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Posts published by “Julianna Rennie”

Julianna Rennie is a sophomore at Duke University studying journalism and public policy. She covers local government for The 9th Street Journal. Her work can also be found in The Chronicle, The Charlotte Observer and Columbia Journalism Review.

How to vote and important dates for the mayoral and city council elections

The Bull City will elect a new mayor and three City Council members this fall. 

The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the general election on Nov. 2. Here are the other dates and details you’ll need to know to vote. 

How to vote in-person 

Early voting will take place at five locations from Sept. 16 to Oct. 2. At the early voting sites, you can register and vote on the same day. Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections, strongly encourages people to use early voting to avoid long lines on Election Day. 

On Oct. 5 and Nov. 2, the polls will be open from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm. Find your polling place here.

You can also register to vote online or access a voter registration form by visiting the Durham County Board of Elections website. The deadlines to register are Sept. 10 for the primary and Oct. 8 for the general election. 

How to vote by mail

If you are already registered to vote in Durham, you can request an absentee ballot online, by mail, or in person. Any registered Durham voter can request an absentee ballot, and no special reason is necessary.

You must request a ballot by Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. to vote absentee in the primary. Absentee voting for the primary begins Sept. 5, and you must submit your ballot by 5 p.m. on Oct. 5.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the general election is 5 p.m. on Oct. 26. You can submit that ballot starting Oct. 3 and until 5 p.m. on Nov. 2.

For both the primary and general elections, absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. on Election Day will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election.  

You’ll need two witnesses or one notary to fill out your ballot. Absentee ballots can be returned in-person at the Durham County Board of Elections office or at any early voting site. 

***

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for profiles on the candidates, campaign coverage, and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

‘Welcome home’ program helps residents returning from prison

Chuck Manning Sr. says the new program provides support at a critical time. Photo by Katie Nelson

On his first day of freedom after a 13-year prison sentence, Reginald Mumford received a care package with a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel and met the peer support specialist who would help him adjust to life in Durham.

People who have been incarcerated are often neglected by policymakers, but Durham wants to send a clear message to people like Mumford: “Welcome home!”

Roughly 700 people return to Durham each year after doing time in a state prison. Often, they arrive without a job or stable housing. And, if they don’t have family in the area, a probation officer may be their only support system.

A year ago, the city directed its Innovation Team with finding a way to increase upward mobility for formerly incarcerated residents.

After spending months conducting interviews and collecting data, the Innovation Team created Welcome Home, a program that serves – and empowers – Durham residents returning from prison. The initiative works closely with the Local Reentry Council, a government program that helps them with job opportunities and other services, and other local organizations that provide assistance.

The program gets participants from three state prisons — Polk, Wake, and Orange — but organizers plan to expand to more and eventually include women’s prisons, too.

“Sometimes you can feel as if the world is against you,” said Chuck Manning Sr., the community outreach coordinator for the Innovation Team. He is one of the architects of the program and its peer support specialist.

Welcome Home helps people at a critical time. The first few weeks after being released can be especially difficult, and that’s when people are particularly at risk of slipping back into crime. When Manning returned home to Durham from prison five years ago, he remembers that there were no opportunities for him.

After applying to dozens of jobs with no success, he used a borrowed smoker and $145 to start his own barbeque catering business called Kwu’s Katering. When he’d run into people who knew him from before he went to prison, he told them that he had decided to change his life – and encouraged them to do the same.

Manning credits his success to two peer support specialists who helped him during this transition.

He’s now playing that role himself. He said he loves the work so much that he’d do it for free if he didn’t have four kids to support. “I look at this just like a case manager, but a case manager who’s actually been there and done that,” Manning said. “A case manager with a heart.”

When Manning met Mumford, the first Welcome Home participant, he explained the peer support program and presented him with a Welcome Home box.

Inside, there’s a week’s worth of food and a month’s worth of toiletries as well as a bus pass, a  $25 gift card to Wal-Mart, a cell phone, and a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel.

“It’s the small things,” Manning said. “A lot of these guys have done their time, and they’re ready to change their lives. They just need somebody that’s on their side.”

But the most important offering in the Welcome Home program is the peer support specialist, or someone who can be what Manning calls a “standing model of change.”

“Chuck is keeping me on a positive path and I’m not really worried about getting in trouble because I know how to stay out of trouble,” said Mumford. “I can never get back the 13 years that were taken away from me, but I can look forward to a brighter future.”

The 52-year-old is staying with his godmother in Durham and focusing on transitioning back into society.

Manning found out that Mumford didn’t know how to use a smartphone — there were only flip phones when he went to prison in 2006. So, they met at the McDonald’s downtown so that Manning could teach him how to use the device.

