Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Cameron Oglesby”

Durham launches new mask campaign supporting local businesses

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, masks of many colors, patterns and materials have become ubiquitous — or at least, they’re supposed to be. 

In April, Mayor Steve Schewel mandated masks in public, making Durham the first city in North Carolina to do so. In early July, the city required all businesses to post signage telling their customers to wear masks in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Now, the city and county have jointly launched a campaign in an effort to promote local businesses and unify the city around wearing masks to protect each other, called Durham Has You Covered.

“Durham Has You Covered is one part of a larger strategy for helping residents comply with local face covering orders,” said Ryan Smith, Innovation Team Project manager for the city and a member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. “We want to make it easier for residents and small businesses to find face coverings and at the same time we also want to support our local producers.”

Smith added that there is a certain level of accountability and heightened quality of products when people are able to buy local. 

The city and county are working with Cover Durham, a community health coalition, on the campaign. The initiative provides the latest federal and state recommendations on personal protective equipment and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Durham Has You Covered also provides contact information for 20 local mask suppliers, in order to help support businesses that may be struggling during the pandemic. 

Megan Eilenberger is one of those business owners. She enjoys sewing in her free time, and, like many others, began making masks for friends and family in March once the pandemic started getting worse. 

“We experienced job loss in our family due to COVID,” she said. “In order to somewhat replace some of that income, I started to charge.”

Megan Eilenberger is selling her homemade masks through Durham’s new campaign. Photo courtesy Megan Eilenberger

Eilenberger said she has already sold around 400 colorful, custom masks for $8 each and donated 50 others. She is hopeful this campaign will boost her business. 

Other companies in Durham have pivoted to making masks. Talib Graves-Manns’ luggage manufacturing company, Life on Autopilot, started losing business because of the pandemic.

“We’re not selling much luggage,” he said. “So we repurposed our sewers to do masks.”

He said they manufacture around 5,000 masks a week, which are being sold in bulk to medical suppliers and bodegas in Durham. He hopes to get a larger deal with the city to grow this new business, called the Masked Buddha. 

Another supplier is Ngozi Design, a 10-year-old African-inspired clothing and graphic design company run by Andrea Carter. Ngozi has sold over 3,000 custom face coverings in 23 states since the start of the pandemic. Although it’s too early to tell how Durham’s campaign has impacted her sales, she attributes her success to word-of-mouth, her website and this new initiative. Her team “can’t make them fast enough,” she said.

“I’m always encouraged that I can do something to help,” she added. “I’m just grateful that I can make the masks, and hopefully they help men, women and children.”

Some of Andrea Carter’s mask designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

Smith, from the city, said the campaign has emphasized businesses owned by people of color. “I think that it is putting our equity values into action and into practice to lift those historically marginalized businesses up, and we feel that that is always important,” he said. 

The new campaign is one of many strategies the city is using to ensure residents and city staff stay safe during the pandemic. 

In conjunction with mandates, the city is printing posters in Spanish and English and distributing them to local businesses, along with mask sets that they can hand out to customers.

The city, county and Durham Public Schools have contributed $67,000 to Cover Durham to purchase and distribute about 4,000 masks. Duke University also matched that donation in mid-July, and the city hopes to use it to purchase additional masks in the next few weeks, said Smith. 

Eilenberger said initiatives like this have made her proud to be a Durhamite. 

“I see people who post outside of Durham in neighboring counties who complain about residents not wearing masks and I can always comment on social media and say, ‘well, you’re clearly not living in Durham because that’s not the case here,” she said.

If you’re in need of a mask, you can order through the Durham Has You Covered website. Local businesses or individuals interested in donating masks can contact The Scrap Exchange.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

Top photo: Andrea Carter, who runs mask supplier Ngozi Designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

How a Durham artist tracked the city’s public safety budget for a decade

Andrea Cobb, a nationally known artist based in Durham, collected and filed away the annual property tax notices she received in the mail for more than a decade. She carefully examined each, paying particular attention to the chart at the bottom of the page explaining how the city spent its general fund — taxpayer money that covers core city services.

“I wanted to know where my taxes are going,” said Cobb, a 55-year-old Durham native whose art clients include Burt’s Bees, INDY Week, Whole Foods and Kleenex.

Self-portrait by Andrea Cobb. Courtesy of the artist.

She saw a glaring trend in the numbers: In 2009, 35% of the general fund spending went to public safety, which includes the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call services and emergency management. 

That public safety spending rose steadily over the years, reaching a high of about 52% in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year.

Durham’s final city budgets over the same period show that about 60% of public safety money went to the police department each year.

In 2019, property taxes in Durham paid for half of the general fund’s budget. About 50% of the general fund was allotted to public safety at large, and $65 million of that went to the police department — about 61% of the total public safety budget last year.

Cobb said the realization that a decent chunk of her taxes were going to police, rather than public services like education and social services, concerned her.

“It’s a lot of money,” Cobb said. “And, you know, it’s abusive what police departments are doing, and there’s people in our city that have been killed by police.”

Over the years, Cobb has repeatedly asked city officials publicly and privately about the way the city spends property taxes. She’s still grappling with one question: Why is such a large proportion of taxpayer money going to public safety? 

