Fast-growing Raleigh ranks No. 2 on Forbes magazine's list of "Next Big Boom Towns," right behind Austin, Texas. The City of Oaks is No. 1 for families with young children. So what could go wrong?
Maybe nothing. Or, maybe the pace of growth will be too much for the city's roads to handle. Or the scale of growth—all the big-box apartment buildings with their giant parking decks full of cars—will overwhelm the older downtown neighborhoods. Mass transit, anyone? And then there's the issue of scarce water supplies. In other words, to be sustainable and a boon to others, not just the developers, Raleigh's growth requires sound management.
That's the City Council's No. 1 challenge. Its No. 2 challenge is effective oversight of city staff, all of whom report to the city manager, not the council. (The city attorney and clerk are the only exceptions.) Current council members lost confidence in City Manager Russell Allen this spring and fired him after 12 years on the job. After Allen's departure, some cracks were discovered in the ex-manager's seemingly solid performance. An audit of the Raleigh Business and Technology Center, an incubator for new business, disclosed serious mismanagement if not outright graft. Moreover, the fact that the incubator, supposedly overseen by the manager, had never been audited in its 13-year history raised questions about Raleigh's small audit staff.
Then in August, Raleigh cops began cracking down on nonprofit groups and church members who distribute food to the homeless on weekends in Moore Square. The do-good groups were threatened with arrest, giving Raleigh a national black eye. It turns out the crackdown was the work of city staff. City Council members were kept in the dark until the news hit the headlines.
In this campaign, at least one candidate is charging that City Council members have been too "hands-on"—too much interference—in their dealings with staff. The real problem is the opposite. The council for years has been too hands-off, too inclined to sit back and trust that the manager and his staff—and their policies—are always right.
In part, that's because council members have no staff of their own to help with oversight, policy changes or constituent service. In part, it's because councilors work for a pittance. (The mayor is paid $17,000 a year; other council members make $12,000.) Thus the manager's job—the last two served 29 years between them—has become all-powerful.
No doubt, low pay and little power are the reasons why the field of challengers in this year's mayor and council races is so skimpy.
Nancy McFarlane was elected mayor in 2011 after serving for two terms (four years) on council. She's proven she's up to the job, an effective leader notwithstanding her quiet personality. McFarlane was the decider on the issue of keeping Russell Allen as manager or letting him go. Our biggest criticism of her is that she's done a poor job—no job, really—of explaining to the public why Allen's contract wasn't renewed.
Because Allen wasn't terminated for cause, his contract entitled him to a year's salary as severance pay unless he gets another job.
On the upside, McFarlane has worked tirelessly to turn the former Dorothea Dix Hospital land into a destination park for Raleigh and the region. At the end of 2012, she signed a lease with then-Gov. Bev Perdue turning the 325-acre tract over to Raleigh for up to 99 years. Republicans in the General Assembly have attacked the lease and its status is in doubt, but not because McFarlane hasn't been trying to forge an acceptable deal with key legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory, Perdue's successor.
McFarlane, who is registered as unaffiliated, has been a strong supporter of the arts, helping recruit the upcoming International Bluegrass Music Association's showcase to Raleigh for the next three years. She's done her best to get the Republican-controlled Wake County Board of Commissioners to allow a referendum on a half-cent sales tax for transit. And when the homeless issue flared up in Moore Square, McFarlane came the same day to meet with the providers there and the folks they were providing for, telling city staff in no uncertain terms to back off.
Venita Peyton, one of McFarlane's two opponents, is a registered Republican who sells real estate and is a perennial candidate for mayor or school board. She never gets many votes, and in this campaign seems confused about the homeless issue. On the one hand, she criticized council members for not backing city staff. On the other, she said they failed to show compassion for the homeless or for the providers who were threatened with arrest.
Oddly, the Wake County Republican Party gave its endorsement to a chiropractor, Robert Weltzin, who's lived in Raleigh for just three years and announced, when he filed, that he was convicted of driving while intoxicated shortly after he moved here. Weltzin has done nothing since then to dispel the notion that he shouldn't be running.
Two members serve on council at-large; voters can cast a vote for one or two of the four candidates running.
We think the two incumbents, Russ Stephenson and Mary-Ann Baldwin, have earned re-election. Neither of the other two candidates is a credible alternative.
Stephenson and Baldwin, both Democrats, remind us of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abe Lincoln's cabinet—you know, the Team of Rivals.
Stephenson is a workhorse on development issues in Raleigh, scouring rezoning applications and trying to craft compromise outcomes even in the most contentious development cases. This, he concedes, hasn't always made him popular with developers or, sometimes, with the neighborhood groups who are his natural base of support. "Working for consensus is never popular with folks who are sure they are right," he wrote in one answer to the INDY questionnaire.
Without question, however, Stephenson has been an effective chair of the Comprehensive Plan Committee. He will be counted on to see that the new Unified Development Ordinance, a black box of zoning tools that may give Raleigh the well-managed growth it wants or traffic jams it doesn't want, generates good outcomes and minimizes the bad ones.