Manning also has connected him with a program to help him get back his disability benefits. And they bought a pair of slacks that Mumford can wear to job interviews.

Looking forward, Manning said the Welcome Home initiative needs broad community support not just from the usual suspects — (Nonprofits and churches have strong roots in reentry work in the city.) — but the thriving businesses and wealthy people who also call Durham home.

“Those individuals need to donate, purchase some boxes, help employ some of these guys,” Manning said. “This is a new Durham we’re living in; let’s not forget about the people who aren’t benefiting from it.”

In the midnight hour: The nocturnal email habits of Durham’s mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel has a werewolfish habit of staying up late into the night answering emails.

While most of the city is asleep, he sends messages on subjects ranging from “Downtown Post Office Parking” to “Demilitarize Durham.”

In fact, Schewel sends more emails between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. than any other time of day, according to an analysis by The 9th Street Journal.

We looked at more than 4,000 emails sent by Schewel since he was elected mayor in November last year and obtained by The 9th Street Journal through a public records request. Among the findings:

  • Around dinner time — between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — he writes fewer emails.
  • He sends more than 40 percent of his emails between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.
  • His email production peaks around midnight and tapers off around 1:30 a.m.
  • He does apparently sleep. We found that he sent almost no emails between 2:30 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.

By day, he attends city meetings, reads materials prepared for the City Council, and presides over ribbon-cutting ceremonies, leaving little time to respond to emails.

At night, he becomes a ferocious emailer. He says he stays up late because he needs to respond to his constituents. “People have really important problems, even if some of them are small problems. It might be a pothole … or an issue about rezoning or affordable housing,” he says. “It’s important to them, and I’ve got to respond. I think that’s part of the job.”

Data analysis by Asa Royal

His nighttime routine begins when he returns to his West Club Boulevard bungalow, kisses his wife Lao, and trades his jacket and tie for a cozy cardigan.

After dinner, he situates himself in front of the television or a book until his eyelids begin to feel heavy. “I read with my eyes shut,” Schewel jokes, explaining that he may nap until 11 p.m. or so.

Some nights he’ll wake up and go to bed. But oftentimes, he climbs the u-shaped staircase to his home office, opens his black laptop and starts sifting through his inbox.

The wood-paneled room is crowded with overflowing bookcases and a large upholstered chair. Schewel’s desk overlooks the backyard, but at night the view is obscured by the artificial light from inside.

“In the daytime, it’s a fabulous room,” he says.

Schewel averages between two and three late-night email binges each week. More than 37 percent of the days, he’ll send at least one email after midnight.

The subject lines of the emails he responds to are a Durham zeitgeist: a mix of invitations, city news, and complaints about urban problems, such as “Ms. Morris 3rd Grade Class Presenting at City Council Meeting,” “Six People Arrested in Prostitution Operation,” and “plant odors getting worse but no action from city to stop them.”You can also spot trends from a flurry of emails on the same topic:  “Loud music in downtown Durham,” “Loud music from DBAP, late at night, two nights in a row,” “too loud!” “Outdoor concert noise,” and “loud noise from music festival on Friday and Saturday Sept 28-29.”

Thomas Bonfield, Durham’s city manager, says it’s normal for him to wake up to several emails that Schewel sent at 1 or 2 a.m. Bonfield says, “He’s so conscientious and there are so many people who are wanting a piece of him … and I think he’s trying to be responsive to all of them.”

A Durham moment: ‘It’s my civic duty’

For Halloween, Gunther Peck and his family planned to carve pumpkins. But his 12-year-old daughter had a different idea. How about they make a spooky sign? So the family got a big sheet, some glitter and colorful paint. They hung the banner over the entrance to their home in Trinity Park.

It said, “Vote! Before it’s too late.”

***

At eight o’clock the next morning, Peck, a Duke public policy professor and volunteer for Durham for Organizing Action, pulls into the Durham bus station in a teal decade-old Subaru Forester. It’s abuzz with people carrying briefcases, others pushing strollers, most wearing puffy coats and knit hats as they stride toward their bus. He grabs his clipboard, stuffs his keys in his jeans pocket and walks to the circle where the buses line up.

Gunther Peck in front of his Trinity Park home. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Most people avoid making eye contact with the enthusiastic, bespectacled professor. It’s clear that he wants something from them.

“Hi, sir, are you planning to early vote?”

“No.”

“Ma’am, early voting is going on right now. Here’s some information about where and when you can vote and what’s on the ballot this year.”

“I already voted.”

He does a lap around the bus station. No takers.

