate increases. How should Raleigh deal with water in the coming years?

The drought of 2007-2008 brought home three important realities:

First, that our water supplies are reaching their limits.

Second, when water sales are down due to the drought and citizen conservation efforts, ratepayers can't be expected to make up all the difference for the lost revenues.

Third, it makes little sense to pay for expensive peak capacity, just to accommodate the tens of millions of gallons of drinking water we put out on the ground for landscaping in hot summer months. Instead, we should be incentivizing new 'green' businesses to provide rainwater harvesting and water-efficient landscapes.

The responsibility of moving from a consumption based water utility system to a conservation based system has to be borne more broadly. Here are the initiatives that I championed:

(1) Requiring newcomers to pay a fairer share of the new capacity costs they create

(2) Delaying millions of dollars of non-essential utility capital projects,

(3) Implementing tiered water rates to reward low-water users with lower rates, while setting higher rates for large water users to encourage conservation, and

(4) Incentivizing water-conserving businesses and practices.

These initiatives may sound self-evident now, but the work required to convince a Council majority that the City's multi-million dollar Public Utilities Enterprise was headed in an unsustainable direction took almost a year of determined effort. ( see )

8) Crime and gang problems plague some parts of the city. Is there more the Council should be doing to go after them?

Though gang activity has not been in the news as much as in other areas, Raleigh has a serios and growing gang problem. Fortunately, Chief Dolan and Manger Allen have taken the gang problem and seriously, committing substantial resources both in policing and in a range of community service improvements.

In addition to receiving federal stimulus funding for 59 community police officers, Chief Dolan has initiated an number of programs to put retired police officers in neighborhoods as mentors, enlisted citizens in watch programs, and is working to establish neighborhood offices in troubled locations, putting officers in closer contact with citizens. Other stepped-up efforts include graffiti removal and a pilot camera program for public locations.

Raleigh's new Directors of Community Services and Parks and Recreation are working together to provide more after-school programs and expanded youth programs in neighborhood community centers. Plans are underway to use $760,000 of federal stimulus funds to renovate the vacant, historic St. Monica's school in the troubled Idlewild neighborhood as a teen center. Longer range efforts include funded planning for a job skills training center in Southeast Raleigh.

9) Are new initiatives needed to address the city's fast-growing Hispanic population? If so, what do you recommend?

The lack of a national policy on undocumented workers has created an untenable situation for documented workers, business employing immigrants, local law enforcement agencies, as well as for the undocumented workers who provide low-wage labor while living 'underground'. Until a national policy is established, local efforts will be inconsistent, but statewide fines for hiring undocumented workers would reduce the incentives for entering the US illegally.

Documented workers, on the other hand,

10) Does Raleigh need better public transit services? (A lot better?) If yes, what specific steps do you advocate, and how would you pay for them?


Q5 above: Funding a 21st Century Transit System

11) Raleigh's development fees (impact and capacity fees) are the lowest in the region, meaning that current residents shoulder the lion's share of the cost of growth, not developers or newcomers. Should these fees be increased, and if so, by how much?

Utility capacity fees are charged to new growth to help pay for expensive new water and sewer treatment plants, but new growth pays only a fraction of the annual multi-million dollar cost. The rest is funded by ratepayers and Raleigh ratepayers pay a much higher percentage than the fastest growing municipalities in Wake County.

The fastest growing towns -- Holly Springs, Morrisville, Apex and Cary charge capacity fees averaging about $5200 per new dwelling unit for new water and sewer capital projects serving growth. Raleigh charges less than half that amount. The rest -- millions of dollars a year - is paid by Raleigh ratepayers.

Homebuilders claim that raising capacity fees will hurt growth, but the fact is that the fastest-growing municipalities have the highest capacity fees.

Homebuilders also point to the burden of additional fees on their bottom lines, particularly in this economic downturn. But ratepayers, especially those with limited and fixed incomes, have the equally heavy burden of being required to subsidize new growth's water and sewer expansions right now.

For more on capacity fees and growth funding see:

12) Raleigh's never required developers to include affordable housing (however "affordable" might be defined) as a condition for approval of tall buildings or big subdivisions? Should it? If so, what rules should apply?

As Raleigh grows, affordable housing for much of the city's workforce, including police, firefighters, and other service workers is becoming increasingly hard to find within the city limits. The new Comprehensive Plan and upcoming zoning code update provide opportunities to incentivize more affordable housing opportunities in several settings: (1) near transit where location efficient mortgages take advantage of the financial efficiencies of living near transit, where less of a monthly budget goes to private transportation; (2) in new growth areas where mixed income communities could offer a broader range of housing prices, in addition to creating opportunities for citizens to live in the same neighborhood as they transition from singles, to young families, to larger families and then to empty-nesters. (3) Additional options are described here:

13) What's the best thing about the proposed comprehensive plan for Raleigh? What's the worst thing? As it stands, would you vote to adopt it or insist on changes first?

This plan will guide Raleigh's growth for the next 20 years. While the document contains an impressive array state-of-the-art city planning concepts, the Council will be faced with important decisions about whether aspirational language chosen by the consultants gives clear policy direction to future decision makers. This is the time for the Council to make the policy intent clear.

While the draft Comprehensive Plan makes extensive references to future transit oriented development patterns, it contains no proposed land use category designed specifically for transit oriented development.

One way to relieve the pressure for inefficient growth in undeveloped areas where no transit is planned is to focus more development at rail transit stops. While the city's Comp Plan consultant recommended 70% of Raleigh's projected 20-year growth be in transit districts, the current draft projects about 60% of growth in transit districts, leaving more growth away from the rail transit that could otherwise reduce congestion, air pollution, and the cost of new roads and parking facilities.

14) Public schools are a county, not city function. Should the city nonetheless act to assist the schools, and if so, in what ways?

In new growth areas, Raleigh should do more planning that includes reserving land for schools, especially in close proximity to transit and the mixed income communities described in Q12. I also support a countywide impact fee for new schools, so more of our property tax dollars can be spent on academic excellence and less on buildings to accommodate growth.

15) Raleigh's form of government—strong manager, weak council and mayor—combined with the fact that almost all city meetings are held during daytime hours, have the effect of limiting the extent to which average citizens can participate in government decisions. Is this a problem, in your view? If so, what changes should be made? Is this a priority for you?

More board and commission meetings that affect citizens should be held at times which respect their work schedules. While the city has made some progress in making information readily available over the internet, the city website still needs major improvements (which are scheduled). The city needs to make more effective use of it television broadcast capabilities to deliver information to citizens. Finally, the city needs to do more to reduce the digital divide that limits many citizens' timely and cost-effective access to information.

16) Two years ago, the Indy asked every council candidate if s/he would support extending to same-sex partners the same benefits (e.g., health insurance) on the same basis that they are now offered to the spouses of city employees. Virtually everyone said yes, but to date nothing's been done. Is it time?

In order to compete with other cities for top talent, Raleigh should provide the kind of gender neutral partner benefits offered by the top RTP corporations.

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