City manager Tom Bonfield told 9th Street Journal that there are several reasons for the increase, including annual raises for police officers and firefighters. “That’s something like a million dollars a year for both the fire department and the police department,” he said. 

There are also specific expenses that account for changes over the years, he said. In 2009, the city scaled back the number of police officers covered in the general fund budget for several years and then added them back in later, which led to increases in the public safety budget. In 2017, the city built a fire station and hired 60 firefighters.

“To take a 2009 number and a 2020 number and then try to run the math without going in and looking at every year, it is a significant oversimplification,” he said. 

Cobb’s concern about the police budget is one that has been discussed in Durham for years. And this year, it’s top of mind for many residents and officials amid protests against police brutality and the City Council’s recent decision to increase the police budget by 5%.

Gathering the data

Cobb has been a resident of Old West Durham since 1994, and said that illegal activity took place in the duplex she called home for years. One incident involved her neighbor; she called the police due to her suspicions about drug dealing. But she said not much changed after that.

“I got to a point where I’m paying the police to keep me safe, and I don’t feel safe,” she said.

So she started saving her tax notices.

Durham General Fund 2019 expenditures, seen at the bottom of Cobb’s tax notices. Photo courtesy Andrea Cobb

In 2011, she reached out via email to Steve Schewel during his City Council campaign to ask about the budget. According to their email correspondence, he told her to contact him again if he won. 

So Cobb emailed again the next year about the suspected drug dealer, writing that she was “a bit peeved with the police asking me to keep helping them given 45% of property tax is paying them to keep [the] district safe,” according to an email she shared with 9th Street Journal. 

In 2014, her questions came up in a more public way when the city held a virtual town hall to discuss increasing city property tax rates to pay for voter-approved debt and public safety spending. 

Interested residents were asked to submit their questions for the town hall via email or twitter, so Cobb sent an inquiry to former assistant director of Budget and Management Services, John Allore, asking why there was a need for an increase when “so much of taxpayer funds were going to public safety.”

Former mayor Bill Bell told attendees that public safety is a combination of many departments. “I constantly remind others that it’s not just a law enforcement piece alone,” he said, adding that the police budget included enough funding to pay the number of officers the department requested.

Don Moffitt, a City Council member at the time, said the city could always do more to keep the public safer and encourage the police to engage with the community more. “Are we doing enough? That’s what you’re asking, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ We try to hit the balance.”

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

(For more information on the city expenditures above, click here for an interactive graphic.)

Cobb said that she gave up on contacting city officials after that, since no one followed up with her about her data. “I just got really discouraged by the responses,” she said. “After a few years of persistent effort, I became disenchanted being a lone seeker.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson was not on the council at the time Cobb brought up her grievances. She told 9th Street Journal that the annual police budget increases this year were largely due to an increase in retirement benefits and an increase in health insurance — things she said the council doesn’t have “much control over.” 

“Even if we never hire another police officer in the city of Durham the cost of employing the police officers that we already have will drive the budget up every year,” she said. 

Bonfield also said that most social services are covered through Durham County’s budget, and can’t simply be switched from public safety to other areas. 

“To say, ‘I don’t want to pay for the police, I just want that money to go to education,’ [is] a  misnomer because that’s not the structure of the way the state of North Carolina is around public services,” Bonfield said. 

Hope for her hometown

While Cobb has continued to save her tax statements, she isn’t as vocal about it as she used to be. She tries to keep the conversation going with her friends and family. She’s also created more artwork centered around guns, drug use and systemic racism, and said she is open to working with the city should they desire art focusing on these concepts for awareness. 

Cobb said it’s “too much” to go out and join protests against police violence at her age, but she supports the effort to pressure cities to defund city police departments. 

The work to evaluate police budgets and responsibilities, which has been a years-long conversation among city officials, is progressing in Durham. The City Council recently launched and funded the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to figure out how to redistribute police services and funding.

Painting by Andrea Cobb

City officials will look at their recommendations and determine whether they are financially and operationally feasible. Bonfield said that from a budgetary perspective, conversations about police defunding will not end with the task force recommendation. 

“There was an acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen overnight and this was an aspiration, not a guarantee,” he said.

Cobb is hopeful that in sharing her tax statements and the observations she’s made, she can help advocate for more clarity from city officials during this time of social unrest, and move towards redistributing police funding.

“My place in Durham’s community is tiny, although I have contributed a lot of artwork for businesses here,” she said. “If I continue to live in Durham, I want to cultivate a bigger purpose.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Pandemic litter? It’s here

If you’ve walked down almost any well-traveled street in Durham during the last four months, you’ve likely seen wadded up masks or disposable gloves along with typical roadside litter like candy wrappers and soda bottles. 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought environmental benefits such as reductions in air pollution, carbon emissions and environmental degradation. But littering, with pandemic-linked waste in the mix, has increased.

Across the country, cities have reported higher rates of discarded personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, or PPE, along roads, in parking lots, by bus stops and in waterways. 

“We’re really trying to discourage people from doing that because it’s not fair to whoever needs to come along and pick it up afterwards,” said Tania Dautlick, executive director of Keep Durham Beautiful.

