For the past eight years, conservative leaders have allowed "market forces" to drive the pace and direction of Raleigh's growth, while citizen participation in the development process has taken a back seat. But the citizens aren't riding quietly. Two recent rezoning cases have highlighted the ongoing struggle between practitioners of unchecked growth and those promoting a hands-on approach and more citizen input. In May, the City Council bowed to development interests by voting to allow the construction of office buildings on 13 acres of environmentally sensitive land within the Falls Lake watershed. In August, developer Neal Coker withdrew his bid for a massive mixed-use project near Wade Avenue called The Oberlin but more widely known by its nickname, "Coker Towers." His proposal was toppled by the efforts of vocal neighborhood groups that pushed City Council to defeat the project. The council never took a final vote, but did submit the matter to mediation.
The fallout from those two cases will have an impact on the race for the city's top spot, which will likely be decided Oct. 9. If any one of the three candidates running gets 50 percent of the votes, he is elected; a runoff will only be scheduled if no candidate receives 50 percent. Charles Meeker, a lawyer, former mayoral candidate and former city councilor, offers the best chance for ensuring that the city's approach to future growth benefits local residents. A trusted friend to city neighborhoods, Meeker has been a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in the development process. A Democrat, he was a vocal opponent of both The Oberlin and development in the Falls Lake watershed, and he supports requiring developers to meet with neighborhood groups prior to submitting rezoning requests--not exactly a radical idea, but one that's been noticeably absent in Raleigh. He also supports impact fees on new development and a living wage for city workers. Meeker has experience on the city's Greenway and Parks boards. And he's called for "parity" in investment and development efforts for Central and Southeast Raleigh so that services there don't lag behind other parts of the city.
But first Meeker has to unseat incumbent Mayor Paul Coble. During his two-year term, Coble has continued the anti-tax and market-driven growth policies of his conservative predecessor and fellow Republican, Tom Fetzer. These policies have allowed developers to dictate how and where Raleigh grows, to the detriment of citizen concerns. In March, Coble cast the deciding vote to kill a city ordinance that would have given citizens a voice in conditional-use zoning cases. And while he has made some initial steps toward bringing more business investment to Southeast Raleigh, his developer-friendly record suggests that any growth in that area will benefit the builders far more than the residents. A third candidate, Joel Cornette is an executive at IBM and an active member of the North Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council (CAC). A moderate Republican, Cornette's campaign has focused on responsible growth, higher pay for police and the adoption of a monorail system. Although he has good ideas, the first-time campaigner lacks Meeker's track record of involvement in grassroots issues, and the needed experience to get things done at City Hall.
Raleigh City Council
Six candidates are vying for two seats in the at-large (citywide) race. Of those, Democrats Janet Cowell and Andrew Leager have the most constructive approach. Cowell, who's associate director for the progressive Common Sense Foundation, is a dynamic choice for public office. She's pro-citizen, pro-environment and supports managed growth through impact fees and restrictions on development. Cowell has extensive national and international business experience--both pluses, given the diverse and rapidly changing nature of the city and its workforce. Overall, she offers a forward-thinking, yet practical vision for Raleigh.
Leager is an architect, building contractor and, refreshingly, an outspoken champion of the arts. The Raleigh native, who rides his bike to work, wants to update the city's zoning and development ordinances to encourage a "metropolitan form that lets people drive less and still thrive." He pledges to preserve open space and work toward a regional rail system. Leager also supports increased funding for the arts and revitalizing Southeast Raleigh through better services, more police and more capital investment.
Incumbent Democrat Mort Congleton disappointed many constituents by straddling the fence on The Oberlin issue. His major contribution to the debate was to suggest that the developer add a building to hide a parking deck that had come under fire from opponents of the project--not exactly stand-up leadership.
Former mayoral candidate Venita Peyton has played a positive role as a cheerleader for Southeast Raleigh, but it's not clear she's been able to get results. Unfortunately, since losing the support of many of her fellow Democrats and African Americans by endorsing Coble in 1999, Peyton has become too much of a cheerleader for the incumbent mayor.
Republican Neal Hunt, the chair of the Raleigh Planning Commission, supported The Oberlin because of its mixed-use nature. Though relatively moderate on growth issues, he's not shown he's someone who'll stand up to development interests. Independent John (Red) Williams is a funeral home administrator whose campaign has failed to articulate a vision for city voters.
In North Raleigh's District A, where three candidates are running for one open seat, Republican Tom Slater offers a positive challenge to the anti-tax incumbent, Kieran Joseph Shanahan--a leading Coble ally. A civil engineer with expertise in transportation planning, Slater chairs his neighborhood citizen advisory council as well as the Raleigh CAC. Unlike his fellow Republican Shanahan, Slater is a vocal proponent of citizen involvement in all aspects of city government, especially in the development process. And unlike Libertarian challenger Bryan Baldwin, he has laid out a clear blueprint for change.
