Why did Wendell Davis lose his job as Durham County’s top executive?

Was it racism?

Or was it a case of a county board at odds with a fiscally conservative county manager and a desire to take a more progressive approach on policy issues?

Soon after the Durham County Board of Commissioners last month voted 3-2 to not renew the contract of former County Manager Wendell Davis, Commissioner Nida Allam became the target of criticism from Black activists who took issue with her vote to part ways with Davis. His contract expires at the end of June, but he was relieved of his duties by the board in May. 

Allam was joined by Commissioners Wendy Jacobs and Heidi Carter, both white. Dissenting votes were cast by Commissioners Brenda Howerton and Nimasheena Burns, both Black.

Activists with the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and SpiritHouse, a cultural organization led by Black women which supported Davis, turned their attention to Allam, who was the first Muslim woman in North Carolina history to hold an elected office.

“It seems like her votes are not aligned with the interests of the Black community,” Tia Wilson Hall, the chair of the Durham Committee’s PAC told the INDY

Former Durham Committee chairman Omar Beasley says Allam told him in a meeting before the election that she would not cast a vote against Davis, which Allam says is inaccurate.

Allam says she met with various community organizers to introduce herself and her vision for the county. Beasley did ask her how she would vote on Davis’s contract, Allam says, but she chose not to answer because, as a candidate, she wasn’t privy to the details of county personnel matters.

“I told him that I was campaigning on this and that issue,” such as funding for increased access to high quality education, she says. “I’m not campaigning on the hiring or firing of any individual.”

The Durham Committee did not endorse Allam in the primary, but ultimately endorsed her in the general election.

Hall says Allam, after failing to win a Durham Committee endorsement before the primaries, regularly showed up at the group’s meetings and offered “assurances that she would be a voice for its members.”

Disagreements with the board

Allam’s supporters and others take issue with the charge that Davis’s dismissal was fueled by race. They point to the former county manager’s brand of fiscal conservatism that was often at odds with the board.

Davis’s critics say he put money toward the fund balance when it was needed during the pandemic and failed to increase funding for critical departments, such as health and human services, and policy initiatives, such as rental assistance, and tax assistance grants.

He also didn’t follow directions from the board, particularly when it came to increased funding for schools. Davis, they add, also fought against raising the county minimum wage to $15, which only happened after a prolonged fight. 

But Howerton says Davis managed the county ably through the pandemic by reducing expenses. 

“He imposed a hiring freeze. He did not give employee raises. He cut travel and made other sacrifices within the organization to keep the county solvent,” Howerton told the INDY

Davis declined requests to comment for this story. 

Employee (dis)satisfaction

Davis’s critics also point to the latest county employee satisfaction survey conducted in the spring of 2019, which showed significant gaps between the satisfaction of the county’s front-line employees, supervisors, and mid-level managers compared to the executive team, which includes the county manager, general managers, and department heads. 

The survey results, which were obtained by the INDY, suggest the county’s executive team was out of touch with the reality of its workers.

According to the survey, fewer than half of non-executive employees said they had a “psychologically and emotionally healthy place to work,” that “people look forward to coming to work,” that “management delivers on its promises,” and that “management’s actions match its words.”  

Only about half said management “makes its expectations clear,” “is approachable,” and “has a clear view of where the organization is going and how to get there.” 

Perhaps most telling, only about a third of non-executive employees said they “look forward to coming to work” compared to 83 percent of executive employees who said they did. 

There was positive data: Roughly three-fourths of non-executive employees said they were treated fairly regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and about the same percentage said they were proud to tell others where they work, which were signs that Davis didn’t oversee a toxic work environment, his supporters say. 

But in general, results from the 64-question survey indicated widespread unhappiness within the county’s rank-and-file.  

The results are not necessarily an indictment of Davis’s executive team, said one longtime county employee who agreed to speak with the INDY on the condition of anonymity.

What was troubling, however, was how Davis handled the results. He chose not to share them with employees nor did he take steps to address their concerns.

“He didn’t organize any response or take any action to improve the scores,” the employee said.

Howerton disagreed with the suggestion Davis was responsible for a toxic work environment, saying county employees loved Davis. 

“He was their greatest advocate,” she says. 

Tax assistance grant

Davis critics also pointed to a proposed tax assistance grant that would help low-income property owners stay in their homes, particularly in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods. They claim that Davis, for two years, fought against it.

Carl Rist, an independent consultant who worked for three decades as an advocate of wealth building in low-income communities, told the INDY that last year he was part of a group that went before commissioners to propose a tax assistance grant program to help low-income residents in the West End and Golden Belt neighborhoods, where property values are soaring. 

With a looming pandemic, tax relief for low-income homeowners “was totally needed in the toolbox,” Rist says.

He adds that community advocates worked with members of the county staff, including attorneys, financial officials, and a tax officer to hammer out the program, but from the outset, the county team looked for reasons not to do the tax assistance initiative.

“They said the county commissioners could be personally liable,” Rist says. “We went back and forth, back and forth. There was this sense that they didn’t want to do this.”

Rist added that when the program offering forgivable loans went into effect last spring only one family applied.

“It was a complete failure,” says Rist, adding that community advocates consulted with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government and were told that the courts in all probability would not find the initiative illegal. 

Although the community group did not directly speak to the former county manager, they assumed the legal staff acted under Davis’s direction. 

“We would love to see a county manager who says, ‘Let’s figure out a way to do this,’” Rist says. “Someone who has a progressive willingness to push the envelope.”

