Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Local government”

‘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.”

Inside the ambitious plan to bring back the spirit of Durham’s Black Wall Street

At the turn of the 20th century, downtown Durham’s Parrish Street was the hub of Black Wall Street, with NC Mutual Life Insurance Company at the forefront of a thriving black entrepreneurial culture.

At the time, Durham had the highest concentration of black millionaires in the country.

But other than a couple historical markers and a historic forum, Parrish today is just another downtown street, home to businesses like a bike shop with beer bottles on display that sells bikes starting around $300.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants to bring back the glory days. He’s undertaking an ambitious plan to bring back Black Wall Street’s spirit of entrepreneurship, which was quashed after Highway 147 cut through the historically black Hayti district in the 1960s. This time, he says the initiative won’t be as tethered to real estate.

“We don’t have Parrish Street anymore. It has to be an ecosystem,” Middleton said.

Middleton’s long-term vision includes job training, partnering with businesses to redevelop, and targeted tax incentives and grants to promote black entrepreneurialism.

The rise and fall of Black Wall Street

Right next door to what is now Seven Star Cycles, a bike shop focusing on bike repairs on Parrish Street, lies the former headquarters of the Durham Reformer, a newspaper published by NC Mutual—which became the world’s largest black insurance company.

Its first floor now houses a black-owned dentists shop, and on its upper floor, a graphic design company co-founded by a North Carolina Central University graduate.

NC Mutual was founded in 1898 by John Merrick and Aaron Moore, among others. The company’s goal was to provide life insurance and other services to blacks who couldn’t otherwise get them.

“If you look at most of the black-owned businesses of this time, they’re basically meeting needs that whites have no interest in or for racist reasons wouldn’t support,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham.

NC Mutual was a complicated place, Korstad said. On one hand, it created an abundance of jobs, including professional jobs and opportunities for black women, Korstad said.

However, Merrick also made significant profit from developing substandard rental houses for black workers, Korstad said.

Merrick, also a barber and founder of the Durham Textile Mill, was a jack of all trades, like many of those who were at the forefront of development on Parrish.

Moore, the first black medical doctor in Durham, founded Lincoln Hospital in 1901, a hospital where black doctors could treat patients. He also founded Bull City Drug Company in 1908, which was right next door to what is now the dentist and the graphic design company.

With no “centrally located” pharmacy that blacks could use in Durham, Moore had to run a pharmacy out of his garage for blacks until he opened Bull City Drug’s doors, Korstad said.

The Parrish Street businesses showed great promise.

But just a few decades later, it all came crashing down.

In the 1960s, the city decided it needed a highway to drive business to Durham and provide a pathway to the Research Triangle and Raleigh, Korstad said.

The cheapest and easiest place to put what is now Highway 147 was straight through the historically black Hayti neighborhood, Korstad said. The idea was sold as a way to lift the Hayti community out of its “dilapidated” housing by tearing it down and later putting in better housing, Korstad said.

That never happened.

Instead, it was devastating for black businesses.

“I’m not sure they initially intended to destroy the black business district as they did,” Korstad said. “However, since it happened the same way in virtually every southern town, that the black business community was destroyed as well as the residential community, made me think that was part of what it was all about.”

The highways effects were brutal for Henry L. Gunn III, who left Durham for Vietnam in the 1960s to join the Air Force. When he returned from duty nearly 20 years later, his neighborhood was completely gone.

His son, Joshua Gunn, hip-hop artist and vice president of member investment at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, says the highway is “a scar for him because he has no way to go back to and tell us about his childhood and his youth. The physical space is gone. Black Durham never really recovered from that. Many people never recovered from their homes quite literally being destroyed.”

Today, black people account for more than 60 percent of those in poverty in Durham, despite representing more than a third of the city’s population.

Middleton aims to right wrongs

Applying the lessons of the past, Middleton hopes to break the racial gap and inspire black entrepreneurship.  

Middleton hopes to provide tax incentives and grants.

