Charlie Reece | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Charlie Reece

Durham City Council


Name as it appears on the ballot: Charlie Reece
Party affiliation, if any: non-partisan race (but I’m a Democrat)
Campaign website:
Occupation & employer: Attorney, Rho, Inc.
Years lived in Durham: 9 years

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

The mayor and the city council have done a good job in recent years in revitalizing downtown Durham, instituting much-needed reforms of the Durham Police Department, and beginning the critical work of making sure that working families can find housing at affordable prices in the city of Durham. But a recent surge in the construction of luxury condos downtown (with even more in the development pipeline) has left downtown without any housing that is affordable for working families. This new construction downtown has also contributed to rising housing prices throughout Durham. More aggressive measures must be taken by the city of Durham on the issue of affordability, both downtown and in other parts of the city.

In addition, the recent spike in violent crime across the city has put a spotlight on the continuing tensions between the police and many residents of Durham. Until a broader public confidence in the Durham Police Department can be restored, this city will continue to suffer. A commitment to true community policing, with patrol officers walking beats and not just responding to calls, would create the kind of one-on-one interactions that are crucial to rebuilding public trust in the police within neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by rising crime rates.

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

1. Ensuring that Durham remains affordable for working families

Durham owes much of its unique character to the fact that working families can still afford to live and work and raise their kids here. The rising cost of housing is a growing source of concern that threatens what is so special about Durham. The mayor and the city council have been leaders in promoting the creation of affordable housing throughout Durham, and I want to continue the strong work they have done in this area – and be even more aggressive where possible. The city should make sure that developers who want to build more luxury condos downtown also contribute to the development of affordable housing both downtown and elsewhere in Durham. I am hopeful that recent changes to the Unified Development Ordinance will spur the creation of new developments with a broader range of price points that include affordable units. I believe the city of Durham should explore every possibility to use publicly-owned land to promote the development of a significant amount of housing that is affordable for working families, including the recent proposal by the Self-Help Credit Union to build 80-100 affordable units on vacant city-owned land near Durham Station. Finally, the city has committed to preserving affordability in the dense and walkable development plans around the stations for the proposed light rail project, and I am optimistic that those affordability goals can be met with this kind of aggressive action.

2. Building a broadly shared prosperity for everyone in Durham

Durham is on the verge of a period of economic growth that will bring significant new outside investments into our city and expand our tax base. We must ensure that this coming economic boom results in not just the enrichment of the few but rather a broadly shared prosperity that benefits all of Durham. There are a number of ways to make sure that everyone in Durham shares in this prosperity. As I argued above, we can create partnerships with developers who want to build more luxury condos downtown to also support the city’s efforts to develop housing options that are affordable for working families both downtown and in other parts of the city. We should make sure that new developments use the best-in-class construction firms and contractors that are located right here in Durham so that our locally-owned and operated businesses participate in the benefits from these projects. We must make decisions about public investments (like new infrastructure projects, our parks and recreation budget, and our public transit system) to ensure that public dollars are spent equitably throughout the city of Durham – and in a way that addresses decades of disinvestment and neglect that have been inflicted upon some parts of our city.

We also need a broad based economic development strategy for Durham that includes more than just jobs that require multiple professional or technical degrees and multiple years of experience. Durham does a good job recruiting such jobs into the city, and the people who fill those jobs enrich our city culturally and financially, but Durham residents who are struggling with poverty have different employment needs. Durham should put more energy behind efforts to recruit businesses that will also bring more entry level jobs that pay a living wage as well as jobs into which entry level folks can transition with more responsibility and higher wages. This sort of economic development plan will help lift people out of poverty and help our city build a broadly shared prosperity that benefits all of Durham.

3. Keeping Durham safe from violent crime

There is no issue facing Durham that I take more seriously than how to address the growing problem of crime. In every conversation I have with voters, I talk about our need to respond to the recent surge in violent crime in Durham. By way of explanation, most of my legal career has been spent within the criminal justice system – first as a prosecutor, then as an assistant attorney general in the North Carolina Department of Justice arguing criminal appeals in our appellate courts, then as a pro bono lawyer defending Moral Mondays arrestees from charges of trespassing at the North Carolina General Assembly. This is an issue about which I have a real passion and a lifelong commitment.

