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Why is Raleigh rushing a rezoning vote before the next City Council is seated?

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The biggest issue in next week's Raleigh city elections is the massive Unified Development Ordinance rezoning of 35,000 properties. Some candidates want to push it through despite its many flaws. Others want to slow it down, change it and get it right before slapping it on the city.

The essence of democracy is that the question is now in the voters' hands. Or is it? In a nasty perversion of the process, it's possible—likely, even—that the UDO rezoning will be approved by a bare majority of a lame-duck City Council after the Oct. 6 elections but before the new council is seated Dec. 1.

It will be approved, should that happen, by five members (on an eight-member body) who had every chance to enact the thing prior to the election.

But they didn't dare.

Why not? Because the remap, which would apply the not-ready-for-prime-time "mixed-use" zoning categories of the UDO to one-third of the city, is widely unpopular. Calamitous public hearings in July showed that.

But with the election behind them, are the five going to act? Whether they've been re-elected or not?

We know one of them won't be re-elected because, up to his armpits in recusals due to his law firm's work for developers, Wayne Maiorano didn't even run. Nonetheless, he may cast the deciding vote in favor, unless the five back away from their plan to act in October or November.

Pure and simple, it's an insult.

Take John Odom. He's no lock for re-election, far from it. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and predict that the veteran Odom will lose to challenger David Cox, the driving force behind the group Grow Raleigh Great and a leading critic of the UDO in its current form.

At that point, that lame-duck majority would include Odom, who'd have lost in District B out of his blind allegiance to the UDO, and Maiorano, who faced a probable loss in District A because of UDO-related issues before bowing out.

Those two would vote, but their elected replacements—Cox in B and presumably either Dickie Thompson, a former chairman of the planning commission, or J.B. Buxton, the current vice chairman, in District A—wouldn't get a say, despite their expertise and voters' preferences.

The other three in the quintet are Mary-Ann Baldwin, an at-large member who probably will be re-elected; Eugene Weeks, who's facing a challenge from Corey Branch in District C; and Bonner Gaylord, the favorite in District E.

Weeks is a go-along guy, not a leader.Baldwin and Gaylord, though, fancy themselves in the mayor's chair one day. Each is plotting to vanquish the other whenever Nancy McFarlane calls it quits.

Which makes it beyond strange that both of them, Baldwin and Gaylord, think the route to future election is to be such a suck-up to development interests that they're willing to adopt the UDO remap in a lame-duck session while telling the voters to take a hike.

Just to be sure, I sent Baldwin a text asking if she favors a lame-duck vote. "Yes," she replied.

Then I turned to Gaylord. I thought he might have the wit to say that, sure, he'd considered a lame-duck vote, but he'd decided that the voters' wishes must be respected and newly elected council members allowed to participate in this critically important decision.

I actually thought Gaylord would say, "If Mary-Ann Baldwin tries to push this through, I'll oppose it. I'm pro-UDO, too, but I believe elections matter—and too bad if she doesn't."

After a lengthy exchange, Gaylord instead said he's for lame-duck approval, as well. The UDO is Council's "body of work," he said.

Yeah, that's the problem.

So now I must admit that I'm assuming a fact not in evidence. I'm assuming that Mayor McFarlane sees the flaws in the UDO rezoning and understands that the reason it's flawed is that the council majority, which she does not control, has stonewalled every effort to improve it.

And by every effort, I mean the heroic campaign by at-large Councilman Russ Stephenson to introduce balance and some council discretion to the UDO, as opposed to giving developers carte blanche. The rezoning process should foster high-quality urban growth while not overwhelming the neighborhoods that give Raleigh character. We need housing for families at all income levels. We need incentives for high-density development at transit stops. We need transit stops.

The UDO remap not only fails at all of this, but as Stephenson warns, if it passes in its current form it will create obstacles to these goals for years to come.

I'm also assuming that McFarlane is working to help Thompson win the District A seat she used to hold because he can help her—and Stephenson and District D incumbent Kay Crowder—with the UDO.

But I also know that the mayor is disinclined to fight for a losing cause. Perhaps that's why she's also helping Gaylord—and maybe when the time comes, he'll help her with the crucial fourth vote.

You can help by electing Thompson, Cox, Branch, Crowder and especially Stephenson, and for that second at-large seat, Matt Tomasulo. Just as the INDY recommended a week ago.

Send the message that voters matter, not just developers.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The lamest duck"

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