“We should be as precise in targeting for communities for help as communities were targeted when [Highway] 147 was built,” Middleton said. “Everybody knew who lived in that neighborhood when [Highway] 147 decimated the Hayti community. It was black folk. Whoever was most impacted by those policies should be the folk we’re most targeting to help.”

Although his vision of reviving the spirit of Black Wall Street is less tied to physical real estate on Parrish Street, he also hopes to work with private developers to create a “demonstration project.” That may entail building an anchor project on Hayti’s Fayetteville Street, perhaps at a former housing project that the city bought a few years ago, Middleton said.

Middleton also helps to bring apprenticeships and vocational training back to local high schools. This would help create high-paying jobs, he says.

These changes won’t come overnight, Middleton acknowledges. But he hopes that in the short term, the city will make a significant commitment to stimulating black entrepreneurship. He noted that the city put $2.4 million aside for a participatory budgeting initiative, and hopes the city will put at least that much into bringing back the spirit of Black Wall Street.

Korstad is not optimistic about the possibility being able to come to fruition.

“A lot of it is about money and capital and access to credit. There are a lot of African Americans with great ideas and a certain amount of business skill and stuff, but unless you can go to the bank or a venture capitalist and get credit to build a big development or start a new business, it’s very hard to see something like that developing again,” Korstad said. “Wealth inequalities in the black community—black people got no savings and no money on average….I’m pretty dubious about it.”

Gunn hopes the city steps up to spur black business ownership.

“It’s time for people to put their money where their mouth is, especially for the city and county of Durham, which benefit greatly from the story of Black Wall Street, to begin to use their resources to help finance this,” Gunn said.

Slow steps in the growth of sidewalks in Durham

Above, Jose Gomez has to walk in the grass beside a busy highway for his morning commute to work because there are no sidewalks. Photo by Daniela Flamini

Jose Gomez commutes by bus from his home in northeast Durham to State Road 54 and Carpenter Fletcher Road. He then must trudge a quarter-mile to his job at Jimmy’s Famous Hotdogs. There are no sidewalks, so he has to walk on a patch of grass beside the busy highway.

“It gets really dangerous when I have to walk home at night, around 11, 11:30 p.m., when I can’t see my surroundings well,” said Gomez, 47, a fry cook. “It would make a huge difference to have some space for pedestrians.”

The area along State Road 54, from east of State Road 55 to the western limit of Research Triangle Park, is typical of many Durham neighborhoods and commercial areas. It’s not a friendly place for pedestrians. According to Bryan Poole, a city transportation planner, his department has identified 500 miles of sidewalk needs evenly spread around the city, and existing projects address only about 20 percent of that.

In late November, Durham’s Public Works Department presented designs for new sidewalks in the area around Highway 54, including the patch of grass Gomez and his coworkers use on their way to work. But these designs are still six years away from completion, and there are already significant complications due to obstacles like retaining walls, driveways and bike lanes.

Poole helps the city decide which areas of Durham most urgently need sidewalks. He explained that the process of actually getting them constructed can be a slow, heavily bureaucratic endeavor. “It’s hard for the public to understand how long it takes for sidewalks to be built,” he said.

Dale McKeel, a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said that “residents have shown a strong demand for the last thirty years.” The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Durham was largely built and developed before the 1990s, when cars were the primary mode of transportation and sidewalks weren’t a major concern for city planners.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be that complicated [to install sidewalks], but there are lots of details that need to be worked through,” McKeel said.

A local push for sidewalks in cities

City planners have long cared more about cars than bicycles or pedestrians, said Dan Gelinne, a program manager at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, a state-funded resource housed at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. “Places like Durham, Atlanta, and Phoenix were pretty much developed when people were driving, so the sidewalk was an afterthought.”

And yet, cities that boast comprehensive sidewalk coverage like New York and Boston flourished much earlier, when most people were getting around on foot.

Recent decades have seen a push from local efforts to enforce and encourage sidewalks in cities across the United States. Not only do sidewalks decrease the likelihood of pedestrians getting struck in vehicle crashes by 80 percent, but they also raise property value, make shops and businesses more economically viable, and signal a more physically active neighborhood, according to Gelinne.

