Campaign controversy Audit dominates Durham commissioners’ race Any doubts that the flap over an internal audit of Durham County’s Human Resources Department would become a political issue were put to rest at a June 5 forum for candidates for the board of county commissioners.

The forum, organized by the Durham Voter Coalition, drew only a smattering of citizens to Watts Street Baptist Church on a sunny Saturday. And it took place a full two days before County Manager Mike Ruffin’s official report on the audit. (That report rejected all but one of the study’s 11 findings, including allegations that Human Resources Director Jackye Knight had shown favoritism in doling out raises to county employees.)

But that didn’t stop the issue from surfacing numerous times at the forum–both explicitly and as the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Tensions frequently rippled right under the surface, especially among three of the four incumbents running for reelection who’ve been on opposing sides of the dispute: Ellen Reckhow, Becky Heron and Joe Bowser.

The second question posed by the panel–“How would you prevent elected officials from inserting their personal privilege” in county matters?–could have been about any number of things. But all of the panelists interpreted it to be about the audit, and specifically about Bowser’s role in making the draft document public. After local newspapers took up the story, Knight filed an ethics complaint against Bowser, claiming he is deliberately trying to tarnish her reputation because she would not agree to help his friends on the county payroll.

In her response to the question, Heron–who cast one of two votes in favor of investigating Knight’s complaint against Bowser–tersely responded that the county’s existing code of ethics is “adequate” protection against such interventions. (The decision on the investigation was essentially tabled since the vote deadlocked at 2-2. Bowser was not allowed to cast a ballot).

Board Chair Reckhow–the second ‘yes’ vote for the investigation–was more oblique when her turn came. “Durham County has a county manager form of government,” she said. “As board members, it’s important for us to be vigilant and if we see a gap, to respond.”

Bowser reminded the audience that, “We are elected by the people to represent them, that’s where the gray areas are.” And he used his time to take another swipe at Knight: “The ethics policy obviously has been fired off at me,” Bowser said. “The individual with the complaint is the one who is running awry in Durham County.”

Later on, when asked what action, if any, should be taken as a result of the Human Resources audit, Heron said she thought it had been “a big mistake releasing a draft working document. With all due respect to the newspapers, they have had a heyday with it.” She then refused to comment further on issues discussed “in closed session.”

Bowser shot back that, “a draft document is a public document and I applaud our county manager for releasing that. … I believe you have to meddle. Meddling in county government is my job.”

When the microphone came around to her, Reckhow pointed out that the county commissioners had requested the audit because of specific concerns about compensation levels for county jobs–a topic that was not addressed in the draft report focusing on Knight.

There were other issues discussed at the forum: How would the candidates improve the effectiveness of the county board of commissioners? How would they improve the quality of life in East Durham? What would they do about drug treatment programs in the county? (Surprisingly, growth–arguably the most pressing issue facing Durham–did not come up at all in questions from the panel or the audience.)

But for lively political theater, nothing came close to their answers about the audit or the just-below-the-surface jabs.

In answering a question about board effectiveness, Bowser made some stinging statements about the need for a new board chair–“someone like Mary Anne Black to bring unity”–and he complained that “everything goes smoothly for me, except during elections cycles.” Heron and Reckhow just glared.

Those hoping for a campaign debate less dominated by inside baseball might have to wait a bit longer. At last week’s county commissioners’ meeting, detailed discussion of Ruffin’s findings on the audit was delayed by a 3-2 vote until June 28. Reckhow and Heron voted in favor of discussing the findings. Bowser, Phil Cousin Jr. and Mary Jacobs voted to delay.

Other candidates participating in last week’s forum were Cousin, Josh Parker, Tonja Washington, Lewis Cheek and Michael Page. For more information on commissioners race, visit the Durham County Board of Elections Web site,