The Meeker Majority on the Raleigh City Council lately lacks Meeker.
The "majority" were the five members, including Mayor Charles Meeker, who emerged from the 2007 Raleigh city elections as a potential progressive alliance on neighborhood and growth issues. But a year later, when asked about his majority, Meeker was moved to quip, "Where is it?"
His four allies, meanwhile, have various problems with the mayor—including their shared anger over his remark that their frequent meetings together are "improper." They say the meetings are nothing of the sort, and several maintain the purpose is to create a vision for Raleigh's growth—because Meeker hasn't.
The Meeker Majority was always tentative, a confederation among a pair of strong-minded council veterans, Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson; two newly elected members, Rodger Koopman and Nancy McFarlane; and a mayor who, since taking office in 2001, has earned a reputation for moving cautiously and—his term—"governing from the middle."
Indeed, as Meeker points out, the MM tag is something the media invented, not one he's ever used.
Still, the mayor says, the current council quickly resolved a number of major issues that previous councils, with their pro-developer majorities, couldn't—or wouldn't.
"This council has been more effective in dealing with challenging issues than any council in recent memory," Meeker said, despite battling a drought and, now, a tanking economy.
As examples, Meeker lists: doubling impact fees on new developments; rejecting subsidies for commercial parking decks in the form of TIFs (tax-increment financing); completing the design for a City Plaza on Fayetteville Street; addressing infill and teardown issues;and preserving Horseshoe Farm Park in Northeast Raleigh as a nature park.
Moreover, he added, the city recently celebrated the opening of the new Raleigh Convention Center and the Marriott Hotel on Fayetteville Street, "the most successful opening of a major public project that I've ever been associated with."
And, he said, laughing, "this council didn't screw it up."
Despite the shared successes, however, a rift between Meeker and at least three of the four councilors has been developing all year. It came to a head in recent weeks over filling a vacancy on the city planning commission, plus a pair of contentious development projects in Cameron Village and the Stanhope neighborhood, both near Hillsborough Street and N.C. State University.
While these issues were being debated behind the scenes, The News & Observer reported that the four councilors have been meeting and talking as a group throughout the year, a practice that is completely legal but which Meeker nonetheless called "improper" if they were plotting to block a development project.
Under the state's open meetings law, five members of the eight-member council cannot meet in private because they constitute a majority capable of making decisions outside of public view. There's no bar in the law, though, against four councilors talking together—and such meetings, in various combination, are common in Raleigh City Hall.
But Meeker says he warned his allies months ago that their meetings, if held regularly, were a bad idea. Why? Because the other three council members consider them disrespectful, and they'd be improper if the four discussed "tactics" for stalling development cases, since a 4-4 split equals defeat.
Crowder, Koopman, McFarlane and Stephenson all reject the idea that what they're doing is in any way inappropriate. Koopman said he was "extremely disturbed" by the mayor's criticism, a thought the other two men echoed. McFarlane, more soft-spoken, said she's "frustrated" by the need to respond to something "that's just not an issue."
"I don't like having my character impugned," McFarlane added. "I'm pretty upset about that, too."
McFarlane said the foursome's meetings are a way for her to convey neighborhood concerns from her North Raleigh district and hear what's up inside the Beltline. "I'm the only council member who lives in North Raleigh," she noted. "There isn't any kind of collusion. I'm just dumbfounded that some people might see this as a bad thing."
The others went further. Koopman said Raleigh's strong manager/weak council form of government (the mayor's paid $15,000; councilors, $11,000) demands "professionalism" from the city manager and his department heads. But too often, "it's amateur hour at city hall," and he's forced to turn to his fellow council members for reliable guidance on policy questions.
Crowder, Stephenson and McFarlane are smart, knowledgeable and enjoy the give-and-take of isssues, Koopman added. Meeker doesn't enjoy it, "can't wait to get you off the phone," and doesn't believe in the careful planning that great cities require. "Communities that actually do plan are more successful at all levels," Koopman said.
Crowder said the group meets because they have shared values, consider neighborhood interests as well as developers' plans, and want to shape Raleigh's future growth as a well-planned, "sustainable" city.
"Where's his vision?" he said of Meeker. If they didn't talk among themselves, Crowder added, the already lengthy public council meetings would be "8 to midnight—we'd never get done."
Other council members—including veteran Councilors Philip Isley and James West—don't like pushing developers or challenging their projects, Stephenson maintained. Nor, he said, does Meeker. "Charles is," Stephenson went on, pausing to consider his words, "not as interested in changing the status quo or strengthening citizen involvement in growth issues."
Thus, the three men agreed, a lot of their time is spent figuring out how to get five votes—meaning, usually, Meeker's vote—for initiatives such as:
- Conserving drinking water and helping businesses and homeowners install systems for rainwater capture and reuse. There's agreement on the goals, but specific policies are lacking.
- Curbing stormwater runoff. The city's rules are especially lax during construction, McFarlane says, when rivers of mud leave project sites but builders aren't fined.
- Providing affordable housing and transit routes. Developers aren't required to include affordable units even in the biggest projects. Crowder, for one, thinks they should be.
- Empowering neighborhoods. The 18 Citizen Advisory Councils have little power to represent neighborhoods; they need better support from city government, or else to be cut loose. The four councilors support the former.
- Strengthening city planning. The planning commission, an advisory body, usually goes along with developers. With a new comprehensive plan on tap for the city (a draft is due any time now), some planners on the planning commission would be helpful.
That last issue is the reason the four have lined up behind Heather Vance, a planning professional who staffs the Raleigh office of the American Institute of Architects, to fill the current planning commission vacancy.
West, however, says the vacancy belongs "historically" to his Southeast Raleigh district, and he's nominated Quince Fleming, an organizational consultant, to fill the spot. Fleming lives in West's district and is African-American. The same two things are also true of Vance.
The initial council vote, two weeks ago, was 4-1 for Vance, with Meeker among the three declining to vote. His MM allies want the mayor to follow his past practice of "governing from the middle," which meant joining four-vote pluralities to make a majority. Meeker was noncommittal in an interview Tuesday.
"I'm encouraging the councilors to resolve that issue informally," he said.
As for the disputed projects, each involves a developer seeking to build "bigger" than the relevant small-area plans for the Stanhope and Cameron Village areas would allow. The Stanhope project, a private dormitory and parking deck for NCSU, was first proposed six years ago, and negotiations with the neighbors resulted in a very detailed small-area plan that new developers now propose to change. In Cameron Village, developers want to build condos on a small portion of the shopping center site without discussing how the rest of Cameron Village might develop; neighbors are alarmed at the precedent—and future traffic congestion.
Meeker says tension over the council's decisions is natural, because they'll set a precedent for "mid-rise" developments throughout Raleigh. Stephenson and Crowder agree, and maintain that they're trying to get the neighborhoods and the developers together for "win-win" outcomes and sound planning in both cases.