In 2006, the Durham City Council adopted the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan, which was meant to check up on existing sidewalk networks and recommend improvements for better safety and accessibility.

Of the 300 projects that were born after its adoption, only 35 were actually completed, Poole said.

The projects that have been most successful are the ones that address pedestrian safety in particularly risky areas, such as Fayetteville Street, where pedestrians often have to walk alongside cars due to gaps in the sidewalk network.

Poole said that while the city has its own methodology for deciding which sidewalk projects should be prioritized, the North Carolina Department of Transportation does too. Because most sidewalks get federal funding through the state DOT, the city often must wait for the state to decide what it will approve.

It’s common for the city and the state not to see eye-to-eye on prioritizing sidewalks, because the state is much more conservative about small-scale projects. State level funding tends to go towards highway projects.

The cost of sidewalk installation varies greatly depending on what obstacles the landscape comes with. In Durham, materials and labor for 500 square feet of sidewalk can cost on average between $1,500 and $3,000.

A long-term approach to planning

City officials want to make sure that sidewalks help everyone in Durham, from the rich to the poor. But officials are aware that the need isn’t spread so evenly. “Certainly sidewalks are needed everywhere, but in some places, (people are) more reliant on being able to walk, like poorer neighborhoods,” Gelline said.

“This can come across in the public’s view that the city isn’t responding to what [its residents] are asking for, but a lot of times it’s the wealthier people in the community who are better at effectively communicating with the local government, so they know how to make a loud public argument for more sidewalks.”

Durham’s sidewalks are mostly concentrated downtown, which Poole says is great since it covers some poorer areas, but gentrification poses a threat to this. Otherwise, they’re spread fairly unevenly around the county and don’t follow any demographically-related pattern. McKeel noted that “in a lot of the neighborhoods around Duke’s East Campus (an affluent area), there are no sidewalks. That’s not usually what you’d expect in a city, but there’s just no correlation.”

Poole did say that most the emails and comments that the city gets about sidewalks come from wealthier neighborhoods, but that he “tries to be mindful” of this by making equity a primary concern.

Gelinne said that “sidewalks are pretty expensive to build… it can be very expensive, and generally cannot be done quickly. Durham probably struggles with the fact that, at the end of the day, the budget allotted is not enough for what is required, so they’re still catching up.”

 

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.”

Durham turnout up in 2018 midterms

Durham County had a big blue wave in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Turnout outstripped the previous midterm in 2014 by more than 30,000 more votes cast. That meant 55 percent of registered voters showed up compared with 45 percent in 2014.

And although the rest of the state passed four of six proposed constitutional amendments, including a voter ID requirement, Durham heavily opposed all of them.

Durham voted against all six amendments by at least 69 percent, including 77 percent against the voter ID requirement. The three other amendments that voters approved statewide “strengthen[ed] victims rights,” enshrined recent tax cuts and established a right to hunt and fish with “traditional methods.”

North Carolina also confirmed Democrat Anita Earls to a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Statewide, she earned about half of the vote while two Republican challengers split the other half, but more than 80 percent of Durham voters supported her.

Voters again chose Democrats for Durham’s legislative seats. Incumbents MaryAnn E. Black, Marcia Morey and Robert T. Reives II will retain their seats in the state House of Representatives, while Floyd McKissick Jr. and Mike Woodard will hold onto their Senate positions. In the House, Democrat Zack Forde-Hawkins will fill the spot of Mickey Michaux, 88, who is retiring.

Durham offering free bus rides to vote in midterm elections

Durham voters who still need to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s elections can get a free bus ride to the polls.

For the second straight year, GoDurham buses will be free while the polls are open, from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The fare-free service was supposed to be approved during a City Council meeting Monday night, but a power outage at City Hall postponed the meeting until Thursday.

City Manager Thomas Bonfield told the 9th Street Journal that he approved the free service for Tuesday and the City Council will confirm it Thursday at his direction.

Durham tries to break up the love affair between commuters and their cars

In front of the entrance to Duke University Hospital on Erwin Road, Lynn Brandon stood with her daughter late one afternoon, waiting for the bus after a long day of work at the hospital. Brandon has a car, but chooses to ride the bus for one simple reason: “Convenience.” She doesn’t have to worry about parking, and the No. 11 bus takes her straight home.

