The past year has brought plenty of controversies to Raleigh as the city prepares for its next wave of growth.
The City Council got a new top administrator amid widespread speculation about why longtime manager Russell Allen was fired. And an incubator set up to nurture minority businesses was rocked by a financial scandal and ultimately left its city-owned building.
Downtown Raleigh added more events and road races, creating growing pains in the process as the area’s newfound popularity involves roadblocks and other hassles.
Wake County schools are under new management as work begins on an $810 million construction plan.
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Meanwhile, in Wake Forest, growth – and how best to manage it – was a top issue as residents went to the polls and the town put in place new development rules.
Under new management
After 12 years leading Raleigh’s city hall, City Manager Russell Allen was fired in April. All but two City Council members voted for his ouster, but they’ve remained tight-lipped about why they wanted new leadership.
Email records show tension between Allen and some council members who wanted to take a more hands-on role in governing the city. Those council members included Randy Stagner, who had criticized Allen for slow action after Stagner’s reserved parking space was taken in January. Stagner emailed the council to request “a discussion of Mr. Allen’s future with the city,” though he later said the parking issue wasn’t a factor in his vote to oust Allen.
Still, the parking email surfaced in Stagner’s election campaign against political newcomer Wayne Maiorano, who defeated Stagner in October by a narrow margin.
Also in October, the council picked its successor to Allen: Ruffin Hall, an assistant city manager in Charlotte who’s known for his work on transit issues. Hall was hired with backing from the entire council and started work in November.
Scandal closes incubator
The financially troubled Raleigh Business and Technology Center moved out of its city-owned building in October after a scathing audit found unexplained cashier’s checks and payments to tenants as well as records showing that the agency’s nonprofit status had been revoked.
City officials sought to cut ties and evict the Southeast Raleigh business incubator in July, when the audit was first released. Police launched an investigation of possible fraud involving ousted director Bob Robinson; no charges have yet been filed.
The agency fought the eviction in court, arguing that its lease on the $5.16 million property was valid through December.
Existing small business tenants have been allowed to stay until Raleigh leaders develop a long-term plan for the property, which is in the works and will likely have a similar mission.
Reviewing road races
Raleigh’s ever-growing number of road races and street festivals was a hot topic for the City Council this year, with multiple changes made to city policies governing the events.
Drivers and residents complained of frequent weekend roadblocks, while race organizers were concerned that some events – like next year’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon – get special treatment.
Early in the year, the council put a 100-event cap on road races and parades, but complaints continued to roll in. So this fall, the issue got another review, and the city is now creating a special events office, adding new staff members next year to handle logistics and oversee approvals for street closings.
The Raleigh City Council opted not to change its appeals process for fired employees, with some saying they’re satisfied with a two-page report from the city manager about the procedure.
The issue surfaced in March when a union group complained that appeal hearings by the appointed Civil Service Commission were unfair and rarely favored employees. They rallied around the case of Shirley Venable, a sanitation worker who was fired over accusations she had threatened her boss.
The majority of commission members on hand for Venable’s hearing voted to reinstate her, but with several members absent her appeal fell short of the required four votes.
The Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association is still pushing for changes to the commission, including the addition of more city employees.
WF re-elects Jones
Wake Forest residents headed to the polls Nov. 5 and re-elected Mayor Vivian Jones to a fourth term.
Jones easily defeated challenger Bill Randall, who had previously run unsuccessfully for Congress, in a race focused on whether the town is ready for the next stage in its growth.
During the campaign, Jones touted the town’s top financial rating, greenway system and revitalized downtown as evidence she’s been a responsible and capable leader. She pledged to build on that foundation during another four-year term.
In addition, Margaret Jones Stinnett won another term on the town’s Board of Commissioners, and Jim Thompson, chairman of the town’s parks and recreation advisory board, captured the board’s other open seat.
Town approves new code
Wake Forest officials this summer approved a new set of land development rules, the culmination of a nearly three-year process to update and consolidate the town’s policies.
The rules, known as the “unified development ordinance,” cover areas such as zoning, subdivisions and storm-water management.
The ordinance took many of its cues from the town’s community plan, a long-range planning guide.
County manager retires
After 13 years running Wake County’s operations, County Manager David Cooke, 53, retired in December. Within two weeks he was already on the short list for another position, having been named as a semifinalist for Dallas city manager.
The announcement did not come as a surprise. When Cooke announced his retirement in July, he said he was “excited about pursuing some new adventure next year.” He was eligible to retire in North Carolina because of his 30 years of municipal service.
Cooke began his municipal government career in 1983, working for the city of Charlotte. He came to Wake in 1996 as deputy county manager, then was appointed to the top job in 2000, after the retirement of Richard Stevens.
A consulting firm will interview candidates in early January for the Wake County post and suggest finalists later that month. The board will interview those candidates in February and hopes to have a new manager in place by March, in time to prepare next year’s budget.
Merrill returns to Wake
Wake schools this summer hired Jim Merrill as superintendent. Merrill, a veteran educator, previously was one of the system’s top leaders. He is Wake’s third superintendent since 2010.
The makeup of the Wake school board also shifted. Retired teacher Zora Felton beat out incumbent Deborah Prickett for the board’s District 7 seat.
Prickett was the only member in a wave of Republicans elected four years ago to seek a second term. John Tedesco, the only other member of the Republican majority still on the board, did not seek re-election.
Tom Benton, another veteran educator, was elected to Eastern Wake’s District 1 seat; he was appointed to fill the seat earlier this year. Monika Johnson-Hostler and Bill Fletcher also were elected as representatives for District 2 and District 9, respectively.
In December, the board voted 7-2 to replace chairman Keith Sutton with Christine Kushner. The move surprised many, especially African-American community leaders who sought an explanation for Sutton’s ouster.
School bond passes
Rolesville High School opened in August to more than 600 ninth- and 10th-graders.
At full capacity the school can hold 2,262 students, and the four-story building is a prototype for future high schools.
And more new schools will be popping up all over the county in the coming years. County voters in October approved an $810 million school construction bond issue, launching one of Wake’s largest-ever construction programs.