Finally, Bobby Haynie, a veteran with a salt and pepper beard and only a few teeth left, approaches Peck and announces he’d like to vote.

Peck, who has a rugged look but warm eyes and a gentle voice, explains the deal: he’ll drive Haynie to the Board of Elections to cast his ballot and then drop him off wherever he wants.

Haynie agrees and gets into the passenger seat of Peck’s car. The 69-year-old is wearing a San Antonio Spurs cap and white sneakers.

During the ride, Haynie peruses a sample ballot while Peck explains what’s at stake, from judicial positions to constitutional amendments.

“I’ll tell you why I’m here,” Peck says. “Our voting rights are in danger. There is a proposed amendment to the constitution requiring a photo id that would make it a lot harder for many citizens to vote.”

He’s been volunteering to drive people to the polls during early voting. Over the course of the 18-day period, he’ll drive dozens of Durhamites.

Haynie says he tries to vote every election. “It’s my civic duty.”

He understands civic duty. He was drafted and served in the army in the ‘70s. Since then, he earned a degree from North Carolina Central University and now works at a real estate development company downtown.

After he votes at the Board of Elections office, Haynie ambles back to Peck’s car. He keeps his “I Voted” sticker tucked inside the pocket of his well-worn, mustard-yellow jacket.

As they pull out of the parking lot, Peck asks, “What was your best vote? The one you’re most proud of.”

“The back page — all of the amendments,” says Haynie. “I didn’t think they need to start screwing with the constitution.”

(Top Photo of Gunther Peck and Bobby Haynie by Katie Nelson)

Early voter turnout on track to double from 2014 midterm election

In Durham County, the number of ballots cast during early voting is likely to be double that of the 2014 midterm election, according to Derek Bowens, director of elections at the Board of Elections.

In 2014, about 15 percent of registered voters (33,291 of 209,797) took part in early voting. By the end of Monday, 23 percent (53,322 of 230,326) had cast their ballots.

Bowens said that he expects 70,000 people will vote before the end of early voting on Nov. 3.

“This is a huge expansion of early voting,” said Gunther Peck, a Duke professor and volunteer for Durham for Organizing Action, which lists “Resisting Trump and Trumpism in all forms” as one of its priorities. “That’s a direct reflection of the strength of local organizing as well as voter enthusiasm.”

In Durham, Peck said, the vote is heavily Democratic as the county gets bluer. However, this is not the case across North Carolina.

“Republicans are not likely to mobilize in Durham because it’s the bluest county in the state,” Peck said. “Statewide, there’s much less evidence of a blue wave. A lot of Republicans are turning out in Republican strongholds.”

Bowens attributes this year’s voter enthusiasm to the current political environment.

“Some of the narratives we’re engaging in are encouraging people to come out and make their voices heard,” Bowens said. “People are fired up.”

Another explanation for increased early voter turnout is that Durham County has a longer early voting period and more early voting sites compared to the 2014 midterm election. This year, the early voting period lasts 18 days instead of 10, and there are additional early voting sites at the East Regional Library and Duke University.

Analysis: Five lessons Durham can learn from other cities’ scooter mishaps

I was sitting a few rows away from Durham City Council member Charlie Reece when he recounted his trip to Raleigh to try out the Triangle’s newest transportation fad: It’s not light rail (sorry, Steve), but electric scooters.

He said the experience was “very instructive on both the promise and the peril of these devices,” and then urged the Council to postpone the vote on Durham’s scooter ordinance.

After covering scooters in Charlotte last summer, I couldn’t believe that Durham was joining the many cities stumped by the challenge of regulating scooters.

Companies such as Bird are releasing rental scooters in cities across the United States. Yet, it’s as if each city has to reinvent the wheel by passing its own scooter rules.

And the clock is ticking. Scooter companies have been known to deploy their fleets quickly before cities can enact regulations.

In Charlotte last spring, Lime was ordered to remove its scooters after their release. When Bird descended on Raleigh earlier this summer, lawmakers chose to let them operate while they scrambled to establish rules.

To avoid this Hitchcockian nightmare, Durham must now decide how to best navigate this seemingly lawless landscape. Based on my time writing about and occasionally riding Charlotte’s scooters, I have some suggestions for the city and Durham residents who are likely to see scooters on their streets and sidewalks very soon:

1. Are scooters street legal? 

Durham residents gave high marks to the first year of the dockless bike share program. But if there’s any indication that regulating bikes and scooters is getting hairier, it’s the name of the proposed ordinance: Shared Active Transportation.

The euphemism speaks to the complexity of regulating very different types of vehicles.

