Proponents of Raleigh's citizen advisory councils say the groups' future serves as a measure of how well the city hears citizens' views on issues affecting daily life, including planning, growth, and law enforcement. So it's no surprise that Raleigh's nineteen CACs have emerged as an issue in the October 10 municipal elections, when voting will determine the mayoral race, as well the city council's two at-large and five district seats.
For decades, the grassroots-level CACs, with minimal city funding, have pondered issues small and great. They have aided Raleigh's ability to obtain federal funding, advised the city council and planning commission on proposed zoning changes, and recommended sites for stop signs and speed bumps.
But the question remains: Does the traditional CAC process, in which meetings generally involve a few dozen neighborhood activists, produce an accurate reflection of the wishes of more than 460,000 city residents? Visits to a couple of CAC meetings showed that concerned residents do show up, although not necessarily in huge numbers.
On Monday night, about twenty-five members of the South Central Raleigh Community Advisory Council gathered at a Roberts Park meeting room to talk about, among other things, the Raleigh Police Department's use of body cameras to record interactions with citizens, a contentious issue in this part of town. The residents at the east Raleigh site had plenty of questions for Deputy Police Chief Joseph Perry, who led the presentation on body cams.
"If someone is running away, why would they shoot more than once?" asked evangelist Marian Maring, a possible reference to Willard Scott Jr., an African-American Durham man who died after being shot twice from behind by a state highway patrolman in February.
Perry responded, "I know you're not going to like this answer, but it depends." For example, he continued, officers could decide to stop an armed man escaping toward a crowded gym.
At the same hour, about four miles away, Midtown CAC members met at the city's Five Points Center for Active Adults, hearing similar information on body cams, then an Urban Design Center presentation of the city's plan to transform Six Forks Road between Lynn Road and the 440 Beltline.
The Midtown group, also containing about two-dozen people, had lots of questions, including one about the hundreds of residents who responded to a survey on the city's plan.
"Is this everybody from Possum Track to downtown?" asked Dale Homan, who lives in the Lakemont subdivision, referring to a road that runs off Six Forks to the north of I-540. More weight should be given to the thoughts of people who live within a mile of Six Forks than to those who drive up and down it every day, Homan argued.
For Perry, these CAC meetings are a good way to get information out to a broad section of Raleigh residents. "They are so well attended," he says. "They are spread out across every area of the city."
Mayoral challenger Charles Francis, a newcomer to electoral politics, has criticized Mayor Nancy McFarlane's vote for a new community engagement board, which as originally conceived by a task force would have replaced the CACs with several layers of groups to gauge public sentiment on issues. After encountering resistance to that idea, McFarlane scheduled an August 28 meeting—which she emphasizes will include CAC input—as the start of a two- or three-year process to put meat on the bones of theCEB framework.
CAC backers, including council member David Cox, point out that thousands of Raleigh residents belong to CACs, and they show up in the hundreds when a key zoning issue is on the agenda.
"It is a central issue from my point of view," Cox says. "The CACs are simply a vehicle for people to hear and learn about issues and, on some of the issues, to be able to express their point of view. It's a forum that allows city officials to provide information to citizens and allow citizens to give their views to officials."
Cox's opponent in District B, John Odom, says he favors CACs when they are run professionally. "What I don't like is when the members are bullied in one way or another," he says, adding that council members sometimes intimidate members with opposing views. Cox defeated Odom in 2015, after Cox scored points with community members by helping block a proposed grocery store in his north Raleigh district.
At-large candidate Russ Stephenson found himself the target of six challengers when Mary-Ann Baldwin, longtime incumbent in the other at-large seat, dropped out of the race, citing the need to make room for a new generation of leadership. (The top-two vote-getters are elected to the council.)
Stephenson says he's encouraged by the move to examine and improve the CAC process. "Any time you undertake a citywide re-envisioning of citizen engagement, it's going to be a big deal," Stephenson says.
N.C. State consultants Mary Lou Addor and Mickey Fearn will take part in the August 28 session, with one goal of locating a nationally recognized consultant to help flesh out the CEB, Stephenson says.
In the long term, winners in the fall elections will likely have the ultimate say on whether the CACs, or a body more closely linked to the council, will have the responsibility for making sure residents' voices are heard.