An influential Bull City political action committee this week took issue with a recent statement from the People’s Alliance, which recommended the county’s elected leaders “appoint a manager whose governing philosophy and leadership style most aligns with their own.”
The March 8 statement by the People’s Alliance (PA) encouraged the county’s elected officials to not renew the contract of Durham County Manager Wendell Davis, a Black man whose seven-year tenure has been lauded for its professional achievements but marred by in-fighting with county board members, most notably when he wrote a letter accusing County Commissioner Heidi Carter of having an “inherent bias” against him and people of color, in general. The People’s Alliance, a left-leaning organization, has urged commissioners to appoint a Democrat to the position.
Friends of Durham (FOD) chairwoman Sheila Huggins weighed in with a letter to the county’s board of commissioners.
“You’ve been told that there’s a philosophical misalignment between the elected bodies and our hired public managers,” Huggins wrote in the letter. “This analysis creates a false narrative about what our residents have indicated regarding government service and representation.”
The letter went on to assert that “there is no one-size-fits-all political philosophy in Durham,” a remark to counter the PA’s call for a more reliably liberal county manager.
Huggins described the Friends of Durham PAC as a non-partisan organization whose members “represent every political spectrum.”
“Sometimes Durham is portrayed as having only one political ideology,” Huggins says. “It’s important to have different voices in the room where everyone can come together and frame an accurate picture of what’s going on. We just want to reiterate that there are a variety of voices here in the Durham community. And it’s important to take into account a county manager’s experience, skill and knowledge when it’s time to review them on an annual basis.”
In an email to the INDY, Millicent Rogers, a PA co-president, said her group “continue[s] to remain appreciative of all PACs that weigh in on issues that impact the Durham community.”
“We remain confident that the elected officials will make decisions that are best for Durham.”
On Tuesday, Antonio Jones, the recently elected chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, also sent a letter to the county commissioners demanding that Commissioner Carter be recused from “any discussion pertaining to the renegotiation of County Manager Wendell Davis’ contract.”
“The initial complaint levied against Commissioner Carter in early 2020 has yet to be resolved and Commissioner Carter has failed to take the necessary steps to regain the community’s trust,” the Durham Committee letter states. “As such, her participation in any contract renegotiations presents a clear conflict of interest and is a great liability to the taxpayers and this board.”
The perception growing in a number of quarters is that Carter will be joined by fellow commissioners Wendy Jacobs and Nida Allam in voting to not renew the county manager’s contract.
“The concern is why?” Jones asked. “It’s either going to be performance-based, merit, personal or political. In Durham, we value high-performing administrators.”
The FOD letter urged county commissioners to remember Durham’s residents are not politically homogeneous.
“Durham residents are complex in their political leanings as indicated, for instance, by their support for the moderate political philosophies of national and state candidates who carried the county in the primary and general elections of 2020,” the letter states. “Durham is as diverse as it claims to be, whether some choose to believe it or not.”
After the INDY reported about tensions flaring in the wake of the PA board members’ statement, the organization released a second statement that said there were other reasons behind their decision to not support the renewal of Davis’s contract in June. They say the county manager “has often stood in the way of progressive change in the community on a range of policy issues from public school funding and living wages to tax fairness and LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination.”
Although critics of PA’s stance pointed to race being a motivation, the group says race has nothing to do with their hope for a new county manager: “[A] simple racialized narrative obscures the fact that there are people of all races with all sorts of opinions about how the city and county are run. It also eliminates any space for accountability of the staff that our elected officials hire to do the people’s business.”
The PAC was displeased, for example, that Davis hadn’t pushed for a $15 hourly wage for school support personnel, who are disproportionately Black, Brown, and female.
“The raise had not been included in a county budget proposal year after year. Only when it was clear this year that the elected commission had the votes to approve the minimum wage increase did county staff leadership reverse,” according to the recent PA statement.
The new PA statement also notes that its members “want Durham to choose senior staff that reflect a commitment to justice for all people, especially those most impacted by racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. No one is owed a position in city or county government.”
The PAC also points to its advocacy of spending dollars for public goods like public schools, living wages, and social welfare. Davis, they say, “is a self-described fiscal conservative who prefers high surpluses and low government spending for human needs but not for police.”
Noting its board consists of four Black members, one Asian member, one Latinx member, and six White members, the PAC says they “are under no delusions about the need to combat racism and white supremacy, including among ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the FOD’s letter offered its own slate of recommendations during the process of determining whether they should renew Davis’s contract.
To begin with, the FOD letter states that county managers are government professionals who serve in executive administrative roles that include managerial and operational duties.
“Appointed managers are nonpartisan and nonpolitical,” the letter states. “They are not political operatives or political hacks.”
The Durham Committee letter primarily focused on the conduct of commissioners during their March 8 meeting, but the city’s oldest political action committee also took aim at a brand of politics that, in their view, defines compromise as “one’s willingness to acquiesce or submit to a particular political ideology.”
“Instead, it should be based on recognizing the value of all voices and the willingness to work together for the public good,” the Durham Committee stated.
The FOD letter states that the manager’s compensation package should reflect the manager’s experience and responsibilities. The PAC pointedly criticized the PA board members’ characterization of Davis’s salary and benefits.
“When descriptors like ‘lame-duck commission,’ ‘numerous perks,’ ‘hefty monthly vehicle allowance,’ and ‘massive severance package,’ are used as political clickbait to garner your attention and influence your review of the manager, you are obligated to stick to evaluating the manager based on the manager’s work plans and records,” the letter states.
The FOD letter also points to the International City/County Management Association and the agency’s code of ethics that’s intended to guide the conduct of city and county managers.
“Those tenets say that managers ‘serve the best interest of the people,’” the letter states. “And although managers work closely with elected officials, they should also ‘refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.’”
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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