There’s also debate over whether or not scooters are a good fit for the city’s roads – and how they should be classified.

Under North Carolina law, electric scooters may be considered mopeds, which triggers certain requirements: The scooters must have lights, license plates, and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime scooters have lights, but not license plates or rearview mirrors.

This makes it seem like either state law needs to change or the scooters need an upgrade.

Some believe the moped designation doesn’t apply to scooters. Shea Denning, professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a blog post that she doesn’t think the legislature or the Department of Transportation had stand-up scooters in mind when they created definitions for different types of vehicles, including mopeds.

In a statement, the Department of Transportation said, “It is unclear how state laws apply to electric scooters.” The statement also directs people to follow traffic laws and be aware of local ordinances.

Durham’s interpretation is that scooters fall into the moped category, according to Bryan Poole, a transportation planner with the city. So companies will need to show that they meet all of the moped requirements in the state law in order to receive a permit.

“Alternatively, the state law needs to change and/or the DMV needs to issue some type of interim guidance on how to classify electric scooters,” Poole said in an email.

2. Wear a helmet.

Whether they’re fleeing freezing office buildings or dressed up for a night on the town (which, in Charlotte, means brewery hopping), adults riding scooters is a common, though somewhat cringeworthy, sight.

But these two-wheelers aren’t like your beloved childhood Razor scooter; they accelerate quickly, topping out at 15 mph. And while it’s recommended that users wear helmets, few actually do.

Bird will mail a helmet to riders if people request one, but that doesn’t help you if your dinner reservation is in 20 minutes.

Durham’s proposed scooter ordinance does include specific direction on helmets: “Persons operating motorized scooters must be at least 16 years old and wear a helmet.”

If the ordinance passes, then it will be up to law enforcement to hold people accountable for wearing helmets.

California cities from Beverly Hills to San Diego have cracked down on scooter safety. Now, helmetless riders run the risk of getting a ticket and paying hundreds of dollars.

Instead, Durham could partner with local businesses to set out bins with helmets that riders can borrow. People who use and return the helmet could get a discount on their ride. (The idea is to improve safety without increasing ticketing, which often creates a financial burden for low-income members of the community who are intended to benefit from these transportation programs.)

3. Plan for parking.

The influx of dockless bikes turned Durham’s sidewalks into a jungle of discarded Lime and Spin bikes. Scooters may initially bring a similar surge, with people leaving them pretty much everywhere.

Luckily, as more people use the vehicles, they tend to disperse into neighborhoods, freeing up downtown. And Poole said he thinks people will adapt.

“We don’t think about all the cars parked in our downtown, but when we saw 100 bikes, it was all of a sudden a travesty,” Poole said.

However, there’s no question that if vehicles are discarded irresponsibly, they can create serious hazards, especially for people with disabilities.

With scooters coming, too, Durham is considering innovative ways to minimize parking problems. For instance, Poole proposed converting parking spaces for cars into areas designated for shared dockless bikes and scooters.

This could be a great solution. It’s also important to remember that scooters are charged overnight and then neatly parked the next morning, so they shouldn’t pile up.

4. Durham, don’t settle for less.

The scooter ordinance would hike fees for bike and scooter sharing to $100 per scooter, $50 per electric assist bike, and $25 per non-motorized bike.

Last year, the city only charged $10 per bike.

A Bird representative who spoke before the City Council complained that the fee is “one of the higher ones of all the cities we operate in.”

But, let’s face it, dockless bikes and scooters pose plenty of logistical challenges, and Durham should charge a fair price for the additional services it will need to provide. From city officials and police to attorneys and neighborhood improvement services, the bikes and scooters siphon time and resources away from other projects.

The revenue will help pay for administration as well as infrastructure for bikes and scooters, according to Poole.

The ordinance also streamlines data collection for the city. Last year, Durham had trouble obtaining data it requested from bike companies, making it difficult to enforce the requirement that 20 percent of bikes to be in certain census tracts at all times.

When Uber and Lyft debuted across the country, local governments were complacent about regulating the companies. One of the major consequences was that cities didn’t have access to data to help inform decisions about traffic and transportation infrastructure.

This data will help ensure that Durham isn’t in the dark, giving the city the tools to enforce equitable access to bikes and scooters.

5. Looking for a new side hustle?

Last summer, I wrote about people who make money from scooters while they sleep. They pick up scooters at the end of the day, charge them overnight, and return them the next morning.

And they make bank. Some earn $200 a night, for only a few hours of work.

The pay is good if you are able to charge many scooters a night, but as more people sign up to be chargers, the two-wheelers get harder to find.

