Vernetta Alston | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Vernetta Alston

Durham City Council (Ward 3)


Vernetta Alston
Occupation: Attorney
Phone Number: (919) 794-4961
Email Address:
Years Lived in Durham: approximately 14.5 years

1) Durham residents, from the new group Durham for All to the demonstrators who tore down the Confederate monument on Main Street, are calling for more power to be placed in the hands of the people. In what ways do you think Durham can improve public participation in local government? How would you make room for that in city government?

Durham can improve public participation in local government by giving residents who are not historically engaged in civic activity access to and a voice in local government decision-making.

The City can make room for more public participation by adopting and implementing participatory budgeting, recruiting residents who are not historically engaged for city boards and committees, and making city government more accessible to Spanish-speaking residents.

2) Because of state law, municipalities have a number of restrictions placed on them by the legislature: they can’t, for instance, be a sanctuary city, impose a city-wide minimum wage, enforce inclusionary zoning, or remove Confederate monuments. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?

Elected officials should push back against the Legislature anytime the human rights, civil rights or constitutional rights of our residents are threatened by the Legislature’s actions.

3.) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Durham take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Durham’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?

To be guardians of social justice, first, the County should refrain from prosecuting the individuals who took down the Confederate monument. At all levels of government, residents of Durham should hold our elected officials accountable to our values, and those who can vote should elect progressive leaders who are committed to social justice.

For many city leaders, their relationships with communities of color are fraught because they fail to operate from a framework that acknowledges the constant and forceful impact of race on the lives of people of color. To improve those relationships, we need city leaders who are committed to race equity, do the work to engage with communities of color about their needs, and prioritize those needs in city decision-making processes.

4) Durham’s public housing stock is aging, and there is limited money to redevelop units. What are your ideas for keeping residents of public housing in quality, affordable homes?

1. Commit to the City’s current 5-year plan for affordable housing,
2. Improve incentives for developers to voluntarily provide affordable housing units,
3. Revise the strategic plan to detail how it will support vulnerable and minority communities and residents that have been exploited and displaced,
4. Support property tax relief grant programs,
5. Leverage the City’s economic incentives to get developers to contribute to the City’s Dedicated Housing Fund or offer other needed amenities where they cannot themselves provide affordable housing units, and
6. Fund grants for businesses owned by people of color and otherwise proactively seek, nurture, and support these businesses to ensure that revitalization efforts don’t result in commercial districts with only white-owned businesses catering to only white, middle- and affluent-classes.

5) While much of Durham has seen a renaissance during Mayor Bell’s tenure, the city’s poverty rate has also increased. What are your ideas for lowering Durham’s poverty rate, other than providing affordable housing? How can Durham’s renaissance be spread more equitably throughout the city?

Our local government must commit to addressing the systems that create poverty and to extending Durham’s prosperity to all our communities.

Long-term, the City should commit to paying a living wage to all its employees. Right now, the City should commit to extending the $15 minimum wage to all part-time city employees. The City, particularly the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, can also spread Durham’s renaissance by focusing its economic investments in the capacity of its residents to support our local economy. The city should double down its job training and workforce development programs to provide effective job training and encourage creation of jobs that meet the skills and needs of our communities. The City should support the rights of all workers to unionize and participate in worker-owned cooperatives. The City must increase its recruitment of businesses led by people of color, create incentives for thoughtful business creation in communities of color, encourage new businesses to engage with local businesses that operate in lower-income communities facing gentrification, prioritize partnerships with NCCU in a comparable way to the City’s partnerships with Duke University, and provide more equitable long-term employee benefits for part-time and full-time workers.

6) The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has moved into the engineering phase, although the Trump administration seems reticent to fund it. What are your thoughts on light rail? If completed, do you believe the project will be worth the community’s investment? Why or why not?

Durham and the Triangle must move toward an effective rail-based transit system. Implementation of a rail-based transit system in Durham should be coupled with a commitment from city government to make the system affordable and accessible for the communities that utilize public transportation most. The stops in the current plan cradle Duke University and only extend eastward to NCCU. It is critical that future development of Durham’s light rail prioritize more stops in East and South Durham.

If completed and if it is extended to serve more communities in Durham, the light rail will be worth the community’s investment because accessible and affordable transportation is critical to creating access to employment and vital services for many of our residents. Light rail also helps create cleaner air, promotes our environmental sustainability, encourages more walkable communities, and could create opportunities for the City to make needed changes to our bus system.

7) Given the current direction of Durham city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes you will advocate if elected?

There are many things that our City government should take pride in, including, the plan for rail-based transit, increase in the minimum wage for full-time city employees, and the 5-year affordable housing plan. However, the City has work to do to put itself on a consistent and progressive path.

To create a progressive future for Durham, I would advocate for participatory budgeting, thoughtful investment in communities that have been historically disadvantaged, improvements in police officer candidate screening, no cooperating with ICE, enhancements to our non-discrimination protections, a fare-free bus system and other policies that align with progressive values.

8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

No one issue more pressing than another but three issues that are pressing for the City are:

a) Policing: If elected, I want to be instrumental in making Durham a safe community for everyone. First, we must encourage those in city government, law enforcement, and other positions of influence to examine why people of color, the poor, and other marginalized communities continue to be targeted. I want to hold Chief Davis and the Police Department accountable to their efforts to address disproportionate treatment specifically, the department’s discretionary power to stop and arrest people, their recent order to stop conducting traffic checkpoints (which is a misleading promise since the City will continue to participate in multi-jurisdictional and community-initiated checkpoints), and methods of recourse for police misconduct. I also want the city to invest in restorative justice, support for those who have had contact with law enforcement, and divest law enforcement from addressing needs that can be served by community members.

b) Affordable housing: The City must work to add to our stock of permanent, quality affordable housing, improve the quality of existing affordable units, and help residents who risk displacement due to rising property taxes, stay in their homes. The policies that I would advocate for are outlined in question 4.

c) Economic development: this is a pressing issue because Durham is in the midst of unprecedented economic growth and we have an opportunity to help all our communities benefit from and participate in that growth. Again, the economic development policies I would advocate for are outlined in question 5.

9) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?

My work as a criminal defense attorney has strengthened my understanding of systemic inequality and given me experience using the law to hold people accountable, create conversation about and combat discrimination in the criminal justice system, and advocate for some of our most vulnerable. If elected, I will draw on that experience and extend the framework that informed my legal work to my work on city council.

I have also served on the City’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, a board that works with the Community Development Department to consider housing concerns of residents and allocate critical housing grants. Through that work, I have developed an understanding of how the City has approached community development in recent years and how we can improve efforts to provide housing for all our residents.

10) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?

In January 2017, there was a shooting in the parking lot of Lakewood Shopping Center; in an area experiencing rapid gentrification. Neighbors demanded that a nightclub in the shopping center, Emerald City, be shut down following the shooting. In response, councilmember Moffitt said, “the club has forfeited the right to operate by their practices which have now resulted in bloodshed.” That reaction demonstrated how gentrification operates to isolate and force out individuals and communities of color despite the support they deserve from our elected officials.

The City has had several significant accomplishments in the past year, including, approval of the recent purchase of Fayette Place by the Durham Housing Authority, participation in the Innovation Team program to help residents who have had contact with the criminal justice system, rejection of the Mayor’s HB2 compromise proposal, and approval of property tax relief grants for qualifying residents in our Southside neighborhood.

11) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I identify as a progressive.

12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Durham must be the standard-bearer for our progressive values. The only way we can accomplish that is by electing progressive leaders to our City Council.

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