Darius Brown, another Durhamite waiting at the stop, was using the bus that day because his car was in the shop. “Otherwise, I’d never take the bus for any reason,” he said.

Durham transit officials would love to lure more riders like Brandon and Brown. According to results from the 2017 GoDurham passenger survey, 63 percent of GoDurham riders do not have vehicles in their household. By increasing the number of riders who could use their own cars, the city’s transit agency reduces the number of cars that need parking and other services.

“Of course we want to respect the people who are already riding our buses, but we also want ridership to be more diverse,” said Anne Phillips, who handles the city’s Transportation Demand Management program. “The cost of land in Durham is going up, and it’s more expensive to make parking lots and infrastructure for cars.”

One strategy: working with employers to provide incentives to employees to ride the bus more by offering benefits such as a discounted GoPass and educating people on how the GoDurham system operates throughout the city.

“We want commuters to not depend on their car, especially those who work downtown,” she said.

What’s the deal with Seattle?

It’s difficult to separate commuters and their cars, said Steven Polein,director of urban mobility research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation. In fact, car ownership has gone up in recent years and use of public transit has declined.

“Cars have become very affordable with interest rates, so a lot of transit people are leaving it and we’ve seen a pretty significant decline pretty much all across the country with very few exceptions,” he said. “Auto availability is at its highest level, and if people have a vehicle they’re dramatically less likely to use public transportation.”

Survey results show that 68 percent of bus riders use GoDurham to get to work, and 75 percent make less than $24,999 a year.

Polein said improvements to transit systems don’t necessarily get more people to ride. “Transit is doing what it can to stay in the game. A number of systems are making efforts to speed up bus service, increase frequency, or lower the number of stops, making them more attractive,” he said. “But the reality is, unless you have intense development (that drives up the cost of parking and congestion), it’s a challenging competition.”

Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft have also captured the ridership of a “non-trivial share of folks” who would otherwise have used public transit, according to Polein. Environmental factors can play a factor as well: Some cities like Washington have systems with severe maintenance issues, while San Francisco has chronic problems with homelessness and unsanitary conditions that deter people from using the buses.

One city that has beaten the odds is Seattle, which enjoyed such an incredible jump in bus ridership between 2010 and 2014 that, according to CityLab, “at its peak in 2015 around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.”

Seattle has an urban environment that’s perfect to encourage bus ridership, with very congested roads and not enough parking in many of its central downtown areas. The city also “implemented substantial increases in bus service as they planned long-term investments in light rail lines,” according to StreetsBlog USA. The Seattle Department of Transportation funded repairs for traffic-heavy routes and inefficient bus stops that had been causing problems.

Seattle voters showed they were willing to pitch in. In 2014, voters approved a measure that increased the sales tax and implemented a vehicle license fee in order to raise about $45 million annually for transit.

 

Providing more incentives

GoDurham wants more employers to provide workers with incentives to ride the bus.

Duke University is the largest GoPass provider in Durham. It offers a GoPass card to all its students for free, and “eligible faculty and staff” can buy one for $25. The card “is a free transit pass offered to employees and tenants by the employer… Tenants and employees ride for free for one year on all transit routes in the Triangle with any agency.” Other Durham employers that provide GoPasses include American Underground, Suntrust, the ad agency McKinney, and the City of Durham.

GoTriangle hosts the Golder Modes Awards each year in order to “recognize companies, organizations and people who best use their resources to influence Triangle employees and university students to pursue smart commuting options.”

Last year, one of the winners was Christi Turner, Facilities Operations Program Facilitator at Red Hat, a software development company, in downtown Raleigh. Red Hat provides GoPasses to its employees, as well as a bike-share program, and it also organizes R line events that encourage coworkers to get comfortable with riding the bus.

Another winner was the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which got recognized for its “efforts toward improving air quality and reducing congestion in the Triangle region” using a tremendously successful bike share program that encouraged employees to take breaks and bike around the neighborhood.

