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Did Raleigh City Council member’s email disrespect staff? Mayor thinks so.

David Cox represents District B on the Raleigh City Council.
David Cox represents District B on the Raleigh City Council. mhankerson@newsobserver.com

Did a Raleigh council member’s advocacy for his constituents cross the line? The mayor thinks so.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane criticized City Council member David Cox for sending an email she said tried to influence a project without the full board’s backing.

“Your message to staff and council is totally inappropriate,” she wrote Cox in a Dec. 19 email.

The email exchange stemmed from Cox’s displeasure over how the city was handling a sewer-line replacement project in his district.

The issue was how to replace pipes prone to leaking in the Brentwood neighborhood without taking a greater portion of people’s yards.

More than 1 million gallons of sewage had spilled into nearby Marsh Creek — something a larger pipe would help stop. The rub with neighbors was the larger pipe would require the city to use more of their property for a sewer easement and limit what they could do on their property.

At a Nov. 26 meeting with staff, Cox expected a plan on how to move the sewer line away from the homes or “really solid reasons about why they can’t do it,” he said.

Public Utilities Director Robert Massengill, who attended the meeting, said he could not comment about what was discussed.

However, in a Dec. 21 report to council members from City Manager Ruffin Hall, Massengill wrote the staff did get back to the council members on Dec. 17. The pipe couldn’t be moved away from the homes because it would “significantly impact” nearby wetlands.

Two days later, Cox sent an email to the rest of council, the city manager and city attorney expressing his concern about the project. The Dec. 19 email was first reported by The Indy.

“I consider this matter to be of the utmost importance and seriousness,” Cox said, according to The Indy. “We have received no report and no opportunity to consider options. Any communications to begin easement acquisition should not have been sent. Furthermore, I am concerned that I, as a Council member, have been seriously misled in this matter either accidentally or willfully. I consider this matter so serious that I am requesting that it be looked into independently by the City Attorney and that corrective action, including disciplinary action, be taken immediately.”

In a follow-up interview, Cox said he never got a report from staff “like they promised” and said he did not receive any information about the sewer project Dec. 17.

“It seems to me that an honest attempt to mitigate the impact on these neighbors wasn’t being pursued,” he said. “They were moving forward with easement acquisition.”

Cox and Massengill both declined to comment about the email.

However, Cox said “disciplinary action means various things.”

“It can mean having a conversation with someone,” he said. “It can mean giving someone a formal letter. That is how I interpret disciplinary action, and I wanted to be sure that in the future that when expectations are set and promises are made to a councilor those are honored.”

Cox’s original email reported in The Indy story was not included in a redacted email chain between Cox and the mayor released by the city. The emails released to the News & Observer were redacted under the personnel exemption under the state’s public record law.

The email exchange did include McFarlane’s response.

Council members should communicate with the city manager, clerk and city attorney, McFarlane said, adding that the manager also encourages council members to reach out to assistant city managers and department heads.

“I appreciate this approach and find it to be very helpful as we work together for the city of Raleigh,” she said. “However, to continue those relationships, all staff should be respected, and problems resolved without accusatory and inflammatory comments.”

Cox said his email didn’t break the city’s rules or the council’s code of conduct. How the council interacts with staff has been an issue for the council.

Raleigh leaders added a section to their code in 2017 to limit council members’ contact with city staff and citizen boards, The News & Observer reported.

Cox was the lone vote against it and released a statement saying it was “fundamentally in conflict with the First Amendment that prevents government from abridging the right of free speech and the right to assemble in public.”

All eight seats on the Raleigh City Council are open this election. Cox and McFarlane haven’t made their re-election intentions public.

Cox won his seat on the council after a contentious rezoning that pitted him against city hall. And Cox has strongly defended his northeast Raleigh constituents event when it put him at odds with other members of council or staff.

“I probably am more direct than other people,” Cox said. “But I would say I have never been abusive of anyone.”

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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