In addition to PPE litter, Durham has seen an uptick in all types of trash tossed where it should not go. The city collected 30 tons of litter a month since the pandemic started — four tons more than average, said Phillip Powell Sr., assistant director for Durham’s Department of Public Works Operations and Street Maintenance Division. 

People concerned about litter have observed an increase in illegal dumping of household goods and other trash too, according to Dautlick, whose nonprofit group has organized volunteer cleanups of public and private land across the City of Durham and Durham County for decades. 

In March, the city’s Waste Disposal and Recycling Center closed to the public, restricting trash and recycling services to curbside pick-up. Residents have been disposing of more items, sometimes leaving trash along roadsides or in the woods. 

“People have likely had some extra time to clean up their homes and clean out, and they’ve been looking for a way to get rid of things,” Powell said. 

Keeping up with this has proven difficult. In the earlier months of the pandemic, Powell said. That is because operations were scaled back. Employees only cleaned up bus stops, city streets, curbsides and sidewalks along the over 3,000 streets that Public Works maintains when essential. 

Keep Durham Beautiful volunteers took a break, too. The nonprofit, which helped mobilize 3,290 cleanup volunteers last year, only recently started handing out its pickup kits again, which contain protective gloves, neon vests and trash bags. 

“We had stopped for a little while because we just wanted to support everybody staying home,” said Dautlick. “We also weren’t sure what sort of exposure people could have from litter because we were still learning more about how long the virus lasts on surfaces.”

Keep Durham Beautiful is encouraging residents via social media, bi-weekly newsletters, and their website to get out and collect litter on their own.

For the environmentally conscious, cleaning up litter on roads or trails is a habit. But uncertainties about the new coronavirus pandemic brought a degree of fear to that practice. 

Today guidance from public health organizations, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says SARS-CoV-2 spreads most easily from person to person rather than from contaminated surfaces. But the true risks that objects and surfaces pose were not clear at the start of the pandemic.

Luckily research suggests that the virus does not last long in direct sunlight, a fact that quelled some of Keep Durham Beautiful’s members’ fears around picking up roadside litter, Dautlick said.

Still, Dautlick encourages volunteers picking up other people’s trash to “handle it as little as possible, to wear gloves and put it straight into a trash bag, and then don’t sort through it.” 

Her organization also urges social distancing and volunteer outings close to home. “We are having a lot of family groups or small friend groups or neighbors going out, up and down their street, but staying socially distant,” she said. 

Powell and Dautlick are hopeful that the amount of litter, PPE and illegal dumping will decrease again as more Durham businesses open back up. As people return to work, they will spend less time at home cleaning. And as recycling and trash services get back to normal, litter hauls should return to pre-COVID-19 numbers, they said.

“My hope, certainly, is that people continue to become more aware of the negative impacts of littering and begin to reduce,” Dautlick said.

9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu

At top: A discarded mask on the ground not far from Duke Health’s coronavirus drive-up testing site off Erwin Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham task force will assess community safety, police funding

Just over a year ago, the grassroots coalition Durham Beyond Policing proposed that Durham launch a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to help transition some public safety responsibilities — and eventually, funding — away from the police department and towards social services.

The proposal was in limbo until late March, when the council passed bylaws for the task force that outlined broad objectives and set expectations for appointing members.  

Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, halting any more progress on it. 

But on June 10, as protests against police violence began ramping up in Durham and across the U.S., the city council approved $1 million to officially launch the task force. 

“The renewed interest in the task force was directly tied to spikes in violence here in our city and shootings here in our city,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, council member representing Durham Ward 2

“I guess George Floyd has sort of put it on steroids now,” he added, referring to the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said some ideas for Durham’s task force include creating a new City Department of Community Safety that would specialize in the transition away from policing; establishing an Office of Violence Prevention like Minneapolis, which is trying to reduce the risk of community violence; or hiring consultants to communicate with other cities and counties working to reallocate police budgets. 

She said Durham is also moving forward with evaluating police departments to see where there may be opportunities to transfer responsibilities to other agencies, and auditing 911 call systems to begin the redistribution of call responses for non-violent crimes. 

The county, city and the school board will each appoint five people to the task force. Johnson said there are certain requirements for representing community members of diverse ages, races and expertise. For example, the task force must have two people under 25 and at least three people who focus on racial justice

According to the bylaws, members are expected to work together to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing institutional and community-based public safety and wellness resources,” hold three listening sessions in 90 days and make recommendations about how Durham can become safer without using policing, incarceration or other punitive measures. 

Johnson said the $1 million will be used as monthly stipends for task force members as well as for the implementation of the group’s recommendations. The task force is expected to have completed its evaluation and given recommendations within two years of member appointment

“We’ll be relying on the task force to direct the work,” Johnson said, adding that any significant next steps for public safety reform will be decided by the group.

There is no official timeline for appointing members and beginning recommendations. However, Johnson said she is confident it will move forward quickly because of the increased scrutiny of police departments. 

That process is already beginning. On June 25, the school board unanimously voted to support the task force. 

