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Candidates debate Durham status quo

Durham Mayor Bill Bell speaks at an on-campus forum Monday night in front of an audience of about 30 people. The event brought city council candidates to Duke to debate issues surrounding the city.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell speaks at an on-campus forum Monday night in front of an audience of about 30 people. The event brought city council candidates to Duke to debate issues surrounding the city.

Durham City Council hopefuls and incumbents participated in an on-campus forum Monday night where the divide between young and old, change and the status quo, dominated the discourse.

The candidates in attendance were Mayor Bill Bell and his challenger Steven Williams; Ward I Councilmember Cora Cole-McFadden, who also serves as mayor pro-tempore and her challenger, Donald Hughes, 22; Ward II Councilmember Howard Clement and Libertarian Matt Drew, 35; and Ward III Councilmember Mike Woodard, Trinity ’81, and Allan Polak, a small business owner and technician.

About 30 people attended the event, many of whom were members of the Duke community. The forum, which was co-hosted by Duke Political Union and Duke Student Government, allowed each candidate to give an opening statement before the floor was opened to the audience for questions.

In response to the first question regarding former district attorney Mike Nifong’s re-election, Bell said he did, in fact, donate to Nifong’s campaign in 2006.

“When Mike Nifong was appointed to that position, there were a lot of people who had positive things to say about him,” Bell said, adding that he believes the city handled the 2006 lacrosse case well. “We’ve never had the type of media exposure we had during the lacrosse case.... The leadership, in my opinion, did an awful lot to quell what could’ve been a really emotional altercation, framed by what the national media was trying to do.”

Williams, who has been critical of how Bell handled the lacrosse case in the past, said the city council must do more to encourage civic engagement.

“This current council, they don’t encourage involvement from the community,” Williams said. “They sit in City Hall and say, ‘We need you to come.’ But they don’t go out to the community and let you know what actually is going on.”

Woodard rebuffed Williams’ statement, noting that he had been a member of his neighborhood watch for 19 years.

Audience members also raised questions about the Durham Police Department overtime pay scandal that led to the termination of Secondary Employment Coordinator Alesha Robinson-Taylor. DPD dismissed Robinson-Taylor Oct. 14 after an audit revealed that she had received more than $62,000 in excess overtime pay.

Bell said the responsibility for managing the police department falls to the city manager, who oversees DPD operations. Williams, however, criticized Bell’s approach to the issue.

“This is this administration’s deal every day. They except themselves of responsibility on a daily basis,” Williams said. “Yes, there needs to be an overhaul of our police system.”

Hughes, echoing Williams’ sentiment that the city council failed in its oversight role, said his opponent, Cole-McFadden, was chair of the Audit Oversight Committee and failed to keep a watchful eye on DPD. Hughes also said that after the scandal broke, the city  removed a Web page that cited Cole-McFadden as chair of the oversight committee.

Cole-McFadden said she has never served as chair of the committee and the Web page was removed because it was incorrect.

Clement, coming to the defense of the police department, said DPD is one of the finest department in the state.

“You know, it’s very fascinating to hear young people who ain’t been there and ain’t done that, come up with these solutions,” said Clement, who is 75 years old. “I’m afraid you just don’t know what you are talking about.”

In many regards, the central issue in the forum was the contrast between the experienced council and the batch of young, relatively new politicians.

“I’m often asked why I am so involved in politics at such a young age, and I often respond, ‘Why not?’” Hughes said. “But one thing I can assure you is our president reminded us about a month ago that we didn’t come here to fear the future, but we came to shape it.”

The incumbents, however, said their experiences proved their worthiness to be elected to another term.

“I’ve served 26 years as your city councilman for Ward II and I’ve come to the realization that experience does matter,” Clement said. “I’m not a ‘Johnny-come-lately,’ who on July 1 decided to run for city council or for mayor. I’ve been committed to being involved in Durham for over 26 years.”

Many of the challengers used their remarks to draw contrasts between what they would do if elected and what they consider to be the status quo.

Drew, a Libertarian, noted that since 2001, the city population has grown 11 percent and the government has grown 30 percent. In comparison, the city’s debt has increased 78 percent.

“Durham is on an unsustainable path,” Drew said. “The things that you see in downtown—the big, shiny objects—these are things that we paid for with future taxes.... The bill is coming due.”

The incumbents rejected any notion that they represent the status quo.

“I’ve been a change agent my entire life,” Cole-McFadden said. “We have never been satisfied with the status quo.”

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