But Polein is skeptical whether benefits like these actually encourage more people to ride. “Customers generally require a very high-quality level of service,” he said. “They want it to be speedy, safe, modern, convenient, and flexible, and even then, it may not be enough.”

Photo by Katie Nelson

City wins $1 million Bloomberg grant to encourage alternatives to driving

Durham’s efforts to encourage commuters to find alternatives to their cars have won the city $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The Durham Mayors Challenge Team has been working on a pilot program since the city was selected as one of 35 finalists in the U.S. Mayors Challenge in February. The program worked with 1,586 downtown employees to encourage “new modes and routes for downtown commuters and introducing health, money and time benefits of not driving a car.”

The project included a planning tool that provided commuters with personalized routes and, mapped options for stops, time comparisons, and benefits. The employees who used the tool were 12 percent more likely to use alternative transportation over driving alone.

The city also used a GoDurham bus lottery, which turned riding the bus into a friendly competition. Commuters who played the game reported using alternative transport 19 percent more, and “reported a higher level of happiness and lower levels of stress” throughout the pilot.

Funding for this “test and learn” phase, which lasted 6 months, came from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which provided each of the 35 finalists with $100,000 in grants as well as technical support.

Now, with the $1 million prize, Durham will begin implementing these programs in order to tackle its more significant mobility  problems: “The city’s parking capacity and budget for street-maintenance can’t keep pace with residents’ dependency on single-occupancy vehicles, negatively affecting more than 34,000 downtown employees.”

The city’s goal is to reduce the number of cars in downtown Durham by 5 percent, about 800 vehicles, to reduce the demand on parking and local roads.

Got wealth? You need it to be on the City Council

The Durham City Council is an elite group: attorney, attorney, Duke professor, pastor, “non-profit administrator,” consultant and a game developer.

The lofty jobs reflect a disparity between the city’s elected officials and their constituents. It also reflects the reality of the demands of serving on the Council.

Of the six members that spoke to the 9th Street Journal, four—Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece—agreed that it is essentially a full-time job and it is difficult to serve unless you’re independently wealthy.

“It’s a full-time job—or it ought to be a full-time job, given the size of the city, its rate of its growth and the enormity of the operation,” Middleton said. “It’s billed as a part-time job, but if you’re going to do it justice, it’s not a part-time job.”

Mayor Steve Schewel and Council Member Vernetta Alston were more skeptical about that notion, but even they are open to changes to make the office more accessible.

“Should this be something where people are expected to do it full-time and make a living? To me, that’s definitely an open question,” Schewel told the 9th Street Journal.

Job has turned full-time

A spot on the City Council was supposed to be part-time—and pay accordingly. But with the burgeoning city approaching a population of 270,000, demands on the Council have grown, leading council members to say it’s really a full-time job.

“Historically, I don’t think our role was supposed to be conceived of as a full-time job. But Durham has grown exponentially. Our problems are bigger,” Caballero said. “I don’t know if there was intent when it was created that they only wanted a certain profile. But It has limited who is on Council.”

In addition to biweekly City Council meetings and weekday afternoon work sessions that can each last several hours, council members are expected to meet with constituents and represent the city at community events. They get “countless requests” for their time and each serve on five to seven Council committees, Middleton said.

They’re never off duty, either.

“You’re trying to put ice cream in your mouth and somebody’s asking you about property taxes,” Middleton said.

All that time adds up. And that prevents a large segment of Durham residents from being able to afford the time commitment.

It pays just over just over $21,000 annually—an obstacle for those without independent wealth. Even the mayor makes just $25,084.  

“Right now…you’re being excluded economically from the ability to represent the community, unless you have a certain amount of economic privilege—or you’ll run yourself ragged trying to work the Council job and have a full-time job,” Johnson said.

Reece was the general counsel for a pharmaceutical company and tried to make both the Council and his full-time legal job work. Over time, the Harvard graduate couldn’t swing it. Reece said he mostly knew what he signed up for when he decided to run for the job, but it ended up being somewhat more time-consuming than he had previously thought.

“At times the combined workload made it difficult to spend as much time with my family as I would have liked,” Reece said. “That’s not to say that anyone should feel sorry for me.”