Natalie Beyer, a community volunteer and advocate who is a school board member, told 9th Street Journal that the board hopes to find nominations for the task force from high school principals and equity leaders within the public school system. She added that they will likely announce their choices in August

“I think we can do things better in Durham and I think that’s what this task force could help us imagine,” she said. 

Durham Beyond Policing, which originally proposed the idea, is concerned about whether $1 million is enough to do meaningful work — especially since the city council voted to pass a $70 million police department budget this year. 

“The $1 million felt like an odd sort of consolation prize,” said Durham Beyond Policing organizer Danielle Purifoy. “It just feels like an empty kind of gesture.”

Johnson said the $1 million is just a start. As the task force starts providing recommendations and public safety services are transferred to other departments, she said she anticipates the financial investment to increase. 

Purifoy also raised a concern that some city council members share: Ensuring the task force represents community members most affected by policing.   

Middleton vowed to make sure members are diverse. “It’s absolutely critical to the efficacy of this task force that the people on it are the people that are most impacted by police contact,” he said.

One way to achieve that goal, Purifoy said, is to ensure meeting times accommodate working people and offer fair compensation. 

“We have not placed a strict timeline on this because we felt like there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that we’re going to need to do in order to make sure that the task force is in the best position possible to to do the work that it needs to do,” Purifoy said. 

The task force is part of Durham Beyond Policing’s broader plan to get the city to divest from the current police system and redistribute funding to services that address mental health, homelessness and addiction. 

Finding alternatives “that are going to actually work in the city and be as well-funded and as well-supported as the police” will take time, Purifoy said. “It’s a trade-off between making sure that this is an urgent thing, but also not pushing so fast that we end up with something that won’t work.”

Durham city council members say they’re committed to continuing the debate about how communities should spend money instead of policing. 

Middleton wrote in an op-ed recently that it would be irresponsible for the city to immediately cut police funding without first gradually transitioning services to other departments. 

“My belief is that if the initiatives have the expected impacts there will be an almost naturally occurring defunding effect as the mission of the police department is fine-tuned and right-sized,” he wrote.

Johnson, who is also pushing for gradual defunding, said this work has to “create the space for these kinds of conversations in our community around how we stay safe, around what the most effective ways to stay safe are and about how we can do things differently.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Top photo: Artwork by Sonofsimba. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Durham officials say they prioritize recycling amid budget shortfalls, pandemic

Since China banned imports of most plastics and other recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, cities and towns have been scrambling to figure out how to process a massive amount of recyclables — and it’s costing them a lot of money. 

In North Carolina, cities like Lincolnton, Greensboro and Pinebluff have discontinued or limited their curbside recycling programs due to cost or contamination from food waste or trash. While Durham has lost money due to the ban, the city hasn’t changed what material it accepts or limited pick-ups and has weathered the changes relatively well. 

Recyclables are still picked up from residential curbsides, sorted, packaged and transported to Raleigh, where Sonoco Recycling — the company the city contracts with — processes and sells the materials to places like steel mills and glass processors.

Recently, though, the coronavirus pandemic has strained Durham’s recycling system even more. Sonoco’s operations have slowed, and the city’s recycling budgets have taken a hit. 

Despite the challenges, and the expectations that next year could cost the city more money, Durham still plans to invest in its recycling program to keep it afloat. City officials say they’re also interested in more programs to reduce waste in general. 

“We want to encourage residents to be environmentally responsible,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson.

Industry ebbs and flows 

Durham picks up an average of 1,450 tons of recycled items from curbsides each month. The recycling industry has its ups and downs every few years depending on who buys the materials, according to Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste operations for the city of Durham.

In 2019, Johnson told 9th Street Journal that the city was able to foot the cost of recycling because of millions of dollars in budget surpluses from property taxes and tourism increases. “There’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget,” she said at the time. 

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism and sales taxes decreased and that wiggle room was lost. 

“We are anticipating revenue shortfalls now, due to COVID,” Johnson said in June. 

Durham has seen a net expense of about $472,000 from recycling so far this fiscal year — a loss that officials expect to worsen because China’s scrap import ban is expected to go into full effect by the end of 2020

Net revenues and losses from recycling in Durham. Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Sonoco, said that while Sonoco Recycling and Durham were losing money from recycling services before the pandemic, it has stressed the market even more.

“The business model across the United States has been built around selling collected material into some kind of aftermarket, with the idea that if the material was in demand and commanded a certain value it would offset the cost for municipalities to run recycling programs and cover the costs of operations for companies like Sonoco,” he said in an email. “Now you add COVID-19 into the mix.” 

Recyclables can be a form of profit for the city, depending on demand for certain materials like glass or plastic.

For instance, Jim Reingruber, assistant director for the budgeting side of Durham solid waste management, said the value of some materials has improved during the pandemic. Since people are ordering more deliveries instead of going out, cardboard has “really seen a big increase in value,” he said.

The National Waste and Recycling Association has stated that as waste piles up, recycled materials will need to be diverted into landfills. But Durham officials don’t want that to happen. Fenton said the city is incentivized to keep recycling because Durham pays $42.50 for every ton of trash thrown in the landfill. 