I have proposed policies that would make a long term impact on crime in Durham – economic development that doesn't leave struggling communities behind, investments in infrastructure in neighborhoods which have suffered from decades of disinvestment, and ensuring that housing remains affordable for working families. Generally speaking, people with jobs that pay a living wage and who have a decent place to live by and large don't commit violent crimes. We should also increase the availability of programming through Durham Parks and Recreation to provide positive alternatives in the lives of young people in our city. We must also do a better job of making the case to the people of Durham that investments in one part of Durham can yield benefits that are broadly shared by all of Durham. And while we make that case, we must also make absolutely sure that such investments actually do result in a prosperity that is broadly shared across Durham.

In addition to these longer term policy initiatives, we must grapple with the broken relationship between the Durham Police Department and many Durham residents. Until we restore public trust and confidence in our police, this city will continue to suffer. While I respect the city manager’s authority over hiring and firing our police chief, I have come to believe that the Durham Police Department needs new leadership if we are fully to rebuild the relationship between the police and our city. But we must also commit to a community policing model that focuses on direct community engagement by officers built on daily interactions between the police and the Durham residents they protect and serve. We should also reallocate scarce law enforcement resources away from arrests for some non-violent misdemeanor offenses and toward preventing and investigating violent crime (which is up sharply from last year). In addition, we must do more to empower grassroots community efforts like Walk For Life, a movement begun by Durham neighborhood champions Rodney Williams and Kitoya Mason, that intervenes directly in the lives of gang members and others who need support and encouragement to make positive change in their own lives.

3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

Throughout my public life in Durham, I have demonstrated the ability to engage deeply in the details of complex policy work, to partner with allies from across the ideological spectrum and from different types of community groups, and to advocate effectively with policy-makers on the issues that matter to the people of Durham. The most recent example of this is my work on behalf of the Durham People’s Alliance last summer in support of the FADE Coalition’s policy recommendations. The key to the success of that effort was the fact that all of the community organizations working on that issue focused on boosting FADE’s underlying message and policy recommendations, with no single leader or organization caring who got the credit for the ultimate success of the work. As a member of the Durham City Council, I would use last summer’s successful effort as a model for how we can achieve real change in Durham on the critical issues facing our city by bringing together diverse coalitions of community organizations. If we can keep the focus on the work to be done and not on individual egos or who gets the credit, we can make real progress on preserving affordability in housing for working families, ensuring a broadly shared prosperity for all of Durham, and keeping Durham safe from violent crime.

4) Please give one specific example of something you think City Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

On Wednesday, September 10, 2015, the Durham City Council missed a golden opportunity to consider a proposal from the Self-Help Credit Union to build 80-100 units of housing intended for residents making less than 60% of Durham’s adjusted median income. While there was no actual vote on this issue, it was clear from the comments of a majority of the council that there was no interest in proceeding with the proposal at this time. I believe this was a lost opportunity to leverage city-owned property to build a real mixed-income neighborhood in the heart of downtown, and to advance the city council’s stated goal of keeping Durham affordable for working families.

I was especially proud of our city council last summer when they expressed their support for a number of the policy recommendations of the FADE Coalition to reduce the racial disparities in the drug and traffic enforcement practices of the Durham Police Department. I was privileged to have lead the efforts of the Durham People’s Alliance in support of FADE’s policy recommendations, and I was gratified to see the strong stand the mayor and the city council took in favor of those recommendations. While there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, Durham’s political leadership demonstrated its commitment to ending those troubling racial disparities. That was the best thing that the city council has done over the last year.

5) 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 am a progressive, but I am more committed to finding pragmatic solutions to the problems facing Durham than I am to adhering to any particular ideology.

6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

If we want to be a just community, we need to be welcoming to working families who want to live here, we need to be serious about ensuring that all of Durham benefits from the prosperity our city is enjoying, and we need to work as hard as we can to make sure that every neighborhood in Durham is safer from violent crime and that every resident of Durham is treated with equal respect under the law. That is how we will remain a city that is diverse and inclusive and prosperous and safe. And we need to achieve these goals by engaging the people of Durham at a grassroots level and acting in partnership with the broad range of diverse community organizations for which our city is so well-known.

