The Sept. 17 meeting of the Raleigh City Council was a pretty good window into Mayor Charles Meeker's first year in office. For example:
Meeker spoke up for an aggrieved neighborhood group in a development case of no special importance except, of course, to the neighbors. He got voted down 7-1 by his council colleagues.
Then he put his latest new idea on the table: Raleigh should back the merger of the Triangle's public bus lines--the city's own CAT system, Durham's DATA line, and the Cary, Chapel Hill and Triangle Transportation Authority systems--over the next five years. That would sync it up with the TTA's commuter railroad service, scheduled to open by 2008. Meeker called for discussion at the next Council meeting Oct. 1.
One small problem: No one told Helen Tart, who chairs the Raleigh Transit Authority (and is a Meeker fan, after all), what the mayor was going to say. She says she was "a little put out" when she heard. The bigger problem: The table is groaning under the weight of all the ideas Meeker--and Meeker's allies--are pushing at a time when the city's ability to pay for any of them is strained.
Later, Meeker saw his No. 1 campaign promise--preserving trees in the City of Oaks--take an important step toward enactment with recommendations from his citizens task force. But they were given only the barest introduction at the end of a long, long agenda. Meeker himself hardly acknowledged them.
So how's Meeker doing? Or as someone asked, "Does Meeker Matter?"
"Hell, yes, he matters," one of his friends answered--and promptly proceeded to tick off a list of the things Meeker should be doing differently.
That's a typical response. Activists of all stripes in Raleigh, from the backers of a new convention center to people who want speed bumps on their block, are looking to Charles (everyone calls him Charles) to kick-start their cause after years of do-little city government. For many such folks, Meeker wasn't their first choice to be mayor, not so much because they differed with him on the issues, although there's some of that; mainly, they doubted his ability to lead the charge for change in Raleigh. Now that Meeker's in, they scrutinize his every move, fearful that he's still too aloof ... doesn't line up his votes... doesn't convey a clear message... has no pizzazz ... and worst, won't be re-elected a year from now, which would bring the curtain down on hopes for a new, progressive era in the city before it's even begun.
That's right, the next election is just one year away. Meeker's running--he's all but announced his candidacy--and Councilor John Odom, a conservative, is getting set to challenge him. "I do plan to run against him at this point ... and any others who run," Odom told The Independent. Councilor Kieran Shanahan, Meeker's toughest critic, is a potential candidate as well.
As he approaches the midway point in his first term, Meeker can't point to much tangible evidence that he's taken hold of Raleigh. Bricks and mortar, the readiest measure of such things, are nowhere to be seen. The tax rate's the same. Nonetheless, Meeker clearly matters:
On growth issues, Meeker's put neighborhood interests on an equal footing with developers.
Slowly, cautiously, he is pushing for downtown development to displace sprawl.
Citizens committees are cranked up all over town, making plans for a better economic day.
The decibel level at City Hall is way down.
Though Charles still struggles to convey "the vision thing," he's a plugger; and he's steadily making the rounds of the small public meetings that should add up, over time, to public support.
Meeker's victory last fall stopped eight years of conservative dominance on the City Council, the first six under Tom Fetzer and the last two under Paul Coble, whom Meeker defeated in a runoff by just 1,000 votes. The contrast between the Coble conservatives and Meeker's moderates (his word) could not be sharper: Fetzer, Coble & Co. were anti-tax, anti-Smart Growth, antagonistic to downtown, public transit and arts funding, and in favor of "market forces," meaning let the developers have their way. Meeker is pro-neighborhoods, pro-transit, an arts supporter and in favor of downtown development instead of continued outward sprawl. He's popular inside the Beltline and won by cutting unexpectedly into previous Fetzer/Coble margins in North Raleigh, which he accomplished by pledging to hold the line on property taxes.
What Meeker didn't win, though, was a Council majority. Instead, he was left with a 4-4 split, meaning that he and his usual allies--Janet Cowell, Benson Kirkman and James West--are in perpetual search of a fifth vote to get anything done. Meeker, in an interview with The Independent, said conservative Neal Hunt has been a frequent supporter on planning issues. But on fiscal issues, he shrugged, the four conservatives haven't budged--and neither has he. He won't raise taxes. They won't--with a few small exceptions--raise fees on developers.
