Mayor Bill Bell gave his weather-delayed 13th State of the City address Thursday, telling a cable-television audience and a small crowd in City Hall that “the state of our city is good and getting better.”
His speech was originally scheduled for a City Council meeting Monday, but snow and ice intervened.
Unlike 2014, when Bell set poverty reduction “year-by-year, neighborhood-by-neighborhood” as a top city priority, the mayor announced no new initiatives and set no major goals for the year ahead. Rather, he enumerated some defining points of the past year and pointed up what he expects to be important points in 2015.
Looking back, he said 2014 might be remembered for new hotels under construction, the Durham Innovation District unveiling and the debut Art of Cool music festival.
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It was also a year, he said, of “questions raised and actions taken by some in the community about law enforcement’s relationship with residents. ... that led to a number of actions being put into place to increase transparency, trust and accountability.”
Though he did not specifically mention it, he was referring to a Human Relations Commission finding that racial bias existed within the Durham Police Department. The department has denied bias, but the city instituted several measures meant to prevent it.
Bell said he had recently attended a U.S. Conference of Mayors committee on improving police-community relations. He said he has asked City Manager Tom Bonfield to review the committee’s recommendations for building trust, addressing racial and economic disparities and ensuring timely communication, and recommend how they might be applied in Durham.
“The report may also be the basis for a broader Durham community conversation on police and community relations,” Bell said.
Bell had earlier pointed out that, since he became mayor in 2001, the city’s violent-crime rate has dropped from 974.68 incidents per 100,000 residents to 764.76 per 100,000.
“We must continue to focus on making crime reduction a priority,” he said, and affirmed that the City Council and administration “respect and support the overall work that our Police Department does.”
Praising city employees as “among the best committed civil servants,” Bell added that “it is also important that they all be treated fairly” – a clear if unspecified reference to allegations of racial inequity in the city water department, which are the subject of a current inquiry by the Human Relations Commission.
“It is important that we determine the veracity of these allegations, and, if they prove to be true, provide equitable solutions to correct them,” he said.