Now usually, if people call with problems getting to sleep, we recommend they take some warm milk and a Raleigh City Council meeting. Usually, that works. By mid-meeting.
But Tuesday, council member Russ Stephenson, normally a smiling, affable, hand-shaking kind of guy, got all over city planners, including Mitch Silver, the citys top planner and a nationally respected figure in that world. Stephensons beef was that planners werent being prompt in getting answers to a developer who is proposing a northwest Raleigh Walgreens drug store.
The applicant, Stephenson told Silver, is not getting a predictable process. You havent responded to their attempts to find the middle ground that you asked them to look for. Now theyre not getting a timely response to their attempts to work it out.
Doesnt sound like a big deal? Seems like Stephensons a bit short of temper? Downright curious? Yes, yes, yes. And, heres something thats all the more curious. Developer Tom Erwin of Saintsing Properties doesnt have a pending application for the Walgreens at Strickland and Leesville roads.
Molehill to mountain
Which makes it all the more curious that Stephenson declined Silvers offer to look into the matter personally and called for a special meeting on the issue of the councils comprehensive planning committee. Going by the usual protocol, something like this wouldnt wind up in a committee for a while yet.
Stephenson heads that committee. It happens hes a neighbor of Erwins. And Erwin, an attorney, has his own good neighbor policy: He gave Stephenson $250 for his re-election campaign.
Stephenson, an architect, has shown signs of being a council gadfly before, and hes always been a fellow who isnt likely to fall into formation behind someone elses fife and drum corps.
That sort of fits with being an at-large council member, designated by definition of the job to represent the entire city rather than just one district.
Mary-Ann Baldwin, the other at-large member, did, however, find Stephensons move a bit peculiar.
In my six years on the council, she told The News & Observers Colin Campbell, Ive never seen anything like it. It definitely didnt follow protocol.
ISO a manager
Baldwin had another reason to be concerned. As one council member who opposed the recent firing of Russell Allen, the now-former city manager, shes worried that the council might be getting a reputation as one that likes to roll up its sleeves and stick its fingers in the middle of pies-in-progress.
Thats not going to help in the search for a new manager to replace Allen, who was in the view of many residents and city staffers doing a good job. (Evidenced by positive job performance reviews, for one example.)
Baldwin, a common-sense councilor, said shes encouraged her colleagues to take a more hands-off approach. But Stephenson and council member Thomas Crowder have recently gone straight to staffers with issues. Thats not a good idea, because it could be seen as bringing political sorts of pressure to bear on staff members, who ought to be insulated from that kind of thing by the managers office.
If potential candidates for the very good job of Raleigh city manager hear of this kind of...shall we say, involvement by council members, will the job be as attractive? And apparently, the words out. In last months issue of Governing magazine, Campbell reported, the city was criticized for too much hands-on government.
We hope this is just a little dust-up. Maybe Stephensons feet hurt from doing all that neighborhood walking in his due diligence as a council member, and hes a fan of Walgreens foot powder and corn plasters.
A council member has a right and perhaps a duty to question city officials if he or she feels something is amiss. But theres not much indication that was the case here, and Silver is hardly inexperienced. There are better ways for Stephenson to spend his time, and his proposal to take this issue to his committee was inappropriate.