by Lisa Sorg
If you’re a Durham County resident, you may have received campaign mailers supporting the slate of Michael Page, Brenda Howerton, Joe Bowser and Rickey Padgett for county commissioner. Here's the mailer:
That mailer was paid for by the innocuously named Durham Partnership for Progress. But innocuous it is not: DPP is actually an independent expenditure political committee—commonly known as a Super PAC—organized by developer Tyler Morris, a majority shareholder in Southern Durham Development.
And not coincidentally, DPP is bankrolled, so far, by Southern Durham Development, which plans to build the controversial 751 South project in the sensitive Jordan Lake watershed.
Also not coincidentally, Page, Howerton and Bowser—all incumbents—voted to approve a controversial rezoning that allowed 751 South to move forward. Padgett supports the project; he also applied for an appointment to the commission last year to fill the seat held by Becky Heron, who resigned because of illness. (The commissioners instead appointed Pam Karriker, who is not running for election.)
Morris is listed as DPP's assistant treasurer. Rhonda Sisk, the DPP treasurer, lists an address that is Southern Durham Development's company office.
Here is the statement of organization: statement_of_organization.pdf
The first donations to the DPP are from Southern Durham Development: $2,500 in-kind and $100 in direct funds. expenditures.pdf
The $2,500 went to pay for a survey by Public Policy Polling that asked several questions of potential voters, including if they would vote for commissioner candidates who support 751. The survey also asked if the developers should sue the City of Durham.
In February, six Durham City Council members voted unanimously to reject the developer's request that the city provide water and sewer service to the 751 South. Councilman Howard Clement was absent due to illness.
Super PACs such as the Durham Partnership for Progress can receive unlimited funds from unlimited sources and spend unlimited amounts of money, according to Michael Perry, director of the Durham County Board of Elections. The only stipulation is that the Super PAC must not directly or indirectly make contributions to candidate committees or other committees that make contributions to candidates. Super PACs cannot coordinate with candidates, although that distinction is often not apparent.
Durham Partnership for Progress complies with that requirement by stating on the mailer that it is not endorsed by any candidate.
The DPP Super PAC sets a troubling precedent in Durham. It can accept enormous amounts of money from the wealthy development community—including out-of-towners like Morris, who lives in Raleigh—and use it to influence local elections.
First-quarter campaign finance reports are due April 30, the contents of which could further demonstrate the reach and influence of the DPP Super PAC.
Also not coincidentally, Southern Durham Development paid its overdue property taxes on the April 12, the day after the PAC formed, according to public election and tax records. In January, the Indy reported that SDD owed $142,000 in overdue taxes on five of its parcels.
In the 2008 election, Southern Durham Development partners contributed at least $3,000 to Brenda Howerton’s campaign, including $1,500 from majority shareholder Alex Mitchell and $1,000 from Morris.
Check the Indy's print edition next week as we factcheck the mailers' statements.