Russ Stephenson’s fuss shows Raleigh council micromanaging

August 7, 2013 

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 city’s top planner and a nationally respected figure in that world. Stephenson’s beef was that planners weren’t 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 haven’t responded to their attempts to find the middle ground that you asked them to look for. Now they’re not getting a timely response to their attempts to work it out.”

Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Seems like Stephenson’s a bit short of temper? Downright curious? Yes, yes, yes. And, here’s something that’s all the more curious. Developer Tom Erwin of Saintsing Properties doesn’t 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 Silver’s offer to look into the matter personally and called for a special meeting on the issue of the council’s comprehensive planning committee. Going by the usual protocol, something like this wouldn’t wind up in a committee for a while yet.

Stephenson heads that committee. It happens he’s a neighbor of Erwin’s. 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 he’s always been a fellow who isn’t likely to fall into formation behind someone else’s 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 Stephenson’s move a bit peculiar.

“In my six years on the council,” she told The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell, “I’ve never seen anything like it. It definitely didn’t 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, she’s 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.

That’s 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 she’s 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. That’s 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 manager’s 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 word’s out. In last month’s 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 Stephenson’s feet hurt from doing all that neighborhood walking in his due diligence as a council member, and he’s 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 there’s 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.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service