Democrats urge crowds to oppose GOP-led changes for Wake County

ccampbell@newsobserver.comkhui@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2013 

  • HAVE YOUR SAY

    The Wake County Legislative Delegation will meet Monday at 4 p.m. in Room 643 in the Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St. The meeting will be open to the public to share comments and concerns.

    Speakers must register by email to steinla@ncleg.net or call 919-715-6400 no later than 11 a.m. Monday. Speakers are asked to provide the name of the presenter and the topic to be discussed.

    Remarks will be limited to two to three minutes, with the time being dependent upon the number of speakers registered. Those who bring handouts are asked to provide at least 25 copies.

    For more information, call Candy Finley at 919-715-6400.

Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix park lease and efforts to weaken the power of the Wake school board were hot topics at a legislative hearing Monday, with the majority of speakers opposing Republican-sponsored bills.

About 300 people packed a meeting room at the Legislative Office Building, with others forced by fire marshals to listen from the hallway. Sen. Josh Stein called the crowd “unprecedented” for a Wake delegation hearing, as the events normally draw only a handful of people.

More than 100 people had signed up to speak, but after two hours the debate was cut off at speaker No. 57.

“You’ve thrown cold water in the face of North Carolina and we are awake,” Tina Govan told legislators. “Why are you meddling in the affairs of Wake County?”

A meeting room at the Legislative Office Building filled up early, with many in attendance sporting green stickers in favor of Raleigh's Dix park plans. But a few speakers said they favor the Republican-sponsored effort to revoke the lease. They were mental health advocates who think the bill's dedication of Dix proceeds to treatment and services is a positive development.

The Wake County Democratic Party, WakeUP Wake County and Friends of Dorothea Dix had sent out alerts to their supporters urging them to pack Monday’s public meeting of the Wake County legislative delegation. They charge that the proposed legislation would “erase years of public work and is “an assault on public education.”

Supporters of the pieces of legislation say they’re common-sense bills that would ensure the public is getting its money’s worth and give greater accountability in school construction and school board elections. A separate bill which would limit the power of municipalities and counties to regulate the look of residential construction.

Because organizers expect a large crowd, they moved the meeting to a larger room late last week.

“We need you to sign up to speak, show up to demonstrate your concern, speak up so that your legislators hear you, and then stand up for strong schools and smart development in Wake County,” Wake Democratic Party Chairman Dan Blue III said in a Thursday email to members.

Supporters of Raleigh’s plan for a destination park on the Dorothea Dix property will be in attendance Monday too. The bill to scrap the city’s lease on the property passed a Senate appropriations committee Thursday; it will come before the full Senate Monday.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane took to Twitter last week to urge park fans to “wear green and come early” to Monday afternoon’s hearing.

“We are all talking to as many members of the legislature as we can,” McFarlane said. “I think the legislators will probably be hearing from a lot of people.”

The bill’s sponsors – Republicans mostly from outside the Triangle – say that by signing the lease, outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue gave the state a bad deal and her final major act was “illegitimate.” The bill calls for restarting Dix plans by locating Department of Health and Human Services offices there and leasing the rest to Raleigh at “fair market value.”

Park backers said that move would gut their plans, leaving them with 200 acres largely in a flood plain. It would become “just another city park” rather than a major attraction, according to Gregory Poole of the Dix Visionaries group.

McFarlane has had her hands full lobbying the legislature this month. She’s also been active in opposing House Bill 150, which limits the power of local governments to regulate residential housing based on design or appearance. That’s another issue that the Wake Democrats and WakeUp Wake County want their members to speak out about.

The bill – which passed the House last week and heads to the Senate this week – would prohibit towns from withholding building permits based on a builder’s design elements such as his building materials or garage size. It exempts houses deemed historic by the state as well as private covenants or other contractual agreements, including those adopted by homeowners associations.

Supporters say the bill puts residential development on a fast track, increases consumer choice, and reins in local governments that have abused their rights. Opponents say it might endanger property values of homes in older neighborhoods not protected by homeowners associations.

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the legislature’s actions on the Dix lease and the housing standards would harm Raleigh.

“I can’t help but feel there is an attack on cities,” she said. “There seems to be some sense that, ‘Let’s take down the cities, they have too much power.’ ”

School authority in limbo

At the request of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, state Sen. Neal Hunt introduced S236, a bill that would allow all 100 county governments to control ownership, construction, design and maintenance of schools, taking that power away from school systems.

Hunt has argued the bill would allow the school systems to focus on education instead of on construction issues.

The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce has proposed that the Wake commissioners and school board reach an agreement on the construction issue before the bill is passed. They suggest a deal in which commissioners would increase school funding in return for taking over construction, ownership and acquisition of schools.

Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake Board of Commissioners, said they’ll discuss the details of school construction management after the bill passes. But he said they won’t link it to the chamber’s school funding proposal. “They want us to solve everything, including world peace, before passing over to us something that logically should be a county function,” Bryan said of county ownership of schools.

But the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which was founded by WakeUP Wake County, argues that the Wake school system has significantly more experience in construction than the county. The group also argues the change doesn’t make sense because only school boards have “the educational programming knowledge and requisite experience dealing with the kinds of factors that affect school placement and design decisions.”

The Wake County Democratic Party charges that the bill is “a blatant attempt to take power from the school board to satisfy the Commissioners’ need to punish and control.” Republicans hold the majority on the board of commissioners while Democrats make up the majority on the school board.

“If Commissioner (Paul) Coble or Bryan are negotiating land leases or designing classrooms and auditoriums, we should all be nervous,” according to the Wake Democratic email.

Election process may change

Another bill introduced by Hunt, S325, would allow Wake County voters to cast ballots for two school board seats, instead of one district seat now, by creating two regional districts that each represent half the county.

The bill also calls for legislators to redraw the boundaries of the other board districts, extends the terms of mostly Republican board members and shortens the length of five Democratic board members. It’s all part of an plan to move the elections to even-numbered years.

Of the bill’s five proposed smaller districts, two would have three current board members living in them.

Hunt said he might “tweak” the bill because critics say it’s partisan. He said they redrew the election boundaries to make them “competitive,” but critics charge that it’s designed to give Republicans a 5-4 majority.

Democrats maintain that it needlessly rearranges the districts on a nonpartisan school board to create and maintain a Republican majority.

Great Schools in Wake argues redistricting authority should remain in the control of the elected school board. They also note that the last redistricting plan was approved in 2011 by the school board’s former Republican majority.

“We should not be going to the expense of redistricting in less than two years,” according to the talking points Great Schools in Wake is providing to supporters. “This is costly, confusing and completely unnecessary — a purely political move.”

Great Schools and Wake Democrats also question shortening the terms of some board members while extending them for others.

But Hunt said critics overlook the benefit of allowing voters to pick two school board members. He said that the regional districts should ensure that families will be able to elect at least one board member for where their children attends school.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “It just makes sense.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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