Name as it appears on the ballot: Brenda Howerton
Date of Birth: June 13
Campaign website: www.brendahowerton.com
Occupation & employer: Consultant/Self Employed
1. Describe your past leadership roles, both in career and community. How will these experiences help you serve on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific about how these roles correspond to a commissioner's responsibilities
Given the difficult economic challenges facing Durham County , it is fortunate that I am owner of The Howerton Group, a consulting company that specializes in organizational executive coaching. It gives me a better understanding of the need for the Commissioners to marshal tax revenues in an efficient, transparent way while at the same time making sure we fully invest in our people and our infrastructure. It also helps me understand the challenges faced by individuals as they try to provide for their families.
I served six years as an elected member of the Durham Soil and Water District. That service taught me how to look at development and environmental protection issues from a countywide perspective. I am currently a member of the Durham Joint City-County Planning Committee, which gives me a ground-level view of zoning and development impacts.
From a human perspective, and in the quest for equity for all, I am a member of the Peace College Women in Public Policy Program, the National Council of Negro Women, and served as political chair of the local chapter of the NAACP. I understand how policies can cause help erase inequalities and how bad policies can harm those who don't sit in seats of power. These positions give me an appreciation for the good that elected officials can do.
2. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
In the main, I adhere to the Democratic Party philosophy. I believe that government's role is to act to benefit people and the community, not only now but also for the future. A primary role is to protect rights, which is especially significant in a county as diverse as Durham. Active government has led me as a Durham County Commissioner to insist on a strong public school system, so I have voted to maintain funding for teachers even during North Carolina's economic contraction. I think it is necessary for government to plan for the future, so I have led the effort for Durham County to write its first Strategic Plan. As an elected supervisor of the Durham Soil and Water District for six years, I saw firsthand the value of governance in public resource protection. I carry that sensitivity to my service on the Durham County Commissioner, especially when issues of zoning and development arise.
3. List the three most important issues facing Durham, in order of priority. If elected, how will you address these issues? Please be specific.
a. Jobs. While Durham has fared better than most counties in North Carolina, our citizens have suffered layoffs and cutbacks. As a commissioner, I have voted for policies that have brought jobs to the county or helped companies add jobs. Until the economy improves and the rate falls for families who are hungry and economically deprived, I will continue that focus.
b. Education. Any society will advance only if its people advance educationally. Durham County loves education, and has national and world-class institutions of education in its midst such as N.C. Central University and Duke University. Our public schools must function at that same lofty level, and as the funding agency, the Board of County Commissioners has a top role. I have and will push hard for a well-financed, well-run system for our youngsters. We cannot cut school funding. I also will continue my strong support of Durham Technical Community College, both for the learning it offers to young adults and for the support it offers for jobs and employers in Durham County.
c. Fiscal efficiency and transparency. It's not too strong to say that public money is sacred. One of the core duties of a County Commissioner is to thoughtfully spend tax dollars, and to argue persuasively when tax increases are unavoidable. I am proud of the fact that the current Board has kept a stable tax rate during these difficult times, and that will be my aim going forward. At the same time, I fought for modest increases in the local option sales tax for education and transit. We have a good system for inviting public input in the budget and for keeping residents informed about our spending.
4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected, that you know would cost you popularity points with voters.
At a time when "tough justice" is popular, I think we should work harder at finding constructive ways to return ex-offenders to our communities once they are released. This state's recidivism level is too high. Released inmates go home only to commit new crimes. I feel that Durham needs to provide job training and opportunities to any ex-offender who desires to escape a life of crime.
5. Please describe how you handled a difficult decision in your community leadership experience or career. What were the possible consequences of the decision you made? Looking back, please explain whether you are still comfortable with how you handled the situation, or how you would change your actions.
Just weeks after my election as County Commissioner, a vote came up on the 751 project. It was controversial at the time, though not as much as today. It was my duty to vote, and given the meager facts I had at my command, I voted in the negative. It was a difficult decision, and uncomfortable. But I felt I voted my conscience. I also felt that I needed to master the issue. So I immediately began my own fact-finding effort on the issue, investigating the legal and zoning implication from the local and state perspectives. That led me in subsequent votes to reverse my stance. I know that some of my backers disagree with my course, and that it may cost me some votes. But I am comfortable, since my stance is based on my deeply held belief that my votes adhere to the law and ordinances as currently written and protect taxpayers from wasting money.
