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2013 elections begin with Russell Allen and the scandal he left behind

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Finally, the siege of Raleigh has been lifted. The General Assembly is gone, having done its worst. The city endures, and September offers us a welcome respite with the return of our best cultural events, including Sparkcon, Hopscotch, Bikefest, the African-American festival and, this year, the World of Bluegrass, a premiere gathering that we copped from Nashville.

The transformation of downtown Raleigh in the last decade—think about it—is nothing short of astounding. I mean, how can you not love Raleigh? But make no mistake: Raleigh has issues, and with city elections coming in October, we should hear more about them. I'll point to four:

Transit #fail. Didn't we say, in 1998, 2000 and 2005, that never again should Raleigh be asked to vote on a local transportation bond issue that was all road widening and no mass transit? The 2011 transportation bond had a smidgen of transit. But in 2013, the question on the ballot is again whether to approve $75 million for wider roads, with a dab of sidewalks—but no transit at all. This is bad for a city starting to choke on its traffic.

Rezonings 'R' Us. Four years after Raleigh adopted a new comprehensive plan, we finally have a new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) to go with it, effective Sept. 1. Thus, all of Raleigh is about to be rezoned. Let the battles begin. One is in Northeast Raleigh, where a six-acre site at New Hope and Buffaloe roads is designated in the comp plan for "neighborhood mixed-use." Would a 24-7 Sheetz gasoline station fill that bill? Neighbors say no. But the city's planning staff says yes, an interpretation with broad implications that City Councilors Russ Stephenson and John Odom are fighting.

Scandal at the RBTC. What The News & Observer accurately described as "a scathing city audit" points to possible criminality on a grand scale at the city-supported Raleigh Business and Technology Center. Created in 2000 as a business incubator, the RBTC became a slush fund for self-serving Southeast Raleigh politicos. But it was never audited until this year. That's awful.

Firing Russell Allen. As city manager for 12 years, he ran Raleigh government his way, until the City Council fired him this spring. Perhaps you wondered why? Start with the three items above.

About Russell Allen, I'll say that he was, as far as I know, honest, hard-working and a good manager in many ways. I liked him. But I never mistook him for a visionary. He was a budget-cruncher, not a change agent. Whatever Raleigh government was doing, he'd explain it, defend it and continue it, but he didn't critique it—as the scandal at the incubator amply demonstrates.

Change, he told me more than once when I complained about something, would happen when there were five votes for it—a majority—on the eight-member City Council. Otherwise, Allen was the decider.

Thus, Allen brushed off individual council members when they suggested, for example, that he beef up his tiny audit staff of three, or check whether money could be saved on prescription drugs under the employee health care plan—a subject that Mayor Nancy McFarlane, a pharmacist, publicly mentioned several times.

Putting her off will turn out to be another Allen mistake, I predict.

Meanwhile, councilors Stephenson and Thomas Crowder were forever wrestling with the planning staff on behalf of constituents and a transit-friendly future, an effort Allen found totally uninteresting.

The battle for control boiled over when Allen insisted that he was right and four council members were wrong about his $207 million plan for a new public safety center—an extravagant proposal with obvious flaws, in my opinion, but more to the point, one doomed to fail on a 4-4 vote.

This year, when councilors met for Allen's performance review, the vote was 6-2 to fire him. Mary-Ann Baldwin and Eugene Weeks dissented.

Allen's dismissal was controversial, especially with The News & Observer. In articles and editorials, the newspaper has taken up for Allen while questioning whether council members should "meddle" in city government by asking questions of department heads and staff.

The N&O cites as evidence a column in Governing magazine, a respected trade journal, by former Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser. In it, Funkhouser criticizes elected officials in Oakland, Calif., and to a lesser extent, Raleigh, for undermining their city managers by being too "hands-on." In Oakland, a study showed that elected officials were constantly pressuring staffers. In Raleigh, the offense was talking to department heads—and firing Allen.

This strikes me as ridiculous, for two reasons. First, I expect council members to question the manager and, if they're not satisfied with his answer, question his staff. I have that right. So do you. So do they. And, in fact, Allen himself always encouraged people, including council members, to go to the source for answers.

Not questioning staff is how you get an incubator scandal brewing for 12 years.

My second problem with the Governing article is a practical one.

Raleigh council members have no staff of their own to help them conduct oversight in the way Funkhouser suggests. They are part-time (the mayor makes $17,000; councilors less) with three staff assistants among them to answer the phones. The assistants report to the city manager, as do all city employees, except the attorney and clerk.

In Kansas City, a city of similar size, the mayor's salary is $123,000, and City Council members are paid $61,000. The mayor has 13 people on his professional staff, not including secretaries. The 12-member council has 24.

With staff and a full-time mayor and council, strong oversight is possible. But as long as Raleigh persists with a Mayberry-style of government for a city of 432,000, we should write thank-you notes to our elected officials when they try to go it alone for us—not accuse them of meddling.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Managing or meddling?"

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