Local news outlet WRAL captured on camera a breathtaking, profanity-entangled argument between two Durham city council members after a testy March 14 work session.

The angry, shout-filled encounter between mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton and fellow council member DeDreana Freeman took place in the council chambers following a work session in which mayor Elaine O’Neal announced that a fourth council member was under investigation for alleged extortion. Though O’Neal did not name her during the meeting, council member Monique Holsey-Hyman allegedly suggested she would support a private developer’s project going before the council if the developer donated to her election campaign.

About midway through the work session, another council member, Jillian Johnson, introduced another item that was not on the agenda, a resolution she had drafted that called on the city council to formally censure Holsey-Hyman for allowing a city staffer to volunteer on behalf of her election campaign. Johnson said she wrote the resolution after the council members received an email from city staffers detailing the incident that took place in September and a second incident in late January.

In her defense, Holsey-Hyman said, in September, she was trying to gather information from the staff member about different PACs and resources in the city “to educate myself about organizations in Durham.” She said she was informed that the request was considered campaign-related research and that it was dealt with between herself, the staff member, and the staffer’s supervisor.

In the second incident, Holsey-Hyman said, a city staffer discussed their experience as a candidate and their previous work on city council campaigns and offered to assist Holsey-Hyman if she decided to run for her seat in the fall. (Holsey-Hyman was appointed to her current post on May 5 of last year, after former council member Charlie Reece moved out of the country with his family.)

Holsey-Hyman said she advised the staffer to clear the offer with the city’s human resources office. The staffer received permission from the human resources office, Holsey-Hyman said, and then invited another city staff member to a campaign event for Holsey-Hyman via a personal social media account during work hours. The staffer signed a statement with human resources, Holsey-Hyman said, “taking full responsibility for their actions” earlier this month.

The roots of the confrontation between Freeman and Middleton happened when Freeman, during the work session, responded to Johnson’s resolution.

Freeman called the proposed resolution “troubling.” She criticized what she described as the manner in which the resolution was used to misrepresent Holsey-Hyman, and said Holsey-Hyman’s explanation of the staffer receiving approval from the city’s human resources department to assist her with researching local political action committees was “dismissed in a very matter of fact way.”

Freeman said that although women comprise five of the seven city council seats, their comments are “often dismissed whenever a woman is speaking at the [city council] dais.”

Freeman added that she was “just angry” and disgusted with what has culminated over the last two weeks.

“And I’m still trying to unpack how it got balled up together and thrown at one council member when I know for a fact that there have been many staff persons involved in different campaigns.” She provided no other evidence publicly to back up the assertion.

“It’s just unsettling that a council with five women would see fit to make sure that this type of behavior would be subjected [to censure],” Freeman continued. “I’m just disgusted. There’s so much going on behind the scenes, and there’s so much more to who we are as a people, and it’s really just disappointing.”

But, save for Holsey-Hyman, the other council members disagreed with Freeman’s assertion that women are diminished by the council or that gender was a factor behind the resolution.

“No one wants this,” Johnson said. “We fight all the time. We make each other angry. Members of the public make us angry, and we get angry with members of the public. That’s all part of the process. This, to me, is far outside of that normal kind of political debate, even when it gets heated. This crosses the line, to me, into an actual ethical violation that is documented.”

Johnson later added that she “takes offense” that the resolution “has anything to do with council member Holsey-Hyman’s gender,” and described it as “an extremely insulting accusation.”

Leonardo Williams, one of the two men on the council, said he did not consider the resolution to be “a gender thing, or a sexist thing” and alluded to the city staff report documenting Holsey-Hyman’s actions.

“It’s a matter of fact, there’s nothing personal,” Williams added. “There’s no character attack…if something like this happened wittingly or unwittingly, I’d want you to do the same with me.”

It was Middleton’s response, however, that visibly irritated Freeman.

The mayor pro tem said he took issue “with the bizarre allusion to gender with the number of women on the dais, one of whom holds the gavel, and one of whom wrote this resolution.

“So, as one of two men on the board, what?” he added. “What does that even mean?”

“You’re a bully,” Freeman replied. “It means stop bullying women. Stop being a bully. Stop being a bully. Stop! Bullying women. That’s what it means.”

“You close to the line,” Middleton replied.

You close to the line,” Freeman answered.

“Again,” Middleton said, “a female colleague has drafted a resolution about acts that touch on ethics and legality, and there’s five women on the council. So that’s a moment for me that’s hard to follow.”

The angry, post-work session confrontation between Middleton and Freeman began with the two shouting at each other outside the city hall chambers. O’Neal and city manager Wanda Page were seen leaving the council’s dais, and the mayor tried to placate the heated exchange.

“Hey, hey, hey,” the mayor said in an unsuccessful attempt to squelch the confrontation.

But then two council members walked into an adjoining room in the council chambers, where they were out of sight but clearly within earshot. Freeman can be heard loudly telling Middleton, “Get off of me! Get off of me!

“This is how you treat Black women! This is how you fucking treat Black women, and it fucking hurts!”

“Because I made her! Because I made her!” Middleton can be heard saying, presumably about Holsey-Hyman, a well-respected associate professor with NC Central University’s Department of Social Work.

“Wait, wait,” O’Neal is heard saying.

“I’m done! I’m done! I’m done!” Freeman said. “No! I don’t care. ‘Cause he’s full of shit! Full of shit!”

“She listens to you,” Middleton can be heard saying, alluding to Holsey-Hyman. “She listens to you. She listens to you.”

“What she need to listen to me for? She got a fucking brain of her own. She can listen to her damn self!” Freeman replied. “She can think for her fucking self. If you didn’t think she was smart enough, why the fuck did you vote for her for [onto the council]? … She’s not fucking dumb. She can think for her fucking self! Just like every single woman here!”

The two minute and 18-second video ended while O’Neal can be heard calming down the argument between the two council members.

Mayor O’Neal declined to comment on the incident. Middleton has not yet responded to our request for comment. Freeman sent a statement to the INDY addressing in the incident, which reads in part:

“In light of recent events surrounding a colleague, it is unfortunate that a moment off-record was made for public fodder. There is never an excuse for profanity. However, I remain firm in my stance and simply ask that we not let the exchange deflect from the importance of what is at stake. Collectively, members of city council have a responsibility to do what is in the best interest of our community. Forward movement only!”

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. Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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