Put the adverse politics together with a lousy economy, Gov. Mike Easley's raid on local treasuries, and the scandal Meeker inherited at the Raleigh wastewater treatment plant, which is costing millions to fix, and Meeker's been left, for the time being anyway, with a pocket full of plans and no money to pay for them.
Getting a fifth vote in the '03 elections, likeliest if he can help allies win Odom's Council seat or Shanahan's, is on Meeker's must-do list. But first, he has to convince the voters that he should be re-elected.
Meeker's best achievement so far, and the one he lists first, is "establishing a new tone of listening on Council," especially to neighborhood groups on rezoning issues. A year ago, for example, Raleigh was still buzzing over the "Battle of Coker Towers," which pitted literally thousands of inside-the-Beltline residents in a pitched battle against developer Neal Coker and Coble, who backed Coker and tuned the neighbors out. Contrast that with this year's Z-56-02, aka Coker II, the new rezoning case on Coker's tract of land. It came to the Council on Sept. 17 for its initial hearing and only a handful of residents were there. David Ravin, a Crosland Corp. official who's replaced Coker as spokesman for the project, joked that since there were no TV cameras in the room, the neighbors must like it. "I represent the neighborhood team that has been meeting with the developer for several months," answered a neighbor, Warren Raybould. "(Our) meetings have been cordial, informative and productive."
Now that is different. Raybould didn't endorse the project, pointing to design changes he wanted. But he indicated the two sides weren't at war anymore. "We look forward to continuing discussions with all parties to favorably resolve these open issues," he added.
Meeker's election led to passage of a new requirement that developers meet with interested neighbors before submitting rezoning proposals. Under Coble, that idea was rejected. More than the formal requirement, however, Meeker's made it clear he expects developers to negotiate in advance with neighborhood groups on major projects, a big change from the Fetzer-Coble years when that job was left to a city planning commission dominated then, and now, by development interests.
Thus, in the city's hottest rezoning case this year, developer Arthur Sandman's attempt to turn the 50-acre Wayward Farm in North Raleigh into a high-density combination of housing and retail stores, Meeker put wary neighborhood opponents in the same room with Sandman months ago and says now that, from what he's seen so far, "the neighbors seemed willing to compromise but the developer hasn't." Perhaps as a result, when the case came to the planning commission, it voted to tell Sandman he needed to talk some more with the opposition.
In a related vein, Meeker points to having fostered "a new spirit of public participation in the city," because citizens now believe that their service on volunteer boards and commissions isn't just window dressing but actually matters. Says Nina Szlosberg, who chairs the nonprofit Hillsborough Street Partnership (see story, p. 26): "What a difference a year makes." In the past, Szlosberg says, "public involvement was seen as something that 'had' to be done--in the most minimal way. Now, not only is it encouraged, the input is actually appreciated and acted upon."
Charlie Madison chairs the Raleigh Appearance Commission, a group appointed to advise the planning commission, and the Council, on the look, quality and design of development projects. Madison says his experience in that job under Coble was one reason he got out last year and campaigned for Meeker. "We're just volunteers," Madison says. "And until Charles came in, frankly, some of us were pretty frustrated and feeling we were just wasting our time."
If the change in tone under Meeker is real, substantive changes are harder to find.
After 10 months, the Council is poised to save some trees and curb the practice of clear-cutting lots for new developments, the mayor's top campaign promise. But it's just a start. Raleigh can't adopt a comprehensive tree ordinance without the approval of the N.C. General Assembly, and although some other Wake County towns have that approval already, Meeker's efforts to get it were blocked by Wake County Republicans in the state Senate (John Carrington) and the House (Sam Ellis). Meeker expects approval in the "long" legislative session next year, since individual legislators can't stop local bills as easily as they can in the "short" session.
