Jim Jenkins

Raleigh’s Mayor McFarlane wants to hear all voices, not just the loudest

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane wants to establish a centralized Community Engagement Board that would gather feedback from residents directly, but the change is opposed by some leaders of local Citizen Advisory Councils, also known as CACs.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane wants to establish a centralized Community Engagement Board that would gather feedback from residents directly, but the change is opposed by some leaders of local Citizen Advisory Councils, also known as CACs. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The job of mayor of Raleigh has never been much of a springboard to a higher office. It involves a ton of meetings, including many at night, with community groups and sometimes mediating a tussle between businesspeople and environmentalists or neighborhood activists who fear the impact of a council vote on an issue. I wonder sometimes why those who’ve sought and won the job took it, instead of choosing an alternative of, say, getting hit with a big stick.

A recent meeting brought to the council chambers representatives of citizens’ advisory councils (they date back 40 years), which represent neighborhood interests and are supposed, among other things, to provide a way for people to hear from developers who are coming to their area or talk over shared concerns, and then take their thoughts to council members. But the CACs, as they’re called, have uneven participation except during a crisis, and as is the case with homeowners’ associations, typically are run by a handful of people.

Most recently, some CAC leaders have challenged the motivation behind Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s idea to have a more centralized Community Engagement Board, that would gather feedback from all residents directly without going through a CAC. It’s a good idea, but at a civil but energetic meeting with CAC leaders and members, it became clear that some CAC leaders and members think the mayor is up to something to minimize protest.

The mayor’s record, however, goes against the notion that she and councilors have a smoke-filled room out back. McFarlane began the meeting by stating flatly that her idea wasn’t intended to muffle the CACs, which would continue to exist. Rather, she wants to make it easier for council members to get more unfiltered feedback. That’s important, for there are people who may not want to go through a CAC, or for whom CAC meetings are inconvenient, or those who may think CAC leaders have their own agendas.

Make no mistake: The residents of Southeast Raleigh, where CACs have long been strong, are legitimately worried about the gentrification of their part of the city, about being bought out or moved out of their longtime neighborhoods, many of them historically African-American neighborhoods. They’re also worried about the city’s lack of affordable housing and whether average people are going to be priced out of Raleigh’s core. They’re 100 percent right about all those concerns. In that meeting with council members, those fears were echoed again and again.

The city does need to do more about affordable housing, and has some initiatives going. McFarlane’s history is strong: she has pushed the idea of better housing and more jobs and outreach to all neighborhoods as a council member and three-term mayor. The CACs led by strong-minded people are well-meaning, but the record shows this mayor and this council are intensely sympathetic to those of lesser means and the middle class. This council is more diverse in ideas and more willing in terms of being receptive to feedback that those of the Raleigh of 50 years ago, for example. And members are wrestling with a redevelopment plan for Southeast Raleigh and other parts of the city that will be mindful of the need for – and the strength in – housing of all types. The city has to ensure that people such as cops and firefighters and other municipal workers who don’t make a lot of money can live in their city, and so that those of more modest circumstances can stay in their city.

It is a bear of a problem, but the current edition of the City Council and the city’s top administrators are not all natives who are locked in to a decades-old establishment. Raleigh is a different city than it was when council members might have carpooled to work because they all lived close together, or yes, when CACs from African-American communities were the only way council members got input from those areas. Establishing an engagement board is akin to adding another lane to crowded roads, to route more opinion to City Hall.

McFarlane has welcomed change, but realizes she can’t turn the final decisions of the council entirely over to energetic neighborhood activists – or to the old-line establishment. It’s no mean feat, this task of leadership. Go to a meeting sometime, imagine you’re a mayor or council member, and see if you wouldn’t prefer that big stick.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com