“I always remind everybody that we lose money when we put trash in the ground,” Fenton said. “So when it goes to the landfill, that’s not free.” 

The values by recycled material type. (OCC is Old Corrugated Containers, or cardboard). Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Protecting sanitation workers

While their overall operations haven’t changed much during the pandemic, parts of Durham’s recycling system have felt the effects. The city and Sonoco say they are trying to keep workers safe. Sanitation workers are essential frontline workers during the pandemic and at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.  

Fenton said he is not aware of any reported COVID-19 cases within the curbside pick up crews in Durham. However, it has been an issue in the state: The NC Public Service Workers Union said in March that union members were concerned for their safety and health after a Raleigh sanitation worker died from complications related to COVID-19.

The city has taken some precautions, including restricting the size of materials picked up curbside to limit the number of sanitation workers in a truck at once. They’ve also limited the number of vehicles out collecting at a time and have provided masks and gloves to all employees, Fenton said. 

Risinger said that Sonoco has dedicated a significant amount of time, communication and training to employees to ensure hand washing, social distancing and consistent use of personal protective equipment. 

“Very early on as a company we adopted CDC and World Health Organization guidelines with respect to worker safety and operations across our entire global organization,” Risinger said. 

A waste-free vision for the future

Even with some economic losses for the city, Johnson said that “moving away from funding recycling services would be the wrong choice environmentally.” 

But she is open to supporting circular economy projects, which include reusable to-go containers or the redistribution of recyclable materials directly back to retailers. Johnson highlighted one pilot project, The ReCirculation Project with nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, which, according to its website, hopes to prove “that an entirely new kind of recycling is possible” by running a system that sanitizes recyclable materials and reuses them as they are, rather than running them through a processing plant to repurpose them. 

The organization has also been working with restaurants and Durham schools to push “Green to Go” container systems that reduce waste by encouraging people to use plastic to-go containers when dining out. Duke University officially rolled out a similar program last year. 

Johnson noted that the next step would be additional research to figure out how something like this could be scaled city-wide. She also reiterated that the city plans to prioritize recycling for the foreseeable future.  

“I would say there are opportunities to look at circular economy initiatives that might help save some  money and some recyclables from going into the waste stream,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that will cancel our recycling program; I think that there would be a lot of other things on the chopping block before we get to that point.”

Top photo: A recycling bin in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Q&A with mayor centers on police funding, COVID-19

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s virtual Q&A with faculty and staff of Duke University’s public policy school on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how the city is handling police violence protests and the coronavirus pandemic.  

“We had last week in Durham, verelly powerful forceful protests, eloquent protests . . . about, not just the murder, the heinous inhuman and cold murder of George Floyd,” Schewel said, “but also the racism in our system that persists.”

Nearly 100 people attended the hour-long online event. Duke faculty and staff, as well as the public, submitted questions via Zoom for Sanford School of Public Policy Dean Judith Kelley to ask the mayor. 

Much of the conversation revolved around policing, including the department’s funding and potential reforms. The mayor said that last week, he signed a pledge to review and reform policies around police officers’ use-of-force within the next 90 days. 

“I’m happy to say that our police chief has already responded to the eight particular tactics that were highlighted in that [pledge],” he said.

Many Durham residents are calling on city officials, including the mayor, to defund the police department. But Schewel said the police budget will instead be increasing by just over $1 million dollars. In 2019, the police department asked for an estimated $69 million and spent $67 million; this year, the city has a proposed police budget of $70 million. 

“That million dollars is not adding any police officers,” he said, assuring attendees that the money will pay for state-mandated pensions and mandatory raises for officers.

Kelley asked Schewel if he felt Durham police were where they needed to be in the community. Schewel responded that Durham has spent years “reforming the way our police operate.” 

He added that police have and will continue to respect demonstrators’ right to protest, adopt non-confrontational tactics and monitor if traffic stops are made because of racial profiling.

“We have racial equity training for all our officers, we have de-escalation training for all of our officers, we have crisis intervention training,” he said. “Our police department is far from perfect . . . but we are putting in a lot of effort and have put in a lot of effort over the last few years to reform our police force.”

The city also plans to establish alternatives to policing, he said, so officers are not called in for something better handled by medical services, mental health services or social workers.

He did not offer any details about how specific programs would work or be funded, or say if the city will reduce the number of police officers over time.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

The Q&A also covered voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Schewel said it was up to the Board of Elections and the state to decide how to handle voting processes in November’s general election. 

“Right now, there isn’t quite a strategy,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are thinking about it, and I have a lot of confidence. But we’re going to need good guidance from the state.”

Last year, the North Carolina legislature passed a law making it harder to request absentee ballots, which is being challenged in court. Schewel said he’s worried about residents having easy absentee voting options and safe, quick in-person polling stations.

“Voter suppression is real, and I think that our legislature, unless they agree to have mailed to every voter an application for an absentee ballot, I think that that will be suppressing the vote,” Schewel said.

Other attendees asked about the city’s COVID-19 response and the reopening of Durham schools. Schewel said he wasn’t sure what would happen in the fall, but is concerned the continued increase of cases in Durham could lead to a resurgence of the virus.

