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How Wake Commissioners Tore Themselves Apart Over a Defunct Golf Course

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Toward the end of a marathon session of the Wake County Board of Commissioners on November 6, Greg Ford turned to his colleague Matt Calabria and offered some words of gratitude. They would soon be on opposite sides of a contentious 4–3 vote to acquire the defunct Crooked Creek Golf Course in Fuquay-Varina and turn it into a park. Ford ended up in the minority voting no.

"Regardless of the turnout," Ford told him, "your persistence and diligence has been beyond admirable, and you've been beyond fair in being transparent and sharing with us updates and including us in the process along the way. I really appreciate that."

What a difference five months makes.

On Friday, Ford joined Chairwoman Jessica Holmes and Commissioner James West in a blistering letter condemning their four fellow commissioners—Calabria, Sig Hutchinson, John Burns, and Erv Portman—over a planned campaign event at the site of the proposed park on April 14*, which they claimed "borders on unethical conduct. ... Several citizens brought this event to our attention and expressed concerns about the appearance of a 'pay-to-play' arrangement, or at the very least the perception of a legitimate conflict of interest."

Far from praising Calabria and his colleagues' fairness, the letter slammed them for "a lack of information shared with us .... This is not in keeping with the values of transparency and good government we have embraced as public servants."

You could chalk this up to politicians being politicians, using any hint of impropriety to tarnish their rivals. And in many other places, such a play would be commonplace, especially with the May 8 primaries on the horizon. But this is the Wake County Board of Commissioners, a body entirely controlled by mostly like-minded, mild-mannered Democrats who have, since taking power a little more than three years ago, prided themselves on technocratic policymaking and a pervasive sense of comity.

Portman calls the letter a case of sour grapes. "A good board does its homework and makes its decision and moves on," he says. "It's amateur, in my opinion."

Ford, however, says that's not it at all. It's really about transparency. His faction decided to write the letter, he says, after learning that the other faction tried to sneak through a final vote on purchasing the park on the consent agenda, without debate and without anyone realizing what was happening. (This is disputed.) Then, he continues, they learned of this event, where they believed those residents whose property values would benefit most from the park would fête the commissioners who voted for it and lavish them with campaign contributions. (This, too, is disputed.)

"Even if they don't think there's anything wrong," Ford says, "we're saying the optics are bad. We're saying don't go."

To understand the increasingly bitter fracas over Crooked Creek, you have to understand that it's about more than just a park. To a large degree, it's about the very question animating this year's Democratic primaries: Have Wake County commissioners lived up to their campaign promises to adequately fund public schools?

Last year's budget, critics point out, only granted the Wake school system $21 million of a requested $45 million in new funding, leaving out things like additional school counselors. This amount was $5 million more than the county manager had recommended, but the school system was left with a $24 million hole. The year before, the school board asked for $35 million in new funding but received just $24 million. Only in 2015, the first year after the Democratic takeover, did the commission give the school board nearly everything it wanted.

When the school board unveiled its request in April 2017, Portman complained that it was a "record request," adding, "The more we fund, it seems like the more the request is."

That didn't sit well with school advocates.

It's no coincidence that the five commissioners who voted for the budget—the four who voted for the Crooked Creek project, plus West—drew primary challengers, while Ford and Holmes didn't. (Also no coincidence: Ford is a former principal, and Holmes is an attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators.)

In September, Dean Debnam, the president of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling and a big Democratic funder, commissioned a survey that could only be described as a shot across the bow. In it, he pitted an unnamed "woman who supports fully funding the schools" against the male commissioners who didn't. The unnamed woman trounced her male competitors by about fifty percentage points.

Around the same time, another big Democratic donor, Ann Campbell, the cofounder of Campbell Alliance and a board member of WasteZero in Raleigh, began emailing Hutchinson, Burns, Portman, and Calabria with subject lines such as "Second Chance" and "Third Chance," according to records obtained by the INDY.

"The County Commissioners' underfunding of the [schools'] budget request has been a major disappointment, not just for the [school board], or teachers, or parents, but for the entire community that has demonstrated, repeatedly, that it values public education," Campbell wrote, asking the county to find more money for schools. "You were widely supported by progressive groups and voters, who assisted you to be elected, in large part, based on your stated belief in the need to provide adequate funding to public education." She closed with a line from the musical Hamilton: "History has its eyes on you."

Burns replied by paraphrasing a Hamilton line of his own: "Winning is easy. Governing is harder."

To which Campbell retorted: "The point of my earlier email, John, is centered on the current state of the sausage-making in Wake County. ... In a county with a lower tax rate than most other metropolitan areas in N.C., we could fund improvements to achieve outstanding public education if the Wake County Commissioners would simply revisit their funding priorities. It's up to you and your colleagues to make the tradeoffs, navigate the sausage-making, and find a way to make it happen. Since I appreciate the fact that you appear to like one of my favorite musicals, I'll leave you with one more quote to consider, which is Hamilton's advice to Burr when he was trying to be diplomatic, and preferring to 'wait for it' versus carrying a banner for courageous causes: 'If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?'"

The rift deepened from there.

