It is a time of transition in Durham. We are in the midst of a search for a new City Manager due to the retirement of Tom Bonfield. Meanwhile, County Manager Wendell Davis’ contract expires in June of this year. We are thankful for their years of service to our community. As our progressive governing boards chart our community’s future, the People’s Alliance encourages our local elected officials to remember these important qualities as they search for our community’s new leaders:
First, a basic principle of the council-manager form of government in place in both Durham City and Durham County is that, beyond setting policy and overseeing the budget, one of the most important responsibilities of elected officials is to appoint professional managers to carry out day-to-day administrative operations of their respective municipal bodies. In doing so, it is the prerogative of elected officials to appoint a manager whose governing philosophy and leadership style most aligns with their own. As the composition of elected bodies changes over time, misalignments can occur between elected bodies and managers. In the City of Durham, for example, it became increasingly clear over the last several years that the council had become more left-of-center in its philosophy, while City Manager Bonfield (appointed in 2008) tended to represent a more centrist philosophy. We urge both the city council (as it appoints a new city manager) and the county commissioners (as they review the current county manager) to prioritize professional management that matches their progressive political philosophy. Indeed, city/county managers may come and go (Bonfield was the fourth manager in ten years when he was hired), but what is paramount is that the will of the people expressed in the official elected to represent them.
Second, it is imperative that our local managers have a commitment to understanding and engaging with the community. Community engagement is not the sole province of the elected leaders — it must be central to the work of the administration as well. Durham is a complex place with a deep history. In a recent blog post, the International City/County Management Association notes that one of the responsibilities of managers is: “Encouraging inclusion and building consensus among diverse interests (including those of the elected officials, the business community, and citizens) by focusing on the needs of the entire community rather than the interests of only a few individuals.” Especially if the new leadership is from elsewhere, he or she should work diligently to learn about Durham’s unique culture and history. Durham deserves nothing less than a deep dedication to our city and to its people.
Third, our elected leaders must ensure that they select leaders who have a passion for and knowledge of the work of equity. Some of our biggest problems as a community are due to disparities in wealth, health, and justice across the lines of race, ethnicity, and class. The work of the City and County Administration can be a profound force for good in remedying these inequities. A baseline requirement for any hire should be a demonstrated experience tackling these issues head-on without fear. For instance, the county has yet to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting members of the LGBTQ+ community even as the City and municipalities around the state have already enacted such policies. The County must have leadership willing to follow suit.
Because of our tough problems, we need leaders who will work aggressively toward creative solutions. Therefore, we encourage both boards to prioritize candidates with can-do, collaborative work ethics. Our progressive boards deserve a progressive staff that will enact the voter’s policy priorities. Too often, we have seen leaders focus excessively on risk-avoidance rather than getting things done to materially benefit Durham’s residents. Examples include the current county manager’s stance against Tax Assistance Grants, an anti-gentrification program that the UNC School of Government has opined is legally permissible. We want to be a community that leads the state and nation in policy and outcomes. This work is hard, but we are blessed with a community of talented people willing to make it happen.
Finally, we hope that the ultimate employment contracts will be fair to Durham. For example, we are greatly concerned by many of the provisions contained within the current county manager’s contract, which was approved in 2016 by a lame duck commission with a 3-2 vote. With an annual salary of more than $200,000, the contract provides the manager with numerous perks, including seven weeks of vacation a year, term life insurance, and a hefty monthly vehicle allowance. In addition, the contract makes it nearly impossible for a board to hold the manager accountable for his performance or lack thereof absent a massive severance package. And as the contract is written, if it is not ended on or before June 30, 2021, it renews perpetually and requires the county to pay a year’s salary to end it. This makes it extremely lopsided against the community’s interests, especially as only one commissioner who voted in favor of the original contract still serves. These perks are far in excess of what other public employees receive in Durham and do not represent our values. The City Council and County Commission must be transparent in their decision-making process to ensure that our next managers are compensated fairly and represent a fair value in return for the community’s substantial investment in their skills.
It is not an overstatement to say that the selection of Durham’s City and County Managers is likely the most consequential decision our elected officials will make. They are choosing the person to implement our community’s shared aspirations — we want them to make the best choice possible. Our City Council members and County Commissioners should choose managers who will care deeply for Durham, the work of equity, and getting things done for our people. The People’s Alliance stands ready to collaborate with our new leaders on our community’s priorities.
The People's Alliance Board of Directors