One program he emphasized was an effort to address unequal access to remote learning during the pandemic. Durham Public Schools will spend $8 million providing Chromebooks to students and installing wireless hotspots around the city to help ensure every child has access to digital learning.

Throughout the conversation, Schewel responded to many questions with “I don’t know.” He reiterated that some decisions — especially those about the pandemic — depend on state lawmakers. 

“As we all know we’re in an incredibly difficult time in our nation,” he said, “It’s a hard time to be mayor, I’ll tell you that.”

Election Night 2019: Checking the Duke student vote

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and Duke Professor Gunther Peck (right) chat with students at Precinct 5. Photo by Cameron Beach

The cricket chirps were especially loud outside Precinct 5 tonight. The Patterson Community Center along Crest Street was nearly empty except for the occasional passing car or student voter walking up to cast a ballot. Among the visitors were Duke Professor Gunther Peck and Democratic U.S. Rep John Sarbanes of Maryland. 

Longtime friends and former college roommates, they are avid promoters of voter rights. They dropped by the voting station to check on Duke University student voter turnout.

In the recent past, Duke students could vote at early voting sites on Duke’s campus. Like others, Peck, who is director of Duke’s Hart Leadership Program, and Sarbanes say loss of voting on a college campus can be a barrier to student turnout. Peck was a catalyst for Duke’s decision this year to provide free Lyft rides to get students who live on West Campus to Patterson, their assigning voting spot. He’s one to do anything he can to get people to vote.

“It ought to be as easy as possible. The fact that you don’t have a car shouldn’t be the reason you don’t vote,” Peck said.

This belief is what motivated Peck and Sarbanes to stand on the sidewalk outside of the precinct and ask students about their Lyft and voting experience.  Sarbanes is sponsor of “For the People Act of 2019,” a bill that passed the House but has been blocked by Senate Republicans. The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday and require more political organizations to disclose the names of donors.

“Ideally voting is and can be the most empowering thing you do as a citizen,” said Sarbanes. 

A total of 230 ballots were cast at Precinct 5 before it closed at 7:30 pm. Larry Partee, chief judge for Precinct 5, said that this was about a fourfold increase from primary voter turnout.

He noted a large number of those votes were cast by Duke students, a fact facilitated by advocates like Peck.

“We’ve seen a lot of elections that turned on just a few votes at all levels, so the notion that every vote counts is just a part of our DNA,” said Sarbanes. 

Election Night 2019: Top vote-getters

Jillian Johnson addresses her supporters Tuesday wearing a T-shirt saying Re-Elect Charlie Reece. Photo by Cameron Beach

The election night celebration at 106 Main ended in cheers, hugs and excitement as unofficial vote tallies had City Council members Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero keeping their seats.

Johnson and Reece, who maintained fairly steady leads throughout the night, expressed gratitude for getting the chance to continue to represent Durham residents.

They also addressed the discontent that some community members voiced throughout the election cycle.

“Tonight’s election shows us that there is strong public support for the Bull City Together Platform, but also that there are people in this city who don’t feel heard by our current political structure,” Reece said.  

Both incumbents spoke about the importance of direct community engagement in the next four years to address concerns brought up in the last few months. Reece made clear he knows plenty of work awaits.

Charlie Reece addressed the crowd of supporters wearing a T-shirt celebrating fellow City Council member Javiera Caballero. Photo by Cameron Beach

“I ran for re-election not because we had fixed everything in four years but because we were making great progress and we wanted to keep doing this work,” Reece said.

Probably loudest among the criticism in recent months was disappointment by some that the incumbents who won Tuesday had opposed hiring more police officers this year.

“We can do a lot more and there are a lot of good reasons for us to invest more in community engagement, I think it makes for a stronger democracy,” Johnson said.

But first it was time to enjoy a victory.

“I definitely feel relieved, it feels good to have it all over with,” Johnson said.

Jillian Johnson: Sustainability, affordability, public engagement

At yet another Durham City Council candidate forum, three very vocal challengers were questioning the competency of three incumbent City Council members.

Among the targets was Jillian Johnson, Durham’s mayor pro tem and council member since 2015.

The challenger candidates, often joined by supporters in the audience, huffed skeptically when Johnson  dug into policy and community engagement plans like her “Beyond Policing” conflict resolution solution to gun violence in Durham. 

Johnson remained calm, unemotional and confident. “I have tried very hard to focus on the issues and to not publicly criticize other candidates positions during the campaign. We just have different policies,” she said after the October forum. 

Johnson is running for re-election for an at-large City Council seat. A big theme of her campaign is collaborative leadership, a commitment made concrete by her joint “Bull City Together” platform with fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

Johnson moved from Virginia to Durham in 1999, an 18-year-old Duke University freshman drawn to public policy and community activism. Four years later, she stayed, eager to put her newly earned degree to work for the city. 

“Durham just felt like home. It felt like a place where I could do the kind of work I wanted to do, have the kind of community I was looking for, and have my kids in a diverse and fun city,” she said.

Jillian Johnson has refrained from criticizing other candidates during her City Council re-election campaign. That held during a Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum at city hall last month. Photo by Cameron Beach

Though cool and often reserved in the council chambers, the one-term councilwoman has sparked controversy with her unashamed, leftist takes on gun violence and policing. 