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Durham:

7) Do you believe that there is a disconnect between the citizens of Durham and the city’s police force? If so, how would you go about remedying that disconnect? On a similar note, to what degree would you say you that Chief Jose Lopez has your full faith and confidence?

The recent report from the US Department of Justice confirmed that a wide gulf continues to separate the people of Durham and our police department. Despite the hard work and dedication of many of our individual police officers, there is no question that the Durham Police Department as an institution continues to struggle with the problem of public trust. The racial disparities in consent searches during police traffic stops that were identified by the FADE Coalition last year only added to a growing sense of concern by the people of Durham that our police department is headed in the wrong direction. Last summer’s successful fight to institute police reforms was a great moment for our community, but we still have a long way to go.

If we are to remedy this persistent disconnect, we must commit to a true community policing model that focuses on direct engagement by patrol officers built on daily interactions between the police and the Durham residents they seek to protect and serve. We should also reallocate scarce law enforcement resources away from arrests for some non-violent misdemeanor offenses and toward preventing and investigating violent crime (which is up sharply from last year). I believe these steps will make a difference in restoring a relationship of trust and confidence between the people of Durham and their police department.

During our work on police accountability last summer, I was swayed by arguments made by other committed grassroots activists across Durham that the removal of Chief Lopez would not be helpful in achieving FADE’s policy objectives. Rather, many of us were concerned that a new police chief would be used as a way to delay consideration of FADE’s policy recommendations by allowing policy-makers to argue that the new chief should be given time to implement their own reforms. But since last summer, I have become convinced that rebuilding the city’s relationship with the Durham Police Department requires new leadership at police headquarters.

8) A report by the U.S. Department of Justice early this year concluded that black males between 15 and 34 in Durham are six times more likely to die from homicide than all other Durham residents. What steps should local government and police take to address this problem? Does the city have its priorities in order when it comes to dealing with violent crime in low-income neighborhoods, at a time when there’s so much focus on downtown development?

As I described above, the city of Durham must commit to a policing model that focuses on direct engagement by patrol officers built on daily interactions between the police and the Durham residents they seek to protect and serve. Over time, these daily interactions will begin to rebuild a relationship of trust and confidence between the people of Durham and their police department, and over time, I believe that such a relationship will have a positive impact in the lives of young black men in Durham.

The city should also make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide positive alternatives for our youth. One place to start is to ensure that the Durham Parks and Recreation Department has adequate programming that will engage young people, and that the department is adequately funded so as to make that programming widely available where it’s needed the most. We should also redouble our current job training and certification programs, and promote public-private partnerships such as Made in Durham, which works with high school students to give them the tools and experience they need to transition into the workplace. More broadly, we must put more energy and focus into our economic development efforts to recruit businesses to come to Durham that will bring more entry level jobs that pay a living wage.

I do not believe that the city has focused on downtown revitalization to the expense of the problem of violent crime in our communities. Having said that, any perception that this is true is corrosive to the idea that development in one part of Durham has benefits for the rest of our city. That’s why it’s so important for our city’s political leadership (including candidates for public office) to speak out on this issue. As a member of the city council, I will be present in the neighborhoods that are being disproportionately impacted by the recent surge in violent crime (as I have done and will continue to do as a candidate), talking to community members and neighborhood organizations about what other steps we can take as a city to fight crime.

9) Do you think that support for saving the old Carpenter Chevrolet Building downtown justifies the anticipated $80.9 million cost to renovate it for a new police headquarters? Do you see any alternatives that could have been explored? And do you think the city has enough substations where they’re most needed?

I accept the unfortunate reality that the current police headquarters has outlived its useful life. I also accept the fact that it is costly in 2015 to build a new police headquarters for a 21st century police department that meets the modern requirements of such a facility in terms of officer and public safety. And I even accept the premise that the current site for the new headquarters was chosen by elected officials and public servants based on their view of what is best for the city of Durham.

