Normally when I get "come to council to support _____" e-mails, they're for Monday night full council meetings, not for the Thursday afternoon work sessions. So in a way, it was doubly odd that I got the "come support" e-mail from two different groups. The first came from Aidil Collins at Uplift East Durham, who asked us to come support, as she termed it, a "Friendly Alston Ave.". Now, this wasn't a hard issue for me to support, considering Gary Kueber and I wrote an op-ed for the Herald-Sun about the same issue over a year ago. Aidil deserves all the credit in the world for doing the hard legwork of rallying people, shaping the message, and meeting with some local groups that had previously expressed support for the project, to form a set of compromise concerns. All that legwork meant that Aidil could step to the mic yesterday and truthfully say that her proposal represented the consensus of every community group with any standing. Given the acrimony over the project early, that's quite an accomplishment.
No vote took place, however, and what exactly will happen when a vote does come before the council was the subject of much discussion between Mark Ahrendsen (who also deserves enormous credit for his work here) and the council. Yours truly added to the confusion when he stepped to the mic to ask for clarification on what I thought was the status of the law at this point -- that unless the council acted, NCDOT's plan would move forward. I was immediately corrected by several members of council, and only got a full explanation after the meeting from Ahrendsen. Aside from the fact that one should get ones facts straight before stepping up to speak at a council work session, here's what I learned from all of the discussion:
The Council doesn't have any real direct authority over NCDOT's projects. The power they do have comes from the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO), in this case, the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO (DCHCMPO), which consists of members from the three town councils and the two county boards of commissioners, which do have some approval power over the projects. And, as Ahrendsen noted yesterday, the other MPO members will generally defer to the council in whose jurisdiction the project falls. However, the process isn't even that simple (is it ever?). Also, note that I've already been significantly wrong on the facts here once, so take what follows with a grain of salt.
Like the council, most of the MPO's actual power comes in more of an advisory role. Between our local DOT Board rep (Ken Spaulding) and the MPO, the community gets a very strong voice in what happens inside DOT and what projects are put forward on each three year Transportation Improvement Plan. However, the only real actual voting power the MPO has is to accept or reject the entire TIP, which boils down to veto power for every state-funded road project in the two counties over the next three years. As Ahrendsen phrased it to reject it at that point is a bit like holding a gun to your own head and threatening to shoot yourself. Sure, it's a potent threat in the worst of situations, but it's not one you really want to ever have to use.
Still, here's the good news: the community consensus that Aidil has forged has pushed the Mayor to become an advocate for the design changes. In this way, she has managed to turn the Mayor from one of the more problematic obstacles to actual progress on Alston to a valuable (if not terribly enthusiastic) ally. To digress for a moment, I'm not sure I've ever seen an issue highlight the Mayor's strengths and weaknesses more fully. His apparent selective hearing, lack of imagination when it comes to alternatives to suburban-style development, unwillingness to appear out of step with the dominant power structure, and a generalized aloofness were all on full display as we tried to get anything at all to change with regards to the NCDOT design. At the same time, once the community came to consensus, it wasn't inhis nature to blow against the wind. And at that point, there's not many other city leaders I'd rather have stepping into a room full of NCDOT staffers to say, "come on, just do the right thing," and getting the right deal out of it. At this point, moreso than at any point previously, I have some hope that we'll get something less than a disaster on Alston.
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The other e-mail I received about Thursday's work session came from the Durham CAN housing team, which I'd sort of met with once, and if I weren't so bogged down with other community and job related stuff, I'd probably be making more of an effort to attend. CAN was calling for support for their proposal to allow city inspectors to inspect any house without complaint, and to shorten the time period the city must wait before taking action from a year to six months.
When I saw this come across the the wire, it caused me a good bit of consternation. I've in the past spent a fair bit of electronic ink on the PAC2 list supporting a rental registration program in Durham. In theory, I'm firmly behind the CAN proposal -- a city government ought to take the action needed to enforce its minimum housing code.
However, as I pointed out in an e-mail to Durham CAN staff, this isn't a generic city government we're working with. Gary has spent the past two years repeatedly documenting cases where the actions of the city's Neighborhood Improvement Services department have repeatedly not only contributed to the demolition of some beautiful historic properties that were nowhere near beyond repair, but have also had a demonstratively negative impact on efforts to maintain or revitalize many of Durham's older neighborhoods. The staff responded by noting that Durham's Latino residents who live in substandard housing are particularly vulnerable to predatory landlords, and that better action from the city is needed to address the problem.
Because CAN is fundamentally about working together, coming to consensus, and supporting each others aims for social change, I showed up in support of the proposal. Still, if we're going to keep this action from becoming an authorization for NIS to knock down buildings whenever its heart desires, there's a lot of work to be done.
And sadly, we didn't have to wait long for an example of just what can happen under the current NIS administration.
No sooner had Council passed the CAN-backed resolution, than an elderly retired nurse wheeled herself to the microphone to read a statement. I won't get all the details right, but essentially, here's the story:
She owned three houses in the Southside area which she had long rented out as rental properties. NIS had cited her for $32,000 in code violations which she claimed she could not pay. Her plea to council was that she wanted to sell her properties to the city for rehabilitation, or for help in selling the building to someone who would preserve it. Now, I read Endangered Durham enough to know that this can be a stalling tactic, but there were moments when the owner was pleading to not have one of her houses in particular demolished, by whatever way could be managed, even if she didn't profit from it (other than to remove the civil penalties).
Oddly enough, what she was proposing wasn't all that out of line with some of the alternatives to just the "repair or demolish" orders that Gary has talked about so much. Unfortunately, the city's attorney had to step in and point out that in the mediation of code disputes, the council had delegated its authority to the city housing appeals board, so in essence, short of passing substantial new law, the council's hands were tied.
But this is hardly an excuse. Last year, we were promised a demolition and code enforcement "summit," that would open the lines of communication between the city and neighbors, so that we could all work towards a better solution. Unfortunately, with NIS running it, the entire affair turned into little more than a series of stern lectures from various staff members on how enlightened the process was, and how any quibble with it must be due to a failure by community members to understand it. Afterwards, we were all given time to "comment," in the usual two-minute, haphazard format, with no responses and no discussion. It was, quite simply, both ridiculous and insulting.
Patrick Baker then promised a continuing dialog with the community, but unless there have been discussions I haven't heard about, the issue has effectively died. (I suspect the impending city elections may have had something to do with this, but I don't know that for certain.) Still, outside that particular process, the continual response from the leadership at NIS has been one of zero interest in alternative solutions, with what appears to be an underlying assumption that all community members expressing concern must be troublemakers who are best locked out.
This, combined with the general stammering of NIS's top staff members at the meeting Thursday left me with the indelible perception of a rudderless department more interested in territoriality and insularity than in actually trying to, you know, help improve neighborhoods. My first impulses are always to give people the benefit of the doubt, particularly with the number of exceptional staff members I've met inside Durham city government over the years. However, when a departments policies are both poorly implemented in their current form and badly limited by outdated ordinances, yet the department's top staff members show little to no interest in either improving services or drafting better code, it's time to start looking at that favorite buzzword of all city critics -- accountability.