By November, Campbell was accusing Burns of "intentionally obfuscating and ducking the point in order to burnish 'fiscal credentials' for a future run for higher office," Calabria of "trying to find a compromise on the point to please everyone a little bit but particular local constituents a lot in order to maintain appeal for a future run for higher office," Portman of "refusing to even focus on the point that's being raised and insisting on talking about a different point," and Hutchinson of missing the point.

Campbell backed all of these men when they ran in 2014. She gave $6,000 to Calabria, $3,750 to Hutchinson (a donation matched by her husband, John), $5,000 to Burns, and $2,500 to Portman when he ran in 2016 (also matched by John). Debnam was similarly generous: $5,000 to Calabria, $5,000 to Burns, $2,500 to Hutchinson.

This year has been a different story. Campbell and her husband and Debnam and his wife maxed out to Portman's opponent*, cumulatively accounting for $20,800 of her reported $28,860 in donations as of the latest finance report, filed on February 14.

In February, Campbell solidified her change of heart and formed a political action committee called Women Awake PAC—technically, in state records, Woman Awake PAC, owing to a typo, director Paula Wolf says—to elect progressive women to local office in North Carolina, beginning in Wake County. The PAC—whose board includes Sesha Debnam, Dean's wife and the manager of Debnam Property Management LLC, alongside longtime educators—promptly endorsed female challengers to Portman, Burns, and Calabria. (Men are running against Hutchinson and West.)

The idea behind the PAC is simple, Campbell says in an email to the INDY: the demographics of the Board of Commissioners—six men, one woman—don't represent the county's makeup, and these men in particular "have failed to honor their promises to our teachers, our children, and our families. ... Clearly, we need more progressive women to better reflect the values and priorities of our community on the Wake County Board of Commissioners!"

It's unclear what kind of support Women Awake will offer its endorsed candidates— Susan Evans, a former school board member challenging Portman; Vickie Adamson, a schools advocate running against Burns; and Lindy Brown, a former county commissioner taking on Calabria. Campbell notes that PACs, like individuals, are limited in the amount of direct contributions they can make to candidates.

But Portman is trying to raise alarms about the prospect of a large independent expenditure "to take out the current county board." Indeed, the local rumor mill is rife with speculation that this new PAC could inject significant cash into the campaign's waning days, similar to what Debnam did toward the end of the 2015 Raleigh City Council election with the "DrunkTown" ad campaign.

"We have a great board that is doing good work," Portman says in an email. "Seventy-six percent of all property tax goes to education, tax increases four years in a row—unprecedented, but not enough for these affluent mega donors. ... This is important and way out of bounds."

In an interview, he adds, "The reality is they're using the woman card. They're using that as a guise for another fight," referring to the school-funding dispute.

"Erv Portman may be feeling threatened, because some of our supporters were formerly supporters of his, when he campaigned in his last election on a platform of supporting public education," Campbell counters. "In his prior campaign, when he was receiving significant support from some of our donors, he didn't voice any concerns about any undue influence of donors to his campaign. ... Since winning his last election, Erv Portman has been viewed by many supporters of public education as a contentious voice who questioned not only the priorities of the school board, but even at times their motives. ... He has, however, been willing to dig up unbudgeted funds for an unplanned park that was requested by local homeowners around a failed golf course."

Which brings us back to Crooked Creek.

Just as it seemed that the sore feelings over the school-funding fight had begun to die down, the battle over Crooked Creek poured gasoline on the embers. Everyone agreed that the project had merit. The site is 164 acres, would be home to a much-needed school, is adjacent to protected wetlands, is being backed by nonprofits, and would eventually connect to greenways. Even the project's critics found things to like.

But it was a question of priorities.

Ahead of the vote in November, Holmes and West pointed out that every dollar spent retrofitting the former golf course—not just the $4.5 million purchase price, but the up to $20 million that might eventually be spent developing it into a park—was a dollar that wouldn't be spent on schools or affordable housing. The county staff, meanwhile, identified other projects it deemed more urgent and recommended that commissioners vote against the purchase.

But some two hundred park supporters had shown up at that meeting, many clad in green shirts that read "Park Please." They'd bombarded commissioners with emails in the days before, arguing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if the county dithered, the land could turn into a residential development.

Led by Calabria—who lives about a mile and half away from the proposed park—a bare majority of commissioners agreed to support what one source says was known among county staff as "Matt's baby." Their support didn't yet come with money. Nine conditions had to be met, and then another vote had to be held, before the county would buy the property.

In a March 31 post on the South Wake Park Project Facebook page, Ron Nawojczyk, a leader of the Crooked Creek park effort, said that he believed the acquisition vote would happen on May 21. That was news to the board's anti-park faction—and drove suspicion that pro-park commissioners were coordinating with park supporters behind their backs.

Four days later, at an informal agenda meeting with Holmes, Portman, and Hutchinson (the county does not record minutes for these meetings) there was brief talk of placing the Crooked Creek project on the consent agenda because the commission had already voted on it once, but a county attorney quickly rejected that idea.