In 2016, she posted on Facebook that “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.” In an interview with The News & Observer after that, she was quoted saying she believes that “the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling, and Islamophobia.”

Critics called for an apology; some wanted her to resign. But Johnson carried on.

Johnson’s 20-year history in Durham is deeply rooted in activism and the nonprofit sector. She co-founded Durham for All, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize people of all races and socio-economic status to support progressive candidates and causes.

She is the former director of operations and a current board member for the nonprofit, Southern Visions Alliance. The group supports teenagers and young adults working on social justice issues in the South. 

While on the City Council, Johnson was a primary proponent of the raise in minimum wage for part-time Durham workers in 2018. She’s also the council representative for the Durham Housing Authority, Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and the Race/Equity Task Force. 

The Bull City Together platform points that are most important to Johnson are promoting public safety and community facilitated conflict resolution, increasing eco-friendly infrastructure, and increasing affordable housing opportunities for residents, she said.

During a council budget working session in June, Johnson was one of four council members who rejected Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for additional police officers. The money was better spent on wages, they concluded.

Three challengers vying for council seats criticize that move. Although violent crime dropped in Durham in recent years, the city is seeing a spike in gun violence this year. That unwelcome shift was made especially stark this week, when several shootings, including drive by assaults, killed two people and injured eight. A 17-year-old was among the murdered.

At an Oct. 17 council candidate forum, Johnson said intervention and prevention are the keys to reducing violent crime in Durham’s inner city. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we can’t stop people from carrying their guns around, but given that, it’s very important for people to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way,” Johnson said. 

Intervention means engaging people at risk of committing gun violence on a peer-to-peer level, Johnson said. She likes gang-intervention programs like Project BUILD and Bull City United, which hires community members to try to diffuse conflicts before violence can occur. 

Prevention consists of implementing conflict resolution training,  providing workshops on bystander training and de-escalating anger tactics, Johnson said. She hopes to expand on Durham Local Reentry Council’s effort to support and help re-integrate people recently released from jail or prison.

In her campaign, Johnson also emphasizes expanding renewable energy use in Durham. A renewable energy resolution the council passed on March 25 commits Durham to switching to 80% renewable energy sources in all city operations by 2030 and to 100% renewables by 2050. 

The city recently invested in a couple of electric buses, some hybrid police cars, and solar panels on Durham Fire Station 17, Johnson said. And it will use energy efficiency infrastructure in the affordable housing council members hope to build.

“Everyone who believes in science and cares about the future is concerned about climate change,” Johnson said. 

Investing in sustainability and renewable energy infrastructure in Durham is not just an environmental issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, Johnson said. 

“We have a history of not having the same level of environmental amenities in places like east Durham,” she said, referring to the now gentrifying part of the city that for years was home to many low-income households.

Johnson’s “Housing First” philosophy depends upon passage of the $95 million Housing Bond, also on the ballot next week. “We have a $160 million five-year plan and the $95 million closes the funding gap between the money that the city gets from state and federal resources,” she said. 

The money would help the city provide housing for over 15,000 Durham residents, primarily in permanently affordable units, supporters say. In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority, the council would use the money to build more multi-family rental housing like the Willard Street apartment project, which includes 80 units of permanently affordable housing for people at or below 60% of the area’s median income, Johnson said.

City Council candidate Jackie Wagstaff has been skeptical that the City Council will create permanent affordable housing. But Housing Authority housing is by its nature permanently affordable, Johnson noted.

The city needs private developers to help expand affordable housing too, even though the units would likely remain affordable for a limited time: 15 to 20 years, Johnson said. “People need housing now, and so we might build housing with a 15 or 20 year affordability period knowing we’re not getting the permanent affordability that we really want because the trade off is we can get people into housing now,” she said. 

Johnson, Caballero, and Reece’s joint platform has not been embraced by all. Challengers accuse the incumbents of being interchangeable. Where others see weakness, Johnson sees strength.

“You can’t do anything on council on your own. I think the idea that this sort of collaboration is anti-democratic is misguided. We have to work together, we have to collaborate, we have to have a shared vision, and shared policies in order to make anything happen in the city,” she said.

At top: Jillian Johnson sits outside the Durham Co-op Market on West , the city’s food coop on West Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Cameron Beach

Jackie Wagstaff: 31 years of controversy, commitment, black pride

It’s a rainy, cold October day and early voting for the city council general election has kicked off with a whimper. A parking lot outside a downtown polling station is nearly empty except for a few cars and Jackie Wagstaff’s foldable, blue campaign tent. 

Wagstaff, a North Carolina native and a former city council member, is running for an at-large seat on the council. A champion to some, she’s controversial to others and has starred in lots of drama in Durham politics over the years. 

In 2003, Wagstaff almost lost her Durham school board seat after she acknowledged falsifying two city check requests after the city council froze funding for the nonprofit she led. Wagstaff filed a restraining order against the school board, a difficult start to a three-year term. 