(Photo by Elizabeth Rennie)

This story has been updated with new information based on a more recent version of the Shared Active Transportation ordinance that will be reviewed at the Durham City’s Council’s work session on October 4.

In Durham, protecting the bears and wolves from Hurricane Florence

Correction, Sept. 17: This story has been corrected to clarify that the museum has four red wolves, not two as originally reported.

Only a few at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham remember when Hurricane Fran hit: three staff members, a couple of turtles, and Misha the red-tailed hawk.

The morning after that 1996 storm, animal caretaker Sherry Samuels returned to the museum to find fences for several enclosures crushed by fallen trees and the bear house filled with water.

“I swam down a road rather than walked down a road. It was that much water,” she said.

The museum had no power, and only a fraction of the staff got to work that day.

The staffers who made it sprang into action. They drained the flooded enclosure and fed warm apples to the shivering bears.

Now, Samuels is the director of the animal department, and she’s leading the museum’s preparation for Hurricane Florence.

When the first forecasts showed Florence heading toward the Carolinas last weekend, staffers at the museum made 80 sandbags to stack in front of areas that might flood. They stocked shelves, inventoried medicines and began planning what to do with the animals.

Virginia, pictured here, and other bears at the Museum of Life and Science should fare better in this weekend’s storm because of lessons from Hurricane Fran in 1996. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Life and Science)

“There are wonderful things about living in captivity: You get access to health care and food, but you don’t have space or the same choice, and in extreme weather, space and choice is critical,” she said.

Samuels said that this time around, the four black bears will be locked in their house. The lemurs and farm animals will also be kept indoors.

The museum’s four red wolves – two adults and their two juvenile pups – are her primary concern. They’re part of a breeding program to conserve the critically endangered species native to the southeast.

“The wolves are really nervous, shy animals, so it’s always a judgment call of whether to leave them where they are or crate them up and bring them inside, which is very stressful on the wolves and people,” Samuels said.

Before the storm hits, she’ll have to decide if they’ll stay in their six-acre enclosure or come inside.

When designing its new Explore the Wild exhibit to house the bears and wolves, the museum took into account lessons learned from Hurricane Fran.

The bear house was built on a site three feet higher, and the drains were revamped to better control flooding.

“Everything — from procedures to protocols to training to infrastructure — is all better now,” Samuels said. “Does that mean we’re going to ride out the storm and not have any issues? No, each storm has a life of its own, but we can try to prepare.”

Do women and people of color get a fair share of government contracts?

Durham is a diverse city where black residents account for 37 percent of the population and people of Hispanic origin represent 13 percent. But officials are concerned the groups do not get a similar share of city contracts.

“I continue to be floored by how many of the businesses we’re working with have zero people of color,” Councilmember DeDreana Freeman said at a City Council meeting last week. “It’s really disturbing.”

The Council signed off on five deals with contractors that will cost almost $2.2 million. Only two of those deals met goals for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses. For the other three projects, goals for minority and women-owned business participation were not set.

City officials say they’ve been aware of the challenge for years. In 2013, the city commissioned a study to analyze the disparity in government contracting practices.

The study found that over a five-year period, Durham spent $206.1 million, but only $5.5 million — or less than 3 percent — was awarded to minority and women-owned firms.

The city established goals for minority and women business participation using the findings of the study. Construction contractors, for instance, should include minority-owned businesses in 11 percent and women-owned businesses in 7 percent of a project.

The Equal Business Opportunity Program requires contractors to “make good faith efforts” to meet these targets. However, some contracts are not assigned goals because there are no minority or women-owned firms available.

“If [contractors] can’t meet the goals … they have to say why,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “And the reason usually is there are no women or minority-owned businesses that have the ability to do that certain skill.”

At the meeting, Schewel said that the city can focus on developing minority and women businesses so that they become eligible to win government contracts.

“That is a bigger societal problem we’ve got to solve in our education system,” Schewel said. “We also need to be thinking as a city about how we’re going to help some of our folks who do have technical skills but don’t have business experience.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested postponing the scheduled vote to appoint twelve people to the newly established Racial Equity Task Force. His reasoning was that only one of the twelve appointees is an African-American man.

“For a racial equity task force in a southern American city where nine African-American males applied — for it to be just one African-American male on the task force, I think optically, is a shortcoming on our part.”

Freeman and Councilmember Vernetta Alston echoed the concerns.

Now, the appointments will be reconsidered at the Council’s Sept. 20 work session.

Middleton ended his remarks by reminding his fellow councilmembers that until the task force is functional, people of color in Durham still have a voice.

“There is a working group in our city that should be mindful of racial equity issues: us.”