Midtown Raleigh News

Second term may put Raleigh mayor in minority on key votes

While Mayor Nancy McFarlane will have the City Council’s backing as she pushes for a new agreement on the Dorothea Dix Park, her second term could find her in the minority on some other contentious development votes.

As McFarlane is sworn in Monday night for her second two-year term, she’s losing a key ally on the council, Randy Stagner. Stagner – a neighbor of McFarlane who took her old District A seat – lost his reelection bid to political newcomer Wayne Maiorano, who will take office Monday, becoming the council’s second Republican.

That leaves McFarlane with two primary allies on split votes, longtime Councilmen Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder, who tend to align with her on development issues. While most of the council’s votes are unanimous, those topics can create divisions as signs of an economic recovery spur more growth.

Within the past month, McFarlane has been in the minority as she and Stephenson sought to restore development buffers around a Cameron Village home and to approve new development fees to pay for trees lining streets.

McFarlane, Crowder and Stephenson – and previously, Stagner – tend to support restrictions on development more frequently than the other four council members. Stagner even cast his unsuccessful reelection bid as pitting “neighborhoods versus developers,” though Maiorano argued that the two groups shouldn’t be viewed as adversaries.

Cameron Village neighborhood leader Seth Hollar recently started a group called Raleigh YIMBY, an acronym for Yes In My Backyard. He thinks Maiorano’s arrival will bring change as the council takes up more controversial proposals for high-density development projects.

“What I see is how the balance of power is shifting away from an anti-development point of view,” Hollar said.

‘Hands-off approach’

The council’s divisions sometimes catch the mayor by surprise. While former Mayor Charles Meeker was known for calling council members individually before each meeting, McFarlane tends to avoid such behind-the-scenes lobbying, City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said.

“(Meeker) was counting his votes, and he was trying to figure out exactly where people stood, and who he could get on board,” she said. “I think Nancy has a more hands-off approach that’s guided a lot by instinct.”

But in other respects, McFarlane shares Meeker’s quiet, unassuming style, avoiding lengthy public speeches and often working outside the limelight. And she succeeded, at least initially, where her predecessor didn’t: securing a lease on the 325-acre Dorothea Dix property for a destination park.

McFarlane had hoped the lease with outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue would be a signature accomplishment for her first term, but it’s now in limbo thanks to Republican legislators’ efforts to revoke the agreement. The issue – along with several others – has made McFarlane a frequent visitor to the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

Lobbying for cities

As legislators moved to limit the powers of North Carolina cities and towns, McFarlane has emerged as a voice for municipalities throughout the state. For the past year, she’s chaired the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a bipartisan group representing the mayors of the state’s 28 largest cities.

That has meant numerous lobbying trips to Jones Street, defending everything from the Dix lease to local governments’ ability to set design standards for residential housing.

“I think that Nancy’s done a good job working with state officials and working with other mayors,” Baldwin said, noting that Meeker wasn’t as involved at the statewide level.

Those efforts will continue in McFarlane’s second term when the legislature returns, and she’s already pushing hard on the Dorothea Dix negotiations. Last month, she wrote to Gov. Pat McCrory expressing concerns that state agencies involved have created a “pattern of delay.” She asked him to take a more direct role in ensuring deadlines are met as the city and state move toward new negotiations on the property this spring.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we work that out,” she said.

Protecting the water supply

Though the issue hasn’t drawn attention as the Dix park plans did, the mayor has put a heavy focus on protecting Raleigh’s water supply, conserving land upstream from Falls Lake and tackling runoff problems.

The topic is expected to surface in the mayor’s second term; she recently ordered a six-month study of how Raleigh buys and protects properties upstream from the lake.

“It’s incredibly important,” she said. “It’s how I got on the city council.”

Also on McFarlane’s second-term agenda: the numerous growing pains associated with downtown Raleigh’s success. On Tuesday, the council will appoint a committee to oversee updates to the city’s downtown plan. And countless meetings have tackled complaints associated with frequent event-related street closures and noise from a growing number of bars and nightclubs.

‘A great choice’

McFarlane will enter the new term with a new city manager she helped select: Ruffin Hall, a former Charlotte assistant city manager who’s in his third week on the job, replacing ousted manager Russell Allen. Allen’s firing proved controversial, but the entire council backed Hall’s appointment.

“We’ve had to work with a city manager we didn’t particularly like,” Councilman John Odom said of Allen. “I was surprised (McFarlane) went along with that deal, and I think that was the right thing to do.”

Looking back, the mayor says the change in the manager’s office was important as Raleigh moves into its next phase of growth. Hall brings Charlotte experience overseeing transit and light rail projects – a big priority for McFarlane going forward.

“I think we’ve made a great choice,” she said. “We’re moving on, we’re working very hard.”