In an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2005, Wagstaff called for a replacement of all school board members, herself included. In 2013, leaders of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People censured Wagstaff and suspended her as chair of their political committee after accusing her of being “insubordinate, uncollaborative, and extremely impolite.”

While commending the move to reduce discord back then, Durham columnist Carl W. Kenney II also praised Wagstaff. “As controversial as she has been, Wagstaff is that rare leader in Durham. She has carried the torch for the poor and maligned for a long time. Her concerns are legitimate… ,” he wrote

Such turbulence has never deterred Wagstaff. “God never gave me the spirit of fear. So when there is a problem in my community, I’m not going to sit back and hope that it works itself out. I’m going to advocate, I’m going to be vocal about it, and I’m going to stand with the people until we get some resolve,” she said. “I have a passion for people, and if that looks like anger, I can’t help that.” 

Wagstaff moved to Durham from New Rochelle, New York in 1981 after attending her youngest brother’s high school graduation here. She fell for the city’s black pride and vibrant black social and business communities, so much so that she never caught the bus back to her life in New York. 

“I had no plans of living in North Carolina ever in my life again after I left. But there was something about Durham,” she said. 

Wagstaff’s 2019 platform centers around principles she said she has always valued: expanding affordable housing, achieving higher wages, and reducing both homelessness and gang violence. All of these issues remain relevant to a share of Durham’s diverse black community, Wagstaff said.

Jackie Wagstaff calls out to potential voters near an early voting site at the Criminal Justice Resources Center on East Main Street. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

“I’m not one of those people who need a dissertation to tell you what I’m about. I know because I’ve been out on these grounds, boots on the ground in this community,” she said.

Like all challengers on the City Council ballot this year, Wagstaff opposes the incumbents’ vote in June which rejected police chief C.J. Davis’ request for 18 new police officers. The council instead opted to put some of those funds toward an increase in part time worker’s wages, council member Jillian Johnson stating that the long term crime statistics do not indicate a need for more officers.

Wagstaff disagrees, claiming that whatever statistics the incumbents use to justify fewer police officers mean very little to the community members who live with persistent gunfire and often lethal, violent crimes.

She blames most crime and gang violence on economic depression in parts of Durham, and believes the best way to reduce these issues is to expand affordable housing and local jobs. 

“The strategy for livable wages is simple,” Wagstaff said. The city should require all businesses to pay workers at least $15 per hour, even though state law forbids cities from raising a state-set minimum wage, she said. From there city officials could fight for the right in court, she said.

The council should also expand funding for the Parks and Recreation department, Wagstaff said, and reinstating programs like Night Flight’s Midnight Basketball program, which opens school gyms at night for teens to use. She wants to ensure youth centers are available for local young people, so disadvantaged teens who join criminal gangs can redirect their energy, she said.

Jackie Wagstaff has campaigned rain or shine. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Wagstaff’s other primary platform point, affordable housing, addresses the current council’s push for a $95 million Affordable Housing Bond, which supporters say will pave the way for reasonably priced housing for 15,000 people over five years. Although the City Council is planning permanently affordable units if the bond is passed, Wagstaff is not convinced that will ensure affordable units stay affordable. 

Rhonda Willis, Wagstaff’s campaign treasurer, is also skeptical. “These units were not made for us,” she said of some affordable housing in Durham. Strict credit checks and criminal background checks have made it difficult for many impoverished or homeless people in Durham to take advantage of affordable housing options, she said.

In a written statement to the People’s Alliance PAC, Wagstaff took aim at the city’s recently passed Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) ordinance too. “There is a very real homeownership and wealth gap for blacks in Durham which continues to grow and EHC does not fully address the need to create affordable housing options for Durham’s poorest residents,” she said.

Wagstaff wants the City Council to use “inclusionary zoning” practices when approving future development projects. “We have to have something in place to make sure that developers honor their agreement of keeping units affordable. Inclusionary zoning would guarantee that and guarantee that they couldn’t hike the rent more than $5,” she said. 

She said requiring the city to favor Durham-based contractors would be the most promising solution for creating affordable housing and local jobs. “The city needs to become their own developer,” Wagstaff said. Local developers are more likely to provide Durham residents with longterm construction positions than the out-of-city developers who bring in their own work force, she said.  

Wagstaff has spent the last few weeks canvassing, campaigning at early voting sites and speaking at meet-the-candidate forums to spread the word on her positions. 

A forum hosted by the Durham Business and Professional Chain on Oct 10, attracted mostly black residents. Fellow challengers Joshua Gunn and Daniel Meier attended; incumbents Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece, and Javiera Caballero did not.

All three challengers are on the attack against the incumbents, especially when it comes to them campaigning with a joint platform called Bull City Together. (Wagstaff calls it “Bullshit Together”.)

“If you’ve got three people that eat alike, sleep alike, think alike, and vote alike 99% of the time, why do you need all three?” she said. 

In that parking lot on Oct. 16, Wagstaff was in nearly constant motion, running to her car to get change for a passing homeless person, yelling proudly after voting for herself, and encouraging others to cast their ballot.

Not necessarily for her, she said, but for themselves.

At top: Jackie Wagstaff makes a point at a recent Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidate forum at Durham City Hall. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal