Much was made of the ordinance adopted by the Cary Town Council a year ago that stiffened the penalties for the illegal placement of campaign signs. At least two dozen candidates seeking office in November were fined for violating the largely cosmetic policy. But the impact of the January ordinance paled in comparison to initiatives that followed.
Led by Mayor Glen Lang and his slow-growth allies who hold a majority on the council, Cary enacted a slew of high-profile measures that, by year’s end, positioned the city at the cutting edge of municipal politics in North Carolina.
It became the first city in the state to allocate municipal funds, to the tune of $3.7 million, to its schools. Such funding normally comes from the county and state. It convinced a developer to build an elementary school in return for building more homes. It put aside over $12 million to preserve open space, one of the largest such allocations by a municipality in the state. It required 100-foot buffers between development and streams as a way of protecting the Neuse River basin from pollutants. This is double the width of the buffer required by the state.
Then, on Dec. 14, Cary became the first town in the state to adopt public financing for municipal elections. Under the initiative, local candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits and financial disclosure rules will be reimbursed for their campaign expenses if they finish first or second. After raising a $2,000 qualifying amount, district council candidates will receive an additional $8,000 to meet their $10,000 spending limit. After raising $5,000, mayoral candidates and those running for at-large council seats will get an additional $20,000.
“We accomplished all of our goals in our first year,” boasts Lang. The first-term mayor frequently reviews his pre-election ads to ensure that he is keeping his campaign promises. “I don’t think folks really believed we’d actually do the things we were elected on. But what the people saw was exactly what they got.”
But some suggest the initiatives of the past year are more a part of Lang’s agenda than the people of Cary’s.
“A lot of these activities have been about testing the limits of government,” says council member Marla Dorrel. The first-termer says that, while she believes in innovation, the current administration’s high-profile agenda and liberal spending policies have pushed the boundaries of government “a bit farther than I’d like to see.”
Dorrel was one of two council members who opposed the campaign finance ordinance, due to a “lack of public participation in the process.” She cites a local survey taken early last year that, according to her, showed Lang “clearly did not have a mandate” on the issue. But the council, continues Dorrel, “adopted their own plan and pushed it through anyway. It further raises the question of why we didn’t seek more public opinion before going down that path.”
Lang scoffs at such sentiment while contending these types of surveys largely depend upon how the questions are framed. “It’s a no-brainer,” he insists. “Who would actually want the special interests to control their politicians? You’d have to be out of your mind to want that.”
Supporters of the initiative suggest it could have implications beyond city limits.
“We’re hoping it will play a role in state politics,” says Kim Harrell, executive director of the North Carolina branch of Common Cause, which promotes public financing of elections. Cary’s pioneering move, says Harrell, helps “set the tone for the General Assembly. And from talking to state legislators, they are more open to the idea than before.”
“I certainly applaud the council for taking steps to make it easier for ordinary good people to run for office,” says Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary lawyer. “It’s a very dynamic time in Cary. They’re clearly thinking out of the box.”
Such thinking raises an important question: What comes next?
“I think that these kinds of activities will lessen,” says Dorrel. She feels the council will turn its attention to “the not-so-glamorous issues of growth and spending and how to effectively use our town’s resources.”
But Lang’s political ardor shows no sign of cooling off in 2001. He excitedly rolls off a list of upcoming items for the town, including three affordable housing projects, the construction of the $6 million developer-built school at Cary Glen and a probable tax cut that the mayor credits to effective slow-growth policies.
“When we stopped subsidizing development and collected our fees from developers, it gave us the ability to cut taxes,” says Lang, who vows to continue his “aggressive agenda to increase our quality of life.”
It’s an agenda that won’t easily be met. The most notable affordable housing project, White Oak Village, is currently fighting an uphill battle in a town with a median new home price of over $300,000. Critics of the project, who include a number of Lang’s slow-growth allies, have challenged the site’s proximity to the town’s water supply, Jordan Lake, for potentially encouraging sprawl in the environmentally-sensitive, low density area.
Dorrel feels the council’s slow-growth approach will be challenged as well, once the town completes its water expansion project this spring. She notes it “will have a significant impact on development issues,” given that it was “much easier” for the council to slow down development when there wasn’t enough water to accommodate it.
Others are concerned with making sure all citizens feel they are a part of the town’s future. “They’re trying to institute policies that show a proactive approach to moving Cary forward,” says community activist, Lester Thomas. “But he (Lang) needs to reach out more to the African-American, Latino and Asian communities. One way of doing that is by making your administration look more like the diverse community around you.”
Susan Moran, the city’s public information officer, feels such outreach efforts are being made. This year, she notes, the administration is adding a new position to our cultural resources division that “essentially helps fully incorporate the diversity of Cary’s heritage and populations” into the town’s administrative policies and activities. Moran also plugs the town’s commitment to such annual mainstays as the Martin Luther King Dreamfest celebration and its Kwanzaa festival, while mentioning that the mayor is considering incorporating an international festival similar to Raleigh’s.
“One of the great things about working for the town of Cary these days,” continues Moran, “is that you never know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
But for all of the initiatives enacted in 2000 and the projects scheduled for 2001, Lang believes the one with the longest lasting impact, in terms of transforming Cary’s image and affecting his town’s and his own political future, will be the campaign finance ordinance.
“If I run again,” Lang laughs, “I think I’ll run on it.”