In District B, covering Northeast Raleigh, where four candidates are running for one seat, Bruce Spader provides the best contrast to conservative incumbent John Odom--another proven Coble ally. Spader, a Democrat who works as an engineer, has run the Brentwood Neighborhood Association for the past four years, and his strategies for managing growth include impact fees and a larger role for citizen advisory councils in the planning process. A weaker challenge to Odom comes from Democrat Dan James, who, while stressing citizen involvement and quality-of-life issues, hasn't presented an effective plan. Republican Karen Moye-Stallings, the state coordinator for the Association of Self-Advocates of North Carolina--a group that works with people with disabilities--has focused narrowly on better pay for police officers.
In District E, where two candidates are battling for a council seat to represent Northwest Raleigh, newcomer Warren Raybould is a strong voice for managed growth. A housing finance executive and neighborhood leader, Republican Raybould is running fresh off his opposition to The Oberlin. His opponent and fellow Republican Philip R. Isley, is largely concerned with traffic issues, and has been endorsed by outgoing councilor Marc Scruggs Jr. and former mayor Fetzer to fill out Coble's conservative stable.
Of three candidates vying for an open seat in Southwest's District D, we support the incumbent, Benson Kirkman. After showing initial support for the Coker project, the two-term Democrat listened to neighborhood leaders and ultimately came out against it. Kirkman has been a solid vote for environmental concerns, expanded transit services and managed growth. His candidacy overshadows the uninspiring campaigns of Republican Thomas Croom, a chemistry student at N.C. State University, and Libertarian Michael S. Gardner.
Mayor Glen Lang is full of ideas, most of them good ones. Since his slow-growth movement took control of the Town Council two years ago, he's gotten Cary to scale back on the rate of development until the school system and roads catch up; forced developers to pay their way with impact fees; launched an ambitious program of open-space acquisition; protected water quality with wide buffers next to streams; put a transit system in place for seniors and folks with disabilities; and set out to get more affordable housing built. The town is contributing money to the Wake County schools, which is novel--and needed. It's even got a public financing system for local elections, along with voluntary spending limits and a $200 limit on private campaign contributions. Some of Lang's brainstorms aren't so hot, however. His plan to up the mayor's salary to $60,000 was half-baked. Instead of sticking it in the budget at the last minute, he should have let a council committee, and the public, think it over for a while. And then there's Lang's $200,000 public advertising campaign to tell folks all the good things Cary's doing, launched--not coincidentally--just as the election season began. It should have waited.
Lang is not on the ballot this year, and he is virtually certain to retain a working majority on the council when the votes are in. That fact influences our thinking in the eight-person contest for a single at-large council seat. Two candidates stand out, and it's a close call between them. Our endorsement goes to Julie Robison over Don Hyatt, because while both are smart and will energetically support Lang's good ideas, Robison is independent enough to dissent from his bad ones.
The two were put to the test in recent weeks when conservative candidate Nelson Dollar went to court and got a judge to bring the curtain down on Lang's public-relations machine until after the election, piling up headlines as he went. Dollar said the mayor's publicity effort was typical of the council's "reckless, wasteful spending"--the mantra of conservatives in town as they try to take back control from Lang. Hyatt fired back at Dollar and defended the publicity campaign in sarcastic tones. For instance, when at one point he was asked how he'd get youth involved in town activities, he replied that putting the ads where kids would see them "is probably a good start." Robison had the better sense to say nothing. And on the mayor's salary initiative, she dissented by registering her support for open government, then called for the creation of citizens advisory councils in neighborhoods throughout Cary to improve policy decisions.
An urban planner with the nonprofit Research Triangle Institute, Robison consults with governments about growth issues and strategic planning all over the country. She's been active in Cary in neighborhood groups and as co-chair of the town's Economic Policy Commission. Her self-described "independent, fact-based perspective" will strengthen the council and give the public a place to turn when Lang's majority is pushing in one direction and the conservative minority is attacking from another.
Of the remaining candidates, former council member Russell Secrest, who served in the 1970s and was later deputy insurance commissioner for the state, is well-intentioned, as is Darryl Black, an industrial engineer with Cisco Systems. But neither matches Robison's calm mastery of the issues. Michael Nourse, a retired Cary fire captain, is a solid citizen, but also a Jesse Helms admirer who thinks public campaign financing is "a large waste." Lisa Vrana, a filmmaker and former assistant to Republican County Commissioner Herb Council, lacks focus, while Jack Potter is a crusty retiree who answers most questions by saying simply that the council must "listen to the people."