Having said all that, I share the view of many in Durham that an $81 million price tag for the new police headquarters seems outrageous. I have not had the opportunity to review the recent changes to the cost estimates for the new headquarters, but the total projected cost is difficult to swallow given the other needs in our community. That’s why I’m heartened that the city council agreed last week to delay consideration of the existing designs in order to give city staff additional time to evaluate a proposal put forward recently by Durham Area Designers and Preservation Durham (charmingly referred to as “Scheme 6”). Scheme 6 would meet all the goals of the original project in terms of officer and public safety, provide an opportunity to recoup some of the costs of constructing the new police headquarters by selling the Carpenter Chevrolet Building to a private developer, and create a significant amount of open space for public use. Based on what we know so far, if the Main Street site is to remain the location for the new police headquarters, Scheme 6 would appear to be the design that most closely aligns with our community’s values.

10) There’s little doubt that Durham, as a whole, is prospering. But there’s also little doubt that this prosperity is distributed unevenly. What should Council be doing to address inequality?

Income inequality is a serious problem in Durham. The richest 5% of Durham’s residents earn 27 times the income of the poorest one-fifth of Durham residents, and nearly one in 5 residents of Durham live in poverty. That is simply unacceptable.

At the same time, Durham is on the verge of a period of economic growth that will bring significant new outside investments into our city and expand our tax base. As a city, we must ensure that this growth results in a broadly shared prosperity that benefits all of Durham. I would refer to my previous answer at question #2 (part 2), where I lay out my agenda for building that broadly shared prosperity.

In addition, we can do much more to praise and highlight Durham businesses that already pay their employees a living wage, especially those employers who have been certified by the Durham Living Wage Project. My wife Laura and I are proud that our family business (which employs nearly 400 people right here in Durham) was one of the inaugural employers in this program. Shining a brighter spotlight on those businesses which pay a living wage can encourage Durham residents to patronize such businesses, and it can also encourage other businesses to step up and pay their employees a living wage.

11) In that vein, what more should the city be doing to address the need for affordable housing?

I would refer to my previous answer at question #2 (part 1), where I lay out my agenda for making sure that Durham remains a city where working families can afford to live and work and raise their children.

12) As downtown grows, some degree of gentrification seems inevitable. What steps do you believe the city should be taking to revitalize neighborhoods without having them lose their character?

I dislike the term “gentrification” because it can mean so many different things to different people. But I am deeply concerned by rising housing costs in many of Durham’s historic neighborhoods. Those rising costs are partly due to the rapid pace of new economic development downtown, and partly due to the fact that we’re not doing enough to spur the creation of new housing in these areas that is affordable to working families. [For my ideas on how to create more of such housing throughout Durham, please see my previous answer at question #2, part 1.]

The dislocation that increasing housing costs often causes can be devastating to neighborhoods where families have lived for generations. New residents moving into such neighborhoods often create new social networks of their own with other new residents rather than integrating themselves into the rich tapestry of relationships that already exist between neighbors. These new social networks often act to exclude long-time residents, especially when the networks are created and maintained on-line through email or social media. Over time, those long-time residents find themselves increasingly isolated from the life of their own neighborhoods. The city has an admittedly limited ability to influence these sorts of interactions through public policy. But members of the city council can exercise their moral leadership by reaching out to people moving into historic neighborhoods and talking to them about the importance of engaging with existing social networks in their communities. By doing so, new residents can add to the rich history of these neighborhoods rather than supplanting that history.

13) What role should the city play in the development or redevelopment of commercial real estate? Do you believe the city should award incentives to private developers, and under what circumstances?

Earlier this year, the city council approved $11.25 million in financial incentives to two private developers for real estate projects in downtown Durham. I would have sent both of these proposals back to the drawing board. It is not entirely clear to me that, but for the guarantee of $11.25 million in public money, these projects would have evaporated. Far from it – downtown Durham is a place where everyone wants to be right now. I would only grant such incentives to developers where there are significant benefits to the city of Durham from a given project, and where the project would not be financially feasible but for the incentives requested by developers.

I understand full well that this is how this game is played by local governments across North Carolina and the country as a whole. And I know that local governments are under considerable pressure to bring in new developments such as these. But for these two projects, these incentive payments will amount to 70% of the future tax revenues generated from these projects over the next 15 years. That is simply too high a price to pay, especially at a time when businesses and developers are clamoring to get into downtown Durham. We need new office space downtown, there’s no question about that. But we can negotiate better deals than these.

14) The Bull City Connector recently underwent route changes. Do you think the results are fair and efficient? If not, how could the Connector’s routes be changed to best serve the needs of residents most likely to use it?