Meeker can also claim credit for cleaning up the mess--literally--at the wastewater treatment plant, where sludge built up so much over the years that city employees were faced with a choice of spraying too much on the ground, in violation of their state permit, or letting it flow into the Neuse River during heavy rains, also illegal. Ultimately, both things happened, forcing the city to pay stiff fines and also spend $2 million to upgrade the plant.
Thus far, Meeker's let the facts speak for themselves, refusing to characterize what happened as a consequence of the Fetzer-Coble years. But it's clear that by slashing the property tax rate 17 percent in 1994 and leaving it there since, the conservatives left the city strapped. Raleigh's outward sprawl, a 35 percent increase in its population and a 59 percent increase in the police department budget over the same period "have severely strained the city's fiscal resources," City Manager Russell Allen said in his June budget message. Allen was Coble's pick to replace Dempsey Benton two years ago.
Allen, with Meeker's support, asked the Council to create a new stormwater fee to attack the enormous backlog of flooding problems created by rapid development. His initiative failed by a 4-4 vote, the Council choosing instead to pay for a study.
Meeker's biggest setback, though, was the Council's refusal, by a 6-2 vote, even to study his proposal to increase impact fees on new development. Impact fees, not higher property taxes, are the right way to pay for such things as new parks, better streets and expanded transit services that should accompany growth, the mayor says. And Raleigh's fees are the lowest around--about one-fourth what Cary charges, for example. But only Cowell joined in in voting for a study, the one time the usually taciturn mayor admits to getting hot under the collar. "It irritated me," he says. "To not even study it?"
Meeker's idea is to scale impact fees so they're high for sprawl-style developments and low downtown, where he wants the growth to go. But on this crucial vote, even Kirkman and West abandoned him, and Meeker admits, it's because he didn't get on the horn and lobby for it--or mount a public campaign. A straw vote awhile before, he says, indicated his plan would pass. "We thought we had six votes," he says candidly, "but I should've gone back and checked."
After having complained repeatedly that budget cutting had left the city far short of inspectors to enforce its housing, zoning and environmental codes, however, Meeker's no-tax increase promise means the addition of just two inspectors in the current budget. And while he got the Council to vote to tear out the Fayetteville Street Mall, there's no money for that either.
Meeker says taxes shouldn't be raised in a recession. One alternative would be a pro-growth bond issue on the '03 ballot to pay for the Mall project and other downtown improvements on Hillsborough Street and in Southeast Raleigh. But Meeker says you shouldn't ask the voters to borrow in a recession, either.
The mayor's got good ideas, but at some point he'll have to convince the council, and the voters, they're worth paying for. Until he figures out how to do that, the best grade we can give him in this category is: B-
Meeker's followed through on his campaign pledge to be a leader on regional transportation planning, finally putting Raleigh heads together with Durham's, Cary's and Chapel Hill's after years of the conservatives' insistence that public transit can't work in the Triangle and Raleigh's only goal should be wider roads to carry more cars to the suburbs.
Thus, Raleigh's about to join the others in studying whether to hand over bus service to the Triangle Transit Authority. And citizen committees are finally at work with the city's planning staff on detailed land-use plans for the underdeveloped blocks around the TTA's planned rail stations downtown and at N.C. State. New housing, stores and offices must follow soon if the stations are to draw passengers when the rail service--slated to start in just five years--becomes a reality.
Money' short, but volunteers to study the city's needs are not, and there's no shortage of things needing study, including:
Should the city build a new convention center? If so, where? A committee of business and community leaders just started looking into it.
How can Raleigh improve its air quality, which is on the nation's top-10 worst list, and accommodate growth without automobile gridlock all over town?
Whither Wade Avenue, Hillsborough Street, Western Boulevard, and all the cars that travel west from inside the Beltline if growth is West Raleigh continues apace?
What can the city do to spark growth in historically black, historically underdeveloped Southeast Raleigh?
