City leaders this week plan to spend $31,000 on a retreat to Charlotte, where they’re scheduled to work on building relationships with one another and discuss long and short-term planning goals.
It’s common for municipal government boards to hold special meetings once a year to discuss ongoing issues or set priorities for the months ahead. Elected leaders often hold these meetings in different venues, sometimes out of town.
However, Raleigh leaders are facing criticism from some residents and activists who say this year’s retreat cost is too high, the agenda is too light and the location limits public involvement.
“I’m at a loss for why we’re spending $31,000 on this,” said Joey Stansbury, a Raleigh resident who’s involved with city politics.
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“This is supposed to be a visioning process,” Stansbury said. “When you take it and move it 2.5 hours away, you restrict any type of citizen input or oversight in that process.”
If Raleigh leaders make it to Charlotte as scheduled on Wednesday afternoon, it will be the first time in years that the council holds its retreat outside of Wake County. The council held last year’s two-day retreat at N.C. State University’s Hunt Library and the state Natural Sciences Museum, both in Raleigh.
The council planned to hold its 2014 in Wilmington, but was snowed in and instead held it at the Convention Center. The council didn’t hold a retreat in 2013. In 2012, it held a one-day retreat at Five County Stadium in Zebulon.
The council is going to Charlotte, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said, because Raleigh wants to focus on expanding transit this year and Charlotte already has a local rail system.
Council members aren’t scheduled to hold meetings with Charlotte officials but will consult City Manager Ruffin Hall, who worked as an assistant city manager in Charlotte before Raleigh hired him in 2013.
“If Charlotte’s already done things and learned from them, we don’t need to make the same mistakes,” McFarlane said.
Transit is coming into focus for Raleigh now that Wake County government, along with other local stakeholders, last month unveiled a $2.3 billion plan to expand Wake’s transit offerings in the coming years.
The plan calls for adding bus routes throughout the county and adding commuter trains from Durham through Raleigh to East Garner by 2027. County commissioners are expected to approve the plan this spring and call a November referendum on a half-cent local sales tax to help pay for it.
Raleigh also plans to open a new downtown transit hub known as Union Station in 2017. McFarlane said Raleigh council members will likely talk about the hub, the plan and strategies for encouraging bus and train ridership.
So the eight-member council and 12 staff members on Wednesday will take the 4:50 p.m. Amtrak train to Charlotte and then return to Raleigh Friday aboard the train departing Charlotte at 5:15 p.m.
The group plans to stay two nights at the Charlotte Center City Hilton, a four-star hotel in the heart of downtown that’s 167 miles from Raleigh City Hall.
Lodging is expected to be the group’s biggest expense. The city’s communications office estimates Raleigh will spend $10,690 on lodging, $7,290 on food, $6,500 on a facilitator from Cincinnati-based Novak Consulting, $3,770 on transportation and $2,750 on materials.
On Thursday, the council is scheduled to focus their time on building “effective working relations,” its agenda says. Before lunch, council members will tackle questions like “How can the group work effectively together as a body to govern the City of Raleigh?” and “How does this council want to make policy?” according to the agenda.
After lunch, council members are scheduled to talk about council-staff relations. Councilman David Cox, who represents north Raleigh, sometimes asked staff members pointed questions before he was elected to the council in October.
McFarlane said the council conducted similar discussions two years ago during its retreat at the Convention Center, and that it may be even more beneficial this year since three council members are new. Councilmen Cox, Corey Branch and Dickie Thompson were elected in October.
“It’s really important for people to understand that there’s a difference between campaigning and governing,” McFarlane said.
On Friday, the council is scheduled to talk about its strategic plan and big priorities for the upcoming year such as supporting the expanded transit plan, McFarlane said. She said the council probably won’t talk about Dix park, which the city acquired from the state last year for $52 million.
The city is still evaluating the Dix property, so the council likely won’t talk about its vision for another few months, McFarlane said.
Brian Balfour, policy director for Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh, said the city could achieve its retreat goals without spending the money budgeted for the trip.
He suggested council members build relationships with each other and staff in their own time and seek out online training classes to learn about effective governance.
“Typically, people spend other people’s money less wisely than they’d spend their own money,” Balfour said. “This is just another case of that.”