At first, it was a small gathering of folks joined together only by their dislike for a development scheme they dubbed “Coker Towers.” A year later, after a tumultuous struggle, the Coker project was beaten and the group evolved into a fighting force called the Neighborhood Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh (NCRDR) that helped propel Mayor-elect Charles Meeker and City Councilor-elect Janet Cowell to victory on Nov. 6.

NCRDR’s mission is to put neighborhood leaders, and sound land-use planning, back at the center of Raleigh government after a decade in which both took a back seat to “market forces” (read: developers) and the conservative politicians who believe in them. Two dozen neighborhood activists comprise NCRDR’s core leadership, plus another 50 or so who are intermittently involved. The group has never had a designated chairperson or, really, any official structure at all, except that it meets every Monday night (and quite a few Sundays too) in the home of the quiet man who’s been its driving force and most passionate believer in citizen democracy, Bill Padgett.

From the outside, you might not spot Padgett, 57, as NCRDR’s chief. Not a great orator, he’s rarely the spokesman. When the Raleigh City Council forced NCRDR to negotiate with developer Neal Coker, Padgett stayed in the background, letting experienced negotiators step forward. Even when the subject was traffic–and Padgett is the best-informed about traffic–he often let others make the arguments, because frankly, the way traffic estimates are abused in a development fight makes his blood boil.

Inside NCRDR, though, Padgett is first among equals, a status he’s earned by functioning as the key organizer and the hardest-working grunt. As organizer, he keeps plugging new people into the group and making sure they can do their thing, to the point that when a professional organizer showed up, she was promptly put in charge of running the meetings. Architects, planners, lawyers, a Web designer, some business people–all can have starring roles. But for best results, everyone checks first with Padgett.

The way NCRDR works is emblematic of his conviction that, if Raleigh government is open to public participation, citizens will come out of the woodwork with talents and ideas for making the city great.

“An awful lot of citizens care, and they want an opportunity to have input into the city, and even more, they want a chance to see if their suggestions can work,” Padgett says. “We’ve got some great things we can do to make Raleigh the leader.”

Padgett’s own talents run the gamut from computer jock to digging holes and banging in yard signs. Raleigh sprouted with literally thousands of “No to Coker Towers” signs and, later, Meeker and Cowell signs, and no one put more in the ground than Padgett himself. But then, no one’s written more e-mails either, and NCRDR lives by a swirl of cyber communication, as members educate one another via the Web site at about Raleigh politics, zoning practices and “smart growth” ideas to rein in developers and counter sprawl.

A lot of Padgett’s e-mails are about traffic. When the Coker case started, he knew nothing about traffic estimates. But he learned, combining dogged questioning with a penchant for research and data analysis. Before long, Padgett had forced the city’s transportation department to correct an obscure but crucial mistake–letting the developer base his estimates on the wrong category of retail store (“specialty” rather than “shopping center”). The result was that earlier, lowball estimates of projected traffic were revised upward.

But Padgett didn’t stop there. He conducted his own traffic counts at a nearby shopping center to buttress his hypothesis (“I’m a scientist, remember”) that by letting developers use national averages from a book rather than actual local data, Raleigh’s been systematically underestimating the traffic impact from new development. “What amazes me,” Padgett says, “is that you would use the averages, but then never go back and measure what actually happened at a site once it was built.”

Padgett’s best e-mails, though, are his periodic exhortations to fight the good fight without worrying about how it will come out. A case in point: After NCRDR, in the course of the Coker fight, challenged a ruling by the city planning director that threatened to open a major loophole in the zoning ordinance (the Raleigh Board of Adjustment later sided with NCRDR), Padgett reminded the 900 people on the group’s e-mail list that Coker was only one battle in a long war.

“The path that NCRDR has chosen to travel is long and difficult,” he wrote, “but one that can lead to smart-growth planning and design for Raleigh. Please make that journey with us.”

That’s typical, says Raleigh writer Carolyn Guckert. “Bill always kept us focused. When we were getting burned out, you could count on one of his midnight e-mails to remind us of what had to be done, coupled with some encouraging–usually inspiring–words.”

Raleigh attorney Betsy Kane started attending meetings after an early public forum on the Coker plan, and before long was writing position papers and speaking to local civic groups. “Bill’s commitment, optimism, persistence, inclusiveness and hard work permeate our group,” she says. “When you know Bill is up late at night drafting letters, crunching numbers, reviewing zoning rules, working for change,” she says, “you think, ‘Gee, I’d better start pulling my weight.’ When you know that Bill is maintaining a good attitude in spite of discouraging events, you think, ‘Hmm, I need to adjust my attitude and live up to that level.’”

“He volunteers 110 percent of his time and everybody else’s too,” laughs Warren Raybould, a businessman who got involved with NCRDR when Kane knocked on his door one Saturday morning. Padgett has “a never-ending belief in and commitment to people engaged in the democratic process,” Raybould says, “and a total inability to quit no matter how the odds may be stacked against him.”

By day, Padgett is director of computer services at North Carolina State University, where he heads a staff of 20 techies who help faculty and students get the most out of the school’s information technology resources. He likens his management style there to his role in NCRDR, and both to lessons he learned when he was a soccer referee. “You’re part of the game, and you’d better manage it,” Padgett says. “But you’re best if you’re not visible.”

For Guckert, the thing that stands out most about Padgett and his wife Bett, is that both of them think it’s the most natural thing in the world to have other people rummaging around their house–and their refrigerator too–regardless of the hour. Guckert recalls “the sheer lunacy” of picking up signs, stakes and staple guns from the Padgetts’ at midnight so motorists the next day could be up-to-date on the Coker fight: “Still Too Big,” the signs might say, or “Still Not Over.”

Padgett is an old hand at citizen activism. He remembers writing a letter to his hometown newspaper in Spartanburg, S.C., when he was 14 protesting a local government decision “where money had been taken and power misused.” He believes deeply in the power of “doing the right thing,” which for him translates into examples like this: A few years ago, with no notoriety whatsoever, Padgett was the only white person in a small group that worked every Saturday morning for months in Oberlin Cemetery in Raleigh, cutting down the thicket that had overgrown the historic African-American burial place.

For two decades, he’s been a leader of Raleigh’s Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs), the city-sponsored network of neighborhood groups that are supposed to facilitate citizen involvement but which, in recent years, were neglected by city leaders. In fact, all of the city’s advisory boards–from the parks board to the human relations commission–were stripped of their power to initiate action eight years ago. “We can’t address anything unless it’s assigned by council,” Padgett says. “It’s almost imprisonment.”

Now, Padgett says, NCRDR will try to rebuild civic participation, working with Meeker and the new council. How the group will function is open for discussion, and the e-mails are flying, but Padgett wants NCRDR to be an independent voice and “help agent” for the city, making sure the best ideas are heard and the best people are elected to listen.

Most of all, he thinks it’s time to stop battling over zoning cases like the Coker project one at a time. “We need a comprehensive plan, because developers are always going to be asking for the sun and the moon, and there’s no standard for knowing which one is appropriate–or neither,” Padgett says.

Bob Geary was a member of NCRDR during hearings on the Coker development and prior to the Raleigh elections.