City Council members are supposed to be able to keep their outside jobs. But that hasn’t happened for Reece and several other council members.

“The people of the city of Durham demand more than that from their Council members, and the job reflects that reality even though the pay does not,” Reece said. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, or retired, or have a spouse or partner who earns enough money to support your family, it’s very hard to make this work.”

Also a pastor and a radio show host, Middleton said he spends more than 40 hours per week on his City Council work. He doesn’t have a family or kids and loves politics, so he doesn’t mind.

Another barrier: meetings are often held during the day when many people are working.

“If we want….to say we’re a super progressive city—and in many ways we are—then all kinds of folks need to be able to serve,” Caballero said.  

The wealthy run government nationwide

Across the nation, elected offices tend to be dominated by the well-to-do.

This trend transcends Durham, as Nicholas Carnes, Creed C. Black associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke, said in his new book, “The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run For Office—And What We Can Do About It.” If millionaires—just 3 percent of the population—had their own political party, they would hold a majority in all three branches of government, Carnes wrote.

“Working-class Americans—people employed in manual labor, service industry, or clerical jobs —almost never go on to hold political office in the United States,” Carnes wrote.

This prevents working-class perspectives from being heard, Carnes argued—ideas that are fundamentally different from those more well-to-do.

Eighty-one percent of state legislators that are business owners want to reduce government regulation in the private sector, while just 27 percent of workers in office agree, Carnes said in the book, citing three studies. Sixty-one percent of business owners in that office believe providing health care is not the government’s responsibility, while just seven percent of working-class workers believe the same.

“Government by the rich is often government for the rich,” Carnes said, “and government for the rich is often bad for everyone else.”

Can the job be done part-time?

Alston and Schewel say the City Council can be done part-time.

Schewel, a workaholic, said he worked 20 hours as a week as a Duke professor while on the Council—for which he worked 40 hours per week before becoming mayor. His new role as mayor can’t be done part-time, he said—he’s putting in 70 hours per week.

Alston said it’s difficult to do part-time, but not “impossible.”

“It’s a lot to carry, but if folks are committed and can create their own capacity to work, then it certainly can be done,” Alston said.

You don’t have to be independently wealthy to be on the Council, Schewel and Alston also agreed. On the City Council before the current group, five council members worked and one was retired, but not independently wealthy, Schewel said.  

“Most of the people worked and were not independently wealthy,” Schewel said.

But he acknowledged that it takes significant resources to run for City Council—not necessarily financial, though. Time and energy to campaign, education on “what it takes to do this” and having a network for fundraising are all crucial.

Education level can be more important than finances—the job requires certain sorts of skills, Alston argued.

“It’s a job that requires critical thinking skills and significant high-level time management skills,” Alston said.  

Six of seven council members are listed as having a college degree and four received or are in process of earning some kind of graduate degree.

Supporting a family can also be a complicating factor. Schewel said that since five council members have young children, that extra time needed to care for them has made it more difficult for many to work outside of the City Council.

“It’s really hard to raise young children, work significant hours at a job, and serve on the city council,” Schewel said. “It’s very hard to do them all.”

Time for a pay raise?

Council members tiptoed around the possibility of a pay increase. None mentioned it explicitly.

Middleton said he would only vote for an increase that would take effect after he was out of office.

“I have not heard anyone say that the idea of increasing the compensation of Durham City Council members is at the top (of) their policy agenda for the city of Durham,” Reece said. “After all, each one of us knew the salary when we filed to run for this job.”

However, all six council members the 9th Street Journal spoke with were open to raising council members’ pay.

“Everyone who sits on Council wouldn’t mind a pay raise,” Caballero said. “I don’t think any of us are going to ask for it.”

Reece is in favor of paying council members a living wage.  

“I believe that the people of this city expect that members of the Durham City Council will work full-time to represent their interests,” Reece said. “Our current salary does not match up with that expectation, and that’s bad for our city because it makes it very difficult for many folks to serve.”

Schewel is open to considering making the role full-time and paid a “living wage”—something many of his colleagues agreed with.

