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Without citizen support, the push for a Durham merger plan fell flat.



Deborah Giles was grinning instead of grim. The political leader of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People had come to the old courthouse downtown to protest a plan for merging city and county government. But last Tuesday's demonstration quickly turned into a celebration. Earlier that morning, Durham's City Council had refused to authorize a referendum on the merger plan by a vote of 4-7.

"We thought the council would be leaning in support of the charter" for merger, said a beaming Giles. "Much to our surprise, their answer was resounding opposition. Merger is over for Durham."

Events soon proved her right. County commissioners met the next day and voted not to send the merger plan to the voters. That evening, the final meeting of the charter commission--a citizens' group charged with developing a merger blueprint--was jokingly dubbed a "funeral." Merger plans have died before in Durham. But this time around, supporters were counting on momentum from a 1998 citizens' vote to reduce the size of the City Council, and the election of candidates strongly favoring a merger referendum to the council and the mayor's office last fall.

While many elected officials have cited the substance of the most recent merger plan as the main reason it was rejected, there's been less discussion of how the process itself was flawed. The referendum was touted as a way to galvanize citizen support for merger. But in the end, the rush to develop a plan in time for the November elections resulted in a proposal that did just the opposite.

"You need some strong reason for people to vote in favor, beyond just a notion that merger will make things more efficient," notes David Lawrence of the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, who was an advisor to the charter commission. "You need good, compelling reasons to overcome the inevitable opposition."

Among the main reasons why the current merger process failed:

The usual suspects: While the 40-member charter commission was set up to reflect the demographics of race, gender and city/county dwelling, some key players were left out: namely low-income citizens and rural Durham residents. On the other hand, business interests were over-represented. The influence of narrow interest groups was reflected in some of the commission's proposals, says co-chair Joseph Haenn, citing the suggestion that five of nine seats on the merged governing body be elected by non-partisan vote. "That was clearly just to benefit the party that's not in power [Republicans]," says Haenn, who voted against the commission's plan.

Tick tock: The charter commission had a mere four months to hammer out a plan that would be on the November ballot. The strict deadline meant there wasn't time to explore key aspects of the proposal with either elected officials or the public, commission members say. The time crunch also put pressure on members to compromise on issues and leave some of the thorniest questions--including how law enforcement would be handled--unanswered.

Who's leading?: Many charter commission members felt betrayed when elected officials, who had given them a "blank check" for developing a merger plan, refused to let that plan go before the voters. But many elected officials were thrown off by elements of the plan that went outside the confines of existing state law and the recommendations of a citizens' task force that preceded the charter group. "We didn't communicate well enough with the commission in a systematic way," says County Commissioner Bill Bell, who led Durham's successful school merger effort in 1992. "I didn't say anything to anybody on this unless they asked me."

Top down or bottom up?: The rhetoric of charter supporters was all about democracy. "We have a moral obligation to let the people be heard," City Council member Howard Clement said at last week's council meeting. Mayor Nick Tennyson argued that even an imperfect merger plan was worth sending to voters so that the discussion could move beyond "inside baseball." But others weren't buying it.

"Where is the support of citizens on this?" asked City Council member Pam Blyth before she voted against the plan. "There's a perception that this is being rammed down people's throats." In the end, elected officials decided that a referendum on a plan that didn't address key citizen concerns was the wrong way to pursue merger. And some citizens are still celebrating.

"In my mind, they did the whole thing backwards," says longtime neighborhood activist Jackie Brown. "This plan was dead on arrival." EndBlock

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