The Connector route changes are a mixed bag. Generally speaking, I can understand the desire to straighten out the route and streamline travel times along the course run by the Connector. But I don’t understand the utility of removing the Durham Station stop, one of the locations with the highest level of passenger boardings and a key connection to the rest of the GoDurham transit system for Durham riders. To my mind, those factors weigh in favor of retaining the Durham Station stop on the Connector, despite the modest “cost” in additional travel time between Duke and downtown. I’m also concerned about the reduced service hours that accompanied these route changes.

More broadly, we should extend the Bull City Connector route east into Northeast Central Durham and south to NCCU and Durham Tech. Apart from cost, there is no reason that the Connector shouldn’t connect our two great universities and our fantastic community college. We should also explore the possibility of reducing or even eliminating fares on current GoDurham bus lines. Such a move would not only encourage new ridership but also greatly benefit current riders who depend on GoDurham as their primary means of transportation.

15) Do you believe the downtown Loop is outdated? If so, what would you like to see done with it?

I support plans to fix the Loop and restore the historic grid downtown. Many of the proposals in the most recent charrette prepared by Cleveland & Church Partners would be positive steps forward for downtown, especially restoring the Loop to two way traffic, creating bike lanes, and making the downtown area more safely and more comfortably walkable. But I am unconvinced that the $30-35 million price tag for the entire project as envisioned by Cleveland & Church is a realistic option for our city at this time. We should review the various elements of the proposed plan to determine the most cost-effective way to achieve its most appealing parts for a revitalized downtown Loop.

16) What are your initial thoughts on a proposed mixed-use development in North Durham, with a shopping center to be anchored by a Publix? Do you see, as some North Durham residents have expressed, opportunities to “fix” problems in the area of Guess and Latta roads with this development? (If so, what features would you like to see in the developer’s plan?) Or are you more inclined to side with residents who believe that such a development would change the character of the neighborhood in undesirable ways?

Without knowing more details or seeing any proposed design drawings, I find it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the public statements that have been made by this proposed project’s developers thus far. Having said that, I believe that consideration of such projects should be guided not only by the compatibility of the project with the current zoned use for the property in question but also the extent to which the project can be integrated safely and comfortably with the existing character of the surrounding neighborhood. Judged by these two standards, and based on what we know so far, this proposed development in North Durham should be viewed with skepticism. There are also legitimate concerns about traffic and the project’s proximity to Easley Elementary School. Neighborhood residents are also right to question the need for this kind of development on wooded land when there are alternative vacant storefronts in the area.

There might be measures that the developer could take to ease some of these concerns (extending planned sidewalks, maintaining a significant amount of tree cover on the property, perhaps defraying at least part of the cost of widening Latta Road), but the city should be wary of agreeing to any zoning change that does not have the broad support of the Durham residents living in this part of the city.

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

Parks and Recreation

Durham Parks and Recreation is one of the best things about the city of Durham. Durham’s public parks, playing fields, trails and recreation programs are critical to making Durham an actual community – they bring the people of Durham together in the spirit of recreation and in the enjoyment of nature and open spaces. I believe the city should take every opportunity to add to these parks, trails and open spaces in a cost-effective way that encourages widespread public use of such amenities.

I was a supporter of the proposal last year to earmark up to a penny of the city’s property tax rate for maintenance of our parks and trails. I’m proud of the hard work that’s been done by Durham Parks and Recreation to make good use of the ½ cent earmark that was ultimately approved last year by the city council, especially some of the new lighting, repaving, and re-seeding to combat erosion. I’d like to take a look at the remaining projects on their maintenance list to see if ½ cent is sufficient to continue this progress.

Complete Streets

The city of Durham has made good progress in recent years in improving the safety of our roads for people walking, people riding a bike, and people driving cars. We must continue this record of achievement by increasing our public investments in infrastructure projects intended to take into account the safety of all users of our streets. Where appropriate, these investment projects can take the form of sidewalks, bike lanes, road diets or speed humps. This approach is called Complete Streets, and Complete Streets make it easier to drive to work, to cross the street, to bike to the library, and to walk to the grocery store. Complete Streets will help Durham build a safer and more equitable transportation network for all of the residents of Durham.

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