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At the City Council, an outbreak of peace

Any Durhamites who showed up to City Hall on Monday night expecting to witness another profanity-laced screaming match between members of the City Council may have been surprised by Mayor Elaine O’Neal’s declaration of Peace Month.

“I, as your mayor,” intoned O’Neal from the podium near the start of the April 3 meeting, “hereby declare peace over this chamber.” 

This peace came after a difficult couple of weeks for the Council, which was expected to vote on a resolution to censure Council member Monique Holsey-Hyman over allegations of using city staff for political activities. Instead, O’Neal announced that the Council had referred the allegations to “the appropriate authorities,” and called for residents and officials to refocus on the Bull City’s other issues. 

As the mayor neared the end of her Peace Month proclamation, she looked up from her paper and slowed her speech. Her eyes swept the audience and the dais as she implicitly signaled an end to at least the public portion of the Council’s infighting, a saga that included allegations of fisticuffs in City Hall (disputed). 

“I hereby declare and decree peace over this City Hall. I hereby decree and declare peace over this Council. And I hereby declare and decree peace over our employees, and I hereby decree and declare peace over all the City of Durham.”

Sitting shoulder to shoulder on the dais, the city officials took turns attempting to cast the light of peace on their prior disagreements. Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton took O’Neal’s dramatic rhetoric a step further by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the bloodiest conflict in American history. 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in to bind up the wounds of the nation,” Middleton said, also citing the impact of Middleton’s recent visits to the Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials in Washington.

At the Council work session on March 23, Holsey-Hyman was accused of two possible legal violations, including offering to support a property developer’s project in exchange for a campaign donation. That extortion allegation was referred to the State Board of Investigations, and Holsey-Hyman has not discussed the accusation.

She was also accused of recruiting city staff to work on a future political campaign, which would violate both North Carolina law and Durham policy regarding partisan or political activity by city employees. Holsey-Hyman denied these allegations, saying that her actions were not in violation of any laws. Holsey-Hyman, appointed to the Council in May of 2022 to fill a vacancy, is the newest member. Her seat is up for election this year. 

After that dramatic work session, a recording surfaced of Council Member DeDreana Freeman yelling at Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, shouting expletives with the accusation “this is how you treat Black women” in apparent reference to the resolution to censure Holsey-Hyman.

Different local sources made different claims about the physicality of that interaction. INDY week reported that Freeman allegedly struck both Council member Leonardo Williams and Mayor O’Neal in an attempt to get at Middleton after the work session. WRAL, however, interviewed a witness who said Freeman did not attempt to strike Middleton, and that “she was just talking with her hands.”

In regard to Holsey-Hyman, O’Neal laid out three other options, based on advice from a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government: The Council could decide to take no action, discuss the allegations in open session and vote to censure, or call for an investigation.

By choosing a fourth path — referring both allegations to law enforcement — the Council removed itself from the process.

“I will be making no further public comments on this issue while it is under investigation. And I would ask all to do the same,” said O’Neal.

Holsey-Hyman did not directly address the extortion allegations. She used her time to talk about her efforts last month to help a local single father secure housing for himself and his three daughters.

“When I put my name in the hat to be a City Council member, it was about service. It was not about a title. It was not about power,” she told the chamber. “It was about service.” The audience applauded.

Freeman, the member who allegedly attempted to physically attack Middleton, remained silent for that portion of the meeting. She spoke up on a later topic to join Council member Javiera Caballero in commending the successful communication between a developer and community members.

“We’ve had some wounds,” said Middleton. He looked down the dais and addressed each Council member by name. 

“Let us get back to work.” 

Chase Pellegrini de Paur