School funding

The former county manager’s critics also point to 2018, when the board asked Davis and staff to develop an education bond proposal that commissioners could approve and send to voters.

He never did—even though “these [school] buildings are falling apart and getting older,” says Michelle Burton, a public schools librarian and president of the Durham Association of Educators.

“A number were built in the 1970s,” Burton told the INDY. “The HVAC systems are falling apart. Durham School of the Arts and Brogden were built in the 1950s. Parkwood in the 1960s with RTP. Githens is old. They all need repairs. A bond should have been on the ballot in 2018. It definitely should be on the ballot by 2022.”

Davis’ conservative budgets and failure to develop a bond proposal hurt children of all races, Burton says.

“From an ideological perspective, when schools are not getting what they need, that’s a system most assuredly causing harm to what Black and Brown children need,” she says.

Burton adds that the Durham Committee and Davis’s justification for not increasing school funding was based on the state-mandated end-of-grade test scores and that the former county manager doesn’t understand what’s happening in the classrooms.

The end-of-grade tests, Burton says, “are systematically designed for Black and Brown students to miss earning passing grades by one or two points.”

“Wendell Davis says, ‘The kids are not passing the tests, but the schools are getting all of this money. So, what’s the problem?” Burton explained. “But now you have millennials and Generation Z teachers looking at this as a social justice issue, and they want to dismantle it.”

Howerton calls Burton’s comments about the 2018 school bond proposal part of an ongoing fake narrative.

“The county is carrying a considerable amount of debt,” Howerton says. “Therefore, on the advice of the county’s financial advisor, the local government commission, and bond counsel, the county needed to spend what we had already issued, reduce our debt load, and get better positioned financially before having another bond placed on the ballot.”

Howerton also says Davis increased the school’s budget every single year while he was county manager. 

“In fact, he did so even at the expense of county operations,” Howerton adds. “Over the past two years, he recommended to the board over 17 million dollars in new funding for the schools. That figure does not take into account how much he also recommended for school capital.” 

New direction

Moving forward, Allam says she would like the next county manager to push and support the same policies that have emerged as priorities for the county board. Those priorities include developing an education bond that supports preschoolers, removing obstacles toward homeownership, and supporting Black maternal health care and refugee services. 

Someone, she added, who is willing to work with commissioners on a “progressive vision for our residents.”

But moving on is difficult for many members of the Black community. They say the effort to end Davis’s seven-year tenure as the county’s top executive had little to do with his job performance. Instead, it had everything to do with his writing an incendiary letter last year accusing Commissioner Heidi Carter of having an “inherent bias” against him and other people of color.

Two investigations were launched soon after Davis’s letter was made public. One by the International City-County Managers Association found that Davis did not violate the organization’s code of ethics. 

A separate investigation by Duke University law professor James Coleman found that Carter’s actions were not racist in intent. Coleman concluded, however, that Carter’s criticism of the former county manager could have been reasonably perceived as racially biased “at least implicitly so.”

Coleman probably foreshadowed the board’s vote when he wrote in his report that some of the commissioners “candidly admit that the trust between them and [Davis] likely has been irreparably damaged.”

Some of Durham’s Black leaders think that Allam’s vote was an endorsement of the vitriol they contend Jacobs and Carter had for Davis. 

Hall says Jacobs drew the ire of Black residents during a county board meeting last year after Davis’s letter was made public.

“There were wall-to-wall Black folk at the meeting in support of Wendell, and Wendy tells them, ‘Oh, he got his feelings hurt. I’m sorry.’ When you look at Durham’s racial demographic, you should not be in a place of power if you don’t understand the sting of those comments,” Hall says. “How can you be in a position of leadership in this community if you don’t understand those words are harmful and dismissive to Black people?”

Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, says Allam has consistently voted against the interests of the Black community. It started in December, when she voted for Jacobs to serve as vice chair, instead of Burns. That was followed by a vote against hiring a group to conduct racial equity training for the board (Burns also voted against that), and another vote to hire an outside attorney to review Davis’s contract.

Hall says prior to the vote to fire Davis, she frequently spoke with Allam. She agrees with Wilson: Allam’s vote to select Jacobs as vice chair was problematic. As previously reported by the INDY, the two commissioners frequently clashed in the months after Davis’s letter.

“It was her desire to create some sense of peace and to assure us that she can offer a remedy,” Hall says of Allam’s vote for Jacobs. “But you cannot broker peace when the person who has been harmed is not an integral part of creating that remedy.”

Hall, who was a member of Durham’s inaugural racial equity task force, adds that what has happened in the community since Davis’s letter and his subsequent firing “is not about Nida, just like it’s not about Wendell.

“It’s about a system that uses white privilege to keep us in-fighting so it can maintain power. That is what white power does. This should not be about Nida. This is about Wendy and Heidi not being held accountable. It should not be up to Nida to be a proctor of the peace. Again, we see the pitting of people of color against one another, while white harm doers go unscathed.”

Despite the current discord among the county board, Allam says she will continue to work with her fellow commissioners.

“Absolutely,” she says. “I’m willing to work with all parts of Durham. I was elected by the people of Durham, and I am dedicated to serving the people of Durham. It’s about working together to close the gaps that existed long before any of us were elected. I can say for myself, I’m fully dedicated to working with the board’s four other women. We come from vastly different backgrounds. We may not always agree, but we all love this community.”

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Commissioner Wendy Jacobs serves as vice chair, not co-chair, of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.