More than 50 people waited for four hours at the Durham City Council meeting to express their concerns about a proposal to build a $42 million, 4,000-seat performing arts theater downtown. The council’s decision was whether to extend negotiations between the city and a development group for another four months.

Dozens of people signed up to speak in opposition. They wanted to tell the city to stop negotiating with Clear Channel Entertainment, a media conglomerate that would exclusively manage the theater. They wanted to urge the city council to make long-overdue repairs to the Carolina Theatre the top priority when spending public money on performing arts venues.

Most of them never got the chance.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Mayor Bill Bell called a vote without allowing a single public comment on the issue. With that action, the patience of grassroots activists evaporated along with their faith that city officials value their input. Bell’s refusal to hear public comments before the vote shocked even veterans of Durham politics. Those who had waited took it as a blatant insult.

Prior meetings between city officials, theater boosters and concerned citizens had been more than civil. Alan DeLisle, director of the city’s office of economic development, has praised citizens for giving extensive input on the project. Theater opponents have praised the work of architect Philip Szostak, who designed and is advocating the project. Members of the Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown (ABCD) even came away from a meeting with Bell last month feeling positive.

So why the sudden disrespect?

“I’m just trying to move forward,” Bell said to the outraged crowd.

Budget issues dominated the council meeting, drawing two-minute speeches from approximately 70 people concerned about cuts to after-school gang prevention programs, faith-based homeless outreach programs, adult literacy and many other things. There was discussion of the plight of hot dog vendors, a gate blocking access to a park and the lack of taxicab inspectors.

But when it came time to discuss the event center, Bell’s attitude abruptly changed. “It’s late,” he said, adding that the vote was not on whether to build the theater, but whether to extend consideration. He said extensive public comment was not necessary to answer that question.

Council member Howard Clement III said he was in favor of the extension, because it would give the city time to confront Clear Channel over its alleged bad practices. He said he heard a G105 DJ make a racist comment about Fantasia Barrino, the winner of American Idol, on the Clear Channel-owned radio station. “Now if that’s typical of Clear Channel’s behavior, then I don’t want them in this town.”

In the 6-1 vote, only John Best opposed the extension, saying the theater isn’t what Durham needs now. “It’s time to scrap this whole thing and start paying attention to the needs that have accumulated,” he said.

“We’ve been waiting here for four hours!” someone cried after the vote was taken. Some called out to Diane Catotti, who has expressed concerns about the theater in the past, to speak up on their behalf. “It’s not a done deal,” she said. “We’re looking for input.”

Bell asked if there was one person who could speak for the group. “No,” people yelled. After several moments of shouting, Bell agreed to allow 15 minutes of public comment. Activist Caleb Southern, dressed in a white shirt and tie, approached the podium with his written comments. “The public at large was not consulted on this,” he said. “I urge you to vote against the extension–or I would have urged you,” he continued, “to stop the current process and look toward starting a new open process in the future that involves the public and asks the right questions up front.”

Rob VanDewoestine presented his own financial analysis of similar theaters, including the 5,000-seat Dodge Theatre in Phoenix. His charts showed that public-private venues created using similar models did not generate revenue for their cities. “Nobody broke even,” he said. In fact, most required expensive public subsidies.

Supporters of the theater proposal say it would not take money out of the city budget, because the $24 million the city would spend comes from money raised by the hotel occupancy tax, approved by the legislature specifically to fund this theater. That money comes with a deadline: Construction must begin by September 2005.

VanDewoestine said his analysis showed that the project would eventually drain public funds. “As you lose money on this theater, the money has to come from somewhere.”

As the clock ticked down, Denise VanDeCruze, co-owner of Blue Coffee Company, spoke up next. “Clear Channel is a huge company with a huge PR problem that the city is buying at a huge cost,” she said. She criticized the mayor’s “circular logic” in extending the consideration: “We’ve made this mistake for five years so we might as well make it for another four months.’”

Bell tried to cut her off. “I’m going to finish in two minutes, OK?” VanDeCruze said firmly and continued.

At 11:21, public comment ended. Outside, even the theater’s proponents expressed disbelief at the way things had gone. Szostak, the developer, approached members of the ABCD group to express his sympathy.

Walking away from city hall, the theater opponents’ disbelief turned into a kind of euphoria. “They just proved our point,” Southern said. “This proposal cannot stand up to public scrutiny.”

By Tuesday morning, local listservs were buzzing with the comments people had hoped to present to the council. Southern encouraged people to e-mail and call city council members, Bell and local media.

The mayor’s office said Tuesday afternoon that it had not received phone calls about the issue, and that no public hearings have been scheduled yet.

Stay tuned. If Monday’s meeting is any indication, the next four months of debate over the theater will be quite a spectacle.