Meeker's got committees studying all of these questions, both with an eye toward where things should be built and also to their quality and the quality of city services. Madison, for instance, says the Appearance Commission has wanted to study roadside maintenance issues for five years, but the Council blocked it from it doing so--until this year. Tart, of the Raleigh Transit Authority, says city bus services are hampered by the past refusal of the Councils to pay for an expansion of the garage--meaning no more buses could be added. Now, a consultant's been hired and customers surveyed about how to make the bus system better.
"We've settled for mediocre stuff here and a get-rich-quick, boomtown mentality," Madison says. "You can make a boomtown out of cinderblock and chipboard, but in the long run, will people want to live there? The questions of how we make Raleigh successful over the long run, for people who want to live here and not just move on to the next boomtown, are just now starting to be taken up."
Councilor Janet Cowell predicts that public involvement will translate into better developments and more growth in the long run. "An open process, open to the best ideas, will be a huge economic benefit to the city over time," she says.
Getting the public involved in public issues is the most important thing, isn't it? Meeker's election unleashed the activists, and he's put them to work. So his grade here is: A
If Meeker's strength is drawing out citizens' best ideas, his weakness is communicating his own and using them to, as Councilor Janet Cowell says, "paint a vision" about where Raleigh should be going. Cowell was Meeker's close ally in the '01 campaign and remains so. Thus, she can talk to the mayor about the need to sharpen his skills and acknowledge out loud what other friends of his say privately: "He's a a very nuts-and-bolts person. He's on top of issues. He follows up. What he is not is a big public relations guy."
Cowell worries that, though plans are getting made and progress should follow, the public doesn't know what Meeker's been doing. "He is out in the community, very much so," she agrees. "It's the broader, leveraged communication that is lacking."
Indeed, Meeker's always accessible and good with voters one-on-one. And he's such an even-tempered guy, he's even disarmed his critics. Councilor Philip Isley, for instance, who sharply rebuked the mayor early in the year in connection with the controversial Bickett Place rezoning case, now says: "I think he's done a pretty good job."
Isley's part of the conservative bloc and disagrees with Meeker on some things, he wants us to know. Nonetheless, he likes the mayor's style. "It's been a pleasant Council. I've enjoyed it, and I've enjoyed getting to know him better."
But when he's in the bully pulpit--running Council meetings, for example--Meeker's so businesslike, and speaks so briskly, that neither what he says nor the way he says it commands attention.
Nor is Meeker one to lobby in advance for his agenda or try to enforce discipline even on his side of the 4-4 split. He prefers "free-flowing discussion" at public meetings, which sometimes results in the kind of 7-1 rejection his off-the-cuff arguments for the neighborhood received. Cowell was especially bothered that he did not campaign publicly, in advance of the vote, for a study of higher impact fees. "It was a debate that in my mind I think the public wanted us to have," she says. "But at the table, it went nowhere."
On one hand, it's almost charming that someone could be elected mayor of a city who cares so little for politics. On the other, Meeker misses obvious chances to advance his cause, or block his opponents from advancing theirs. Early on, for example, Meeker rejected the idea of suing Gov. Easley over withholding state aid. At the time, taking the case to court could have served to clear up the legal issue of whether the governor had that power or not. But Meeker thought Easley could be talked out of it--which, of course, he couldn't.
As a result, Republicans are suing Easley, and Meeker's opponents will be able to paint him as a mayor unwilling for fight for the city's interests.
Good on the nuts and bolts. Needs improvement otherwise. But is working on it, and is listening. Grade is: C+
Meeker So Far
Perhaps the gap between what Meeker's doing and what the public knows isn't as great as Cowell and others fear. One Democrat's poll recently found Meeker with an approval rating over 50 percent with the voters, just 10 percent negative on him, and the rest with no opinion. That's better than Coble a year before the '01 election. Of course, Coble lost.
One thing's true: People don't stay mad at Charles. Helen Tart, for one, sought him out, they talked, and he agreed to attend the next RTA board meeting. So she's on board now with the bus-merger study, not because she's for merger, but because "if Mayor Meeker thinks it's the thing to do, I'm willing to listen."
So, overall, Meeker's off to a good start. But it can get a lot better: B