In the District A race, our choice is Jennifer Robinson. Elected two years ago to the at-large seat, Robinson is now running to represent her home district in the western part of Cary, where most of the growth issues are focused. She's been a prime mover of the Lang agenda, including the open-space and school-funding initiatives. On the critical issue of bringing more affordable housing to Cary, she's opposed low-income projects, but advocated inclusionary zoning that mixes affordable units into every new development. Robinson is running against another incumbent, Jess Ward, who supports low-income housing projects and some slow-growth measures, but toes the conservative line on spending, as he did when he was the Republican candidate for Congress last year against David Price. Ward's record isn't as good as Robinson's, and in the battle of the Lang forces against developers' groups that dominate Cary politics, she's on the citizens' side while he's inconsistent. The third candidate, Tom McCuiston, is a conservative lawyer and CPA who is well-spoken but focused on the wrong things, including the bogeyman of "wasteful spending."
In the District C race, the choice is easy. Councilor Jack Smith, a management consultant, is a 12-year veteran who advocated reining in developers back in the dark days when Cary just didn't do such things. He is chief architect of Cary's public campaign financing and is active in regional organizations on growth issues. His opponent, businessman Michael Joyce, is a shrill conservative whose biggest complaint, in addition to spending on campaign finance and public relations, is that Cary is spending $20,000 to study whether to build a public golf course.
Wake County Board of Education
The fast-growing Wake school system now numbers 123 schools and 100,000 students. School board service, therefore, is a tough, time-consuming job that requires members to grapple with change and also be strong advocates for excellence--and funding--with often tight-fisted county commissioners. The nine-member board is losing one of its ablest members, Judy Hoffman, who is stepping down after 12 years. She joins a recent exodus of such veteran leaders as John Gilbert, Roxie Cash and the late Harriet Webster, who died this year. Fortunately, voters have found solid replacements for them in the last two elections, including current chair Kathryn Quigg and vice chair Susan Parry. Quigg, who lives in Wake Forest, is unopposed for re-election in District 1, the only uncontested seat of the four on the primary ballot this year.
Two strong candidates are vying to replace Hoffman in District 7, a North Raleigh seat. We endorse Patti Head, based on her long experience and record of leadership on school issues. Head has been on the board of the Wake Education Partnership, the school system's community arm, for seven years, and active in various PTAs for 19. On the toughest issue that faces the school system--the annual juggling of student assignments to maintain socioeconomic balance from school to school while letting as many students as possible attend the schools closest to them-- Head doesn't offer easy answers, because there aren't any, but she wants to expand choices with more year-round schools and magnet schools, while putting additional money behind the system's goals of closing the achievement gap between minority and white students, and getting 95 percent of students to their grade level or above.
Running against Head, Ruthie Jones, a past president of the Stough Elementary PTA, is also a good candidate. An active opponent of the board's ill-fated attempt to make Stough a year-round school, Jones is a business manager for a home-building firm who shares Head's views on most issues, but has less experience as an advocate for the school system. A third candidate, Jean Stewart, is a retired teacher and UNC-Wilmington administrator who promises to support school funding needs. But Stewart is an outspoken opponent of all busing, without which socioeconomic balance cannot be maintained.
Two veteran board members are standing for re-election. In District 9, a Cary-based district, incumbent Bill Fletcher is our choice over his challenger, school teacher Ray Martin. Fletcher, a marketing consultant, has been an effective member for two terms, during which time he's battled conservative county commissions for new school buildings to catch up with Wake's growth and more funding to reach higher achievement goals. Martin, who teaches computer and media technology in a Chapel Hill middle school, says he took the job there so he could run for the Wake board since teachers aren't permitted to run for boards that employ them. His views are a mixed bag. He says the system's goal should be to get 100 percent of students to grade level, which sounds good (although 95 percent would be a huge step forward from the current mid-80s level), but then he turns around and attacks supposedly "spiraling costs" and proposes to run the school system with no central office staff. That just doesn't add up.
In District 2, based in Garner, two-term incumbent J.C. O'Neal, a retired teacher, is our choice over challenger Amy White, a former teacher in Forsyth County who chaired a Garner school summit this year sponsored by the local chamber of commerce. O'Neal's record on the board has been solid, and he's been the board's most consistent advocate for improving teacher pay and working conditions. White says that O'Neal isn't working hard enough to improve Garner's schools, which are among the county's weakest in terms of test scores. But that charge is unfair. The system's 95 percent goal will lift the schools in Garner if it's met. The Wake board is doing what it can to make the goal, and O'Neal is one of its strongest supporters. White is an attractive newcomer in other ways, but on a board with a host of new members, O'Neal's experience is what's needed.