6. Last fall, voters approved new sales taxes to generate new revenue for the Durham Public Schools and for mass transit in the county. Did you vote for or against these measures? Please explain why.
I supported both measures publicly. Please see Answers 3b. and 3c.
7. The newly adopted Durham County Strategic Plan identifies the need in Durham County to expand residents' access to technology. As a commissioner, how would you work toward this goal and how would you finance the efforts?
Fortunately, Durham County is a treasure trove of technology, due to the presence of Duke and N.C. Central universities, Durham Technical Community College and the many high-tech Research Triangle Park companies. Our public schools and county libraries offer some access to technology. But to advance that access, I would support efforts to marshal those resources in an intentional way, drawing private and public groups to open their technology to those who could benefit from it – especially young, tech-inclined people.
As with all of the revenue-dependent recommendations in the Plan, the Commissioners need to work with the County Manager to identify funding.
8. What are the pros and cons of the county's economic incentives program? How would you amend it? What oversight mechanisms are in place to ensure companies adhere to the policy? Are those oversight mechanisms sufficient?
The current policy does two things well. It invests tax dollars in stages for economic development; and it pays for infrastructure that remains even if a company leaves. I think the policy would be much better if it included a few new features. Companies that obtain county incentives ought to pledge a good-faith effort to hire Durham resident, which would lower our poverty rates and which would be particularly useful during the current downturn in the economy. I also think the county should press companies to pay their contractors (and not just their employees) a living wage indexed to inflation and to adhere to the sick-days policy. The county instituted its living wage and sick-day policies out of concern for residents, and it only makes sense that those policies should extend to workers who are drawn here with the help of county tax dollars.
9. What incentives would be appropriate in persuading the commercial and industrial sectors to cut their greenhouse gas emissions? The residential sector? Durham County in 2007 adopted a Greenhouse Gas Emissions plan, but at what point will Durham need to take more aggressive steps in emissions reductions?
As a start, the State of North Carolina and certainly the federal government must pass incentive programs to reduce greenhouse emissions. While I believe in acting locally, I am not persuaded that counties ought to provide such incentives, since environmental ills as widespread as greenhouse gases so easily transcend local borders. However, the Durham County Health Department certainly could play a role in mounting a public education campaign, aimed at residential and commercial/industrial sectors, showing the clear benefits of lowered emissions to our community.
10. Crime and safety is a large component of county government. What are your priorities for improvements in pre- and post-conviction services, such as prisoner re-entry programs and diversion programs for juveniles? How will you fund those priorities? How will you measure the success of those programs?
The Legislature, which has primary responsibility for the provision of justice in the counties, has underfunded the criminal justice system for years, with the exception of building new prisons. A rational system would quickly and fairly incarcerate people who commit major crimes and repeat offenders, but offer treatment to young and non-serious criminals who would benefit from job training and education programs. It would have the added benefit of keeping those non-serious criminals from interacting with – and learning the ways of – career criminals.
Locally, the county needs to shorten the time it keeps non-violent offenders in jail. We still receive reports that violent offenders with lengthy records can get out of jail far more quickly and repeatedly than inmates who pose less of a threat to the county. I support Mayor Bill Bell's call for higher bonds for especially violent crimes whenever feasible. As I stated above, Durham should provide job training and opportunities to ex-offenders who desires to escape lives of crime. The county could work with civic and other organizations to provide services to people seeking to build better lives, which doesn't have to cost that much money.
11. Among the most controversial issues to test the commissioners in recent years is development. Please explain the philosophy that will guide your decisions on development while serving as a county commissioner, and also share your definition of smart growth.
Durham County has a good City-County Unified Development Ordinance, which is foundational to smart, orderly growth in the county. State law gives counties reasonable power of growth in their jurisdictions. I use those two sources – the UDO and state law – to guide most decisions regarding zoning and development. A critical additional input is neighbors, who always have unique and valuable insights into how a development will affect an area. The County Commissioners must follow the first two legally, and need to listen to residents as our duty as elected officials.
I follow the Smart Growth philosophy. To me, that means development that takes into account all aspects of a community. Smart Growth is environmentally sound, includes a mixture of housing types, is scalable and walkable, integrates mass transit, and enhances employment and economic development. It looks after the entire community, not just one or a few segments of it. Smart Growth isn't "No Growth;" it is growth that benefits everyone.