Tempers are flaring and relationships fraying as the city grapples with a new wave of development.
During the struggles, Raleigh’s 19 citizen councils have become flashpoints in debates about everything from gentrification to suburban development, prompting calls for change in a system designed to link city government and constituents.
In South Raleigh, City Council member John Odom has called an investigation into a contentious meeting between that area’s Citizens Advisory Council and a local nonprofit. East of downtown, another citizen board was the site of a showdown between a City Council member and a neighborhood leader.
Each resident of Raleigh is entitled to membership in one of the 19 councils, which are spread across the city. They’re free to attend and vote at any of the meetings, and to run for the positions of chair, vice chair or secretary.
On the Raleigh City Council, there’s a growing sense that some neighborhood leaders are becoming unruly and dominating their Citizens Advisory Councils.
“It’s about respect,” Odom said at a Raleigh City Council meeting this month. “If we don’t have that in the CACs, it gets out of control.”
Some of those neighborhood leaders, on the other hand, say that they’re being cut out of the city’s process for making decisions.
“The City Council does not seem to show any sort of collaboration with us,” said Lonette Williams, the citizen chairwoman at the center of Odom’s investigation.
Meanwhile, Will Allen, chairman of the Hillsborough CAC, is calling for an end to all the councils in response to an altogether separate conflict.
A contentious meeting
Most of the groups meet monthly to discuss neighborhood matters. Sometimes they get briefings from local police, or a developer might try to sell them on a project, although it’s not required.
And sometimes they get a little heated. The incident that Odom is unhappy about happened early this month, when the nonprofit Passage Home came to the Central CAC to talk about an application for a grant, according to meeting minutes.
Passage Home wants the city to help fund a culinary-jobs training program, and Chief Executive Jeanne Tedrow had come to discuss it with the citizen council, whose territory starts in the middle of downtown and extends southward.
Tedrow’s nonprofit operates the Raleigh Community and Safety Club and , a building just south of downtown that hosts a tax-help center, a work training program, a kitchen and a JobLink employment assistance office. It’s seeking a city grant of about $50,000 to jump-start a program that would employ and train five people at a time in the commercial kitchen.
Passage Home and the neighborhood council have crossed paths before, and they don’t have a good relationship, said Williams, the council chair.
This month’s meeting seemed tense from the beginning, according to its minutes. One attendee said that the Safety Club was becoming unwelcoming because it was helping too many people from outside the neighborhood. There were concerns, too, that the facility’s new commercial kitchen wasn’t accessible to most people.
“We are the public that you should have collaborated with. Since 2005, you have not collaborated with us, and the community has questions,” Williams said, according to the minutes.
Williams accused Tedrow of “deception,” saying she had lacked transparency and integrity.
Tedrow was offended.
“Each and every time we come to a CAC meeting it creates an adversarial situation,” she said, according to the minutes.
Williams said she was just asking questions for her neighborhood.
“I don’t call that being bullying,” she said.
Odom, a member of Passage Home’s board of directors, brought the spat to the City Council on March 3. His colleagues also vented concerns about the citizen councils.
“If citizens don’t feel that their voices are being heard, or they’re not allowed to be heard, then the CAC isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to,” said City Council member Mary Ann Baldwin. “... It’s very disturbing.”
Council member Wayne Maiorano asked what authority the city has over the councils. The city attorney told him the council has no control over how the CAC chairs run their ships.
“I’m not looking for us to control. I’m looking for us to help,” Maiorano said.
Daniel Coleman, chair of the South Central CAC, said part of the problem is a lack of definition. He wants the city to ensure that all policies and changes that affect an area go before its CAC. He is particularly concerned that, he says, the councils weren’t consulted early in the city’s push to sell Stone’s Warehouse in Southeast Raleigh for commercial development.
“You’ve got a lot of unrest in the community because they feel like their ability to have influence over the city is diminished,” he said.
In fact, the question of the CAC’s role has led him into a rather public fight with Council member Eugene Weeks. In an exchange of letters, Coleman acknowledged that he had reacted “unprofessionally and discourteously” to Weeks’comments at a recent CAC meeting, though Coleman maintains his points.
One more fight
Meanwhile, the Raleigh CAC – a kind of super-board of each council’s leaders – has been wrestling with the question of who should be allowed to make presentations at its meetings.
The board originally scheduled time at a meeting for David Cox, a leader of the North Raleigh resistance to a Dunn Road development plan. Cox was to speak after Planning Director Ken Bowers.
This peeved Will Allen, the Hillsborough CAC chair. Allen blasted out a mass email arguing that Cox wasn’t a planning expert and that he was too politically biased to deserve a place on the agenda, calling it a misuse of city resources.
A few days later, Cox disappeared from the agenda, reportedly because of time constraints.
Yet on March 18, the Raleigh CAC found itself in a lengthy debate about whether to hear from Cox, who was eventually allowed to make his presentation about height restrictions near property lines under the new zoning ordinance. His talk was about as long as the debate that preceded it.
Afterward, Allen said it was proof the whole system has to go.
The City Council hasn’t yet scheduled its own debate about the debates. As often happens in times of controversy, the most common suggestion in political circles is that the city might need some new rules.