At least, that's Hutchinson's version. Ford tells it differently. He wasn't there, but he heard about it from Holmes, who declined to comment on the meeting for this story. In Ford's telling, Hutchinson not only lobbied to get the purchase through on the consent agenda, but tried to do so under a generic title that wouldn't arouse ire. It was only after Holmes asked questions that it was pulled from the consent agenda.

After that, according to the anti-park side, Hutchinson asked that the county punt on the park until after the primary. According to the pro-park side, however, Hutchinson asked to push back the vote because the conditions hadn't yet been met. Why take up a touchy issue at a sensitive time if it didn't really matter?

Or, as Burns puts it, "There's no need to throw a politically divisive bomb into April if we can't purchase the property in April."

The truth is, the park probably wouldn't have been a big deal if the county had given the school board what it wanted last year. It was the comparison of those two decisions that became political fodder: months after telling the school board they couldn't find funds, here commissioners were signing off on a multimillion-dollar park project.

That's what the primary challengers want to highlight. "Their priorities are just different than mine and what the community's are," says Adamson. "[Calabria] believes bailing out Crooked Creek Golf Course is more important than funding the Wake County Public School System for nurses, counselors, or social workers," Brown wrote in her INDY candidate questionnaire.

Brown, who did not return a phone call, also argues that Calabria should have recused himself because the park will boost his property values.

Friday's missive from Ford, West, and Holmes poured salt in the wound.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it," Calabria told the INDY a few hours after the letter's release. "These three commissioners do not appear to have [previously] raised any of the objections they have raised."

"I was disappointed," Burns echoed. He bristled at the letter's insinuations. "I consider my ethical reputation the most important thing I have as an attorney. I cannot, I will not, sacrifice that."

The four Crooked Creek supporters forcefully pushed back against their opponents' claims—not just about the campaign event but also about the park and the school-funding vote.

For instance, they argue, it might look bad to say that commissioners only gave the school board half of what it asked for in new funding, but that's misleading. The new funding only accounts for a small portion of the school system's total request; factor in the whole thing, and they actually gave the school board 97 percent of what it asked for.

They also note—and the primary challengers don't argue the point—that the previous Republican-led board left the county behind in education funding, and they've spent the last three years trying to catch up.

Indeed, the board has raised property taxes every year since the Democrats took over. The county's contribution to the school system, Burns points out, has increased by nearly a third in that timeframe, and teacher pay is up 41 percent.

The criticism, then, is that they haven't caught up quickly enough—but Portman worries that if they raise taxes too high, that could give Republicans a window to make a comeback. Then where would schools be?

As for the park, they defend their votes on the merits, arguing that it will be vital for quality of life in this fast-growing section of southern Wake County.

"This is a great project," says Hutchinson. "It's no more a golf course than the American Tobacco Trail is a railroad."

Calabria disputes the notion that the Crooked Creek neighbors got special treatment and chafes at the suggestion that he should have recused himself. The park won't directly benefit him, he says, and in any event, it will serve the greater good, which in his view obligates him to vote.

Ashley Manstedt, an administrator on the South Wake Park Project Facebook page, says her group's interactions with the county bely any notion of favoritism.

"We were met with preconceived notions from some of the commissioners and possibly the staff as well," she writes in an email. "It seemed that they were not going to even give this proposal fair consideration because it was not in keeping with their particular focus or priorities .... Only a large, remarkable effort by residents of southern Wake County to consider the future and plan for the rapid growth the area is facing" made the park a reality.

Mandstedt also says the letter was misleading—perhaps intentionally so. The public invitation to the event was posted on the SWPP page, which has thousands of followers, many of whom don't live in Crooked Creek.

"Therefore, it is provably false that Crooked Creek residents were the targeted recipients of that invite, which was the basis for Commissioners Holmes, Ford, and West's serious accusations against their colleagues," she writes.

In addition, "this event was not intended to be a traditional 'fundraising' event as was unfortunately miscommunicated. This was an event for the sole purpose of inviting the commissioners who voted for the park out to thank them."

The four commissioners say there's nothing unseemly about this event. It's just politics—meeting with supporters and trying to get them to the polls to support you.

"The candidates have not organized the event," Burns says, "but we certainly support citizens getting actively engaged and offering political support to people they agree with." He adds: "When you are talking about community meet-and-greets, the primary pitch is for volunteers and votes."

"Every meet-and-greet I've went to involves checks," Ford deadpans.

Mistrust abounds. Tensions that began brewing with the school-funding debate and boiled over with Crooked Creek debate threaten to tear the board asunder.

"I don't know," Calabria says when asked if the letter changed things. "I think you're right that it has been an extremely collegial board up until this point. I would hate for interpersonal things or differences exaggerated by outside political actors to influence the cohesion of the board."

He pauses.

"But I really don't know."

*Corrections: The print version of this story indicated that Ann Campbell, Dean Debnam, and their spouses had donated to Commissioner John Burns’s opponent. According to campaign-finance records filed in February, they instead had donated to Commissioner Erv Portman’s opponent. Also, this story originally identified the date of the campaign event at Crooked Creek as April 15, based on an email from Commissioner Greg Ford. According to a posting on the South Wake Park Project, it is actually April 14. The event’s date and location were changed.

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