Baldwin, who rarely questions a developer, has taken the lead on other issues as chair of the Law and Public Safety Committee. She started Innovate Raleigh, for example, a networking group for entrepreneurs in business. Her committee found a way to bring food trucks to Raleigh. Now, it's working on how to serve the homeless.
Baldwin and Stephenson both have aspirations to succeed McFarlane as mayor some day. But they go about it different ways. Stephenson is McFarlane's closest ally on council. Baldwin is the member most inclined to pick at her.
The other two candidates are Republicans. Robert Williams didn't answer our questionnaire and hasn't campaigned much. He has just one campaign contributor, and his website (raleighforrob.com) has been an empty shell since he launched it weeks ago with an invitation—still there—to "check back often."
Jason Spriggs has a website that tells us he's lived in Raleigh for a year, is working on a degree from Wake Tech, is married and has five small children. "I am you," he writes. And he's "determined to succeed."
We endorse Randy Stagner, who is seeking a second term on council. Stagner, a retired Army special operations colonel, has been learning his way around city government, looking into the important issues of infrastructure capacity to support growth and representing neighborhoods on a spate of development issues in and around Crabtree Valley, which is in his district.
A registered independent, Stagner is a progressive-minded member who was seen at Moral Mondays at the General Assembly. He's pro-transit, has called for a referendum on the half-cent sales tax for transit and foresees integration of the bus systems in Wake, Durham and Orange counties over time. He supports giving the council a chief of staff and a couple of research assistants to help with oversight.
His opponent, Republican Wayne Maiorano, is an ex-Marine Corps officer who is now a lawyer for developers. Lacy Reaves, one of his partners at the Smith Anderson law firm, is among the most active of developers' lawyers in Raleigh. That alone is a reason not to elect Maiorano, who in other respects is civic-minded and active in local nonprofits. Council members must judge developers' applications, not be partners with the lawyers who pitch them.
Maiorano has attacked Stagner for plotting to fire Allen as city manager and for being too hands-on as a council member questioning city staff. The latter is an empty charge with no specifics to back it up. On Allen, Stagner was part of a 6–2 majority and not the decisive voice—that was McFarlane.
John Odom, the incumbent, is the council's only Republican. He served five terms as the District B representative from 1993-2003, ran for mayor and lost, ran for state insurance commissioner and lost, and won his old seat back in 2009 and 2011. He's a fiscal conservative—who in Raleigh isn't?—who nonetheless supports robust funding for public works. On this year's transportation bond issue, for example, Odom called for borrowing more than the proposed $75 million because Raleigh's road system needs more help. Odom also spoke up as part of the group of Republican moderates who support the proposed $810 million Wake schools bond issue.
The important point about Odom is that he's open-minded and his support for good government in Raleigh helps preserve a bipartisan approach on council, deflecting the tea-party element of the GOP that is otherwise rampant in Wake.
Brian Fitzsimmons is an attractive candidate, an employee benefits consultant and Democrat who was active in the anti-Amendment One campaign last year. He says it's time Raleigh adopted a strong gay-rights ordinance assuring that the city will not discriminate in employment against LGBT people. Non-discrimination is already the practice, but an ordinance would spell it out. Still, Fitzsimmons is a novice in city government. He should serve on one of the appointed city advisory commissions before stepping up to council.
Sam Smith, the third candidate, is a former Republican who re-registered as a Democrat when he filed for this office. At 23, he has no experience in city government of any kind. Democrats looking for someone besides Odom should choose Fitzsimmons.
Eugene Weeks was appointed to fill an unexpired term when James West was named to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Weeks was elected in his own right in 2011. We endorse him for re-election but question his attention to issues in this Southeast Raleigh district, starting with the scandal-ridden business incubator.
However, neither of Weeks' opponents is worthy of consideration. Marcus Hill is a self-described "liberty activist" and co-founder of Greater Raleigh Resistance, a far-right group whose purposes are murky. Hill is a regular at council meetings, using his three minutes of speaking time to attack fluoridation of the water supply. Racquel Williams, who's run before with more appropriate positions, is this year presenting herself as a religious zealot who will stand for "re-establishing the order of God on Earth."
We strongly support the re-election of Thomas Crowder, a Democrat and the council's foremost advocate for protecting neighborhoods against unsound developments. Crowder's list of accomplishments in 12 years on council is lengthy and includes the Hillsborough Street improvements, cracking down on slum landlords, limiting front-yard parking—a bane of older neighborhoods—and shaping the 2009 Comprehensive Plan to be more neighborhood-friendly. In short, Crowder's for growth as long as it enhances what's already in Raleigh. He's a longtime proponent of bus and light-rail transit in the region.
Crowder had a bout with testicular cancer this year but has returned to the council table following treatments and is ready to serve again.
Jim Sherron, Crowder's opponent, is a 26-year-old N.C. State graduate and Democrat whose grandfather was a state senator. His website promises fresh ideas but it doesn't offer any.