“Having the Council job be explicitly a full-time role and paid at the rate of a full-time job would allow folks who don’t have the economic privilege I have to be entirely focused on the Council work,” Johnson said.

Alston isn’t opposed to raising council members’ salary, but also wants candidates to be running for office for the right reasons—not to line their pockets. She said she would forgo a salary increase in order to have a hired staff worker, making a living wage and working for her.

Middleton would advocate for a pay raise—but one that would only take effect once he was out of office.

“In any other area, you realize that in order to get good people, you have to compensate,” Middleton said. “All my colleagues are champions of a living wage, but we don’t make a living wage.”

Scooters coming to Durham, but questions linger

A scooter swarm will soon be coming to Durham.

After weeks of deliberations, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to regulate the use of motorized scooters Monday night. At least 100 Bird scooters will hit the streets once the company receives permits—although there could be more.

“It always depend on the size of city,” said Servando Esparza, senior manager of government relations for Bird. “Our deployments and growth are based on demand.”

Residents can “realistically” expect to be able to ride scooters in 2019, transportation planner Bryan Poole told the Durham Herald-Sun.

Many questions still have to be worked out, though.

Esparza couldn’t give a definitive answer on whether Bird would be able to accept Faith ID’s—identification for undocumented, Spanish-speaking residents, provided by

El Centro Hispano, a local Hispanic advocacy and social services organization.

That frustrated council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who said he had pushed Bird representatives for an answer to that question during the council’s work session Oct. 4.

“This council was very concerned the accessibility of the scooters, and ID was one of those factors that could curtail access. A lot of people don’t have driver’s licenses,” Middleton said.

Esparza also said that he couldn’t give an estimate on when he would be able to provide the council with an answer. The ordinance does not have a requirement that permittees accept certain forms of identification.

“We have to continue to push vendors to make scooters as accessible as possible,” said council member Charlie Reece.

Companies will be required to drop a “sufficient number” of scooters within “low and moderate income areas…as defined in the permit.” The city will also require companies to accept diverse payment types, including methods for those without smartphones or credit cards.

There also had been controversy about whether scooters would be defined as mopeds under North Carolina law, but that was not resolved by the new ordinance.

Scooters may be deemed mopeds, which would require them to have license plates, lights and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime bikes do not have rearview mirrors or license plates, but they do have lights.

The ordinance was changed to define the scooters as “‘vehicles’ (without reference to mopeds).”

However, it still requires the companies to “comply with applicable local, state and federal laws, including state equipment and registration requirements.”

Senior City Attorney Fred Lamar says that it is up to the state, not the city,  to regulate vehicle use on the roadways.

“We have not heard anything definitively from the DMV,” Lamar said. “There are lawyers that don’t think it’s a moped.”

The ordinance requires that riders wear helmets.

But it’s not clear how much the police will actually enforce that provision or any other aspect of the law. The police department said in a statement that it will “address violations of the law that present an obvious and immediate risk to public safety.

Addressing violations may entail notice to the Transportation Department so that it may pursue civil penalties against the business owners/operators,” the statement read

However, since scooter riders aren’t required to carry a license, the police department is limited in the type of citations it could issue. The statement continued, “ … the Police Department does not anticipate being the primary agent for the regulation of these devices.”

Although Durham’s ordinance only requires that scooter drivers be 16 years old, Bird’s policies require drivers to be 18 years old. The ordinance leaves the decision for any age requirement above 16 up to the company, Poole said—a policy Bird does not plan on changing, Esparza said, noting that in most cities, the age requirement is 18.  

The new ordinance also attempts to address the piles of scooters that may be left behind—something painfully familiar to what the city saw with Lime and Spin bikes. Companies will be required to move their scooters before they are parked in the same spot for 72 hours.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission noted in a Sept. 18 letter that the Transportation Department is planning to create designated parking spots for shared bikes and scooters.

The city will charge $1,000 for companies to apply for permits and will charge $100 per shared scooter that hits the streets. It also will charge $50 for electric-assisted bikes and $25 for bikes that aren’t blessed with electric assistance.